The threat of the grey nurse shark's extinction is scarier than sharing a dive with it, writes Genevieve Swart.
I am 20 metres underwater, gazing at three grey nurse sharks and breathing heavily into my scuba gear. The three-metre sharks hang in a current, drifting with the immense grace and lazy power of a sleek predator.
To the casual observer, it might not be clear who is most endangered in this situation. The answer is unequivocally the sharks.
With fewer than 500 grey nurses surviving off the east coast, future generations of Australians may never see these critically endangered creatures anywhere other than an aquarium.
I've come to South West Rocks, five hours' drive north of Sydney, to dive with the sharks - a trip inspired by the book Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine.
Adams, better known as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was also a dedicated environmentalist and in the late 1980s teamed up with Carwardine to make Last Chance to See for BBC radio, reporting on rare creatures such as Asia's komodo dragon, Africa's mountain gorilla and New Zealand's flightless parrot, the kakapo.
Australia did not earn a chapter in the book but not for lack of opportunities. I call Kat Miller, manager of the Threatened Species Network, a community-based conservation program of WWF Australia and the Federal Government. Is there a last chance to see endangered Australian animals in the wild? In a few days I have been sent a list including the spot-tailed quoll, the unlikely sounding tree kangaroo and the regent honey eater. But the grey nurse shark, or Carcharias taurus, stands out: it's NSW's most critically endangered fish and I've been fascinated by sharks since a cage dive in South Africa with great whites. There's nothing like staring into the cold eye of a shark to feel like a blip on the radar of evolution. So I call the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, which recently sent its eco-warriors into legal battle for the shark. The council appealed against the Federal Government's environmental approval for the Ocean Trap and Line Fishery - and asked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to mandate marine sanctuaries and changes to fishing gear.
Megan Kessler is the council's spokeswoman on grey nurses and founding co-ordinator of its Adopt-A-Shark campaign (www.adoptashark.org.au). We meet at the council's Sydney offices where we talk of extinction. Carcharias taurus could disappear on the east coast in our lifetime - even reach a state of quasi-extinction in five years, she says. This means there would be fewer than 50 females on the east coast and the shark, which has a low reproductive rate and is a frequent victim of commercial and recreational fishermen, would struggle to make a comeback.
The species also lives on Australia's west coast, where it's classed as vulnerable; in South Africa, where it's called the ragged-tooth shark; and the US, where it's called the sand tiger shark. But Australia's east coast population is genetically distinct.
The Adopt-A-Shark program began in late 2005 - with posters reading "Save Fluffy!" - addressing the shark's image problem, which has been compounded by films such as Jaws and public hysteria after attacks. Bob Carr once described grey nurses as "the labradors of the oceans" and Kessler confirms the shark's friendly nature (with people). "Grey nurse sharks were wrongfully blamed for shark attacks off Sydney in the 1930s and this led to the slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of these sharks," she says. "We now know that grey nurse sharks are harmless to humans."
I adopt a shark ($75 a year, including certificate and information CD) and leave determined to see one in the ocean. Maroubra's Magic Point is a key habitat - the grey nurse is a coastal dweller and likes to hang about rocky reefs or islands - but both dive companies Kessler suggests report their next dives are fully booked.
Instead, I look to South West Rocks, a coastal town so tiny it's dwarfed by its own caravan park. My first Adopt-A-Shark newsletter has an extract from a report by Peter Hitchins, one of three brothers who own and run the South West Rocks Dive Centre. Hitchins tells how his father, Noel first took him to Fish Rock, an islet where grey nurses gather, and told him: "Don't worry, they look big and scary but they're just big puppy dogs. This is something you will never forget."
This description is all the encouragement I need to head north and one wintry Sunday morning we set out to dive with sharks. It's a half-hour boat ride to Fish Rock and I am one of three tourists on board. On the first dive, we see about 10 sharks, several curious gropers and a turtle so still I mistake it for a boulder. On the second, we cut through the islet via a 125-metre underwater cave, entering at the narrowest point. We swim, torch in hand, up a dark chimney (this is more nerve-racking than the sharks) to exit at a cave mouth, stroking through schools of silver fish towards the light. Magnificent.
Many have asked, "Wasn't it scary?" No. Sitting on a board, legs dangling in murky ocean, may be scary. Meeting a shark in its own element where it serenely cruises by, uninterested in humans, is not scary. The overriding emotion is awe. Imagining this could be my last chance to see these hunters at sea feels like a hook through the heart.
Where Divers meet about 7.30am at South West Rocks Dive Centre, then take a boat to offshore islet Fish Rock, where grey nurse sharks live most of the year.
Cost Double boat dive, $120, excluding gear hire.
Contact 6566 6474, www.southwestrocksdive.com.au.