words by brad crouch
Photographer – Carl Charter www.emsau.org
In the cool, clear waters of South Australia I have swum with lions, with dragons, with giants. I’ve shared waves with dolphins, lunch with a shark, an underwater pen with wild marine dogs and a beach with a baby weighing 1500kg at birth
Going for a swim in South Australia can mean some pretty wild company, even in the city’s biggest river or down at suburban Glenelg. When you come to South Australia, remember to bring your swimmers. Here are my seven best encounters with marine wildlife while swimming in the refreshing waters of South Australia.
They rise mysteriously from the depths each winter, an army of weird giant cephalopods filled with lust as they engage in one of the greatest natural shows on Earth. Tens of thousands of giant cuttlefish converge on the rocky shallows near Whyalla in their annual mating ritual. It is the greatest mass gathering of the creatures on the planet and you can witness it by scuba diving or just snorkelling. It is a secret world of macho posers and drag queens, bizarre light shows and weightless dancing, all to do with a frenzied mating game with four boys for every girl. Rocky ledges are carpeted with clumps of the fluttering creatures carrying out their complex rituals The species can grow to about 60cm long compared with some species of just 1cm. Cuttlefish are related to squid with a head, body, modified foot and eight arms, driven by three hearts beating blue blood. Thousands of structures called chromatophores allow them to change colours in an instant, creating an effect of twinkling fairy lights in rippling patterns, changing from reds to yellows to blues and more as males compete for female affection. Whyalla’s dive shops take visitors to view this amazing underwater spectacle. The local dolphins are also big fans — for them the mass gathering is the equivalent of home delivery pizza.
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Several swims with sea lions at remote Baird Bay on the Eyre Peninsula are among the best eco-encounters I have had. Alan and Trish Payne run tours to meet sea lions who have a colony on a nearby island. You never go to the actual island, you don’t pursue the mammals, feed them, or even wear sunscreen. But these inquisitive wild animals appear to enjoy encounters. Once in shallows protected from open seas — and sharks — by encircling reefs, sea lions come over to play. They will somersault underwater and wait expectantly for snorkellers to do the same. They will swim down and toss up a shell to start a game of fetch. They will swim around and upside down as you try to do the same. With their big labrador puppy eyes they will literally swim up for a gentle nose-on-nose encounter. Then you might be startled by a whiskery tickle on your foot as another sea lion decides on a new game. It is exhilarating stuff. The Paynes also take people snorkelling with local dolphins.
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As well as Baird Bay and Whyalla, you can meet dolphins in Adelaide. Operators take guests for encounters off Glenelg, or by kayak or stand up paddleboard on the Port River. Personally, I prefer surfing at the bottom of Yorke Peninsula where resident pods patrol empty sand beaches. Many times, I have had curious dolphins cautiously surround me while bobbing, waiting for a wave in crystal waters and, better still, have had half a dozen literally surfing the same wave as me. On one such occasion there were just four onlookers on the beach as a pod and I shared a wave — my wife, two sons and a basking seal.
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Feed tuna from a boardwalk, see them from an underwater viewing room, or jump and swim with them. It is like swimming with a pack of wild dogs as these streamlined torpedoes zero in on you at high speed then veer away at the last second. People above take great delight in throwing fish food near you, so packs of tuna come belting in at speed for a feed, miraculously avoiding collisions. The 2½ hour experience is fun for families and adventure seekers alike. A luxurious catamaran departs Port Lincoln marina twice a day for a short 15 minute voyage to the so-called In Sea Aquarium. Sheltered in the lee of Boston Island, the aquarium can be visited throughout the year.
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Leafy Sea Dragons
Found only in southern Australian waters, this dreamy wisp of watery rainbow is South Australia’s marine emblem. A little larger than seahorses, their camouflage can be mistaken for seaweed — they can even change colour. Scuba divers spot them at places like Victor Harbor, Kangaroo Island and Edithburgh, and local diving shops can arrange dives but snorkellers might also luck into one floating in the water by various jetties including at Rapid Bay.
Great White Sharks
You want an adrenaline rush? You REALLY want an adrenaline rush? Operators take guests to the remote Neptune Islands off Port Lincoln where the resident seal colony serves as a takeaway for passing sharks. Get lowered in a cage and wait while tuna pieces are tossed to lure in any sharks. It is cold and spooky, and the gap in the cage for photos appears awfully big. When sharks appear from the depths it is freaky and fascinating. They are huge, and cruise by like they own the joint. Which they do. When they launch an attack on the tuna bait it is at startling speed. On one occasion a massive shark lunged at a tuna piece, pushing it through the gap in the cage, and shark-boy followed, sticking his snout in as far as it could. I could have touched its teeth — instead I was cowering at the far end of the cage, part whooping, part panicking. Just amazing.
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While you don’t actually swim with whales, sometimes they swim with you. You can head to remote Head of Bight, 20km east of the Nullarbor Roadhouse in the State’s far west, over June-October to see Southern Right Whales close to shore as they gather to give birth and nurture newborns weighing up to 1500kg. In midwinter up to 100 may be in the area, easily viewed from the boardwalks and tourist centre. Their migratory paths also take them to Encounter Bay, south of Adelaide. I’ve been swimming when whales have surfaced within distant sight, breaching and tail slapping. Not a close encounter, but at 15m and weighing up to 80 tonnes it was close enough for comfort.
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