In Deep with Andrew Fox… The Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias is undeniably the most well-known of the ocean’s many predators. It has, you could say, “form” and is widely considered as a ruthless and terrifying man-eater. Which has taken the lives of many innocent swimmers, surfers and divers.
And, if you have anything more than a passing interest in these notorious creatures. You will almost certainly have heard of Rodney Fox… The man who miraculously endured a horrendous attack by a great white while spearfishing off from Aldinga Beach, south of Adelaide, in 1963. To this day, nobody else in the world has survived such a ferocious attack!
The probability though is that even if you know about Rodney Fox and the attack. You won’t know about what he did after he recovered from it. And how he became a staunch advocate for the protection of great whites. Together with building the first business that would actually take people to see them first-hand in the open water. It really is an amazing story. And, at a personal level, one that helped inspire me to overcome my intense fear of sharks in general, and the great white in particular.
Over the years I read everything I could about Rodney… So much so, that I felt like I actually knew him! Then in November 2020, I finally got the chance to meet him. When he hosted a trip on board the new Rodney Fox expedition vessel to South Australia’s Neptune Islands . Which was a part of his 80th birthday celebrations and he was on the boat for 4 days. So, I was able to sit and chat with him for many hours about his life and adventures. Which was just a wonderful experience!
On that trip I also got to meet Rodney’s eldest son Andrew. Who runs the whole operation after his dad retired back in 2000. You could say that Andrew is a hard read… He’s a big guy with a commanding presence but does not say too much. However, when he does, it pays to listen. He also does a nice line in rapier-like sarcasm… But beneath all that lurks a deeply knowledgeable and incredibly experienced expert on the great white shark.
Not only that, his images of the great white are probably the very best in the world!
Andrew Fox – Born to Sharks?
Imagine if you will growing up in a house where large and potentially dangerous sharks are part of the household fabric.
Where one of your earliest and most vivid memories is being woken up in the early hours of the morning to peer over the side of your dad’s abalone fishing boat to see the large head of a great white shark – spy-hopping as it assessed the strange situation.
The boat, a 20′ long half-cabin called “Skippy”, was there because Rodney had been contracted by Steve Spielberg’s production company to attract great whites for the live portion of the film Jaws. So, they were moored in Memory Cove south-east of Port Lincoln. While Rodney tested the reliability of the location and whale oil as an attractant…
A seven-year-old Andrew had long gone to sleep in one of the bunks and Rodney also eventually retired, only to be woken by a harsh rubbing sound along the outside of the fibreglass hull when the great white appeared!
Jaws made Rodney very much the go-to guy in South Australia for pioneering underwater cinematographers like Al Giddings and legendary National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubliet. Then came adventurers like Carl Roesler, Doug Seifert and Stan Waterman. Leading well-heeled tour groups to experience one of the very extremes of the underwater world which, at the time, was almost akin to climbing Mount Everest!
Then there were the shark researchers like Eugenie Clarke and John McClosker. Who Rodney helped immensely in their quest to really understand the great white, rather than sensationalize the animal!
Not to mention the iconic Australian underwater film makers Ron and Valerie Taylor who were a regular presence in South Australia.
Basically, Andrew’s formative years were spent with his dad receiving an almost constant stream of interesting, adventurous and extremely charismatic visitors. Plus… Rodney took him on as many of those expeditions as he could.
Not your normal, everyday upbringing!
Andrew Fox – Being Rodney’s Son…
Andrew Fox is a really busy guy. But on a subsequent trip to the Neptune some six months later, he graciously agreed to sit and answer a series of questions I had put together. Starting with “what was it like growing up in South Australia as the son of Rodney Fox?
Andrew’s response was that he just felt really lucky. Because as the eldest son, he was the first to go out with his dad on the great white expeditions. Those were very much the early days of being in the water with the sharks and there was much to learn. Plus it was also an Australia significantly less regulated than it is now…
It was all incredibly exciting stuff. But because Andrew was completely immersed in it all, it was as they say, just a “normal day”.
He said that he never really thought of his dad as being famous. But did acknowledge that at school there was a degree of “tall poppy syndrome” from the other kids. Usually when there was something in the media about Rodney.
It was only as Andrew developed a sense of his own mortality in his 30’s, that he fully realized what Rodney had gone through when he was attacked!
He reckons that his dad just dealt with it all… Both at the time and as he recovered, in classic “she’ll be right mate” Australian fashion.
Never really internalising the full magnitude of what had actually happened!
Upon finishing high school Andrew enrolled for a degree in Environmental Science with Adelaide’s Flinders University, which eventually gave him the pretty unique combination of an academic foundation combined with unparalleled first-hand involvement with great whites. Although… he will admit it took him two years longer than it should have because of all the time he spent out at sea.
For me personally, one of the highlights of a great white shark trip on the Rodney Fox expedition vessel is the evening when Andrew does his “talk”. It is usually on the second night after everybody has settled in and is a very low-key affair – no egos on display… infact, you get the distinct impression that he would much prefer it if somebody else was doing the gig!
But once he gets going, his deep passion and knowledge of the great white becomes apparent, and it is clear that Andrew is talking about his life’s work! There are no doubt academics and researchers who know much more about key aspects of Carcharodon carcharias. But with over 40 years empirical experience with these animals in South Australia and an academic foundation of his own, listening to Andrew you quickly realise that before you is one of the world’s absolute experts.
Andrew Fox and the Great White…
Having spent so much time with these animals I was intrigued as to how Andrew would actually describe them? His response to that question was “more majestic than menace and still, to this day, so greatly misunderstood and holding on to their secrets”.
He went on to explain that while great whites are completely unpredictable and potentially extremely dangerous. Their behaviour is driven by an instinctive capability to survive. And, as an apex predator, they do what they need to do when they need to do it… But with the ingrained caution and situational awareness that successful predation has taught them.
Much of that instinctive behaviour seems to be driven by how hungry they are. Which is a function of when they last ate and what they ate. Based on a ground-breaking (for the time…) US research paper published in 1982, it was long believed that great whites can go for weeks before needing to feed. But a more recent paper by the University of Tasmania (UoT), indicates that they actually eat much more often.
The difference between the two papers is that the first one used data from a tagged shark feeding on a dead fin whale. The data collected allowed the shark’s metabolic rate to be calculated. And from that metabolic rate extrapolate how often the shark would need to eat.
The premise of the UoT research was that the great white in the 1982 paper had already found an abundant source of food with the dead whale.
And therefore would have a low metabolic rate as it leisurely worked at the “all you can eat” buffet. So (with the help of Andrew Fox) they tagged sharks at the Neptunes that were patrolling and actively hunting for seals.
The result being that those sharks had a much higher metabolic rate… And would therefore have to eat much more often.
The Readers Digest version of it all is that great whites need to eat every day when they are feeding on open-water fish like silver seabream. Whereas, when they switch to fat-rich mammals around the Neptune Islands. Consuming a seal every 2-3 days is probably enough.
The bottom line being that the urge to eat and the availability of suitable food is probably the major driver of behaviour. And great whites do need to eat quite often. How often is a function of the nutritional value of what they eat. Plus their perception of the effort required for the potential reward.
Seals are highly nutritious, silver seabream less so but still adequate. While humans provide very little nutrition and are simply not on the shopping list!
Getting to Know Them
Andrew has personally identified around 1000 sharks mainly using their unique markings and personalities. The pigmentation markings on great whites are very stable and stay with them as they grow. Which is how sharks like “Pi” and “Heffalump” were first spotted and named.
Then there is the physical damage like the deep gouges on “Scarface”. Or the deformity on “Imax” and finally there is sheer physical size as with “Mrs Moo”…
The Neptune Islands are a very important location on the great white “super-highway”… The migratory corridor they use along the southern coast of Australia. The waypoints along which are where the sharks know they can feed
The seal colonies at the Neptunes are considered among the largest in the country. And so provide a known and reliable source of high-nutrition food. Particularly so during autumn and winter each year when recently weaned seal pups are first venturing out into the open waters around the islands!
Some of those identified sharks appear there every year. Such as Imax who turns up like clockwork, mostly in winter. Whereas UFO, a 6m giant, made a reappearance at North Neptune after a 12-year gap!
Such reappearances are a cause for celebration as Andrew observes how they have grown and are faring generally. But where they go remains an intriguing mystery as they must be feeding somewhere else. Compounding that mystery is analysis of tissue samples taken from various sharks, which indicate a fairly wide variety of food sources. Meaning they have alternative feeding sites that are not seal colonies – but exactly where those sites are, nobody knows!
The Ethics of it All
For the vast majority of underwater photographers and probably most scuba divers, cage diving with great whites is firmly on the proverbial “bucket list”. For me personally, it was something that equally scared but intrigued me.
My first trip to Port Lincoln back in 2003 was almost an out-of-body experience. It was also something that changed the trajectory of my life. As I realised that more than anything else I had tried, photographing big animals underwater was something I really wanted to do!
But whenever I talk to non-divers and underwater photographers about great whites, they are usually incredulous that I am so keen about it all. And, occasionally, I will encounter somebody who vehemently believes that it is completely wrong to conduct these “interactions”!
A common thread being that by encouraging potentially dangerous sharks such as great whites to interact with humans we are changing their behaviour. And, in doing so, it greatly increases the chances of humans being attacked. So, as someone with probably more first-hand experience of those managed interactions than anybody else, I was very interested in Andrews’s opinion on all that!
His main response was that great whites are very much an apex predator and able to do whatever they want. So very little that humans do, deliberately or inadvertently, has any impact on them at all. At the Neptune Islands for example, great whites are present all year round. Albeit in greater numbers in winter and spring when the young pups offer relatively easy targets. But being present in the general area does not mean they will respond to the burley in the water and come to the boat.
Some do and some don’t, and Andrew gave Imax as a classic example. In that while he does come and check out the boat. He only appears when the “ocean cage” is lowered and is never seen at the “surface cage”. Why – well nobody knows but Imax… and it seems that is just the way it is. Which Andrew is very comfortable with, as the last thing he wants is for these magnificent creatures to become akin to circus animals!
Over the years the “attractants” used to get the sharks to the boat have evolved from the original “witches’ cauldron” (as it was nicknamed…) of whale oil, horse meat and other such delicacies, to the minced fish that is used now. With the benefit of hindsight Andrew makes the point that none of the attractants used was significantly better than any of the others. And, at the end of the day, all of them are simply trying to get the sharks’ attention by stimulating their sensitivities.
When that works it provide the trip participants with an opportunity to see first-hand an animal that relatively few others have. Almost without fail that exposure leaves a deep, meaningful and positive impression. Andrew believes that is because how they handle it all. Because sensationalising it all does not benefit either the participants or the sharks!
Andrew Fox and Adrenalin Moments…
With over 40 years of cage diving experience, I knew that Andrew must have had some high-adrenalin moments. And I managed to get him to talk about a few of them… Which he did in a really down to earth and very casual fashion, further raising the high bar of my regard for him!
Andrew said his most memorable moment was during a trip to the Neptunes to test electronic shark repellents. When, somewhat ironically, there was an unusually large number of sharks around the back of the boat. Some of which were very dominant, with the other sharks clearly wary of them.
Underwater, in the ocean floor cage down at 30m a total of 19 sharks were counted and photo-identified, with 15 known and 4 new. All within a very hectic 15 minute time period… Which was the best overall experience in all of Andrew’s years of diving with great whites! Bear in mind that 3 sharks around the ocean floor cage at the same time is a big day… So 19 sharks seemed like a plague of locusts!
I was very curious if Andrew had ever been really scared. To which he said that bad weather in the Southern Ocean was always the thing that worried him most as it can be really intimidating!
In terms of outright, in your face “scary dangerous” moments was his experience with Jumbo… A 5m female that is a regular visitor to the Neptunes and a formidable, bold and intimidating great white. When Jumbo appeared, Andrew went down to the ocean floor in the solo cage. And soon after he got on the bottom she came barrelling in and knocked the cage over!
Jumbo appeared to be determined to attack Andrew. And went about it in a determined, methodical and very intimidating manner. Only very experienced divers get to try the solo cage… Which is equipped with a main wire to the winch on the boat, a signal rope and an inflatable cylinder to get back to the surface. Andrew said he was not overly concerned as he was safe in the cage and knew he could get back to the boat. But… Jumbo’s body language and attitude made her intentions very clear!
It was a sobering experience that reinforced his belief in the complete unpredictability of the great white…
Where to From Here?
Both my recent trips were on the new Rodney Fox vessel. The former Darwin based pearling “mother ship” that was complete retrofitted in Fremantle (at considerable expense…). And now provides the expedition platform Andrew and his business partner Mark Tozer needed to move the business forward.
Underwater South Australia is an incredibly rich and biodiverse part of our great brown land down-under. But apart from great whites, leafy seadragons and giant cuttlefish aggregations it remains largely a mystery. For example… how many people know about the Great Southern Reef?
The massive series of temperate water reefs that extend around Australia’s southern coastline… Covering around 71,000 square kilometres from New South Wales around the southern coastline of Australia to Kalbarri in Western Australia?
I have personally been fortunate to have done a number of trips to different parts of South Australia. And I honestly believe it offers the most interesting diving in the country. Yet so very little of it is known and explored, so I was particularly intrigued by the plans for the new vessel.
I led with “do you have the right boat now?” The answer to which was an unequivocal and very firm yes… Andrew explained that the boat, formerly called the Jenny Wright, was designed and built in Fremantle (at the same shipyard as the recent retrofit was completed at) for open-ocean service. A really key detail because any boat that ventures out into the Southern Ocean must be built to deal with the weather and seas that can blow up there.
Both Andrew and Mark are now confident that the rebuilt and renamed “Rodney Fox” gives them the platform they need to embark on the expeditions they want to do. Top of the list is Pearson Island in the Investigator Group of Islands Wilderness Protection Area, some 63 kilometres south-west by west of Cape Finniss on the west coast of Eyre Peninsula. The area around Pearson is a marine sanctuary known for its pristine biodiversity.
Then there is the wonderful, but largely explored coastline of Kangaroo Island that Andrew and Mark are looking at circumnavigating as part of a dedicated expedition.
A little further out timewise, but firmly on the agenda is Tasmania, the far west coast of South Australia and across the Great Australian Bight to Western Australia… Interesting times ahead!!