Experience: Spearfisherman, Scuba Diver
Regions: Fiordland, Stewart Osland
Interview Location: Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 05 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Perry Barr and Steve Crawford
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: What was your first recollection of either hearing about, or seeing, a White Pointer?
BARR: The movie 'Jaws' when I was young.
CRAWFORD: How old do you reckon you were?
BARR: I might have been 10 or something.
CRAWFORD: Just prior to you having your interest in spearfishing in the first place. Were sharks in the back of your head then when you were spearfishing?
BARR: Yeah, I was always a bit nervous.
CRAWFORD: Did you know that there were White Pointers around New Zealand coastal waters?
BARR: Probably not then. I knew there were sharks, but I didn’t know about White Pointers.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Specifically, with regard to White Pointers now, what’s the first time you recall hearing about them or seeing them? Besides 'Jaws'?
BARR: Probably on tv, seeing a documentary of them. And their major habitat is Stewart Island. "Oh, that’s interesting, that’s where I go all the time." [laughs]
CRAWFORD: When you were a kid and you were swimming with family on the beach on the North Island, you made some reference to the fact that there was at least one occasion when a shark was seen off the beach. Did you ever see any sharks there?
BARR: No. I think someone caught a Hammerhead.
CRAWFORD: Any other shark incidences, when you were in that early phase?
CRAWFORD: When you were a kid, including those teen years when you were learning how to spearfish, and your scuba diving years - did you see any sharks on the North Island?
CRAWFORD: Did the old-timers there ever take you aside and caution you against certain places, or times of year, or times of day, or anything else - with regards to sharks in that region?
BARR: No, they never did. I did know on the south coast, further out towards Reef Rocks off Wellington, about the Seals. They would say, "Oh, you just be careful diving around there, because where there are Seals, there’s known to be sharks in the area." That was further around the coast.
CRAWFORD: Do you recall hearing in the Wellington region - did the old-timers talk about White Pointers at all? Did anybody up there ever see one?
BARR: No. Not that I knew of.
CRAWFORD: When you first arrived in Milford Sound, were there other spearfishermen here?
BARR: No, not really.
CRAWFORD: But you made friends with some of the Crayfishermen who shuttled you out. Did the Crayfishermen or anybody else in the community ever caution you about sharks in general, or White Pointers in particular?
CRAWFORD: When you went spearfishing during those limited number of times here, did you ever see sharks of any kind?
BARR: Yeah, I did. At Yates Point. I was spearfishing there, it was quite swelly, and I just shot a big Moki. I put that in my catch bag, and then I saw a Crayfish. I went to grab the Crayfish and I thought, "Aw, something doesn’t feel right." I looked over my shoulder, and there was a shark coming straight for me, and it just came across the back of my neck and passed me, and I thought, "Oh no, now I’m going to be lunch for this shark, because I’m getting my lunch, and he’s going to have me for lunch and, oh gosh, what do I do?" I’ve never had an experience with them before, so I thought, I’ll get onto the bottom of the floor of the ocean. Then it started to circle me slowly, and it moved so slowly, but it went so fast in the water. I had my speargun and my catch bag and my bubbles going flat out. It was getting so close that I had to actually push it off with my spear gun, "oof." It was a Blue Shark, and it was only 2 metres long, but when it's right in front of you, it's quite big it seems. It just looked at me, and was just sussing me out, and was just getting tighter and tighter with the circling. I couldn’t believe how slow it went, hardly moved at all, and how fast it went around me. It felt like ten minutes, but it was probably only two minutes. But it just wouldn’t stop, and I thought "Oh God, I’m getting low on air, so I can’t do this for too long." Then after a while, it wasn’t interested and it drifted off.
CRAWFORD: What depth were you at?
BARR: I was only probably at 30 feet, possibly.
CRAWFORD: And what was the visibility?
BARR: Probably only 5 or 6 metres.
CRAWFORD: And you said you had fish on you?
BARR: In a catch bag.
CRAWFORD: Dis you tie that off to your belt or something? Or dis you have it on a float?
BARR: I just hung onto it.
CRAWFORD: Well, you’re scuba diving. So it's not like when you’re free-dive spear fishing - taking your fish back up to the float, and dumping it in there.
BARR: No, I’m hanging onto it with one hand, and the speargun in the other hand, because now I’m putting crayfish in it. Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. All in this time, we used to have a stringer, a piece of string with a spike through it, we always used to carry our fish on our body, like it was attached to our belt, and a whole stack of fish, like on a line, just sitting there.
CRAWFORD: That was standard practice?
BARR: That’s how you did it.
CRAWFORD: Both free divers and scuba spearfishermen?
CRAWFORD: What was the split between those two? What percentage of people were doing spearfishing by scuba vs spearfishing by free diving?
BARR: I don’t know, I didn’t know many people who did it. It was just me and a mate, really. Most people would just go scuba diving to get crayfish and that’s it, and they would hardly ever take a speargun. But we always took everything, because we wanted everything. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: After that experience with the blue shark at Yates Point, did you see any other sharks out in Milford Sound?
BARR: No. I said to the guy who operates at Yates Point, "I just saw a shark." He said, "Oh, that’s not surprising, it's full of sharks up here." I went "Oh, that’s good to know! I won’t be diving here again." Just off Yates Point, coming back this way there’s a place, there’s the Brig Rock, which is great diving. And there’s a place called Halfway Rock, which I used to get dropped off as well - you could see the rock is about 20 or 30 feet down, and it kind of just broke the low tide. I’ve dived down there, it was huge and so open. I had this image of a massive shark just cruising past, but I never saw one, even though it's the most ideal place for them to be.
CRAWFORD: But you did not see them there. Tell me more about what the Craypotters said about sharks. They said that region was sharky' - did they say what kinds of sharks?
BARR: No, they didn’t.
CRAWFORD: Did they say why the sharks were there?
BARR: They didn’t. But I know the Seals up that coast and around Yates Point, there’s a lot of Seals,
CRAWFORD: When you think about Seals and Seal colonies, aggregations of Seals in the Milford Sound region of Fiordland that you’re familiar with - what regions have the highest density? Which regions are most aggregated, in terms of Seals?
BARR: Oh, up the coast here, Yates Point. There’s a couple of spots just around the corner here by Poison Bay, and it's great for fish and Pāua, brilliant for the Seals. I’ve heard from the boys there’s White Pointers around there as well.
CRAWFORD: When you say 'the boys' - do you mean the Crayfishermen?
BARR: Other spear fishermen and divers.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned the pilots here at Milford Sound, let's talk about them a bit more please. As an air traffic controller, you obviously are in communication with these guys, you know them personally, you talk to them, coming and going. How much of the flight traffic here is actually over the water of Milford Sound and the waters along the Fiordland coastline?
BARR: Yeah, they fly over the Sound. High, about 3,000 feet to the mouth, turn about at the mouth, and then come in lower, about 1,500 feet. So, if they are looking down from 1,500 feet, they might see something. But I’ve never heard anyone report anything to me.
CRAWFORD: For the pilots who do fly over Milford Sound, you’ve never heard any incidental comments that they saw sharks?
BARR: No, I haven’t. Which is weird that, after 20 years, you know? It's probably the height, they’re too high. Because flying at 1,500 feet. And the water, it's often rough, so it would be hard to see one. If it was completely calm and clear, there’s a good chance - if the pilots were looking. The people in the planes see Dolphins, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything about sharks.
CRAWFORD: Ok. In 1993 when you started your annual weekly trips to Stewart, did people take you aside when they realized that you were going to be spearfishing and Pāua diving, and warn you about White Pointers - about certain places, certain times of the year, times of the day or anything like that?
BARR: No. We were the only ones spearfishing, that we knew of.
CRAWFORD: During those trips to Stewart Island, did you ever see any White Pointers?
BARR: Never. And I even dived right in the middle of the bay off Oban where the wharf is. There's this little patch of weed, and there’s a few fish around there, right in the middle. It's quite exposed, because there’s just a tiny bit of weed, and it's just open water all around you. Only just recently they said there’s White Pointers come around in the evening or at some time of day. There’s at least one or two have been seen, all the way into the bay, and then back out again. They’ve probably been doing that when I've been there, and I’ve been spearing fish and I just get my fish and throw it in the boat. But I’ve never seen one. I kind of would have expected to see one, because it's that kind of area. But I never did.
CRAWFORD: Did you see any sharks of any kind at Stewart Island, in all the time that you were diving there?
Copyright © 2017 Perry Barr and Steve Crawford