Sea and tell in South Australia
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