True blue

Sea and tell in South Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - MICHAEL KERR

If Aus­tralian sea-lions could be both­ered to talk to us, they’d say some­thing like, “You wanna dive, mate? I’ll show you how it’s done. I’ll make you grin and whoop the way you did when you were a kid.” But their ac­tions speak for them­selves. In the wa­ters around Hop­kins Is­land, off the Eyre Penin­sula in South Aus­tralia, their en­joy­ment of com­pany is abun­dantly clear.

They do it for me and sev­eral dozen fel­low pas­sen­gers from the good ship True North on a nine-day cruise from Ade­laide to Ce­duna, on the north­west edge of the Eyre Penin­sula. The trip is fo­cused on the abun­dant sea life — watch­ing dol­phins, fur seals and pel­i­cans; swim­ming with sea-lions and tuna; gaz­ing at great white sharks; cast­ing lines and nets; and then tuck­ing into abalone, crabs, mus­sels, whit­ing and other ocean bounty.

True North is a 50m ad­ven­ture-cruise ship, with a shal­low draught that al­lows it to go where most other ships can’t. It’s part of an op­er­a­tion that has run for 30 years, founded by Craig How­son, whose day-fish­ing char­ters evolved into ex­pe­di­tion cruis­ing, ini­tially along the Kim­ber­ley in the north­west of West­ern Aus­tralia, that dirt-red land of deep gorges, thun­der­ing wa­ter­falls and an­cient Abo­rig­i­nal rock art. To take cus­tomers to the in­te­rior, he put a he­li­copter on the stern.

In the early days, pas­sen­gers ate on deck and grabbed a beer from an Esky. Now they’re catered for by two chefs, and served meals with the best lo­cal wines. The feast­ing be­gins be­fore we are even on board. We are picked up in Ade­laide and visit two Barossa Val­ley vine­yards: Sep­pelts­field for an elab­o­rate tast­ing lunch, and Pen­folds. Later on the ship, din­ner is An­gus steak fol­lowed by pear tarte tatin. The days of the Esky are gone.

Fel­low pas­sen­gers in­clude a yoga teacher and mort­gage bro­ker, Queens­land farm­ers and a for­mer cor­po­rate bean-counter. Most are re­tired, and Aus­tralian, and have trav­elled sev­eral times with True North Ad­ven­ture Cruises (for­merly North Star Cruises), but none as of­ten as Peter, a wid­ower from West­ern Aus­tralia, who has sailed 22 times. He re­mem­bers when our skip­per, Gav, was a deck hand. Peter spends much of his time with a rod in hand and is usu­ally crowned fisher of the day.

We spend our first cou­ple of days ex­plor­ing Kan­ga­roo Is­land, a third of which is pro­tected by na­ture re­serves. Our driver and guide, Kev, keeps us briefed. He ex­plains how the first non-indige­nous in­hab­i­tants — seal­ers, sailors and es­caped con­victs — made a liv­ing in the 1800s by trad­ing salt and skins for spir­its and to­bacco.

The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion has proven equally re­source- ful, di­ver­si­fy­ing, since the col­lapse of the wool mar­ket in the 1990s into ev­ery­thing from gin to honey. Kev also says the in­tro­duc­tion of koalas got so out of hand that it ne­ces­si­tated a ster­il­i­sa­tion pro­gram.

Near Port Lin­coln, on the shore of Bos­ton Bay, we are in­tro­duced to ranch­ing and wran­glers, but Aus­tralian coastal-style. The ranch­ing is of south­ern bluefin tuna, which are net­ted in the Great Aus­tralian Bight be­tween De­cem­ber and March and fat­tened in pon­toons in the Spencer Gulf. The wran­glers are the young men who feed the tuna with fresh sar­dines, div­ing down to pro­tect them from greedy seals and, when the fish are ready for mar­ket, catch­ing them by hand.

“You grab them by the tail, twist them and flush wa­ter into their gills,” one tells us. Sounds easy when he says it quickly; looks im­pos­si­ble when you’re un­der­wa­ter swim­ming with them. They are ex­traor­di­nar­ily stream­lined and speedy; the fish can re­tract its dor­sal fin to re­duce drag, al­low­ing it to tor­pedo through the wa­ter. We wear wet suits, boots and, to en­sure the tuna don’t mis­take a pinky finger for a sar­dine, black gloves.

Slightly more pro­tec­tion is called for with great white sharks off the Nep­tune Is­lands. A steel cage at the stern of a spe­cially adapted boat, Ca­lypso Star, has been booked for the day. At 7.30am, the crew drop in a hunk of berley, or bait, but we have to wait a good five hours be­fore our first glimpse. As our ten­der draws along­side the boat, a shark shows it­self in clas­sic style, its dor­sal fin cut­ting a cir­cle around us. I in­tended to watch rather than take

Meet the lo­cals on a True North cruise

Div­ing with sharks, left; wal­laby on Pearson Is­land, above; True North with he­li­copter, right

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