27 Jun 2021

STORIES OF THE SOUTH S1 EPISODE 2: WHITE SHARK WHISPERER

AT 23 YEARS OLD AND JUST MARRIED, RODNEY FOX WAS DRAGGED TO THE DEPTHS OF THE OCEAN BY A GREAT WHITE SHARK.

The fight of his life ensued, but miraculously he survived, with 462 stitches proof of the near-fatal encounter. Perhaps more miraculously, the now 80-year-old has dedicated almost 60 years of his life on a mission to protect the Great White Shark. He’s the pioneer behind the world’s first Great White shark cage diving experience, helping to change perceptions of sharks from fear to fascination one dive at a time. In the next chapter of Stories of the South, meet the White Shark Whisperer of the wild west; the shark attack survivor who became a global leader for shark conservation.

On an overcast summer’s day in 1963, the sky was bruised with clouds and a hint of a swell stirred the ocean. Just off the coast of Aldinga, Rodney Fox had his eye on the prize. He was vying to retain his 1962 South Australian Spear Fishing Championships title and in his pursuit of a dusky morwong – the fish that would secure his claim – he ventured further out from the shore than his fellow competitors.

“There were 40 divers spearing for hours so there was quite a lot of blood in the water,” Rodney said. “I was about to pull the trigger when I felt this huge crash and was hurled through the water. I thought a submarine had hit me, then I realised I was in big trouble. My first thought was ‘it’s eyes, I’ve got to gouge its eyes’ and it seemed to let me go so I tried to push it away and my hand disappeared down its mouth. I grabbed it in a bear hug, but knew I was going to drown so I went to the surface.”

What he saw next will be etched in his memory forever. The glassy ocean surface was stained red with his blood, and the shark was rounding on him for its next attack. Thankfully, it took his fish float instead - but attached by a belt - he was pulled under. Within split seconds of drowning, the line broke from its jaws, allowing him to fight to the surface. A nearby boat came to his rescue and “several miracles later”, he was recovering in hospital.

Caption: Left: Young Rodney Fox holding a fish and spear. Right: Young Rodney Fox with his 462 stitches after his Great White shark attack.

The attack is believed to be one of the most severe to ever be survived. Every rib on Rodney’s left side was broken, his lung had collapsed, vital organs were exposed, and his hand torn apart. It took 462 stitches to put him back together. An x-ray years later revealed a shark tooth still embedded in his wrist.

“The doctors did such an amazing job that I’ve had very little impact on my life since, except that I’ve talked about sharks for the last 50 years.”

After the attack, Rodney was told to hang up his gear and take up golf. Around him, everyone was terrified of “man eating sharks”. But the pull of the ocean was too strong, and rather than fearing sharks, he was curious.

“I kept hearing the phrase ‘man eating sharks’, but I didn’t feel that way,” Rodney said. “I knew I had been spearing fish and there was a lot of blood in the water, so the shark had mistaken me as its food. I needed to understand them for myself.”

Left: Great White shark sightings from the cage diving experience. Right: Rodney Fox shark cage crew.

The idea for the shark cage came months later. Inspired by the lion exhibit at Adelaide Zoo, Rodney decided to reverse the role, putting humans in the safety of a steel cage to descend back into the shark’s domain. After his first cage dive, his obsession with sharks was cemented.

“We lowered the cage into the water and the first thing I noticed was the sharks were interested in the bait, they weren’t just mad human killers,” Rodney said. “I saw this beautiful creature trying to live the same as we are. The more people understand sharks, the more they realise they are a beautiful, endangered creature deserving of our respect and protection.”

This was the beginnings of Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, the world’s only ocean floor shark cage experience. Clad in a wet suit, led belt and mouthpiece and encased by impenetrable steel, Rodney has encountered more sharks in his lifetime than most care to dream of. With the next generation of shark conservationists by his side - his son and environmental scientist Andrew and a league of specialists from across the globe - he has spent thousands of hours underwater learning about the species that almost claimed his life. His watery playground and office lie about 70km off the coast of Port Lincoln in the pristine and wild waters of the Eyre Peninsula. A protected marine conservation park, the Neptune Islands are home to one of the biggest Australian Sea Lion colonies on the southern side of Australia. They also happen to be some of the most frequented waters for Great White Sharks.

Left: Rodney Fox charting the expedition at Neptune Islands off the coast of Eyre Peninsula. Right: The Rodney Fox shark expedition boat leaving Port Lincoln.

“Journeying out to the islands is like going back in time,” Rodney said. “There’s no human interference, it’s natural as it was many years ago. It’s peaceful at times, it’s rugged and there’s a real power out there. I remember being out on the water once, we had five Great White Sharks circling our boat and a whale and its baby came within 50 metres. I climbed the mast and saw sea lions basking in the sun, about 100 dolphins between the gap of the islands, and the water was so clear you could see the fish swimming around. I have dived all over the world but can honestly say the Eyre Peninsula is nature’s wonderland.”

The research and tour vessel, an ex-pearl ship, makes the voyage to the islands carrying scientists, thrill seekers and nature lovers alike. Rodney says the best shark sighting opportunities are from December to February during sea lion mating season and May to August when pups venture into the water. The expeditions aren’t just a once in a lifetime opportunity for people to come face-to-tooth with a great white, every tour contributes to vital research and fosters a love of the ocean and all of its inhabitants.

“I’ve probably been in the cage more times than I’ve had baths but the satisfaction of seeing a shark in its own territory never gets old,” Rodney said. “You’re down there waiting for the sharks in their world. There’s no exhaust noise so you don’t hear them but when you see one coming towards you it takes your breath away. You’re looking into the eye of one of the creatures of the world that very few people have seen. No one can ever take away that feeling of seeing your first shark.

“What keeps me so excited these days is the moment our guests come out of the cage. They say things like ‘they are so beautiful; how could anyone want to kill them?’. That’s all I need to hear to know I’m on the right track.”

Left: The Neptune Islands. Right: A diver onboard the Rodney Fox Shark Expedition boat.

From curious to shy, Rodney says each shark has its own personality and can be identified by unique markings, colourings, dorsal fins, and body shapes. He even has a favourite shark, Mrs Moo, who was known to breach up to five metres out of the water. Importantly, Rodney wants everyone to recognise the vital role this impressive apex predator plays in a healthy ocean ecosystem. With ocean habitats under more pressure than ever before, he says his fight for sharks is far from over. Even at 80, he’s not ready to hang up his wet suit completely.

“Right now, our underwater world is in a bit of a mess. We hope to show people how the ocean is meant to be and what we can work towards,” Rodney said. “We need sharks to keep our oceans healthy. They eat the slow, the sick and the weak and keep our oceans clean. We need to learn to look after them, learn from them and understand them better. That’s what Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is all about.”

A LITTLE MORE

For those who want a little more, watch our short film about South Australia’s White Shark Whisperer, then read another Story from the South about a legendary Outback Aviator, Doug Sprigg, or the Ocean Enigma, @sa_rips.

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