It’s a strange moment, swimming alone in a metal cage submerged in the dark, cold waters of the Great Australian Bight waiting for one of the world’s largest and most dangerous predators.
When I’m swimming beyond the breakwaters at the beach, I’m acutely aware of my place on the food chain.
If I was unlucky enough to see that dreaded dorsal fin cutting through the water near me, there would be panic, there would be fear, and I’d be on the next wave into shore.
But strangely, swimming within the confines of an underwater metal cage off the coast of Port Lincoln, when a dark shadow comes towards me from the depths of the Bight, all I have is a morbid curiosity.
Despite feeling like I’m bait in a burley net, watching sharks going about their business in their natural environment gives a new appreciation about their importance to the Bight.
These creatures are unwittingly at the centre of a battle between environmentalists who want to keep the Bight as it is, and energy companies eager to explore what resources the area has to offer.
Where is the Bight?
The Great Australian Bight spans 40,000 square kilometres of deep ocean off the coast of Southern Australia.
The Bight contains more endemic marine diversity than the Great Barrier Reef and is home to about 30 species of whale and dolphin.
It’s also where Southern Right whales migrate each year to raise their calves and the Australian sea lion population thrives.
While white sharks elicit significant fear among those who come across them in the water, they are listed as vulnerable in Australia and there is a national recovery plan in place for the species.
CSIRO tracking of 70 sharks showed there are two populations of sharks in Australia — an eastern population that moves from Tasmania to central Queensland, and a south-west population ranging from western Victoria to north-western WA.
What’s the controversy over?
Between 1972 and 2003, the Federal Government issued 45 permits for oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight, but in 2015 plans by BP to drill for oil ignited debate over environmental protections.
On one hand, environmental groups argue an oil spill would decimate the marine environment, destroy tourism and fishing industries, and devastate coastal communities as far as Tasmania and Victoria.
James Cook University marine biologist Jodie Rummer believes an oil spill is a disaster waiting to happen.
“If we had an oil spill due to drilling in the Great Aussie Bight it would cover entire Southern Australia,” she said.
“Even if it’s not in the path of the spill, the flow-on effect in other parts of Australia and in the waters around Australia will still be detrimental.”
But oil companies believe there’s huge potential for job creation and exploration can be done safely.
Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) state director Matthew Doman said success in the Bight would attract substantial investment to South Australia.
“The economic benefits of successful oil exploration offshore South Australia could be enormous,” he said.
“There is no reason a safe, sustainable offshore petroleum industry should not be possible for South Australia, as it has been in Victoria and WA for decades.”
After years of working towards approval for permission to drill in the Bight, in 2016 BP announced it would not proceed so it could focus on short-to-medium-term projects.
Its application attracted criticism for stating an oil spill in the region would be a “welcomed boost” to local economies.
In October 2017, Chevron also abandoned its plans.
Norwegian Oil Company Statoil has now taken over two of BP’s exploration permits and is developing its environmental plan to be submitted to the federal body that manages offshore rigs in Australia’s waters.
Jobs and new opportunities
While Statoil was not available to be interviewed for this story, the company said in a statement that drilling in the Bight would only proceed if it could be done safely.
Successful exploration could lead to hundreds of new jobs for the state, with new business opportunities to benefit local businesses, it said.
“If we find oil and move into development, South Australians can expect hundreds of new jobs to be created,” Statoil said.
“In addition, a commercial discovery could create rich opportunities for local suppliers and contribute tax revenue for the federal and state governments.”
How do coastal communities feel?
Although there’s a promise of job creation, many regional communities which scatter thousands of kilometres of coastline are against oil exploration in the Bight.
The Elliston Council, on the Eyre Peninsula’s West Coast, voted unanimously against drilling last year.
“If anything did go wrong Elliston one hundred per cent would be impacted with any oil spill,” Elliston Mayor Kim Callaghan said.
“You would just be destroying something that is absolutely fantastic.”
“We have to look after what we have got, not only for us but for future generations, it’s just too good to try and ruin.”
In 2010, the deep water horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people while causing damage to the marine environment.
Retired Australian National University professor Andrew Hopkins, a Gulf of Mexico oil spill expert, said it took 87 days for BP to cap the well.
“The companies will tell you they’ve learnt their lessons but I’m not so sure they have,” he said.
“We must stop putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, drilling for oil must stop, mining coal must stop, we have got to get away from these things as soon as we possibly can.”
The ABC was a guest of Greenpeace for the tour of the Southern Eyre Peninsula coast line.