Shark cage diving in Port Lincoln, South Australia
If I ever try to disappear off the face of the earth, don’t check Port Lincoln, South Australia – you just may find me. This seems a common theme among the so-called locals. “I came for a three-month work contract – that was 13 years ago,” said Andrew Wright, skipper and part owner of the Calypso Star Shark Cage Dive experience that attracts visitors from all over the world.
Yet he’s still considered a ring-in!
The expansion of the fishing industry in the 1950s and ’60s changed this southern Eyre Peninsula township from a coastal village into a thriving fishing hub, now with more than 14,000 residents and a large seasonal tourism influx.
The historic fishing boat MFV Tacoma was built over a seven-year period in Port Fairy, Victoria, (just around the corner – sort of), by the Haldane Brothers and destined for Port Lincoln. These blokes completed the long build and promptly began hauling in southern bluefin tuna, transforming the town. This was the beginning of a nautical boom that put Port Lincoln on the map. Times have changed dramatically since the hectic heyday of tuna poling and seine netting. An almost catastrophic fall in the population of the enigmatic (and highly prized) southern bluefin in the 1980s saw fishing methods completely revised by the tuna barons.
No longer do they primarily fish for wild fish stocks. Instead, they run nets around juvenile schools and drag them back – sometimes hundreds of miles – in specially developed floating pens to be fattened up in feed lots at Port Lincoln’s Boston Bay.
It is an enormous industry, utilising a far more sustainable method that now supports a large portion of Port Lincoln’s population. But there is much more to this thriving hub than just tuna.
The productive waters also produce large volumes of valuable fare, including whiting, snapper, crayfish, calamari, abalone, oysters, mussels, crabs, deep-sea trawl species and farmed kingfish as well. All things considered Port Lincoln has a genuine claim to its title of “the seafood capital of Australia”.
What to do in Port Lincoln
Flying into Port Lincoln is a teaser to any red-blooded boatie or fisho. There are miles and miles of inshore reefs, islands and sheltered waters to explore, giving way to the magnificence of the Southern Ocean.
This is still home to the largest commercial fleet in the country and hence, provides a full array of professional maritime services. However, it is tourism that has drawn us here.
The saltwater in my veins pumped with adventure at the thought of diving with great white sharks, frolicking with playful sea lions and swimming among massive tuna schools.
Then there are always sportsfishing safaris, remote surf breaks, and the inshore bays and inlets of the Spencer Gulf, Boston Bay and nearby Coffin bay. And if you finally tire of life at sea, there is plenty to keep you enthralled on land: beautiful National Parks, 4WD treks across the dunes, walking trails and lookouts, ecotourism, animal parks or just a stroll along the waterfront.
Swim with sharks
Swimming with great white sharks in Port Lincoln is on many bucket lists. Coming face-to-face with massive prehistoric monsters in their own environment leaves you in awe and feeling rather insignificant.
These commanding creatures embody such raw natural beauty and brutality, they bewitch you with their majesty. But in a split second, the beast unleashes a terrifying display of monstrous strength and power that leaves you gobsmacked with primeval awe. Rest assured, Port Lincoln’s Shark Cage Diving with Calypso Star Charters is an experience that will live with you forever.
Calypso Star Charters is also the most professional outfit I have ever had the opportunity to experience. Its strong international reputation speaks volumes for the quality of
the equipment, service and presentation, with qualified, personable staff taking full control and attending to your needs with a friendly attitude.
It always amazes me that the international tourists constantly outnumber Aussies on these ventures. We often fail to recognise the value of our own country and its magnificent assets.
This is a long day trip that meets before sunrise to board Calypso Star 2, a 65ft ex-cray boat from WA with a V12 diesel.
On board there are also a high-capacity galley, hot-water showers, Seakeeper gyro stabiliser and of course, an aluminium shark cage strong enough to withstand the attentions of a rampaging great white.
The remote Neptune Island group is in line with the centre of the Spencer Gulf, but well and truly out into the Southern Ocean. Shark Bay is the only spot in Australia with permits to run such an operation that enjoys this enormous success rate for shark visits. It’s not unusual for between three and five great whites to visit at once, joining the fray are bronze whalers, thresher sharks, kingfish and others, all attracted by the shark berley.
The Neptunes are home to massive numbers of New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions, which help to naturally attract these monster predators. It doesn’t generally take long to lure a shark or two to the boat after the cage has been lowered into position.
You need no certification or experience to dive, but I do think some familiarity with SCUBA diving or at least snorkeling will help. It can be quite disconcerting slipping into the cage with five others as your pulse races, breathing deeply from the hookah mouthpieces.
The experience does prove a bit overwhelming for some, who are free to climb out at any time to regain their composure from this awe-inspiring experience. The sharks
often just glide by you, seemingly eyeing off their quarry. There is no sense of haste – and why would they be in a hurry? You’re not going anywhere!
Meanwhile, the deckhands throw out large baits on ropes and the fun begins when a shark takes interest in the feast. The deckies pull the baits in quickly, to the top of the cage, with sharks in hot pursuit like savage dogs.
This is when hungry monoliths bear right down on you with mouths wide open expecting a feed – often crashing the cage in front of you.
I was lucky enough to share some time with Big Momma during my first trip to the Neptunes. She had been unsighted until she exploded from the abyss in a split second, crashing a bait from the murky depths like a tomahawk missile, then disappearing as fast as she arrived.
It was a sight that will stay with me to the grave and set in concrete the old tale that the shark to worry about is the one you don’t see until it’s all too late.
Swim with tuna
While shark diving can be a pretty serious venture, swimming with the tuna isn’t – it’s plain, good old fashioned fun.
People of all ages can experience the thrill of donning a wetsuit and swimming in a pen jammed with big southern bluefin tuna. It’s an unbelievable experience with the tuna reaching up to 60kg, all zapping by at lightning-fast speeds.
If you aren’t keen on jumping into a John West tin, there’s an underwater walkthrough observatory, plus a pool of bread-and-butter species such as snapper, salmon, trevally and wrasse, and a touch pool for toddlers.
If you are really lucky, you can try the tuna spa where attendants pour a bucket of baitfish into the water nearby, sending the tuna into a feeding frenzy of mass proportions. Perhaps the most amazing thing is tuna reaching speeds around 70kmh – yet they never touch you.
Swim with sea lions
Just when you thought your Port Lincoln experience couldn’t get any better, you climb aboard yet another beautifully fitted tour vessel and head off to a lonely stretch of beach to free dive with wild sea lions.
The seals take refuge in a nursery area off Hopkins Island and the boat moors nearby, while a small tinnie takes you into the shallows and drops you off in wetsuit, mask and snorkel that are all supplied. I did miss wearing flippers and hence thrashed around a bit. No wonder the sea lions all had smiles on their faces when they saw an overweight lump bobbing about as they zipped around us with agile ease.
The sea lions are simply gorgeous and invite you to play by dancing around you with amazing underwater flexibility and grace. They are very inquisitive and friendly too, coming right up to your face as would a domestic pet with total trust and love.
Probably the biggest problem I faced was due to the fact I’d dived with sharks the day before. A vision of those hulking predators swimming free in the very same ocean kept flooding back to me.
Pro tip: do the sea lion swim before you dive with the sharks!
Boston Bay Winery
During our visit to Port Lincoln we were treated yet again to the hospitality of the Boston Bay Winery and entertained by its entrepreneurial owner Tony Ford who dished up a feast of local produce.
My Boston Bay Winery favourite is Fordy’s Sauvignon Blanc that keeps a big smile on my face. There’s a discernible salt-air sharpness, and little wonder as Fordy claims the Boston Bay vineyard is closest to the ocean of any Australian winery.
“It’s that close we have to prune the vines at low tide,” he laughed.
Port Lincoln accommodation
There is a huge selection of accommodation nearby, from rough ‘n’ ready camping in Lincoln National Park, to five-star luxury. We were guests of the Forster family, who not only gave us a wonderful accommodation experience at their Port Lincoln YHA, but they also operate the Calypso Star Shark Cage Diving, Swim with Tuna and Swim with Sea Lion adventures.
The Youth Hostel is far more than the name suggests. This is a wonderful place to stay with a range of accommodation from shared bunk rooms to fully equipped motel-style options.
If meeting people is your delight you must make time to enjoy the shared relaxation area where old mate Robert Forster presides over a host of local and international characters all drawn to the Port for its worldwide reputation.
The Trade-A-Boat verdict
I can’t recommend a visit to Port Lincoln highly enough ... but don’t think a few days will suffice. A week is barely enough.
The hospitality of the locals is simply unsurpassed and the professionalism of all of the tour operations is top-notch. There are direct regional flights ex-Adelaide, plus bus services throughout the entire Eyre Peninsula.
Do yourself a favour and book a trip to visit Port Lincoln. If there’s a single drop of saltwater in your veins, you’ll simply love it!
Port Lincoln travel information
Calypso Star Charters
Shark Cage Diving, Swim with Tuna, & Swim with Sea Lions tours
10 S Quay Blvd, Port Lincoln, SA, 5606
Phone +61 8 8682 3939
Port Lincoln YHA
26 London Street, Port Lincoln
Phone +61 8 8682 3605
Boston Bay Winery
Lincoln Hwy, Port Lincoln
Phone +61 8 8684 3600
Axel Stenross Maritime Museum
97 Lincoln Highway, Port Lincoln
Port Lincoln Tourism
See the full version of this review in Trade-A-Boat #474, on sale January 28, 2016.