The bulging silver eyes come at you fast through the dark water, appearing gigantic through your diver’s mask, before the chunky silver body whips into a different direction and disappears in an instant. It’s disarming because you don’t quite know what to expect of this unique experience that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the world.
These are 20kg bluefin tuna, and you’re swimming among a school of them in a netted fish enclosure in the waters of Boston Bay off Port Lincoln in South Australia. It’s confronting, exciting, baffling – and emerging as the hot new Port Lincoln tourism attraction since it commenced in 2007.
Swimming with bluefin tuna is the brainchild of Western Australian-born Matt Waller, a former tuna fisherman and boat driver who now runs Adventure Bay Charters, which runs a power boat from the Port Lincoln marina to a 40-metre circular pen in the bay that Matt built, currently housing 80 juvenile tuna.
Matt mortgaged his house to start this bold venture, which is bound by strict licenses that don’t allow him to sell any of his penned tuna that are worth about $700 each, but he sees this business as a significant cog in the growing Eyre Peninsula tourism experience that will draw increasingly more national and international visitors. The early signs are good; his attraction is already luring 10 per cent of all visitors to Port Lincoln.
“This is what Port Lincoln is all about; taking risks, doing things differently, showing the ingenuity to do the unthinkable,” Matt says while demonstrating to tourists how they can hand feed sardines to the ravenous tuna off a pontoon within the netted pen. “The way that this tuna industry and this town has developed is outside the normal path, and this is just another example of that progress.”
Matt’s reasoning behind his novel tourist venture is simple; people visiting Port Lincoln are fascinated by tuna, yet can’t get close to them, as the commercial tuna farms are strictly off limits to all visitors. Matt felt that getting people to make contact with these fish in a year-round venture, not just when the fish are in season, would present an exciting new tourism business. And that meant enabling people to swim with them.
“Tuna are the perfect fish for this,” says Matt, as he encourages customers wearing snorkels and masks to plunge from the pontoon into the tuna pen. “They’re big, they’re fast and agile in the water, they’re incredibly expensive and exotic – but they’re very timid around people. It’s as close as people can safely get to big sporting fish.”
Surprisingly, the tuna don’t bump into swimmers in the water, despite traveling at about 70km/h. They have the agility to take sardines from your fingertips underwater – having charged at you from a distance, they slide onto their sides as they open their mouth to take the food – then quickly change direction to avoid contact. The speed and frenetic nature of the activity in the water all around you is most exhilarating.
Penned tuna provide a curious contrast to a more familiar ocean swimming experience, as dolphins – accessible on Eyre Peninsula’s west coast though Alan Payne’s Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience – provide a more confronting and surprising encounter in the open sea than you may imagine.
Swimming with Dolphins
Taking his charter boat from the shallow inlet directly opposite the Ocean Eco Apartments he built as tourist lodgings, Alan finds a pod of dolphins that swim inside the mouth of the large Baird Bay (about 300km north-west of Port Lincoln), near wild surf breaking over a long reef that separates the foreboding Southern Ocean.
Alan’s guests quickly drop off the rear of his boat and float, masks down in the water, and wait before the dolphins come to them through the green reed beds – unexpectedly looming very close.
They drift past slowly, curiously eyeballing you, almost within reach (though you are asked never to touch these wild dolphins as they dislike contact and will flee the area). They continue to swim around you for about five minutes, until their curiosity is satisfied and they drift away as unobtrusively as they arrived.
Showing even more curiosity about humans are the Australian Sea Lions that live and play in a sheltered bay off Jones Island in the mouth of Baird Bay, a thriving colony of more than 50 that currently boasts about 15 pups.
It’s a safe haven for these creatures to breed, which Alan discovered by accident about 15 years ago, when he came to the area to work as a fisherman. His fishing activities have since ceased, supplanted by the Ocean Eco Experiences that focus mainly on allowing customers to swim with the sea lions (don’t call them seals), and these have become internationally famous, attracting about 5000 customers to this tiny, remote bayside village each year.
Alan takes great pains to ensure the ecological responsibility of his activities; he takes swimmers into a natural deep pool off the edge of Jones Island, and the sea lions come to investigate the visitors, entirely on their own terms.
No food is used to lure them; the pups, especially, are curious and energetic, playing endlessly like aquatic puppies – the young extrovert that Alan has called Fang leads the games, playing rock soccer under the surface, tossing kelp in his own game of fetch, and tumbling endlessly under the surface like an acrobat.
The more animated you become in the water, especially by diving deep and twisting in circles underwater, the more enthusiastic the sea lions become, mimicking your moves and drawing ever closer. Before too long, they start nuzzling your outstretched balled hands. Some press their noses into your facemask; others draw close for a cuddle. They stay as long as you want to play.
Alan is obviously the sea lions’ favourite playmate, familiar to many of them from being such a frequent visitor. Even the big male bulls, weighing as much as 150kg, and adult females come off the shore to swim close to him, shadowing his moves and nudging his paddling feet.
“I don’t ever get tired of doing this,” he says, invigorated by the intimacy and close interaction that these wild creatures allow. “I feel so privileged that this all happens on their terms. I can’t make them interact with human swimmers; it’s what they want to do, to satisfy their curiosity and desire to play, and it’s not some domesticated circus experience. It’s in the wild, and that’s probably the only true way to explain this experience – it’s wild.”
“Swimming with the Bluefin Tuna”, “Dolpins” and “Man with Sea Lion” courtesy of Government of South Australia.
“Sea Lion” courtesy of Ocean Eco Experiences
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