White Sharks of the Neptune Islands
Have you ever had a dream come true? This is the story of how a 12 yr old boy lived out his dream in the body of a 42 yr old.
I think I was about 5 yrs old when I began my fascination with Great White Sharks. My earliest memories are of looking through National Geographic magazines hoping for even one shark picture I could obsess over. By the time I was 12, my interest in photography had begun to germinate. That was when I first dreamed of being in the ocean with the majestic great white and being able to photograph them.
But that was just a childish dream….right? How would a landlocked Canadian boy ever live out that fantasy?
Flash ahead to 2015. As primarily a professional sports photographer I had been privileged to shoot 16 Stanly Cup finals and was on the ice for each of those cup ceremonies. I had also shot 2 Olympics, many NBA, MLB, NFL, CFL and professional Wakeboarding events. While I’m proud of my body of work, I still wasn’t satisfied.
We all have that part of our childhood that lives on inside us as we go about the business of being an adult. Mine is 12 year old Dave and he is an adventurous, curious little guy. Anytime I saw a photo of a great white, read a story about one or watched a shark documentary, he would whisper in my ear, “We could do that.”
I was planning a trip to Australia to see my sister, Linda in the spring of 2015 when I found myself searching charter companies that offered cage diving. I had made up my mind that I was going to dive with sharks. I booked an excursion with Calypso Star Charters in Port Lincoln, South Australia.
“We” were going to do it.
However, as they say; nothing is carved in stone. My sister was battling health issues while I was there and the charter company was reporting a surprising absence of sharks leading into the week I had planned to dive. Other than man, the great white has only one other predator; the Orca. A pod of Orcas had killed a shark in the region and no sharks had been spotted for almost two months. There would be no shark diving for me.
My inner child was broken hearted.
I did have a life-changing experience while I was in Australia in 2015. I had beefed up my shooting gear with Aquatech Imaging Solutions and wanted to know the best beaches and breaks to try it all out. I met and became good friends with Internationally known Ocean Photographer, Warren Keelan. In addition to being a remarkable human being, he’s renowned for his amazing wave photography. He took me under his wing and selflessly taught me how to shoot the in the water and waves along the south coast. By day we chased the perfect wave and by night, we swapped stories of crazy shoots. Our friendship was forged in sand, salt water and beer.
I reluctantly left the ocean to return to Canada and my normal life with a pouting 12 yr old in the corner of my mind. While it was hard to leave my family and friends, I had NBA playoffs and Stanley Cup finals to shoot. Not to mention the fact that my cat, Ollie hadn’t seen me for 8 weeks.
However, once the trophies were hoisted and I had a break from professional sports, it didn’t take long before I was itching to be back in the water. Sadly, there is no ocean in Ontario. I was facing a long autumn/winter with no way to scratch that itch.
Enter Lake Erie and the Gales of November.
November storms on the Great Lakes are feared not just for their brute strength, but also because huge weather changes can occur in just minutes. Those conditions combined to produce some impressive waves and, if you know me at all, you may have heard I photographed them. (Here is the link http://www.boredpanda.com/the-freak-liquid-mountains-of-lake-erie/ )
You may think that after all the time I spent in the frigid waters of Erie I’d have had my fill of wave photography. It was the opposite. All that time in the torrential fresh water only served to spur my desire to return to the clear blue saltwater of Australia.
I fed that desire by reconnecting with Calypso Star Charters and arranging for an April excursion. This time there would be sharks.
My return to Australia in 2016 was remarkably different from the last. My sister’s health had improved and so had my surf photography skills. Thanks to the success of my Lake Erie “Liquid Mountain” series, I had support from Aquatech (the première company for underwater housings and gear) and was outfitted with the latest Delphin 1D Housing and various lens ports.
I also reconnected with my good mate, Warren and did not have to twist his arm to get him to agree to join me in cage diving. Every day before the dive was spent honing my skills in the surf with Warren and another photog friend, Glenn Fenwick. Every night I would receive a report on the shark situation. There were sharks every day!
12 year old Dave was beyond excited.
The day before the dive, Warren and I flew to Port Lincoln where we met Calypso Charters owner, Janet Forster. I have to take a minute to tell you how amazing the entire staff and crew were. They were kind and generous and really experts in all things shark. They are heavily into conservation and preservation of the oceans and all creatures in them as am I.
The trip to the dive site was over three hours via boat fitted with all of the rigging necessary to lower us into the ocean. When we arrived at the dive site, we got our pre-dive instructions while the crew prepared the cages. With every passing minute, I felt the excitement surging through me. But instead of it bringing a racing heartbeat and anxiety, it brought a strange calm.
12 year old Dave was chomping at the bit!
When they lowered the cage into the water, I focused on keeping the regulator comfortably in my mouth while breathing slow and steady. The first thing that hit me was the serenity of the ocean and the blues. So many hues of blue influenced by the filtering light from the surface and the dark depths below.
It was while gazing into a deep blue hued area that I first spotted movement that began to take shape. It appeared as a ghostly figure slowly headed toward the cage. She was perfectly camouflaged amongst those beautiful blues and grays but unmistakably a Great White.
By the time she was perfectly in my field of vision, I felt a warmth within my dive mask…..tears. I realized at that very moment that reality had totally eclipsed my dreams.
12 year old Dave was in awe as the big female slowly and gracefully swam past the cage checking us out. I don’t even remember raising my camera to begin shooting. It all happened reflexively…..I held my breath to keep bubbles from my regulator out of the frame and steadied myself. I was mesmerized by her seductive grace. She was the most beautiful majestic creature I had ever seen; even with her many scars which told the story of her life.
There was a brief moment as the five meter, two ton shark was gliding past me and our gazes locked. We connected; that was the most wonderfully amazing experience of my life. On many levels it was a spiritual experience that words can’t convey.
There would be many more sharks over the three days we dove; at least 12 different ones. Believe it or not, it is a challenge to shoot underwater. First off, you’re wearing lead to keep you from floating to the surface….I needed 80+lbs of it. (12 year old Dave would have needed considerably less). The next thing is the constant battle to keep your balance in the moving cage while maintaining your breathing, and holding a camera in a housing steady, while looking through a dive mask, the back of the housing and through the eye piece trying to keep the moving shark in focus and in frame. Mad props to the guys who have done this type of photography for years.
I don’t think the magnitude of the experience hit me until the last day. I was sitting on the aft deck on the ride back to shore and I lost it... the emotion hit me and I sobbed. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what I had just done over the last 3 days, the images I made and how close I was to the greatest creature on the planet. Happy tears.
From that day on, whenever Warren and I looked at each other, no words were needed. With one look we knew what the other was thinking. We had shared the experience of a lifetime. Mere words could never do the experience justice.
As for 12 year old Dave…..he’s busy planning the next trip.