By Max Anderson
“These guys don’t make any noise, so don’t expect them to come with Jaws music. Great white sharks are the ultimate ambush predators: you’ll see nothing then suddenly they’re in your face.”
Boat skipper Kim Shepperd is briefing 20 visitors before they’re submerged in a steel cage.
“And don’t stick your arm out the cage! Not because you’ll get it bitten, but because some of these boys weigh over a ton. If he brushes your arm, that’s your arm broken and it’s a three-hour trip to get you back to Port Lincoln.”
These visitors have come from all over the world to put themselves into what many would consider a compromising position. Two have come from New York, one from Toronto, deliberately detouring from their eastern-states itineraries to be anchored off two bumps in the Southern Ocean called the Neptune Islands.
Travelling out on a limb
“We just had to do it,” says one of the New Yorkers. “We looked at doing it here and in South Africa. And we chose here. This is it, man!”
Last year three operations helped bring Port Lincoln to the attention of Australia and the world through shark diving experiences.
Adventure Bay Charters, as well as Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions and Calypso Star Charters , generated an estimated $12m for the Eyre Peninsula economy. Not bad for a region with only 59,000 people, one that was virtually unknown 20 years ago.
Eyre Peninsula – along with its far-flung, frontier-like capital, Port Lincoln – has steadily affirmed itself as an adventure destination, a wild place where visitors can have close underwater encounters with the like of great whites, dolphins, sea lions and tuna.
There was a setback last year when the swim with the tuna operation closed, the owner intending to shift the huge floating tuna pond (with tuna) closer to Adelaide.
But that hasn’t stopped the region moving forward in 2016 to offer fresh Eyre product and even closer encounters.
Bestial tunes lure savage beasts
Still with the sharks, Adventure Bay Charters has innovated with the use of music speakers lowered into the water: when AC/DC, Tone Lōc and Black Sabbath are blasted into the water, the great whites come a-calling (a method that leaves the operator less open to criticism for attracting lethal predators with the promise of a feed).
Now owner Matt Waller has also modified his already impressive dive boat with a submersible pod.
Once moored off the Neptunes, the skipper lowers the glass-walled pod to sit immediately behind the cage.
When I’m not in the water (and you can spend as long as you like) I’m very happy in the glass tank nursing a beer. It’s like a gallery, and an audience of six can enjoy all the underwater action – not to mention the muffled strains of AC/DC, Tone Lōc, Black Sabbath et al.
Alas, however, my luck isn’t in because neither are the sharks.
Shark diving is not cheap, and sightings are not guaranteed: it costs around $400, plus $100 if you get a proper great white encounter.
But it is a full 12-hour experience, guests are well-fed and the vibe is akin to a lively fishing expedition with the crew tirelessly trying to hustle up the infamous deep-water residents.
After my day on the boat I find guests are quite resigned to having not seen their quarry, but feel they’ve had a fulfilling and fun day. It’s a happy boat.
View from above
Starting in 2016, cashed-up visitors can take an entirely different approach to seeing sharks.
David ‘Lunch’ Doudle has been leading wealthy guests on his Eyre Peninsula safaris for over a decade, stringing together hero experiences (like swimming with dolphins and sea lions at famous Baird Bay) with a program of foraging for local seafood in a distinctly hands-on fashion.
In January he upped the ante with the help of an R-44 helicopter.
“The Peninsula’s not small,” says Lunch through headphones, “basically a triangle with 350km-long sides. But we can fly guests all over in a fraction of the time it takes to drive. It also means you get this sort of perspective.”
From above, Convention Beach is a heart-stopping sight, a lithe 25km-body of empty sands wearing ruffled petticoats of white surf and turquoise waters.
“When we go further out into the deeper water we can easily see dirty big white pointers. They stick out like submarines! But—” he scans the shallows, “—we don’t want to see them today. What we want to see today is right there…”
The chopper is scudding low over the water and Lunch is pointing out thick black clouds that swirl and cleave and circle in the waters – swirling maelstroms of chunky, hard-fighting Australian salmon, thousands of them in each school.
Lunch picks out a target some 30m offshore and the pilot puts the craft down at the base of nearby dunes. Within moments, huge beach rods with heavy silver lures are pulled from a pipe strapped to the chopper’s skid.
Salmon caught on a beach hot landing zone
It’s surreal to be running into waist-deep surf and casting with all your might, aiming for the same salmon maelstrom that was spotted only moments earlier.
Soon, a beach rod is bent over and the sound of human whoops are mashed up with the sound of ocean. Lunch retreats to gut a 4kg salmon; he cuts chunks of pale flesh and proffers the sashimi on the end of a blade.
“Keep fishing!” he calls over the surf, “There’s more where that came from!”
For the millionaire parties from Russia, China and the US, the $1250 per hour cost of the chopper is a drop in the ocean. But not all of Eyre’s raw harvest is so dramatic – nor so expensive.
In 2014, Ben Catterall gave the beautiful town of Coffin Bay a much-needed shot in the arm with the opening of the rather chic 1802 Oyster Bar and Bistro.
Named for Matthew Flinders’ 1802 charting of the Peninsula, the 150-seat restaurant is right on Kellidie Bay, looking over two hectares of oyster racks.
Diners quite literally enjoy a million-dollar view since it costs $500,000 to lease a single hectare of these clean nutrient-rich waters famous for the growing of Coffin Bay oysters. They also enjoy the seafood of kings, including seared tuna, sashimied Kingfish and of course, the prized shellfish.
The freshest bisexual hermaphrodite bivalves around
With its cool decor and chilled SA wines, 1802 would look at home on Sydney’s Watsons Bay. But don’t be fooled – because if the tide’s out, there’s every chance you might be invited to venture behind the bar and don a pair of thick rubber dungarees that end in waders.
“People come into the restaurant and want to know about oysters,” says Ben, as we leave the restaurant and walk into the bay as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“But 95 per cent of people don’t get the opportunity to taste them straight off the racks. So I came up with the idea of the Oyster Farm Tour.”
Catterall, who is also an oyster farmer, chats as he shucks oysters from a rack.
Along with some 40-odd other growers, he benefits from potent tides that super-charge his Pacific and native angassi oysters, creating a sweet luscious product that is supplied to top restaurants all over Australia.
“And yet they still taste completely different fresh compared to when they’re one week old. By the time they reach even the very best restaurant they can never be as fresh as you’re having them right now.”
Considering you’ll pay $40 for a dozen at some top restaurants, the $35 cost of wading out from 1802 seems like a bargain. Doubly so when you include an amiable hour spent with an expert like Ben and all the oysters you care to guzzle.
Streaking into the light
Streaky Bay is a little fishing town on a sheltered, glassy bay, one that has long been a pleasant-surprise-in-waiting for caravaners heading west (next stop, Ceduna and the Nullarbor).
But Streaky is rapidly becoming a destination that’s more than a happy accident.
It offers a couple of essentials for good living: Mocean restaurant is a funky ex-warehouse space right on the water, consistently serving excellent locally-sourced food; and the Streaky Bay Hotel, though still a salty old waterfront character, has given its upstairs rooms a complete makeover for 2016 to offer some very smooth accommodation.
Gourmet seafood plucked from the ocean
Streaky Bay is also 30 minutes from Baird Bay, the sublime water body offering the almost irresistible proposition of swimming with both dolphins and sea lions.
But now there’s another compelling marine adventure, right off the Streaky Bay jetty.
Starting in November 2016, visitors were able to join Eyre Peninsula Cruises on Asherah for the Ocean to Plate cruise.
The handsome, spacious dive boat costs $300pp for a maximum 10 people and comes complete with host, chef and your very own experienced diver who needs no excuse to jump in the water and harvest ingredients.
Once we drop anchor at the foot of remote rocky headlands, Rod Keogh is straight into the glittering shallows.
Before long he’s hauling up blue swimmer crabs, razorfish and five abalones, each worth $50. His wife Simone, meanwhile, invites us to take hold of a flute of Lincoln Estate bubbles and a fishing rod.
Even juggling rod and flute, we manage to bring in whiting and garfish, all seized by chef Brock Trezona who whistles up five-star treatments on the rear deck.
These include plates of sashimi, lightly charred crab, oyster shots in vodka and (my favourite) razorfish hearts ceviche in mango and lime.
During the idyllic five hours, we see dolphins, an eagle ray and a pair of inquisitive Australian sea lions which come up to the side to take fishy scraps.
A wine with bite
When a Sauvignon Blanc is poured, we notice the Boston Bay wine is called The Great White – which inevitably raises the spectre of that other denizen.
“I don’t care about sharks, except for two,” says Rod. “The great white and the mako. And I’ll take the great white over a mako any day. You can read a great white – whether it’s passive or angry or just curious. Makos are unpredictable.”
Rod has worked as a saturation dive’ for an oil and gas company, and he has stories to make your hair curl. So it’s a surprise when he hands me his ‘ab-knife’ and offers to accompany me in prising one of the valuable shells from the sea bed. It’s not an offer you get every day, and with the smooth waters gleaming under a hot sun, it’s an offer I can’t resist.
Over on the Neptunes, I’d been unlucky not to see a shark on my cage diving experience. As I don a mask and plunge into the clarion waters, I just hope my unluckiness will hold.
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities.
The drive from Adelaide takes roughly three hours to Port Augusta (a de facto gateway to the Peninsula); it’s a further three hours to Port Lincoln.