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What's it like to come face to face with a 4.5m great white shark?

The fin of a great white shark breaks the surface of the water.
The dive crew has files on more than 200 great whites which visit the Neptune Islands area.

Supplied: Brett Williamson

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A squeal of excitement carries around the boat as the first great white shark is spotted.

Anchored in the Bay of Giants, in the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park, sharks are known to inhabit the area because it's rich with one of their favourite foods — seal pups.

Divers run through final safety checks and briefings before we climb into the 2x2-metre cage.

Two divers in a cage hanging from the side of the boat.
Divers ready to lower themselves to the floor of the bay.

Supplied: Brett Williamson

Inside the cage there is a mixture of excitement and anxiety as we prepare to be lowered to the bottom of the bay.

The boat rises and falls in the swell.

We bob and jiggle around like an oversized human-filled tea bag as the crane moves the cage away from the side of the boat.

On one side of the floor of the cage is a small steel box.

It contains a tuna gills and entrails which are occasionally stomped on to produce a light berley cloud.

Two divers are lowered into the water in the shark cage.
Divers begin the 20m descent in the shark cage.

Supplied: Brett Williamson

The cage lowers, the cold water rises around us, and within seconds we are below the surface.

The waters around us are filled with trevally, horseshoe leatherjackets and zebra fish.

An eagle ray and two western blue gropers are also spotted.

At 21 metres below the surface the dive master signals the surface team to stop and we are left hovering about two metres from the ocean floor.

We peer out between the bars.

The distant sound of the boat, the bubbles from our breathing and the occasional bump of the cage is all that is heard.

But it's not too long before we see our first great white.

Buffy the 4.5-metre female slowly comes into view.

She is well known to the boat crew who have records of her visiting the area for the past six years.

All up, the crew has research files on more than 200 great white sharks which visit the Neptune Islands area.

They speak of them like family members, fondly following their progress.

Great white shark facts:

  • Great white shark populations have been monitored travelling through most the world's oceans, including temperate and tropical waters.
  • Great whites feed on a variety of items, including fish, seals and whales.
  • A female great white can birth between two and 15 pups, with a two-year reproductive cycle.
  • Sharks at Neptune Islands have been tagged and monitored travelling as far east as New Zealand, north to Rockhampton and west to Ningaloo Reef.

(source: environment.gov.au)

Buffy is about as large as your average standard family 4WD station wagon — and weighs about the same.

As she cruises past the cage, the brown iris of her black eye becomes visible.

A click of the bait draw puffs a small cloud of berley into the water and Buffy returns for a second look.

Her huge bulk gracefully circles the bottom of the cage, then she seems to lose interest and slowly swims off once more.

Shortly after, we begin the rise to the surface.

There we are greeted with questions of: "Did you see one?"

No answers are needed when the grins on our faces are seen.

Buffy the great white shark swims past the surface cage.
Buffy takes a peak inside a surface shark cage.

Supplied: Brett Williamson

Buffy remains in the area for about another hour, often cruising past the surface cage to the delight of those inside.

At dusk she leaves us to our stories and memories of meeting one of the island group's largest visitors and one of the ocean's apex predators.

Brett's trip to the Neptune Islands was self-funded; no funds or equipment were provided by the ABC.

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