The boat shoves off at 7:45am, 15 minutes later as you hit the heads, the enormity of the oceans vast power hits you, as the ship navigates the moving mountains that are the waves. Suddenly the idea of impersonating a human Kit Kat to grab a Great White sharks attention, in cage held to the boat by two bolts, does not seem like the sanest thing you have ever done.
However once on the dive site, just off the sea lion coated Edward Island, Shark Experience Captain Mikes Haines does a good job of briefing you and the other dozen or so guests that have come from around the world to get close and personal with the fish that we love to be terrorized by. As Mike explains the procedure, how they will coach you through it, you begin to feel more secure and manage to push the thought of Colossal, a suspected female, a 11 meter shark whom locals talk of out of your mind. That and the “bullshit” story, except when you Google it turns out to be true (http://historygeek.co.nz/2013/08/08/big-fish-little-person/), of how one of these females managed to tear a cage to shred during the filming of the legendary ‘Jaws’.
Safe in the knowledge that your in the hands of professionals you calm down. The adrenalin is still pumping through your veins like a sports car on the autobahn but your in control. You suits up feeling a bit like James Bond as you prepare for your shark encounter of the close kind. At this stage your more worried about using the dive respirator and mask correctly and you listen carefully to Mike instructions as you let the technical details of the dive distract you. At least until the first shark turns up during the briefing an suddenly it gets awfully real again. The excitement on board grows to a crescendo as you all prepare to go into the cage for the first time.
It is interesting to note when researching the jaws and cage shredding account that reported case of increased Shark activity and shark human encounters is not limit to recent years alone. The link above, refers to NZ papers of the past, and quotes them;
“The recent warm weather has brought sharks south this year in unusual numbers and it behoves those who indulge in sea-bathing to be careful in choosing their water. Last week sharks of large size were seen in Bluff harbour. On Sunday a six-footer was caught at Fortrose jetty, and yesterday evening a lady who was fishing at the same place created a flutter by hooking a shark which was found to measure six feet six inches.”
Curious to know what weather conditions in the 1960’s when Shark struck five time in 1967, 1968 1969, 1970, 1971 in Otago later resulting in the St Clair Shark nets, which soon became riddles with holes. I did a further line of research and discovered that at this time weather conditions were like wise at prime temperatures with long hot summers recorded though out this period. It is suspected that the Shark behind these fatal attacks was also drawn by offal dumped either by commercial fishing boats or dumped from abattoir. Practices which in the later case still go on to day.
It is interesting to note that as locals at Stewart Island and Bluff claim increased shark activity local fisherman have also pulled in species such as King Fish and Snapper normally associated with with the North island and warmer waters. The appearance of these fish the warmer weather and legislative changes have also seen massive sparks in the sea lion populations, which again is reflected in local media by increased reports of sea-lion human interaction.
Mike explains that its all about nutrition and the shark will bite a human an basically spit it out as it hundred million year old brain works out the nutritional value verse the energy expelled to catch an consume is not such great trade off. In contrast the sea lion packed full of fat with direct access to the energy packed kelp make a far better meal. Later we will observe the sharks attempting to catch itself a sea lion burger an Molly Mook bobbing on the water. The speed at which the shark attempts to car chase these prey and their repeated efforts seem by comparison far more arduous than the slow careful drive by the shark will give us once were in the cage.
Either way every shark attack to date has taken place at the peak of summer in the month of January and February. As is the reverse case in the USA where not only do attacks occur in their peak summer months but have also recorded a threefold increase in human shark encounters as more humans enter their habitat. The increase of sharks incidents may also be reflective of an issue which as direct interest to all fishermen. The shark is apex creature, top of the food chain, so any change in its behave is not reflective of two little boats (which are no where near any of the recorded incident areas where shark incidents have taken place) but rather a valuable tool something is changing in the sharks environment which will in turn have direct impact on the fisherman livelihoods if ignored.
There is a considerable lack of accurate fisheries data, particularly for non-commercial species landed as by-catch, and so much of our understanding of the top-down impacts of marine predator loss remains limited to the speculations of mathematical modelling. The cascading influence of predators in terrestrial ecosystems is better understood; for example the removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park, USA, caused elk populations to boom and overgraze the land, devastating the habitats and food source of many other species However, marine ecosystems are by comparison more difficult to access and study in detail, and so clear documentation of marine tropic cascades remains sparse.
Yet a severe drop in sharks off the coast of North Carolina, USA, has led to the complete collapse of a century-old bay scalloped fishery. The removal of the sharks caused their prey, the cownose ray, to soar in numbers and expand into areas previously too risky to forage in. The rays decimated the scallop populations in the area to a point beyond which, combined with ongoing fishing pressure, they may not be able to recover; perhaps permanently altering the ecosystem and severely affecting local livelihoods. The real question to be asked are shark censure accurate are shark number increasing coastal while in the deep ocean shark population reflect the trend where over 90% of predator species have being decimated due to entire collapses of ocean species caused by direct input by man and by changing weather patterns. The entire history of the Catlins is the story of stiff competition for resources and address the issue of resource management at every point from sealing whaling to the current debate. The dives and the debate between paua divers over the benefits and cost of these operation help spark an important debate and raise questions which need not be in competitive model but rather have the potential to be of direct benefit to those involved in both eco- tourism and the fishing industry symbiotically.