If I ever disappear off the face of the earth don’t look for me at Port Lincoln – you just may find me. This seems to be a common theme among the so-called locals.
“I came for a three month work contract, that was fifteen years ago,” says Andrew Wright skipper and part owner of Calypso Star Charters shark cage diving; a tourism boat tender business that helps eager visitors get up close and personal with one of the region's hot attractions: the magnificently intimidating Great White shark.
The development of a localised oceanic fishing industry in the 1950s and 60s changed the southern Eyre Peninsula from coastal village into a thriving port of more than 14,000 residents and a large transient tourism industry. The historic MFV Tacoma began catching southern bluefin tuna in the early 1950s and transformed the town, triggering the beginnings of a nautical boom that put Port Lincoln on the map. The 85ft purse seine trawler was capable of pulling in 200 tonne of fish – be it bluefin, pilchard, salmon, sardine or other pelagic fisheries – from the wild waters, up to 1000 miles into the Antarctic and the remote waters of the Great Australian Bight.
News of the tuna stocks attracted investors and seafarers from near and far including brothers Joe and Mick Puglisi and their boat the San Michael, in 1960. Others joined the fray – mainly European migrants in search of opportunity in a brave new world. Tony Santic, owner of triple Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva, and Dinko Lukin, whose son Dean was an Olympic weightlifting champion; German-born Hagen Stehr, Sam Sarin and Mario Valcic. These 'Godfathers' of the Port Lincoln fishery still gather at a local cafe some 60 years later to enjoy their friendship and heritage. They are affectionately known as 'The Cappuccino Club' and are said, collectively, to be worth more than a billion dollars.
Times have changed dramatically since the hectic heyday of tuna poling and seine netting. An almost catastrophic fall in the population of the enigmatic southern bluefin tuna in the 1980s saw the fishing method completely revised in a self-motivated quest to protect stocks 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 nautical miles, to specially developed floating pens in Port Lincoln’s beautiful Boston Bay. It's an enormous industry utilising a far more sustainable method and employs 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 other fare, including: whiting, snapper, crayfish, calamari, abalone, oysters, mussels, crabs and deep sea trawl species. What isn’t netted, hooked or gathered, is farmed in large scale aquaculture set-ups, using progressive techniques to cultivate species such as yellowtail kingfish, as well as the bluefin.
All things considered, Port Lincoln has a genuine claim to being the seafood capital of Australia. It's a huge working port servicing a wide region of the Eyre Peninsula.
Port Lincoln is a tease for any keen camper who happens to have a tinge of salt water in their veins. There are miles and miles of pristine white sandy beaches, rugged coastline, crystal clear fertile waters, inshore reefs, islands and sheltered coves to explore – right on the precipice of the magnificent Southern Ocean.
There are plenty of 'roughing it' options for campers, however, I strongly recommend setting up camp in one of the large holiday parks in the township itself for at least a few days while you explore the area. We stayed in the hospitable and well equipped Port Lincoln Holiday Park and enjoyed it immensely, meeting all sorts of travellers from all over the world attracted by this unique destination – and, of course, the Great White Shark dive.
BOSTON BAY WINERY
Treat yourself to the hospitality of the Boston Bay Winery and be entertained by its entrepreneurial owner, Tony Ford. Tony served us up a great selection of three varieties of local oysters, kingfish straight from the farm, prawns and other seafood delights, before spoiling us with local grass-fed meats from the region; including rib eye, which melted the senses with an explosion of flavour.
The Boston Bay Winery selection is multi-award-winning for both its reds and whites, but it is his famous Great White sauvignon blanc that kept a big smile on my face. It has discernible salt-air sharpness, with a hint of oyster. Fordy claims the Boston Bay vineyard to be the closest to the ocean of any Australian winery. “It’s that close we have to prune the grape vines at low tide,” laughed the colourful character as he poured another glass.
Let me tell you, that swimming with the great whites is the thrill of a lifetime. Coming face-to-face with these massive, ancient monsters in their own uncontrolled environment will leave you awestruck, and feeling rather insignificant. They glide through their underwater domain with an air of primal supremacy.
In a split second, these beasts can unleash unfettered savagery; a terrifying display of monstrous strength and power that will leave you gobsmacked as you watch them devour a tuna frame, cast out on a rope from behind the boat.
The remote Neptune Islands are some 70-odd kilometres from Port Lincoln. Shark Bay on the Northern Neptune’s, is the only registered place in Australia with permits to run shark diving. It isn’t unusual for three-to-five great whites to join the fray, which can include other species like bronze whalers, threshers, yellowtail kingfish and a huge variety of 'bread and butter' fish such as salmon and trevally, that are also attracted to the shark berley. (That, is fish offal – not human!)
The Neptune’s are home to massive numbers of New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions which naturally attract the monster predators. It doesn’t generally take long to chum a shark or two to the boat after the cage has been lowered into position. You don’t need any certification or experience to dive, but I do think some familiarity with snorkeling or SCUBA diving helps, as it is quite a change of environment as you slip into the cage with five others. You climb in through an entry point in the top of the cage which extends around 300mm out of the water and your pulse races as you breathe deeply from the hookah manifold. It is quite easy for most age groups, but it can be a bit overwhelming for some, hence you are free to climb out at any time to regain your momentum. There is enough room at the top, inside the cage to come up for some natural air or to clear your mask, maybe just to take a deep breath from the impact of the incredibly confronting experience.
SWIM WITH SEA LIONS
Just when we thought Port Lincoln couldn’t get any better, we jumped on yet another beautifully fitted tour vessel and headed off to a lonely stretch of beach to free dive with the wild sea lions.
Hopkins Island seal colony is some 20-odd kilometres down through the Thorney Passage in the lower Spencer Gulf.
The area is steeped in history, dating back to the explorer Matthew Flinders, and there’s plenty of life and sights along the way.
The seals take refuge in this nursery area with a lovely white sandy beach and rocky outcrops either side. The tour boat typically moors just off the beach and a small inflatable will take you into the shallows and drop you off with provided wetsuit, mask and snorkel. I must admit, I really missed wearing flippers and hence thrashed around a bit awkwardly. No wonder the sea lions all had smiles on their faces when they saw my overweight blob, bobbing around amid the agile antics of the playful sea pups.
I must admit I shouldn’t have dived with sharks the day before the sea lions, as the undercurrent in my mind kept sweeping back to the overwhelming monoliths swimming free in the same ocean. Hint: do the sea lions before you swim with sharks, not after.
I can’t recommend a visit to Port Lincoln highly enough, but don’t think a few days will suffice. A week is barely minimal! The hospitality of the locals is unsurpassable and the venues and tour operations are first-rate.
Port Lincoln should be high on the bucket list of Australian destinations. If there’s a single skerrick of salt water in your veins you’ll simply love it. It's a city on the edge of the desert with a range of cultural, economic, environmental, flora and fauna diversity that are uniquely spectacular.