Swimming with Sharks in Australia’s Coral Sea
A shark has an instantly recognizable profile under water. Usually swimming in the deep, they glide confidently – almost ominously – through the darkest layers of blue. Their fins and tail alternate back and forth, moving them forward in a slow, methodical manner giving them the appearance of a highly calculating predator.
As a diver, you are always scanning the distance, searching for that distinctive shape against the darkness. You want to see the shark as a wonderful moment of discovery, but you also want to see the shark before it sees you. While divers generally believe that sharks have been maligned and misunderstood due to attacks of mistaken identity, there is still a deep respect and a careful distance kept from the animal when encountered underwater. We protect ourselves with distance, plexiglass or cages whenever possible. Others prefer a boat or land between themselves and sharks.
Yet sometimes, we seek out proximity on purpose. We deliberately schedule an encounter which requires purposeful descent into their watery lair. This story is about such a time.
Mike Ball Expeditions, Fly Dive Coral Sea Trip
We chose Mike Ball charters out of Cairns for our Great Barrier Reef/Coral Sea adventure. Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has been in business for over 30 years. This company is one of the well known charters in Australia. The boat we took is a large catamaran called the Spoilsport, a highly awarded vessel.
The Mike Ball Dive Expeditions company offers other trips including nautilus dives, minke whale expeditions and trips to dive the Yongola. Mike is in the International SCUBA Diving Hall of Fame due to starting the first SCUBA diving school on the Great Barrier Reef in 1969. He also told us he has the uncommon ability to remember up to 100 people’s names at one time, a skill he demonstrated at the embarkment meet and greet dinner. For Tim this trip had been a dream long considered, after seeing ads for it in SCUBA diving magazines more than 20 years ago.
Live aboard Diving
This was my first live aboard trip so I could only compare it to a day trip dive boat or a dive resort. The accommodations were good, a premium cabin with a double bed, window and a private bathroom. On the dive deck there were many staff available to help with equipment, dive briefings and general assistance. The day was highly organized and regimented, you never had time to “get bored” on this trip. Our “Cruise Director” was a memorable Kiwi who had an uncanny resemblance in features and voice to a Monty Python character. He was the human alarm clock each morning walking around the boat cheerfully saying “Wake-y, Wake-y!” It sounded pleasant most days but after one rough night at sea where we seemed to be airborne half of the night while swiftly traversing 80 miles beyond the reef, he was not a welcome presence.
Potato Cod Hole
There were fourteen dives on the trip but the top two were the Potato Cod Hole and the North Horn dives. Potato Cods are called Goliath Grouper in other areas of the world, they are giant fish who sit and stare at you underwater for long periods of time, as seen in the video taken by Tim below.
To get an idea of the size of this fish, here is a GoPro screenshot photo I took of them from above:
While this dive site was famous for Potato Cod, I also came upon some Nemo-style clownfish in an anenome nearby – it was another highlight to see them in their native environment as I had only seen them in aquariums and animated movies up until this point.
But enough about all that, now on to the part you came here to read…
Shark Dive at North Horn
As I jumped off the boat’s diving platform into the Coral Sea, I knew there was trouble afoot. Today was the day we had waited for all week. We were at a location a day’s trip beyond the reef – so remote we were required to wear GPS locators in case anything went awry. Though some help was available on the boat, real medical assistance was hundreds of miles away. As I dipped my head beneath the water to scan the ocean I saw the stealthy swimmers circling the depths below.
It must be said that there is a natural aversion toward descending into deep water with visible predators. As you ready your descent you downplay an internal reaction telling you to get back on the boat. This aversion is built on a number of reasonable scenarios. First, the correct assumption that water is not our natural habitat – we cannot sustain life without unnatural apparatus to help us breathe. Additionally, we cannot just break for the surface if things go wrong, as there are strict diving rules in place for ascent. Once you’re down there, you’re down there, and things had better go well.
Second, our mind replays the hundreds of stories of attacks over recent years, making them seem like an imminent likelihood, rather than a statistically insignificant probability. We do not hear millions of stories of people not being attacked by sharks to counteract the effect. We are certain it will happen to us. Third, are the reminders of regret for every stupid thing we’ve done in our youthful lives after being warned not to do it, knowing better, but suppressing common sense. We know this could be one of those times. We can’t be sure, but our mothers might have even specifically warned us not to dive with sharks.
Understandably, the brain goes through a gymnastics routine to overcome utterly reasonable objections to diving into shark infested waters. But here I was, and as desire for adventure overrode every stitch of common sense, I headed downward. I kept an eye on the circling threat and steadily followed the group toward our destination.
We descended to about 70 feet and were seated along a coral amphitheater to watch “the show.” Several sharks, common to the area were swimming nearby as they had been conditioned to do during this twice weekly routine. On a central piece of coral our ‘Wake-y Wake-y’ guide was setting up a trash barrel full of tuna heads secured to the rock. He wore chainmail gloves to protect him from bites – with shark diving being the only modern use of this medieval shield. Tension built as he slowly unhooked the trash can lid and the tuna floated skyward.
Suddenly sharks were appearing from every direction and violently circling the meal, snapping at food. We sat roughly 10-20 feet away, filming the endeavor, carefully controlling our breathing to conserve air. Every now and then one would break away and swim over our heads. If need be we could swim to a different location and safely ascend, but who would want to miss this? It was a feeding frenzy and we couldn’t take our eyes off it.
My GoPro Video of the Shark Feeding Frenzy Dive:
Several types of sharks fought for a bite – grey reef sharks, white tip sharks and even a bold potato cod who brazenly swam in their midst. Though it seemed like it would last forever, after the tuna was consumed, the sharks disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. They were there for the food, not for us, and we longingly watched them swim away. The rest of the dive was a leisurely trip along a beautiful coral wall. The event had ended as quickly as it had begun, one more item off the bucket list.
Still left was a fascinating low altitude flight over the Great Barrier Reef. It had to be low altitude due to SCUBA diving’s physical limitations – we hadn’t had enough time to burn off the nitrogen which accumulates in one’s system after multiple dives. The flight stayed at around 500-600 feet and delivered an unforgettable scenic tour of the world famous reef. It was a fitting end to an incredible trip – the highlight of our time in Australia. Though the dive charter added considerable cost to an already expensive month-long journey, the adventure was well worth it, along with the life-long memories it created.