1970 to 1994, I owned and operated Cronulla Dive School.
During this time I took student divers to my favourite
destination, an offshore reef known as Jibbon Bombora.
The reef rose from 90 feet of water to 8 feet, with
a gutter running through the middle. Half way up the
gutter it opened to a deep cave approximately 30 feet
wide and 5 feet high. I often took my students into
this cave to see the local residents; port jackson sharks,
blue grouper, numerous sponges, soft corals and the
occasional giant cuttlefish and moray eel. In December
1975 a pack of seven grey nurse sharks took up residence
in the cave. Their arrival, changed my life forever.
When the grey nurse sharks turned up, I was fascinated.
I wanted to study them, to know everything about them.
Were they aggressive? Would they attack a diver? What
did they eat? Could they be tamed? Were they as harmless
as people said? In 1975 little was known about this
shark species and I was determined to change that situation.
All I knew at that time, was what I had experienced
during my years as a spearfisherman in the 60`s. I had
dived many of the offshore reefs where the grey nurse
were found. And each time I had gone back to these reefs
over the years I was alarmed to see the numbers of nurse
declining. I had never had any trouble with the sharks,
but then again I had never attempted to hand feed them.
In the 60`s human influence added greatly to the sharks
demise. The expansion of long line fishing and stupid
people with power heads being the main culprits. I felt
it was time for some serious research to be undertaken
in regards to the animals behaviour in the wild.
My first thoughts were to try and hand feed the sharks
and find out what they eat and if they would take a
fish from a diver. I took my boat to a reef off Cronulla
and jumped in to spear some kingfish. This could be
easily done as I had been a breath hold diver for many
years and could free dive over a 100 feet.
The best way to get kingfish was to attract them first,
this I did by spearing small yellowtail and kicking
them off the spear. This procedure is known as "baiting
The kicked off yellowtail struggle and bleed and the
water transmits both the vibrations and smell to any
predator fish in the area. After awhile the predator
fish turn up, kingfish, mackerel, bonito, trevally and
the occasional unwelcome bronze whaler shark. As soon
as the kingfish begin to circle and pick off the struggling
fish, I dive down and spear the large 20kg silver animals.
Once I had got what I needed, I would climb back in
my boat and head for the grey nurse cave. =My first
attempt at handfeeding the nurse went terribly wrong.
I swam down to the cave on SCUBA on my own, I had a
bag of kingfish and a handspear for some protection.
When I arrived at the entrance of the cave the ocean
conditions were very poor with visibility at only 20
feet. The nurse sharks with their counter shading bodies
are hard to see in poor light and I found it hard to
see all the sharks at one time. The smell of the kingfish
soon created a situation I was not prepared for.
The sharks became very excited and all approached me
at once. As they came within a few feet I tried pushing
them away with the spear, this only served to make them
more angry, for the first time in my life I experienced
grey nurse "cracking". The sharks would approach
slowly, swimming literally inches from the sea bed,
then at the last moment at only a few feet away, they
would turn in their own length and literally crack their
tail like a whip. The behaviour caused a loud deep thump
sound and made me quite apprehensive. Once they cracked
they were soon back , I offered the largest shark (a
10 foot female) a large kingfish from the bag, she opened
her mouth to reveal rows of dagger like razor sharp
teeth, she seized the fish from my hand and then gulped
down the whole 20kg fish in a single swallow. She then
disappeared into the cave.
Had I had only one fish, the whole situation would have
become quiet. The smell of bloody fish would have slowly
gone. However, because I had a bag of fish, the smell
of blood was still very much around my body. This caused
the other sharks in the pack to become more and more
aggressive, with one shark repeatedly trying to push
past my spear to gain access to me. I quickly pulled
out another fish and gave it to the aggressive shark.
Again other sharks approached and I had to do all I
could to keep the hungry sharks away, bumping them with
the spear and even at one stage punching a shark on
its nose. Eventually, the situation became totally out
of control as I was fighting for my survival with the
whole pack snapping at the bag of fish. I abandoned
the fish bag and headed for my boat with an 8 foot shark
in hot pursuit. As now I was mid-water and extremely
vulnerable, I tried to kick the shark away. This seemed
to excite the shark more and it grabbed my white bladed
fin and tore the fin from my foot.
Leaving the water, I crawled into my boat. My breathing
heavy as I pondered what I had done wrong. Firstly it
was obvious that the grey nurse sharks were not harmless
and if stimulated could be dangerous to divers. What
I had done wrong was I had taken a bag full of fish
to the cave, I should have taken only one fish. When
the first shark approaches give that shark a fish, as
it swims away it takes most of the smell and stimulation
with it, leaving no real reason for the other sharks
in the pack to be aggressive towards me. The situation
was a little like a seagull flying away with a potato
chip, the other gulls follow. However, if you have a
bag of chips on the ground, the whole flock of gulls
will become frenzied and stay with the person feeding.
I believed if I only took one fish down to the cave
at a time, I could manage the sharks and once the fish
was eaten, the smell of fish would dissipate and the
sharks would quieten down.
My next attempt worked far better and the one fish policy
became my rule with grey nurse shark feeding. With other
shark species I developed other methods of staying safe
when feeding them.
Over the next seven years I fed this pack of sharks
hundreds of times, learning much about the behaviour
of these magnificent sharks. .
After paying visits to numerous other grey nurse shark
locations up and down the NSW coast, I realised I had
to do all I could to get the shark species protected.
The only way to do this was to record what I was doing
on film. I bought a Bolex 16 movie camera and a 35 mm
nikonis still camera for the purpose. I then made an
underwater housing for the movie camera from a cut down
SCUBA tank. I then proceeded to film the Nurse tail
cracking; the different swimming including aggressive
and non-aggressive behaviour.
To get extra close up footage of the way nurse sharks
swallowed the fish whole, I literally held the fish
in one hand and stuck the movie camera almost in their
mouth. I filmed the tail cracking in slow-motion film
to best illustrate the behaviour and experimented with
many different species of fish to see what they preferred.
After a few years the pack of sharks became conditioned
with my feeding rituals and their behaviour changed.
They became less aggressive and the tail cracking began
to stop. I also found that they were less aggressive
towards me, they identified with the bag and the feeds
became slower. The largest shark being a 10 foot female
I named "bigshot" see photo and movie of the
feeding in 1975. Bigshot eventually allowed me to touch
her without tail cracking or snapping. I only had to
arrive at the cave and she and the other sharks would
swim around me. This happened if I had fish or if I
My shark feeding off a Sydney beach attracted much media
interest, I told the story many times and supplied still
photos for magazines and newspapers and also supplied
movie footage to numerous television shows from 1975
to 1984. (refer publicity
I also made myself known to the director of Fisheries
Research Institute Dr. David A Pollard, B.Sc ( Hons)
ph.D Principal Research Scientist. I supplied him much
of my research and kept him up to date with my findings
on the sharks. I raised my concerns about the decline
in numbers of grey nurse on the NSW coast and why they
should be protected. Over 30 magazines and newspapers
and over 12 television shows from 1997 to 1985 published
the story about my grey nurse family. Other people also
took up the cause including Ron and Valerie Tailor and
Eventually David Pollard pushed through the fisheries
dept of Australia the total protection of the grey nurse
shark in 1984.
In 1994 I was a guest speaker at the worlds first conference
on the conservation of sharks, the venue attracted the
world press and was held at Taronga Zoo. I spoke on
the plight of the grey nurse sharks and showed numerous
films and photos. Scientists came from all over the
world to the conference. Other notable people also spoke
about the grey nurse sharks including Neville Coleman,
the world renown marine book publisher and underwater
The grey nurse became protected, but all the publicity
I had given my own shark pack off Cronulla achieved
shocking results. A Sydney aquarium took two sharks
from the shark cave for their display, a situation that
I do not agree with as the sharks are protected and
this greatly depleted the pack. Another shark I found
dead with a shotgun wound to its head, probably killed
by some stupid spearfisherman that disliked sharks.
The remainder either were killed or never returned to
After my experience feeding the grey nurse and all the
media exposure I had been given, I decided to expand
my knowledge of filming wildlife and my knowledge of
marine animals. I travelled to many locations around
the world hand feeding and filming sharks and many other
species of marine animals. I became a regular presenter
on television networks showing my latest wildlife films.
Eventually supplying encyclopedia multimedia companies
with wildlife footage.
Grey nurse sharks are reputed to be harmless docile
animals and sluggish swimmers. Nothing could be further
from the truth, Grey nurse sharks are mostly docile
and pay little attention to divers. However, if stimulated
with fish in the wild, they can become very territorial
and even refuse fish to bite the diver holding the fish.
This behaviour I believe is similar to a tame dog in
a backyard. The dog will leave its food bowl to bite
a person coming too close to his food. Grey nurse have
excellent weapons. Their sharp teeth and powerful jaws
could cause severe damage to divers. But if treated
with respect, the sharks will not normally have any
interest in divers or swimmers as they are fish feeders
not man-eaters. As for the sluggish swimmers statement
published in most journals about the nurse sharks, this
is not true. They swim slowly in their lairs of gutters
and caves but can swim with amazing speed when they
catch fish or when cracking. I have it all on film!
I do not suggest divers attempt to hand feed grey nurse
as they can and are dangerous when stimulated. Simply
leave them alone.
The sharks came to the Jibbon Bombora cave in 1975.
Their arrival allowed me to assist people like David
Pollard and others to get the shark protected. Their
arrival also changed my career from a SCUBA diving instructor
to wildlife film producer.
For credibility to the above grey nurse research carried
out by David Ireland see the letter from David D. Pollard
(research Scientist) below.
For more information about David please click