The apex expert

When the true start of our expedition was only a few weeks out, the recurring question we were being asked was, “are you scared?” This could have referred to many things such as leaving behind every comfort for two years or being fully remote as our expedition is taking us to the edges of earth. But in this case, the question was with regards to our first location, South Australia. Why? Because we were going on a ten-day liveaboard to dive with great white sharks.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Rodney Fox, Adam Moore & Jeff Hester

The preconceived notion for many people is that sharks are killers and getting in the water with them is a death wish. The idea that sharks are out to get us is our own selfishness, thinking the natural world revolves around our existence. In fact, it’s the opposite. Sharks want little do with humans and oftentimes are shy and scared of us! It’s more likely you will get into a car accident than get attacked by a shark.

My personal shark encounters have been otherworldly and humbling. When getting in the water with any kind of shark species, it shifts your perspective of these animals. They are graceful, calm and majestic. I have come to find shark diving quite peaceful, almost cathartic. I’m not saying you should interact with sharks as if they are not an apex predator, as they surely are. However, the idea that “sharks hunt humans” is something that I hope changes in my lifetime. One of the best ways to get over any fear of sharks is to learn more about them, spend time with experts who have studied them, and get in the water with them under supervision of professionals.

After diving with a wide variety of shark species, I had yet to meet a great white face to face. That’s why the first stop on our Edges of Earth expedition was dedicated to finding them in the wild. For six months, I had been liaising with Andrew Fox, the owner and operator of the family business, ‘Rodney Fox Expeditions, and a great white shark expert. Andrew and his team had set up a 10-day liveaboard in order to increase the chances of seeing multiple great whites in peak winter season.

With some detours along the way due to the rough seas, we made it to the Neptune Islands 70km southwest of Port Lincoln, accessible only by boat or helicopter. The islands are situated in the open ocean, far from populated areas but close to over 750 great whites. With water that’s considered temperate, I had to self-motivate when plunging into the 13 degree water each day. Being cold almost at all times ended up being entirely worth it.

“Ancient” seems to be one of the most frequently used words when it comes to South Australia’s ocean. Great white sharks have been here for thousands of years, with the first logged sighting being in 1802. As a native species to the region, they have evolved and adapted to be the streamlined, smart and agile animals that navigate these waters with ease. They play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the oceanic food web. As apex predators, they regulate the populations of their prey species, such as seals, sea lions and smaller sharks. By keeping these populations in check, great white sharks help prevent species overpopulation, which can have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem.

Great white sharks help prevent these prey species from congregating in large numbers as well, which can lead to overgrazing of certain habitats or depletion of specific resources. Additionally, great white sharks scavenge on carcasses and feed on weakened or diseased individuals, playing a role in removing sick or injured animals from the population.

For over 40 years, Andrew Fox has been studying, photographing and bringing people to experience ancient great whites through cage diving. Nowhere else in the world can you cage dive with great whites in this way. In the past, there were two other locations – Guadalupe Mexico (closed due to safety) and South Africa (sharks are avoiding as orcas are killing them). But today, if you want to safely dive with great whites, South Australia is the place to visit, and Andrew is the person to go with.

Rodney Fox, Andrew’s father, was attacked by a shark in 1963 while defending his spearfishing championship. The shocking accident was considered the worst attack that someone had ever survived at the time. After that, Rodney decided it was his life’s mission to study and learn everything he could about great whites, while educating as many people as possible, putting the concept of fear on the back burner.

He was one of the first originators of the cage diving concept, alongside the likes of Jacques Cousteau who was credited for the first concept in the 1950s. Born out of a trip to the zoo after seeing a caged lion, a visualisation of a reverse design of putting humans in the cage instead was the catalyst for the first trials of great white cage diving.

Growing up around his father’s passion for sharks and the JAWS era, Andrew was captivated from an early age and mixed with the who’s who of shark personalities throughout his upbringing. JAWS was inspired by South Australia and Rodney was heavily consulted. Andrew remembers using the donated wetsuits from the JAWS set when he went out for his own explorations and felt very connected to the process, people and animals.

Years later, Andrew now knows most of the South Australian sharks by name and can typically recognise them by visual pattern recognition, typically by pigmentation markings around the tail. Over breakfast, lunch and dinner, we spent hours asking Andrew questions about his experiences with sharks from his most incredible encounters to the observations he’s had over the last four decades.

He shared with us the research work that’s been done on the vessel – from genetic sampling to population monitoring. The Fox Shark Research Foundation that he started aligns with scientists to collaborate and progress the understanding of great whites. Currently, the foundation’s population projects include photo ID (pigmentation on dorsal and lower tail), tissue sampling, genetic analysis, satellite tracking (determining depth, water temperature, migrations), laser photogrammetry (size determinations), acoustic telemetry, shark repellent developments and impacts of the cage diving industry.

With every talk, the conversation always came back to strict practices and regulations that he and the team have put in place, making it safe for people to dive repeatedly with whites. The process he designed is to ensure no harm to sharks, the environment and people onboard. There’s a balance that must be struck with the Australian government, community, local operators, fisheries and conservation teams in order to operate effectively. Given how sensitive cage diving is, Andrew has spent his career explaining the importance of bringing humans in contact with sharks in the most natural and sustainable way.

Cage diving is controversial for several reasons, with the biggest concern being the misconception that introducing humans to sharks increases attacks. Negative public perception of sharks perpetuates the idea that they are solely dangerous and aggressive creatures. However, when getting to experience great whites first hand, you see a much different side.

When sharks circle the surface cages, they are interested and curious, but not ‘jaw gaping’. This refers to the action of the shark rapidly opening its jaws wide during an attack or when capturing prey. This jaw movement allows the shark to engulf and bite into its prey, securing a firm grip and exerting a powerful bite force. During the jaw gape, the great white shark extends its upper jaw and lowers its bottom jaw, something we did not encounter.

When in the bottom cage at 20 metres, sharks are calm and slow moving, which allowed us to form an entirely different perspective. Here, they have 180 degrees of protection from the seafloor and don’t have to worry about inter-species attacks. This promotes more docile behaviour, allowing them to move at a steadier pace with relaxed interactions.

We sighted around four to six sharks every dive, with some of them reaching four to five metres in length. Because it was the winter solstice, the large females were out, making our sightings quite spectacular. We dove nearly all day, watching these magnificent creatures circle our cages. And slowly but surely, the preconceived notions that we had going in (as everyone’s got them in one way or another) began to drift away.

Having the unique opportunity to observe these sharks up close fostered a deeper connection and understanding of their behaviour and ecological importance. Being in the presence of a great white evoked a sense of awe and appreciation for their power, grace, and sheer beauty. It reminded me of the incredible diversity of life in the ocean and the need to protect and conserve these apex predators and their habitats.

After ten days out at sea with Andrew Fox and his team, I left the experience far from fearing sharks. Rather, I felt a deep sense of respect and empathy. My desire to play a part in safeguarding these magnificent creatures was further cemented, making me realise this lifelong goal is here to stay. Without them, our world would be far from balanced and in check.

Photographs by Rodney Fox, Adam Moore & Jeff Hester

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