When Paul first gave me a copy of 101 Things To Do Before You Die at the start of our round-the-world trip in late 2005, there were about 20 entries that I could tick off almost immediately. The first and most obvious was the 2nd entry: swimming with sharks, whales, dolphins and tropical fish.
It might sound like a bit of a brag, but it’s really not when you consider I had a childhood that included living on the Red Sea and an adolsecence that included
spearfishing in places like “Shark Bay”. In fact it’s probably more of a brag that I saw all these animals before I was 13 simply because I went diving with my Dad and survived… but we’ll get to that.
Living on the Red Sea in Aqaba when I was 9 and 10 made seeing tropical fish pretty straight forward – there wasn’t much to do in Aqaba besides go snorkelling or go water-skiing. I was too young to scuba dive in Jordan (although I was determined to learn before we even went) but it didn’t stop me learning to free-dive down to photograph the locals.
And truth be told I’ve been diving with tropical fish ever since. Far and away the most extraordinary tropical fish experience was the Navy Pier in Exmouth though – nothing in the 25 years I’ve spent underwater has ever come even close to the sheer volume of brightly-coloured fish life I saw when I dived it in 2008.
Living on the Red Sea also offered my first opportunity to swim with dolphins. I’d seen dolphins up close in Monkey Mia when I was just 3, but have no memory of it. When the border between Jordan and Israel opened in early 1995 however, it also opened the opportunity for a unique 10th birthday party – crossing over into Eilat to swim with the bottlenosed dolphins.
I don’t remember much more than snippets, but I do remember hanging onto floating pontoons and watching the dolphins race by through the water, circling back to check us out, coming up close and rolling onto their side for a belly rub, then swimming off again. It’s a shame we don’t have any photos from it – while the borders were open they were only just open and the security situation was still pretty tense, and it was a lot safer to leave the camera behind on our day trip to Israel.
We returned to Australia in late 1995, and less than 18 months later I turned 12 and had my PADI Junior Open Water Diver certification soon after. That meant I could finally go on the annual fishing trips my Dad (who’d also been my instructor) had been organising with our family friends. These “fishing trips” combined regular reel fishing from a boat with in-water spearfishing, which is why a few months after I turned 12 I was swimming on the surface in “Shark bay” – calling desperately to the support boat to pick us up, because both Dad and I were covered in fish blood and being circled by sharks.
While Dad was pushing an aggressive 6 foot black-tip reef shark away with the speargun, I was hanging off his back with my little 3″ knife drawn – there was no way this angry little shark was going to take us without a fight. Dad wasn’t actually concerned about the shark he was literally pushing away with a speargun though: he correctly figured the 10-foot Bronze Whaler crusing around underneath us was a far greater cause for concern.
The anchor on the support boat was stuck, so after a very long 5 minutes the captain gave up trying to recover it and cut the anchor rope, racing over and dragging us aboard as quickly as possible. The take-home message from Dad regarding the entire experience was “Don’t tell Mum”.
Diving in places like Shark bay and Gnarloo Fishing Station (especially while spearfishing) simply means accepting that you’re in shark territory though – you are the unwelcome outsider, not them. With time and experience you learn to respect them, and it becomes second nature to sense when a shark has moved into the area: all the sizeable fish disappear into the reef and everything suddenly becomes very quiet. We started to get so familiar with the smaller reef sharks that you’d wind up fighting them for the fish you’d speared: them trying to grab the catch bag clipped to your weight belt and drag you underwater, or them grabbing a freshly speared fish and trying to swim off with it before you pulled the line back in and battled it out for the bounty.
That was fine (well, relatively fine) for the reef sharks, but it was a different story with the bigger biteys that also loomed in the shadow of the reef. A lot of folks go to the Galápagos Islands to see the huge schools of peaceful Hammerhead sharks, but the only Hammerheads I’ve ever seen have been the “Greater Hammerhead” you get in the North-West of Australia – the aggressive kind that come in to grab your catch bag whole, then decide you’ll do for desert and chase you across the surface the whole way back to a boat.
After the third hammerhead chased me in one day, we decided to try fishing somewhere else the next morning. The site we tried the next day didn’t have any hammerheads, but it did have a pushy 10-foot Bronze Whaler instead. The Bronze Whaler wasn’t an issue for long though, because after it hassled us for a bit it swam away to get some distance and re-assess… which is when a 14-foot Tiger shark loomed out of the darkness and bit it in half.
I might have been 15 at the time, but I figured out pretty quickly that when a shark is big enough to start eating other sharks, you get out of the fucking water.
Experiences like that are why I have no compulsion to cage dive with Great Whites – I’ve been in the water with big sharks sans cage already, and while they’re awe-inspiring I’ve got no desire to deliberately draw them with food while hanging out inside a little metal box… for fun? It’s also why taking people diving with the grey Nurse sharks in the Melbourne aquarium was so amusing: Grey Nurses are completely harmless and immensely placid, but folks would still freak out about being in the water “with a shark” – imagine if they’d been in the water with something that could actually eat them?
Turned out that plenty of people jump into the water with something that could actually eat them though, they just don’t know the biteys are there. When I headed to Exmouth in 2008 to dive the Navy Pier and snorkel with the whale sharks, I suddenly realised this world-renowned Ningaloo Marine Park everyone was raving about shared it’s southern edge with the northern edge of Gnaraloo Fishing Station… where I’d been chased out of the water by hammerheads and a very big tiger shark 8 years before.
We weren’t there for the sharks though – we’d come to snorkel with the world’s biggest fish.
Now whale sharks are not whales. Nor are whales fish – they’re mammals, as Mark Watney rightly points out when explaining why Aquaman shouldn’t be able to control whales. But while we were swimming with the world’s biggest fish, we managed to see the world’s biggest mammal at the same time – a Blue Whale and her calf.
After an extraordinary day swimming with the whale sharks, our boats were making their way back to Exmouth when the spotter plane overhead radioed through to say they’d spotted the pair just a few kilometers ahead! They were migrating up the Western Australian coast from Antarctica, and through an extraordinary coincidence were passing between us and Exmouth just as we were heading back! We slowed as we approached, and for about 30 minutes the boats took turns individually moving to within 50m of two truly epic animals.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen whales, but it certainly was the most extraordinary so far. It also might not count as “Swimming With” a whale, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been in the water with them too… although I couldn’t see them, and it’s entirely possible I was hallucinating! During my tec diver training we’d seen some Right whales as our boat was approaching a deep wreck site, and as I was coming up from the 56m decompression dive (breathing air well beyond the recommended 40m limit for nitrogen narcosis) I heard what I’m certain was a very clear yet distant whale call, followed by another responding.
Everyone else was breathing trimix (to avoid the narcotic effect of nitrogen at depth) and apparently none of them heard it though, so it’s entirely possible I was just tripping on nitrogen…
I’ve seen one other kind of whale recently, but it wasn’t the kind of whale I’d travelled to see. I went to Norway at the start of this year during the peak of winter specifically to snorkel with Killer Whales, but a blizzard the day before had swept them (and the fish they were chasing) far out into the North Atlantic. After hours of racing around the fjords of Andøya with our finger freezing well beyond numbness, we finally decided to give up… only to have a sperm whale suddenly pop up nearby!
The sperm whale was the nail in the coffin of Orca adventure though – Sperm whales disrupt the schools of fish the Orcas feed on, so if one shows up you know the Orca won’t stay for long. I guess I’ll just have to go back to Norway next winter, and hopefully next time I’ll finally be able to get into the water with Keiko’s mates!