Severely bitten by a great white shark, you’d think that was it for Rodney Fox. But the attack marked the start of a new chapter—he’s now a renowned shark conservationist who pioneered modern shark cage diving.
Rodney Fox was 23 years old when he was bitten by a great white shark. Competing to retain his title as South Australian Spear Fishing Champion in 1964, he dived down for a large grouper. That’s when an immense force smashed into his side.
“I thought I’d been hit by a train,” Rodney recalls in his book, Sharks, the sea and me. “My chest was clamped, like in a vice. I was a bone in a dog’s mouth.”
Propelled violently sideways, acting on a level before thought, he jabbed his fingers into the eyes of the shark. It released him and he finned hard to the surface, too shocked for fear. Then he looked down. A gaping mouth of teeth was coming at him.
Rodney kicked out with a flipper. The shark swerved and instead swallowed the floating box that held Rodney’s catch. Then it dived. Rodney found himself dragged underwater, towed down on the container’s line tied around his waist. How ridiculous, he thought; I’m going to drown. The shark chewed, the line parted, and Rodney, almost sliced in two on his left side, drifted to the surface. “Like a leaf,” he recalls.
It took 462 stitches to patch up the deep lacerations which arched from his shoulder to his waist, let alone repair his shattered ribs, collapsed lung and ruptured spleen—the photos taken before the operation are genuinely shocking. One tooth remains embedded in his wrist.
It’s why, in 1973, a little-known film director called Steven Spielberg called him about filming shark footage.
Where this story becomes extraordinary, however, is what happened next. To conquer his fear, Rodney sought to understand the attack. But how, in 1963, could you get close to a great white? Then one day at Adelaide Zoo, he watched the lions being fed and realised you could reverse the roles and put humans in the cage.
Which is how Rodney Fox, survivor of the worst shark attack in Australian history, invented modern shark cage diving. It’s also why documentary makers and scientists began to arrive at the suburban Adelaide home of a then insurance salesman, and why, in 1973, a little-known film director called Steven Spielberg called him about filming shark footage. “It was like having a lot of astronauts at your house,” recalls Rodney’s son, Andrew Fox. “For years afterwards, more people had gone into space than had swum with great whites.”
Having sailed on his dad’s expeditions since he was seven years old and dived with sharks for over 40 years, Andrew now runs Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. The Mount Everest of cage diving, it runs the world’s only great white ocean-floor dive trip at the most sharky spot in Australia, the Neptune Islands in the Southern Ocean.
“I lean on those early days to give the atmosphere for the trips,” Andrew says. “These aren’t just tours like the dayboats. We’re on a multi-day expedition with a group of adventurers, where we can’t guarantee what will happen, to achieve something fantastic. We’re not about selling T-shirts.”
What is the fascination with great whites? Fear has something to do with it. As humans, we fenced off or caged up the land predators a while ago. Only great whites can’t be tamed. They are relics from an age before dinosaurs and they confront us with what Jaws author Peter Benchley called “the visceral fear of being eaten”.
Just as that’s part of the mystique of shark diving, it also helped make Jaws a blockbuster. It has made galeophobia—an irrational fear of sharks—the norm. Every shark fatality is global news, even though more people are killed each year by elephants. Only now are we starting to see great whites as impressive apex predators. And no operator has led to changing perceptions like Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions.
“No one thinks it’s OK to poke a lion with a stick through the bars. We have a responsibility not to make this a circus act.”
Rodney’s first cage-diving expeditions went into sensationalist documentaries like Blue Water, White Death (1971). Then came Jaws. Rodney helped to film its live footage at the Neptunes in 1974—the chapter in his book makes entertaining reading. But by the 1980s, the company’s focus had turned to research and wildlife documentaries.
Andrew explains: “On an expedition in the early 1980s, we had Bent Fin with us [the team knows many sharks at the Neptunes by name]. We came home to Port Lincoln after three days and there he was, hanging up at the port. This was our friend—we’d known him for years—and these fishermen were acting like heroes. We felt a real obligation to protect the sharks afterwards.”
Today, Rodney tours the world as a keynote speaker on shark conservation while Andrew is an expert on great white behavior and ecology. While cage diving trips and conservation are not natural allies, Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is an exception in an industry that has earned the disapproval of marine biologists. Here, every cage diving trip undertakes scientific research, and instead of meat, it uses waste tuna by-product to attract sharks to the dive boat while a seal colony keeps great whites at the Neptunes year-round. Nor is there any of the ‘crash and bash’ of sharks into cages that so many operators encourage. “No one thinks it’s OK to poke a lion with a stick through the bars,” Andrew says. “We have a responsibility not to make this a circus act.”
It strikes me after my descent off the Nepture Islands with Andrew that seeing sharks first-hand in the wild may be the best conservation message there is. To hang 80 feet underwater in a small cage surrounded by several 16-foot great whites confronts you with suppressed fears. A shark cruises past me at eye level, its mouth open to reveal rows of teeth, its huge black pupil only a metre from mine. Yet down here where sharks live, rather than on the surface where they attack, the sharks seem curious.
I’m struck by their brilliant hydrodynamics and their colors: gun-metal grey, polished steel, a beautiful bronze. It feels a privilege to hang here above the kelp and witness such a perfectly evolved apex predator in its own environment.
Andrew says afterwards: “One of my dad’s favorite sayings is ‘Look out for but look after the sharks.’ They’re powerful, dangerous animals. While they do a fantastic job of balancing the ocean’s ecosystem, we humans do a fantastic job of messing it up.”
And that’s the ultimate goal of cage diving with Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions: education. “The mission of our research foundation is to champion the cause of sharks. It’s not that sharks are more important than people—that’s the wrong question. It’s that we make a lifestyle choice to enter their environment, which they’re doing a good job of looking after. When there’s general public acceptance that sharks have a right to exist, I guess our work is done.” They’re not there yet. But here’s one convert.
For more information on ethical cage diving check out Rodney Fox Expeditions.
Find out more about shark conservation with The Shark Trust.