When you step into the cage dangling off the back of the MV Calypso Star II, you become acutely aware that a great white must look at you and your seven mates like a drunk bloke looks at a box of chicken nuggets.
You know that every hair on your body would be standing on end if it wasn’t for the wetsuit protecting you from the frosty waters of the Southern Ocean. You clench your teeth so hard that you nearly bite clean through the regulator that’s delivering air into your mouth. You can hear nothing besides the thumping rhythm of your heartbeat and the bubbles from your breathing that rush to the surface of the water as quickly as you would if you didn’t have the cage to protect you from the ocean’s most feared predator.
The fish blood and berley the crew tosses into the water stains the sea dark red, tempting the shark like a red rag riles a bull. And then you spot him, ghosting through the water – six metres and two tonnes of perfectly evolved predator, stalking the cage with equal parts menace and majesty. Catch a glint of his beady little eyes and you quickly remember your black wetsuit bears a striking resemblance to the long-nosed fur seal, which is probably what the big boy had for breakfast.
There’s plenty of build-up to your encounter with Jaws, filling your stomach with the kind of nerves you’d have before a first date if your prospective partner weighed as much as a Jeep, had a few dozen steak knives for teeth and harboured a primal instinct to tear you limb from limb.
Setting off from the marina in Port Lincoln at 6.30am, it’s a three-hour boat trip along the craggy coastline of the Lincoln National Park before heading 30km offshore to the deep, sheltered waters of the Neptune Islands – a wonderland of marine life including birds, fish, other shark species and a huge colony of seals for great whites to feast on.
And Port Lincoln itself certainly isn’t on the well-worn backpacking trail – the charming fishing port is either a seven-hour drive from Adelaide or a 45-minute flight west of the SA capital, located at the bottom of the Eyre Peninsula jutting out into the Great Australian Bight – which means the visitors the town attracts seriously want to be there. You get the impression that the travellers aboard the MV Calypso Star II – a high-tech vessel that accommodates up to 45 – had ‘shark cage diving’ written at the top of their to-do list from the minute they booked their flights to Australia. For adrenaline junkies, a run-in with these ferocious apex predators is a must-do.
Calypso Star Charters’ $495 tour is a small price to pay for such a major tick on your bucket list, especially from the comfort of the 20-metre MV Calypso Star II, featuring spacious decks, air con, warm showers, tasty meals taken care of and even a licensed bar if you need to soothe your nerves on the way home. There’s also an underwater camera beaming live vision into the comfortable saloon so you won’t miss any action when it’s not your turn to jump into the cage.
Calypso are the only shark dive operators in town permitted to use berley – natural, locally sourced fish product that attracts the great whites through smell – which gives you the best chance of actually getting some face time with Jaws. The trips are fully government licensed and eco-certified, are you can’t argue with Calypso’s shark sighting record – their average daily success rate is 85% since January 2011, with day-by-day sightings published on their website. No sharks? No worries. Calypso offers a $100 refund plus $200 to spend on another dive within 12 months.
Shark Cage Diving is available with three local operators out of Port Lincoln – Calypso Star Charters, Adventure Bay Charters and Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions.
Then splash around with the puppies of the sea. Calypso also runs three half-day tours a week to either Hopkins, Blythe, Grindal or Langton Island to swim with endangered Australia sea lions in their natural environment.
The experience might be less adrenaline-pumping than shark cage diving but it’ll still get your heart racing if you make the most of your hour interacting with the sea lions, who mimic your every move. You do a somersault, they do a somersault. You glide past them, they’ll glide past you. You float there like a sausage, they float there like a sausage. They might look like a half-dog, half-fish but sea lions owe that ‘puppy’ nickname more to their playfulness than their whiskers.
Book your tour through YHA for $195, which seems like a bargain for all the likes your sea lion selfie will rake in on Instagram.
Swimming with Sea Lions is available with two operators out of Port Lincoln – Calypso Star Charters and Adventure Bay Charter.
You might feel like shark bait inside the cage but you’ll climb back to the top of the food chain when you’re served a plate of the southern bluefin tuna, Coffin Bay oysters, western king prawns, King George whiting and southern rock lobster the Eyre Peninsula is famous for. Port Lincoln is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the Southern Hemisphere, and just a half hour drive across the peninsula, the oysters from the pristine waters of Coffin Bay are world-renowned.
Port Lincoln also has a soft spot for tuna, in particular. The annual Tunarama festival is held at the foreshore on the Australia Day long weekend each January, and includes the legendary tuna toss – imagine hammer throw performed with a 10-kilo fish, which is exactly as bizarre as it sounds.
To take in all the best seafood South Australia has to offer, tackle the ‘Seafood Frontier’ – a journey that’s more smorgasbord than road trip. Starting in Port Augusta and stretching all the way to Head of Bight on the road to Perth, this seafood safari is filled with more oysters, tuna, crab, salmon and abalone than you can pack onto your plate.
Port Lincoln YHA provides a warm, comfortable, and spotlessly clean launch pad to explore this adventure paradise. In fact, the hostel is almost as Instagrammable as the destination itself, with a massive replica shark in the lobby as well as colourful wall skins and nautical décor giving backpackers a real sense of all the underwater adventures the Eyre Peninsula has to offer.
The purpose-build hostel contains a mix of spacious multi-share and private rooms, an epic kitchen, laidback lounge room, outdoor BBQ deck area and that life-sized fibreglass great white stalking the entry, inviting you to take the ultimate shark selfie if you missed your shot in the cage. Oh, and then there’s the legendary hospitality of owners Debi and Robert, including the ridiculously delicious paella they whip up for guests, loaded with more seafood than a fisherman’s esky after a profitable day at sea.
The writer was hosted on a Calypso Star Charters Shark Cage Diving and Swimming with Sea Lions experience – all experiences/opinions are real.