6 mins

Wander Woman: Wild(life) swimming

Forget simply stepping into a watercourse for a bit of front crawl. Instead, opt for a wild water adventure with an up close encounter with wildlife. Discover more as Phoebe Smith dives Down Under...

Phoebe Smith with Wally (Sunlover Reef Cruises)

Swimming with the salties

When I was a kid I had a book in my bedroom that I used to have to turn over before I went to sleep so I didn’t have nightmares. It was called The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl, and featured on its cover were several children sitting inside the jaws of a giant croc. It was a book I’ve not thought about for years, that was until I found myself in a Perspex cage gazing down the snout of a 4.6 metre saltwater crocodile.

I was in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, in Australia. Here newspaper reports on crocodile attacks from ‘salties’ is a regular occurrence (always down to human error, I should add). So rather than dicing with death by taking a swim in one of the many watercourses in the region, I headed to Crocosaurus Cove, a place which houses nuisance crocodiles that would otherwise have been euthanised.

“Think of it as a retirement home for these crocs,” explained the interpretive naturalist as she led me to the edge of the enclosure of two crocs, affectionately called William and Kate (aka the Royal Couple).

To allow people to get up close and personal to these magnificent creatures in safety – and dispel some croc myths at the same time – they have offered cage diving for the past few years, something so unique I couldn’t help but sign up for it. When I climbed inside I noted the scratches cleaved into the walls all around me and gulped as I was slowly lowered into the water.

From the surface no crocs were visible so I put my snorkel mask on and gingerly moved my head under the water. Immediately I saw the smaller of the two, Kate (2.8m), looking at me from the edge of the pool. While below, giant William looked at me with one beady eye.

Phoebe and one of the crocs (Crocosaurus Cove)

Phoebe and one of the crocs (Crocosaurus Cove)

The keepers had informed me it was feeding time (thanks guys!) and I watched as they dipped a fish into the water and waited. Several minutes past and neither croc made a move. I kept my eyes firmly on Wills, but, with no warning, there was suddenly a splash and powerful snap to my left as Kate snuck up to grab the snack. I noticeably jumped back, overwhelmed by the power of her jaw (these crocs have the strongest bite in the animal kingdom).

When I put my head back in the water I couldn’t see William any more. Just when I was wondering ­how on earth a near-on 5m crocodile could simply disappear, I surfaced to see a huge open jaw coming straight towards me. It was him, his teeth sparkling in the sunlight, his eyes looking into mine.

But, rather than being scared, I found myself utterly captivated. It was like peering into the soul of a dinosaur. I watched in awe as he came closer and closer, until, with a bump, he rested his chin on the cage. I held my breath. Then, in one smooth movement, using his tail he leapt from the water to grab his lunch.

And just like that my half hour timeslot was over. The cage was lifted out and my encounter with my very own enormous crocodile was no longer the stuff of nightmares, instead it felt very much like a dream.

Phoebe coming face to face with William (Crocosaurus Cove)

Phoebe coming face to face with William (Crocosaurus Cove)

Cage diving with the Great White

AC/DC, The Animals, Autobahn – it’s not the list I would ever have made if someone were to ask me to name things that would attract the largest (and perhaps scariest) fish in the ocean. But here on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, one tour operator – in fact the only tour operator in the world – discovered that music, rather than chum (blood and guts of other fish), was just as affective at piquing the interest of Great White.

“We have children that regularly use the water,” said co-owner of Adventure Bay Charters Tracy Waller, “and so we don’t want to use blood to habituate sharks to associate people with food. We also want to educate visitors and show them that Great Whites are not simply ruthless killers. They are curious and beautiful.”

And so it was that this family-run eco-tour decided to do things a little differently, by playing a variety of tunes in order to attract the sharks with vibrations to the cages.

“They have pretty eclectic taste with some preferring the heavier stuff,” said co-owner Matt as we set sail for Neptune Island, “but I’d have to say that they definitely don’t like anything by Justin Bieber.”

Cage diving with great whites (Phoebe Smith)

Cage diving with great whites (Phoebe Smith)

“Really? They must have good taste,” I laughed. “What do they like?”

“Mainly rock ‘n’ roll,” he replied, “particularly AC/DC.”

Just a couple of hours later I was readying to go inside the cage. As I stepped down into the water huge silver fish swam around me. I scanned the water on every side. At first I could see nothing. Then, as if by magic, with no accompanying theme music like you imagine after watching the Jaws films, a big, beautiful 4m specimen, began to float gently towards me.

With the absence of chum, there was no aggressive behaviour, no open mouth gushing with blood. Instead this great white shark arrived with no drama, only a posse of small fish, following him around like a fanatical gang. Instead of banging the cage he casually floated around the bars, weaving through the fish elegantly and gracefully.

It was a surreal and humbling experience. The sound of the muffled music drifted on the waves, while he eyed me as he swished past in perfect rhythm. In an instant everything I knew about great whites was instantly replaced with one thought only - when it comes to the ocean, these sharks simply rock.

Playing with the (sea lion) pups

Swimming with sea lions (Phoebe Smith)

Swimming with sea lions (Phoebe Smith)

“How many of you have ever had dogs?” asked the skipper, as we approached some sharp rocks jutting out of the water. “I only ask because Australian sea lions are exactly the same. They want to play, so if you’re boring and simply float in the water you won’t get them to interact. Whereas if you move around, anything can happen…”

Just off the shores of Port Lincoln, a 1-hour flight or 7-hour drive from Adelaide, I was readying to swim with the Australian pinnipeds. Most visitors to this part of the country would tend to see these creatures from the shore by wandering along the sand. But when I learned that you could have a playful encounter with them in the water – the terrain in which they are most comfortable and relaxed – I had donned fins and snorkel quicker than you could say ‘fetch’.

On land these noisy creatures were sluggish and clumsy. But, as I (and they) slipped into the sea, everything changed. Taking the aforementioned advice, instead of just swimming I began to spin in the water. I rolled forwards and backwards and, as I did, a juvenile sea lion pub curiously swam towards me. Intrigued by this strange creature spinning and flapping in the waves he too started to do the same. He would swim fast to the sandy bottom, flip over onto his side, and then paddle back up straight at me before jumping out of the water and landing back in with a splash. Despite the snorkel in my mouth I could feel myself grinning.

As this was a shallower (and therefore shark-free) bay, the area was filled with youngsters learning to swim and fish. The nearer I swam towards the rocks, the more of these playful pups joined me. I spent a happy hour in the water diving and splashing around with them. The skipper was right; it certainly was like playing with a dog, the only difference being that when he called us back aboard I had an overwhelming urge to stay.

Where’s Wally (the Maori Wrasse)?

Swimming with fish is not necessarily a wildlife experience that many dream about, however, on the Great Barrier Reef, there is one very special resident that cannot help but inspire joy. Something of a social media sensation, a humphead Maori Wrasse called Wally lingers around the coral system of Moore Reef (it should be noted, that several reefs have their ‘own’ Wally!). Friendly and bold, these giant (up to 2m in length) fish are not only beautiful but also, due to overfishing, actually endangered.

To help highlight how important this fish is – it is one of the few known predators of the crown of thorns (which are decimating the reef) – Sunlover Reef Cruises offers a face-to-face encounter in a slightly unusual way – on a ‘sea walk’. Based on the idea of an old-fashioned pearl divers helmet, sea walking effectively involves wearing a non-brass helmet and going for an underwater stroll. Air is pumped into it, so you simply breathe normally and can even have a conversation while wearing it. Handily, you don’t need any special skills or certification to use one, meaning the ability to wander beneath the waves is open for all.

The instructor placed it over my head using a winch (it’s very heavy). At first it felt really bizarre to be walking down steps holding a handrail while fish swam around me. It almost felt like watching the whole thing on TV.

Fighting the urge to hold my breath, breathing normally took some getting used to, but as soon as Wally put in an appearance I stopped worrying and started to enjoy my encounter. His fat lips came towards me as though asking for a kiss. I never knew what kind of noise I would make underwater when I had the opportunity, but it turns out, when being nuzzled and propositioned by a Maori Wrasse; it’s a schoolgirl giggle. As he came within inches of my face and stared at me curiously, I had a funny sensation. With a growing realisation I realised at once we had swapped traditional roles. Down here he was free and I was the one inside the fishbowl, looking out as this remarkable creature.

Face-to-face with Wally (Sunlover Reef Cruises)

Face-to-face with Wally (Sunlover Reef Cruises)

Down here he was free and I was the one inside the fishbowl, looking out as this remarkable creature.

Perplexed by the platypus

On the hunt for platypus (Phoebe Smith)

On the hunt for platypus (Phoebe Smith)

Australia is home to a great deal of unique wildlife. In fact there are new species being discovered every single year. So when it comes to underwater encounters it’s no surprise that one of the most quirkiest and unique is found in Queensland.

Finch Hatton is not a place that most travellers would ever put on their wish list. Situated an hour from Mackay on the east coast (equally little known accept as a place you drive pass on the Cairns to Sydney throughway) it is home to a rather special experience – the chance to scuba with the duck-billed platypus.

These wonderfully weird creatures – which look like a cross between a duck, a beaver and an otter – had scientists first believing that their existence was a hoax. Nowadays we know that these egg-laying mammals are very real. And, though elusive, one lady called Luana offers the chance to (maybe) get up close and personal with the furry critters on a Rainforest Scuba.

“There is no point going early,” she said, as I eyed up the gas canisters eagerly. “The platypus are only active once it starts to go dark and things cool down.”

And so it was as the sun began to slump in the sky, we headed to a nearby billabong in search of these mysterious creatures. Armed with a torch and a thirst for adventure (though at a maximum depth of just 3m, even non-certified divers can do this) we descended to the bottom.

Visibility was limited but I quite liked it. It felt like I was on an underwater treasure hunt as we navigated the roots of trees and shone our torches into crevices. We found another strange creature called an eel catfish, with the whiskers and face of the latter and the tail of the former. Tiny turtles padded their way through the thick leaves on the floor and noisy grunter fish made their namesake sounds from beyond the shadows.

We kept our eyes peeled for the platypus, staying under the water for nearly 90 minutes, but we did not see what we came for – wildlife, as always, makes the timetable. As a consolation, though, Luana had a plan B. We made a dash further inland to Eungella National Park.

It was late when we arrived, all the people had gone, and the moon was high in the sky. We stood on a wooden viewing platform (diving is not permitted here) hopeful of an intimate encounter. Just as we almost gave up, a splash indicated that something was beneath us. I looked straight down to see the strangely rounded brown body of a platypus surface and move in concentric circles below.

I may not have been able to get as close to one as I had hoped, but seeing one by night felt like a truly special viewing.  As I lingered, three more emerged, and though I stared for several minutes watching them socialise, my brain couldn’t make sense of the oddity at my feet. I couldn’t help but wonder; if this is one of the known species in Australia, just what is waiting out there for us to find next?

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