Shark cage diving at Stewart Island, NZ – see the ‘great white’ up-close, the ultimate shark experience!
PO Box 100 Bluff, 03 212 7112 & 027 2290986
Sharks of the Wild South.
The boat shoves off at 7:45am and fifteen minutes later, as you hit the heads, the enormity of the ocean’s vast power hits you, as the ship navigates the moving mountains which are the waves. Suddenly, the idea of impersonating a human Kit Kat to grab a great white shark’s attention, in a cage held to a boat with a couple of bolts , does not seem like your best idea ever. However, 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 who have come from around the world to get close up and personal with the fish that we love to be terrorized by the Great White Shark. As Mike explains the procedure and how they will coach you through it, you begin to feel more secure.
Safe in the knowledge that you’re in the hands of professionals, you calm down. The adrenalin is still pumping through your veins, like a sports car on the autobahn, but you’re in control. You suit up, feeling a bit like James Bond, as you prepare for your shark encounter of the close kind. At this stage, you’re more worried about using the dive respirator and mask correctly and you listen carefully to Mike’s instructions, as you let the technical details of the dive distract you. At least until the first shark turns up during the briefing and suddenly it gets awfully real. The excitement on board grows in a crescendo as you all prepare to go into the cage for the first time.
It is interesting to note that when researching past Bluff Shark encounters, via New Zealand newspapers of yesteryear, to read;
“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.”
This is in fact quite small compared to what I get to witness. Over the period of the day I see sharks starting at three meters going all the way to a brief glimpse of shark nearly six meters long. The smaller one cruise past you curiously clearly eye balling you. The larger and presumably older sharks seem to hang back and see what happens to the smaller ones first. At one point the “dumb fish” lure the bait-man into an ambush. The first making a feint for the bait and the second taking the bait while the bait-man is distracted with the first shark.
I’m curious to know what the weather conditions were, in the 1960’s, when sharks struck swimmers five times – in 1967, 1968 1969, 1970, 1971 in Otago, later resulting in the use of the Dunedin’s St Clair beach shark nets, which soon became riddled with holes. I discover that at this time, weather conditions were similarly at prime temperatures, with long, hot summers recorded throughout this period. It is suspected that the shark, or sharks, behind these fatal attacks were also drawn by offal, dumped either by commercial fishing boats or dumped from an abattoir, practices which, in the latter case, still goes on today. It is also interesting to note that, as locals at Stewart Island and Bluff claim increased shark activity, local fisherman have also pulled in warmer water species such as king fish and snapper, normally associated with the North Island and warmer waters. Yet the appearance of these fish, the warmer weather and legislative changes have also seen large increases in the sea-lion populations, which, again, is reflected in local media by increased reports of sea-lion/human interaction.
Mike explains that it’s all about nutrition and that the shark will bite a human and basically spit it out again, as its hundred-million-year-old brain works out that the nutritional value versus the energy expelled to catch and consume is not such a great trade-off. In contrast, the sea-lions, packed full of fat with direct access to the energy-packed kelp make a far better meal for the sharks. Later, I will observe a shark attempting to catch itself a sea-lion and also a mollymawk (a small albatross) that bobs on the water. The speed at which the shark attempts to chase such prey and the shark’s repeated efforts, by comparison, to its slow and careful drive by of us humans in the cage, seem to corroborate the belief a shark would rather have seal burger than a diver sand which any day.Either way, what can be confirmed visa the risk to humans is that every shark attack in NZ to date has taken place at the peak of summer, in the months of January and February. As is the case, in the USA, where, not only do attacks occur in their peak summer months but there’s has also been a noted threefold increase in human/shark encounter,s as more humans enter their habitat. The increase of shark incidents may also be a reflection of an issue which again has direct interest to all fishermen.
The shark is an apex creature, at the top of the food chain and so any changes in its behavior cannot be attributed to the adverse effects from these two little boats alone, which are nowhere near any of the areas where recorded shark incidents have taken place. Rather, the boats are a valuable tool in indicating that something is changing in the sharks’ environment, which will, in turn, if ignored, have a direct impact on the fishermen’s livelihoods. There is a considerable lack of accurate fisheries data, particularly regarding non-commercial species.
Unfortunately so much of our understanding of the top-down impacts of marine predator loss remains limited to the speculations of mathematical modelling. What we do know is a severe drop in sharks off the coast of North Carolina, USA, has led to the complete collapse of a century-old bay scallop 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.
Short version an increase of predator in your marine environment is far better for fisheries than no sharks at all. The real question to be asked is whether shark censuses are accurate – are shark numbers increasing coastally? – while, in the deep ocean, shark populations reflect the trend of other maritime species where over 90% of predator species have been decimated, due to entire collapse of ocean species caused by direct input by man and by changing weather patterns?
As we head home, tired but thrilled, I can not see how anything which gives us a better understanding of such a misunderstood creature can be bad for it long term survival. As we pass fishing boats heading out to make their livelihoods I muse how the entire history of the Catlins has always being the story of stiff competition and rivalry for limited resources. The issue of resource management is found at every point along the Catlin’s maritime history, from sealing and whaling to the current debate being held between Paua divers and tour operators concerning the benefits and cost of these operations. Yet it is a debate has helped raise essential questions which have the potential to be of equal benefit to those involved in both eco- tourism and the fishing industry to the gain of both man and shark symbiotically.