Authorities investigate confrontation at shark hotspot near Esperance

Shark hotspot: A great white shark off the coast of Salisbury Island where two research vessels came into conflict. Photo: Marc Payne.
Shark hotspot: A great white shark off the coast of Salisbury Island where two research vessels came into conflict. Photo: Marc Payne.

The Department of Transport is investigating a confrontation between the crews of two research vessels at the Recherche Archipelago.

A research team and a film crew from the United States had a confrontation with Marc Payne’s crew while shooting a documentary for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Mr Payne’s crew had a permit to search for archaeological sites near Salisbury Island.

A department spokesperson said inquiries were underway after the skipper of the film crew’s vessel complained about the conduct of the skipper on Mr Payne’s boat.

Red Rock Films president Brian Armstrong, who was executive producer of the documentary, said his crew was filming a research team’s work on great white sharks when the incident occurred.

He said he was not present because his crew had split into two teams at the time.

“As I understand, they (Mr Payne’s crew members) were generally trying to interfere with our diving operations,” he said. 

“I can say that, from what I understand, their conduct was unprofessional, childish and dangerous.”

Mr Payne said he had been a commercial diver for 30 years and operated under strict guidelines.

“We did our best to operate both professionally and safely under the circumstances,” he said.

Mr Payne said the confrontation started when the crew on the other vessel claimed he was diving too close to their boat.

“They had been burleying the area for five days and I was diving for the first four,” he said.

“We communicated with them that I’d be diving in that area.

“Whether I choose to dive there is my thing, but they showed a complete lack of duty of care.”

Mr Armstrong was certain his team had conducted themselves appropriately.

“We have scientists on board as well as film makers and a very professional captain and crew who have always put safety first,” he said.

Mr Payne also criticised Mr Armstrong’s crew for tagging sharks.

Mr Armstrong said the scientists were tagging the sharks for identification.

“We’re trying to see where they are coming from,” he said. 

“So that’s actually not our operation, that’s the scientific operations which we were filming.

“To get a tag on, you usually bring them in with some bait and run it past the back step of the boat and put the tag on.

“All the tags we use are on a galvanic release so that they pop off.

“This is not the tags that have bolts, it’s a clamp that stays on for a while and tells us about some micro movements.”

Mr Payne said he had been involved in shark research for more than a decade and Mr Armstrong’s crew was taking advantage of the unique location. 

Mr Armstrong agreed it was a unique location and said that was why it had been chosen.

“There’s nowhere else we can think of on the planet that’s quite like it, that has this congregation of sharks that is well away from people and living without the interference of people or even scientists or Fisheries,” he said.

“There’s very limited outside contact so you can actually see this natural behaviour.”

Mr Armstrong, who grew up in Perth, said the documentary was a sequel to Isle of Jaws, also filmed near Salisbury Island last year.

“The specific spots we’re researching now are because of West Australian fisherman I know who reported large congregations of great whites down here to the West Australian Government about 15 years ago,” he said.

“This is an incredible resource out there that needs further investigation and possibly additional protection.

“I think it’s one that any serious film maker would embrace and any scientific team would also embrace, and they have.

“WA Fisheries is extremely interested to know what’s going on out there.”

Mr Payne criticised the WA Department of Fisheries for allowing Mr Armstrong’s crew to film the great whites.

“Esperance has got the last great white hot spot on the planet not impacted by humans,” Mr Payne said.

“This is our last chance to understand what’s happening.”