It is a rare opportunity that one has to witness a battle of nature that is of such raw power, where the only certainty is that only one will survive and the clash will be violent and spectacular.
Such was the confrontation that was witnessed 20 metres off the back of our vessel Shark Warrior on Monday the 2nd of February 2015.
It was just another Great White Shark tour….
Shark Warrior—aptly named—was positioned in Action Bay on the north side of the Neptune Islands. A typical summer’s day in South Australia started out like any other for Adventure Bay Charters and their guests who were setting out on a Great White Shark tour.
Guests had boarded the Shark Warrior early to the smell of fresh coffee and toasted sandwiches for breakfast. Nothing seemed out of place, and as usual the trip got underway uneventfully to cruise comfortably through Boston Bay, passing south of Boston Island and rounding Cape Donington lighthouse.
The sun rose on the left as the boat glided through the southern Spencer Gulf with the Port Lincoln National Park to the right, heading into the southern ocean.
Destination Neptune Island.
On board, the tension was palpable as guests waited expectantly for the chance to face their fears and get up close and personal with the ultimate marine apex predator—the Great White Shark.
Alice, one of the guests, had traveled halfway around the world to fulfil her life-long dream of seeing a Great White Shark in person. Her dream was to snap a photo that would be the pinnacle of her South Australian holiday to show the folks back home.
Preparing for an exciting day on board the Shark Warrior
Meanwhile, the staff busied themselves with preparing guests for the day ahead—fitting wetsuits and dive gear, going through the formalities of safety briefings and first-time diver training.
Guests made the most of the experience of the staff, quizzing them on the stories and encounters that they have had with Great White Sharks in trips past. The excitement builds and not even the two and a half hour trip to the Neptunes can dull the sense of expectation and excitement.
Gina, one of our marine biologists, is on her 10th trip on the Shark Warrior with Adventure Bay Charters. She brings experience of 3 months volunteering with white shark research in South Africa. She hopes that this job will fulfil her dream of being involved in white shark research as a career and lead to greater opportunities with the sharks that she loves.
Her easy-going manner and kind features are a hit with guests as she walks through the cabin offering tea and coffee. Gina gets into a conversation with Alice. Typical questions like “will the sharks be good?”, “when will we see them?”, “how big are they and how many will there be?”
As with all wildlife interaction, Gina knows that nothing is certain but assures Alice that anything is possible. The conversation is joined by other guests who are close by and are intrigued by Gina’s experience and the enthusiasm that she has for the subject.
Acoustic shark attraction (berley and blood-free)
Discussions ensue about the companies use of acoustic attraction and the novelty of playing ACDC and Hilltop Hoods to attract sharks as opposed to the traditional—and more controversial—methods of using blood and bait. Someone brings up questions about sharks attacking the cage and some scary images that they have seen on Youtube where sharks are in the cage and guests are forced to swim to the safety of the boat through shark-infested water.
Gina puts the guests at ease with her natural confidence and assurances that is not the sort of thing that they will see on this day as it is only blood that causes sharks to become overtly aggressive.
Since Adventure Bay Charters don’t use blood or berley to attract the sharks, guests are immersed in a calmer, more natural and authentic experience.
Of course you never know what you will get but one thing you can rest assured is that a day out on the Shark Warrior will be a better day than one at work behind a desk!
Whales, sharks, dolphins, penguins, sea lions…anything is possible!
Alice asks about other species that they might see, other sharks and whales. Gina tells of a past experience where a southern right whale was seen from the cage and even little penguins on one trip last winter.
Someone else asks if they will see killer whales (orcas) and do they interact with the Great White? They have read somewhere that orcas can kill a Great White.
How fast can an Orca swim?
Killer whales can swim at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). (source)
Gina responds that although killer whales have been seen in the area, rarely will there be sightings more than once a year, if that often. Although Gina feels that there are reliable reports of Killer Whales and Great White interaction, it is so rare that she doubts that she will ever see it, even if she were to live two life times in the Great White Shark tourism industry.
The conversation carries on amongst the guests as Gina moves on to assist the first mate in prepping the boat for mooring at the Neptune’s.
The Shark Warrior has arrived at the North Neptune’s. They are the first tour operator on-site and make the most of the opportunity of taking pole position.
Meet skipper, Kym. Career fisherman to shark “hunter”!
Skipper Kym has fished these waters all his life and in the last two years has applied his knowledge of hunting the ocean for a living, to “hunting” Great White Sharks for Eco Tourism.
There is experience in his skin and the lines in has face tell of the elements that have weathered the islands and time that has passed. His keen eye and expert skill puts Shark Warrior exactly where he wants it—in 24 meters of water, the pinnacle of the lump he calls “the knob”. It is the furthest point of the contour that runs off the island and a perfect place to see the white shark.
Kym knows all too well about white sharks and the way they hunt—people he has known have been taken too soon by this predator of the deep.
Recreational activities for Port Lincoln locals are more often than not in or by the water. Surfing, fishing, diving, snorkelling. If you enter the water off Port Lincoln you must have your wits about you and you respect that you are not alone.
Comfortable with his decision and that the boat is safe for the duration of the dive, Kym shuts down the main engine, lets his face relax and slips into host mode. He joins the guests at the back of the boat and goes through a site briefing and a safety demonstration about cage diving and what to expect. This is a well rehearsed talk and Kym’s light-hearted Aussie charm soon has guests smiling and relaxing into the mood of the day. They will be safe they have arrived and obviously they are in good hands.
Excitement builds with the first shark sighing of the day
There is excitement straight away as the first shark appears out of the deep before the cage is even in the water. A 14-footer.
“Only a baby that one,” Kym drawls, “wait ’til you see his mumma. This little one will take off ya leg for sure, but the old girl, she could swallow ya whole as soon as she looks at ya!”.
He smiles as he lowers the cage into the water and in the next breath looks to the expectant faces and announces that he needs “six victims…I mean volunteers”. A well-placed slip of the tongue that gets a nervous giggle from the guests, as six of them shrug into their wetsuits eager to see if “mumma” is waiting in the distance or from under the cage.
No “mumma” today, but guests take their turns underwater and while they are waiting they enjoy the added experience of the Aqua Sub.
A unique invention of Adventure Bay Charters, the world’s first underwater viewing sub allows guests to stay dry and see sharks underwater through the glass windows.
This is a fairly usual summer day at the Neptune’s. Guests enjoying the sun and the rugged beauty of this remote place, sharing the view with 40,000 New Zealand fur seals that call this place home and other shark divers visiting the island.
By lunch, everyone has seen a shark from the cage. The guests are starting to line up for their second dive, clearly over their first apprehensions about sharks and realising that they are not in danger and that this crew has their personal safety well in hand.
The mood is high and celebratory as people share their encounters with other guests, comparing stories on the different sharks that they have seen.
An important contribution to great white shark research
Gina takes notes and gathers information and photos that can help her identify the different individuals that have visited for the morning.
Some of these sharks are in a database already and each sight grows the knowledge that we have about individual shark behaviours. Often there is a new shark that hasn’t been identified before or who has been absent for a period of months.
Gina has her theories about shark movement, and would love to tag every shark at this site to try and track them further away from the Neptune’s. She dreams of the future where such research will lead her career and what could be gained, to aid in the protection of Great White Sharks around the world.
While Gina is focused on shark research and Kym, along with the other crew members, are helping an elderly lady of 70 into the cage. She has been given this trip as a birthday present from her grandchildren as a part of the ultimate bucket list!
Shark tour trip just got crazy!
All of a sudden there is a cry from the observation deck that someone has seen a whale about a kilometre off the stern of the boat.
Everyone turns and watches as a second plume of spray crests the horizon. It looks as though there are a few whales traveling together to the north of the Neptune Islands Marine Park. While people stare excitedly to try and catch a glimpse of the whales again, Kym is wary as he knows that it is 3 months outside whale season. The size of the plume at the distance is far too big to be a dolphin and if it belongs to the sort of whale he thinks it is, then he prays that it stays away.
Sharing the apex predator title alongside the great white shark
Kym has heard stories of killer whales and orcas. He has a high level of respect for them. A fellow apex predator of the sea, but he knows that killers frequenting the Neptune Islands can really upset the sharks.
Killers swimming through the bay is the sort of social event that can cause sharks to spread fast and afar and can considerably shorten the viewing season for Great White Sharks. The next plume shows and there is a big splash as the activity of the whales seems to increase in a now stationary position about 850 metres from the back of the boat.
How big do Orcas grow?
Orcas can weigh up to 6 tons (5,443 kilograms) and grow to 23 to 32 feet (7 to 9.7 meters)! (source)
Kym looks at Gina, she has seen it too. The tell tail white blaze on the side of a black whale, they are Killers. And they are feeding on something. A slick has formed in the area and the birds move in to partake in the spoils. It is too far a way to tell but Kym knows that the Orcas have made a kill and one of two things will happen next.
They will be satisfied and move on, or they will continue to hunt in the area for fun or further food depending on the success of the last kill. He hopes that they will be satisfied and move away to the east and circumnavigate the island group, rather than swim through the middle—past where they are diving.
One of the guest is excited. It is Alice, she wants the whale to come closer. She is out of her wetsuit, satisfied with her shark experience and is loving the extra show of the orcas for free. The crowd is feeling the excitement that Alice is giving off and an American tourist whose exuberant nature and stories of orcas in Canada is adding to the mood as more people stop looking for sharks and start watching the whales as they draw nearer.
If the orcas turn up, the sharks are outta here!
Ten minutes later the whales start to move on from the slick that they have created. Kym’s fears are being realised, as the whales are coming straight towards the boat. There is a sense of expectation as the pod comes within 50 metres from the back of the boat. It is a family group of 6 whales and there are two calves in the pod.
How do orcas communicate?
Killer whales use echo-location to communicate and hunt, making sounds that travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back, revealing their location, size, and shape. They can even identify species of fish by their echo! (source)
Kym announces that this is not a good thing and that we should not expect to see any more sharks today as with killers in the bay, the sharks will be getting out of there. No one really cares or hears him they are enthralled by the approaching orca family.
Then everything starts to happen at once. Pat, the 70-year-old grandma with over-imaginative grandchildren starts to slap her hand on the surface of the water from inside the cage. This is the agreed signal that there is a shark present so that others know and they can get in the cage to see what she is seeing.
The call comes up from the Aqua Sub that there is a problem with the music that it has gone all squeaky. They were hearing underwater clicks and whistles that are the organised communication of the orcas. They are starting to move faster with agile, fast, tight turns.
The battle is on. Great White vs The Orca(s)!
There is excitement building with the guests as they see the Killer Whales, now literally 20 metres off the back of the boat. Kym with his expert eye sees it first. It’s a shark fin! A great white. It’s only a glimpse but it was definitely there right in the middle of the killers. He calls it out to the guests then Gina sees it too. She thinks she recognises the fin. Its slightly rounded off the top with a fretted trailing edge. It could be one of two sharks that she’s seen before, and recorded.
She needs a second glimpse to be sure.
At first Gina is worried for the Orca calves. Both of the two sharks that she thinks it could be are clever big males. Not as cunning as some of their female counterparts, but nonetheless deadly.
Brutus, a 5 metre male, who only last week completely unprovoked, hunted the cage and tried to take a bite out of the fenders that supports the cage in the water. Brutus is unpredictable as well as edgy, shows no fear and is well-known around the shark fleet for appearing out of nowhere.
The other option is Kuma, Japanese for Bear. Built like a brick dunny, slightly shorter than Brutus at 4.8 metres but Gina estimates nearly 400 kgs heavier, Kuma is a dominant male shark that hogs boats that use bait and spends a lot of his time protecting his turf. He’s famous for chasing other younger smaller sharks out of the water. Either way these two big boys pose a real threat to the young Orca calves.
The communication between the whales is increasing with intensity. There seems to be a rhythm to it, an order. The action on the surface is intensifying too. It appears as though every time the fin of the shark breaks the surface one of the killers is launches itself halfway out of the water and lands on top of it. This is making it hard for Gina to accurately identify the shark that is involved in the melee.
Suddenly the shark breaks away across the surface. It looks like the killers have scared it away. Unexpectedly the shark fin doubles back straight towards the killers again.
A rare, spectacular clash of the apex predators of the ocean
Kym looks on with a realisation that what he is seeing is a once-in-three-generations type event.
In the back of his mind is a story he heard as a youngster, sitting in the net shed with the old fishermen on a wintery bluster where no one goes out. The old-timers would gather in the pretence of fixing their nets. In reality they would while away the day as the wind tried to tear the roof off the shed, telling stories of the sea things that they had seen. Each story slightly grander than the last, as the courage from the gruppa settled in the stomachs.
Fisherman rarely ever let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Kym was witnessing with his eyes, but living the story in his mind told by a crusty voice, driven hoarse by shouting into the wind, but rich with taint of whisky and tobacco.
“Those killers are hunting the shark” announced Kym.
“This is a titan fight, and it will be to the death”.
With this stunning observation the idle chatter stopped as people stared. Some responded quietly in silence with open mouths and eyes wide. Others express themselves with expletives and big words to try and express how they were feeling. Two of the girls were crying, not sure what to think, confused by a range of emotions that can only come from seeing something so spectacularly awesome, raw and powerful.
One of the killers was obviously keeping the shark at the surface from the underside and cutting it off from escape by forcing it back into the fold of the pod and the surface. When the shark was in range and close to the surface with its fin out, one of the other killers was applying a technique that orcas are famous for when they attack other whales.
The fearsome technique of teamwork involves breaching themselves on top of their prey, forcing it down to their partners that are working from the underside.
The water was a frenzy and the sounds in the aqua sub were close and clear.
Then it stopped.
There was no more shark fin, the water stilled with the subsided calmer movements of the pod of killers. The whistles and click slowed down to a less urgent pace. A slick started to appear on the surface and growing slowly as it spread down wind, just like spilt milk creeps across a kitchen floor.
Birds moved in to partake in the spoils and slowly the pod of killers moves away to the west from where they had come.
Slowly the guests come out of their trance like states as the realisation began to hit them of what they had just witnessed—the pinnacle of nature.
They would never look at Discovery Channel or National Geographic the same again. Unlikely to witness such an event again in their lifetime or possibly, their children’s lifetime. Every person on the boat on that day will remember for sure when they witnessed the ultimate clash of the titans.