The cold, deep waters off southern Australia are a known hunting ground of the great white shark. In recent years, oil companies have also been circling, hoping to find an economic windfall - and with it, hundreds of jobs.
Stretching along the southern coast of Australia, the Great Australian Bight is home to a unique collection of marine life. Environmentalists say allowing oil drilling to go ahead here could put entire ecosystems at risk.
Within a few hours of the South Australian coast, a colony of fur seals sits nestled in an island bay. They’re a favoured snack of the great white shark. The apex predators can often be found circling in the waters beneath.
Dr Jodie Rummer, an Assistant Professor and Australian Research Council Discovery Fellow at James Cook University, says the Bight is one of the less understood marine ecosystems in Australian waters.
“Around 80 to 85 per cent of the species are endemic, so they’re only found here in this area, which is pretty special,” she says.
The remote, rough waters are relatively untouched by humans, but that could change as early as next year.
Norwegian company Statoil is the latest seeking approval to conduct exploratory drilling for oil in the Bight, taking over two exploration permits from BP last year.
Jobs vs the environment
Matthew Doman, South Australia and Northern Territory Director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), says if oil exploration leads to a discovery in the Bight, it could have significant economic benefits for South Australia.
“This is potentially as significant as Bass Strait,” he says.
“Bass Strait has seen the creation of thousands of jobs in Victoria, seen very significant benefits to regional communities.”
Mr Doman says Statoil is preparing its environmental plan for submission to regulatory body NOPSEMA.
If their plan is approved, they could start exploratory drilling about 200 kilometres off the South Australian coast as early as the end of next year.
Port Lincoln Mayor Bruce Green says the two major industries in his city, fishing and grain, are mature, and another source of economic activity would be welcome.
“We’re all struggling to hold our own, let alone grow,” he says.
“We would expect that any major development in the Great Australian Bight would bring really significant economic growth to parts of the Eyre Peninsula.”
But in nearby Elliston, there are fears industrial activity in the Bight could bring disaster.
Elliston Mayor Kym Callaghan says an oil spill would be catastrophic for the region, devastating tourism and seafood production.
“If anything did go wrong, we’d be right in the firing line, simple as that, we’d be gone,” he says.
“Might as well close for business because it would ruin our beautiful lifestyle.”
Avoiding another Gulf of Mexico
In 2010, an explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil caused 750 million litres of oil to pour into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, causing extensive damage to coastal areas as well as seafood and tourism industries.
The company was eventually ordered to pay more than $20 billion in clean-up costs and compensation.
Aud Nordo, Communications Manager of Greenpeace Norway, says the possibility of any spill in the Bight is too great a risk.
“What we have seen lately is the rate, both potential and actual safety accidents are rising in the oil industry, so that’s an alarming concern,” she says.
James Cook University scientist Jodie Rummer studies the effects of oil on fish. She says even a small spill could be disastrous.
“The effects of oil contamination on fish can start very early, so immediately upon hatch, fish are making poor choices.”
“If the fish are schooling fish, they don’t know how to school properly, they don’t know where their friends are, so to speak, and that can really spell trouble when it comes to predation,” she says.
“I think what’s particularly alarming is that our findings are with really low concentrations of oil… and so even a small spill, or even after we think we have a spill cleaned up is still causing really bad effects on fish species, but also entire ecosystems.”
Last year, oil company Chevron abandoned its interests in the Bight citing low global oil prices.
BP pulled out in October 2016, saying it would focus on other projects.
A month earlier, it had released worst-case oil spill modelling, which showed the impact of such an event could stretch along the Australian coastline from Western Australia through to Victoria, and the Tasmanian coast.
Matthew Doman of APPEA says the modelling represents a scenario that would likely never happen.
“They model a scenario where a significant event occurs, and nothing is done to respond to it. That won’t happen,” he says.
“They’re very implausible, worst-case scenarios. It’s important that we plan for those scenarios, but they’re not at all what we expect to occur.”
Statoil did not agree to a request for an interview, but said in a statement: "We will only undertake drilling activity if we can do it safely... and in accordance with Australia’s strict environmental and regulatory requirements."
Pending approval, Statoil could start exploration drilling by the end of next year.
If they find what they are looking for, more companies may follow in their wake.
Santos, Karoon Gas and Bight Petroleum also hold exploration rights for the Bight, but are yet to firm up any plans.
SBS News was a guest of Greenpeace on their tour of the Southern Eyre Peninsula coastline.