Ben Yates

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YOB: 1974
Experience: Kayaking Guide
Regions: Canterbury, Marlborough, Fiordland, Tasman
Interview Location: Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 06 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Ben Yates and Steve Crawford

3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE

CRAWFORD: What was your first recollection of hearing about or seeing a White Pointer?

YATES: Hearing about ... I think would straight away be the same thing I said to my clients the first time I had a shark around my boat. I was trying not to think of the popular theme music of 'Jaws' while this thing swims around. So, for me the movie 'Jaws.' I think seeing it on television or something like that. But also because we had a bach out at Marlborough Sounds, I can recall there being some conversations about sharks and things.

CRAWFORD: Sharks in general?

YATES: Sharks in general, but spoken of as White Pointers as being one of the sharks.

CRAWFORD: This was when you were a kid? Do you recall how old you were when you saw the movie?

YATES: I’m not sure when it came out. It was about 1970-something. 

CRAWFORD: That movie was focused on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Did you have a sense that there were White Pointers in New Zealand coastal waters, here at home?

YATES: I'm not sure how many shark types I knew at that age, in general. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. What’s the first time that White Pointers in New Zealand showed up on your radar screen?

YATES: It would be when we shifted - about six and a half. 

CRAWFORD: At a young age. And what did you hear?

YATES: Just a general awareness that they were there.

CRAWFORD: Did they talk about sharks on the Banks Peninsula, when you were there as a kid?

YATES: I wouldn’t say there was a White Shark awareness. 

CRAWFORD: When you were out kayaking or spending time on the water, the old-timers there didn’t say anything like "You have to watch certain areas because of sharks," or anything like that?

YATES: Certainly not. But I do recall that it was spoken that going swimming after dark increases the probability of a shark attack. 

CRAWFORD: Really? You remember that from being 6?

YATES: I think it is from about that age.

CRAWFORD: Okay. When you spent time on beaches, were these beaches with Surf Life Saving?

YATES: When we did our summer holiday around Christchurch and New Brighton, there were Surf Life Savers on those beaches. 

CRAWFORD: Did you ever experience being on a beach when somebody called out because of a shark? A whistle blown, or a bell rung - something like that?

YATES: No. 

CRAWFORD: When you lived around the Banks Peninsula, you said you spent some time up at Kaikoura. That's a very different region, in terms of how deep it gets, relatively speaking. Was Kaikoura any more 'sharky,' based on what you saw or heard?

YATES: Nothing, not that I can recall. Apart from that is was close to the Seal colonies, things like that. I don’t think it’d be hyped conversation to do with it. But there might be some conversation to do with sharks around, with the whale watching getting set up. What else you could see. 

CRAWFORD: With regard to Seal colonies, was Kaikoura Peninsula, was that home to a strong aggregation of Seals? Were they dense up there?

YATES: I’m not sure whether it would be that, or whether that’s a tourist destination or a likely place to stop. So, if you’re likely to stop there, you’d be near the coast and you’d see the Seals. We might not have stopped anywhere else, to notice where the Seals were. 

CRAWFORD: Fair enough. In your time around the Banks Peninsula, do you remember seeing aggregations of Seals around there? 

YATES: No. Akaroa - I knew there were more Seals there. This side, not so much. 

CRAWFORD: You got to know the Timaru region for the three years you were there. Did the old-timers ever take you aside and say "You guys and gals, you watch out for this region." Anything like that?

YATES: We were at the surf points. Where we would go surf kayaking, so going up at twilight ... there was certainly an awareness of if it’s in dusk, of being aware that you can’t see what’s going on. Plus, if something happens, you’ve got less hours of light to deal with it. So, from an outdoor recreation point of view, they were just training us to be aware of when to pull the pin on activities. 

CRAWFORD: Were there any specific historical events, or sightings in that time that you recall? Of sharks generally?

YATES: Not really. Nothing comes to mind. 

CRAWFORD: No. So, really all the way until you get into your early 20s, sharks really aren’t there.

YATES: An awareness of them, because I’m from a background of outdoor enthusiast parents. Watching nature programs on a Sunday night, as opposed to a crazy movie - that would be more of my life. Watching shows on a shark, or Jacques Cousteau - I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau when I was a boy. I can certainly say I learned a lot about what he’d said, and I recall a lot of that information. 

CRAWFORD: When you first arrived at Milford Sound, did anybody take you aside - especially as a kayaker - and say "Be mindful of sharks here"?

YATES: Quite the opposite. I asked about sharks when I came to do sea kayaking. 

CRAWFORD: You did?

YATES: I did. And due to the freshwater layer that frequents the fiords so often, the likelihood of having a shark encounter in the freshwater, apart from a Bull Shark - which has a high tolerance - it's bloody unlikely. 

CRAWFORD: That’s what you knew already, or that's what you were told when you got here?

YATES: No, that’s what was indicated to me. That it was less likely that you would see a shark cruising around on the surface, due to the freshwater that you’ve got on there. I mean, it was one of those conversations with the fishermen - you are always near a shark. In the early years of working for Milford, I had the privilege of driving the little tender boat for the Pāua divers. And the chap, I don’t know his last name, but a huge hulk of a man - Joe, an American guy. He had done some of the National Geographic Great White Shark footage. So, I certainly picked his brains over sharks.

CRAWFORD: Where did he do that footage?

YATES: I’m not sure. But I think I’ve seen some of the stuff that he did. 

CRAWFORD: And you met him here at Milford Sound?

YATES: I did. And over the years that I worked here, he would come and get his quota of Pāua. Similar to the Dolphin boat, after a few years of knowing him, and him going "Hey, do you wanna come out and do the zody for us?" I tried not to ask too much about sharks, because I didn’t think they’d appreciate it, while they were doing the Pāua on that day. But otherwise in general, I spoke of them to him. 

CRAWFORD: So, you’ve got a fellow with direct experience with White Pointers?

YATES: That’s correct. 

CRAWFORD: And he was Pāua diving here off Milford Sound?

YATES: Yes. I frequently chatted with him here, because he would stay at the Lodge with the Pāua divers. The Lodge that my girlfriend was managing. So I would speak to him, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: And what did he say, if anything, about White Pointers along Fiordland, the southwestern coast of South Island?

YATES: He said there are sharks - Great White Sharks, White Pointers - along the coast. I dare say I recall him saying they’ve got plenty of food here, if they want it. 

CRAWFORD: And what was he indicating would be the preferred food?

YATES: I don’t think he was saying it was their preferred food - it was just Seals. I know that in some areas, a huge portion of their diet is made up of Dolphin.

CRAWFORD: Dolphins along here? 

YATES: The Dolphins that are in the fiords. I think they have behaviours of being aggressive towards Sharks or having knowledge of how to deal with them.

CRAWFORD: Have you ever seen Dolphins behaving aggressively towards Sharks?

YATES: No. But I’ve had Dolphins and Sharks in the fiord on the same day.

CRAWFORD: Okay, this is probably time to back up a little bit. You’ve already said you never saw any sharks, if I recall correctly, along the Banks Peninsula?

YATES: Well, Dog Sharks, Spiky Dogs, things like that. But not White Pointers, or any large sharks - larger than about a metre. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Have you seen any larger sharks along the Fiordland coast, or in the Fiords?

YATES: Yes, I have. It was probably about six weeks into working for the kayaking outfit. It was raining when I arrived, it rained for 32 days without stopping - it almost broke the record, which would have been 33 days, but we broke even. So, 32 days. And then we had an incredible ... basically a month with no rain, and the fiord became very, very clear. Very little tannin in the water, and I had a Blue Shark swimming around my client’s boat, and rubbing against the side of my kayak. I was able to put my hand on its back, and run my hand down its back. I thought I'd try to hold on to its fin gently, to see if it could pull me along a bit, because it was in that very relaxed mode. My clients were a bit excited, and I said "It looks like It’s pretty calm, and it’s just investigating us." And everything else in the fiord - I felt quite serene about it all, and this shark seemed to be on the same vibe. But when I held onto its fin, it didn’t like that, had a bit of a splash of the tail, and disappeared. 

CRAWFORD: That was a Blue Shark?

YATES: That was a Blue Shark, about two metres.

CRAWFORD: Let’s go back to comments you made on water stratification and water clarity. When you’ve got extended periods of rainfall, and you’ve got freshwater that’s flowing out into the fiords, you’re going to have a layer of freshwater on top of a layer of saltwater?

YATES: Correct. 

CRAWFORD: Do you know roughly how deep that freshwater layer would be under normal circumstances, and how deep under extreme circumstances?

YATES: Extreme circumstance about 20 metres. They’ve lost the gardens a few times when there’s been that much freshwater that what’s in the gardens - that they lower it down to about 20 metres - they can’t get the gardens deep enough to get away from the freshwater. 

CRAWFORD: When you say 'the gardens,' do you mean the Discovery Centre?

YATES: That’s correct. 

CRAWFORD: So, 20 metres of freshwater. That's a significant amount. 

YATES: Not so significant in an area that has ... you know the fiord's 14 kilometres long, about 2 kilometres wide, and yet there are 32 different valleys feeding into it of over 2 kilometres. It’s one of the weirdest places. Over seven meters of rainfall a year. It's a huge catchment.

CRAWFORD: Yes. Describe the seasonality of that rainfall pattern, especially in Milford Sound, over the course of a year. 

YATES: Well, usually the patterns move from lower left to upper right. 

CRAWFORD: Southwest to northeast?

YATES: Correct. And when the angle changes, and it comes more from the Tasman Sea, you get the warm moist air getting picked up - which of course heads into the Southern Alps and drops the rain more frequently. 

CRAWFORD: In terms of seasonality, when do you get the most rain?

YATES: Spring rains, and autumn rains. 

CRAWFORD: Less so in winter and summer?

YATES: Very little rain in the winter, and it generally falls as snows on the mountains around. And you don’t have those big warm cycles coming through, so it’s very dry. And the middle of summer, it can still come through any time, and just have a very rainy season or a month or two without. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Other that the layer of freshwater sitting over top of the saltwater, are there any inversions that happen? Do you get dynamic switches, such that you get a submerged lens of freshwater underneath saltwater? Do you ever get anything like that?

YATES: I haven’t seen that. The only thing that I’ve seen, when you’re talking about depth ... I’ve pushed a rather large rock off the side of the fiord from about 100 meters up. 

CRAWFORD: [laughs] 

YATES: ... and it made a pretty good splash. It would have made chest freezers, even if they were large, look quite small. I was amazed, because at the time there was quite a tannin layer on there, and the green, crystal-clear water that came up after the rock had gone down, a vivid green on an otherwise black sea. And you could see through that hole!

CRAWFORD: What are tannins, and how do they affect water clarity and hydrodynamics? 

YATES: Well, due to the moisture and the way it hits our mountains, there is a good supply of water - even right to the tops of the mountains. And beach forest has managed to create a sort of symbiotic relationship, where they don’t just stand for themselves, they’ll sort of hook their roots into each other and create an unbroken mat of roots. All of the other organisms as well, and the other species, but particularly the beach forest. Therefore, they can grow on almost vertical slopes, and that means all of the area around here is pretty much covered in forests or some other green thing. The decomposing matter that sits underneath this, sort of the moss root layer, when that’s rotting away, the chlorophyll that’s decaying comes out of the rotting material every time it rains. And the rivers run this tea colour - a tea that you probably wouldn’t want to drink, because it’s made with too many tea bags. It’s pretty strong stuff. 

CRAWFORD: How does that affect the colour or visibility in Milford Sound?

YATES: Freshwater being lighter than seawater, sits on the top. It takes a while to disperse, because there’s not a lot of ocean action or swell action coming into the fiord - only the windborne wave action. It can take a lot of time to disperse, you know? 

CRAWFORD: So, it’s complex stuff. It’s important for understanding - not just the dynamics of this fiord - but all of the fiords along this coast?

YATES: Definitely. It’s the same process. 

CRAWFORD: When we're talking about visibility, if there were sharks in Milford Sound, given the water conditions, both in terms of the freshwater layer and the tannins ... If those sharks were staying in the saltwater component, given the depth of the freshwater component, and the loading of tannins associated with that freshwater - I’m suspecting that your visibility simply wouldn’t allow you to see what was happening in the saltwater component down below?

YATES: You can't see all the way down to the saltwater. If the freshwater is deep, you're not going to see far into the saltwater at all, because it's come out as a high concentration of tannins. So, it’ll be black. If it’s been raining lightly, you’ll get like I said a tea colour. So, you can still see quite well into that. 

CRAWFORD: And that’s the point that I’m trying to get to. Now, after having been out there on several of the tours, it gives me a different appreciation. Any time you’re looking in the water, you’re potentially looking at a freshwater component and you’re not even seeing that much of it because of the tannins. The saltwater component that’s underneath, is often virtually inaccessible to the eye. 

YATES: Yeah. Which would explain why a lot of people don’t see a hell of a lot when they look into the water, apart from the Dolphins when they break the surface. 

CRAWFORD: Yes. And the occasional Whales? Do you ever get pods of Orcas, or anything like that?

YATES: I had Orca in Abel Tasman, right under my kayak. 

CRAWFORD: What about the fiords?

YATES: A couple of years ago. Two years ago, I was out fishing here, and we had 20-25 Orca over half an hour. 

CRAWFORD: And anything that comes up to the surface to breathe, you’re going to see that?

YATES: In the fiord you will, because it’s that calm generally. It doesn’t have the swell, generally. But a lot of days, if something breaks the surface, within kilometres you will see it. 

CRAWFORD: Some people have said there are exceptional circumstances where that freshwater layer ...

YATES: Is gone. Yeah, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: And you simply have saltwater conditions? When does that happen?

YATES: That happened for me in November. So, my 6th to probably 12th week here.

CRAWFORD: And what are the meteorological circumstances that give rise to that? What are the combinations of things that have to happen, in order for Milford Sound to show its saltwater characteristics at the surface? 

YATES: Great big highs all over the country. Especially the southern area. So there’s not a lot of wind movement, not a lot of rain falling. 

CRAWFORD: Drought? 

YATES: Drought, basically yeah. 

CRAWFORD: If you get a drought here, then gradually you will lose that freshwater layer?

YATES: You get rid of it. 

CRAWFORD: Just by looking at it, how would you know that it was only the saltwater component that you were seeing?

YATES: I personally keep a pretty good conversation with the underwater observatory at the Discover Centre. 

CRAWFORD: They would definitely know it? But did Milford Sound look differently?

YATES: Oh, absolutely. The colour was way, way more green. 

CRAWFORD: When it was saltwater?

YATES: Yeah, definitely. Like clear water, as opposed to any tannins and that wine colour. And that’s when I saw sharks - that whole month. I had a Whitetip on one side swimming along. Which was great, because it was swimming along in front of us in Harrison's. And I went to see if I could get behind it, and it realized that it was being followed, and it accelerated - and that was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen accelerate to that speed. The movement of it was phenomenal. It didn’t look like it was doing very much, to go from naught to ... it looked like a bloody arrow, flying through the water. And then five minutes later, we realized it was following us. So, that was pretty neat. 

CRAWFORD: Yeah. 

YATES: And off the side where Penguin Tree is, where there's also Seals, I’ve had Seals swimming alongside us. They stick very close to the side of the fiord, and just roll around, pirouette in the water. And having a Blacktip, I think it was, on the left of us. And that was just cruising along you know. Again, these are parts of the season when it is exceptional. Speaking to the head skippers at those times ... yeah, they could see up to ten sharks or more a day, in these conditions. And of course, they’re seeing from the wheelhouse, so they’re not dealing with the reflection or refraction issues as much. From a kayaking point of view, you’re so low you’re looking across the surface, instead of down.

CRAWFORD: Right. How often do those surface saltwater conditions actually arise? Is that a once-a-season thing?

YATES: That would be clearest after a whole month without rain. Usually a long period without rain - might be about two to three weeks, and the waterfalls dry up, and the customers get grumpy because they can’t take waterfall photos all the way through the fiord. So, you do realize when those periods happen a little bit more.

CRAWFORD: But even during a two- or three-week drought period, you’ll start to see the change?

YATES: Definitely. But I’d think you’d start to get it earlier, because you can just have small amounts of rain occurring. You’re getting rain frequently, but you’re not getting daily floods. The absolute deluges - it would enough that you would put your hand below the water, and you wouldn’t see your hand beside your kayak.

CRAWFORD: Ok. You mentioned before about Seals up at Yate's Point. Tell me more about that, please.

YATES: It’s shallow. You’ll see from the map there, it’s a pretty shallow area. It has lots of tide pools. Almost always an opportunity for a Seal to be there. A relatively safe place for a Mum to go and feed for a day or two, and leave her Seals pups without them having to be in the actual ocean. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly, how many Seals might you see there at Yate's Point?

YATES: Again, this is going to be from an airplane ...

CRAWFORD: You’ve never kayaked out there?

YATES: I’ve gone past, but I wasn’t going to be too close on that particular day - we had a storm behind us. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. When you have seen, by aircraft, Seals at Yates’s Point, roughly how many have you seen there?

YATES: I think you’d be looking at more than 50, easily more than 50. 

CRAWFORD: Is it the densest aggregation of Seals that you know of, in this region? 

YATES: Yeah. It would be, actually. I do know historically when ... well, it would be about fifteen years ago, DOC did a count on the Seals. And they estimated there would be around 90,000 Seals around the coastal areas of New Zealand, give or take. And I had been reading a book on the history of Fiordland, and the first of about seven Sealing boats that left, left with over 60,000 skins on board. 

CRAWFORD: So, anything now pales in comparison to what was?

YATES: It put in perspective of how different life has been, and their impact here. There were five different species of Whales that lived within our fiords. Now, we get visited from time to time, but these species actually lived within the fiords - they didn’t have to go anywhere else for long periods of time. Captain Cook said that the crew couldn’t sleep day or night, for the sound of the whales through the hull. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Let's go to that period when you were helping with the Dolphin survey, because while it was a snapshot in time - you were in a dozen different fiords. Did you see sharks in any of the fiords, when you were doing the surveys?

YATES: Yeah, I think we saw Blue Sharks from time to time. Up at the surface, they had a habit of basking, as it were. I’ve seen a few down there, cruising around. 

CRAWFORD: When you were with your mate doing the Dolphin survey, did he ever talk about the sharks? Did he ever talk about White Pointers specifically?

YATES: In relation to Dolphins, and their preying on them, yeah.  He’s a South African man, so certainly he spoke about the Dolphins getting chomped very regularly by their White Sharks.

CRAWFORD: Did he have any reason to believe that White Pointers were preying on Dolphins here?

YATES: I don’t think he said it as strongly as "They’re definitely doing it." But I’m pretty certain, I would have the opinion that it happens. 

CRAWFORD: But no direct evidence. It was more the likelihood or the probability of it happening?

YATES: I’d say it was probably happening. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. You mentioned before this kind of interaction between Dolphins and Sharks, and I want to re-visit that for a second. Have you ever seen - in any of these fiords - any Dolphins behaving in a way that would be consistent with kind of a 'gang' approach to dealing with a shark?

YATES: Nothing. The only group stuff I’ve seen them up to was hanging out, playing games. 

CRAWFORD: Have you ever heard from any of the people that spent time, either as skippers or Crayfisherman or boaters or anything? Has anybody else seen Dolphins behaving that way in response to Sharks?

YATES: The South African chap, Dave - I think he’s spoken of seeing Dolphins doing that.

CRAWFORD: In your almost 20 years round Fiordland, of all the people - the old-timers, your contemporaries - have you known anybody else who has seen a White Pointer, either in the fiords or offshore?

YATES: I think all the fishermen have seen them. Some guys go to refuel north ...

CRAWFORD: You mean Haast?

YATES: Yep. Or if they're in the southern fiords, and they might go back round to Bluff. Or there’s a resupply vessel, as well. Of the guys that are around this area, and around Stewart Island, most of them have seen big White Sharks. Especially the old crew, but I'm talking ... these are the chaps that have been fishing families for generations. These are the fisherman that I’ve worked with, and they've spoken of it generally. But they haven’t spoken of it specifically in these areas here. At least I don’t recall them saying that. 

CRAWFORD: Have you ever heard of boats or kayaks being bumped by sharks?

YATES: Yes. Paul Caffyn, famous New Zealand kayaker, circumnavigated New Zealand, Japan and Australia in a sea kayak. He’s been bumped. 

CRAWFORD: Where and when did that happen? Do you know?

YATES: I know that it happened in Aussie, around the coast of Aus. I can’t recall whether he said it happened around New Zealand, but I know he certainly saw sharks. Within the period of time he circumnavigated New Zealand, he said he certainly saw sharks. And I’ve had another friend paddle along the coast of South Africa, and he certainly saw sharks there. But again, there’s kayaking around here, but not something that would cause or draw any concern.

CRAWFORD: It’s not anything that, in your experience, kayaking semi-professionally in your own right, but also guiding amateurs and more experienced kayakers - this is not something that has ever happened with White Pointers, as far as your aware?

YATES: That’s correct. I know from people around Timaru who’ve had sightings of sharks. But whether it was a White Pointer or not, I don’t think so. 

CRAWFORD: But that’s a sighting, as opposed to following or bumping or something else?

YATES: I’m just trying to recall how the conversation went. Because we were in these whitewater kayaks, but be surfing on the sea where surfers would be. And to start with, you’d try not to be there when the surfers were there, because they don’t like us. 

CRAWFORD: Why is it that surfers don’t like kayakers?

YATES: Because we can catch every single wave, and get in their way too often. [laughs] Rather than the hero that paddles in and catches the wave. So, you can have an idiot in front of you too often. [laughs]

CRAWFORD: So really, if we summarize - based on your experience, with the exception of a large shark on at least one occasion at Seal Rock [see below], you’re not aware of any White Pointers in Milford Sound?

YATES: Actually, the fisherman had caught one here, one time. Or it had been caught in a net or something. And that was the first White Pointer that I saw. 

CRAWFORD: When was that?

YATES: Again, that would be early days. So, 1998-99. 

CRAWFORD: Do you remember who brought it in?

YATES: Nope. Couldn’t tell you, actually. It wasn’t the usual fishermen that I would be fishing with. 

CRAWFORD: How would fishermen, predominantly Crayfishermen around here, tie into a White Pointer?

YATES: You’ve got Crayfishermen that’ll go up and down. And then during the off season, because the Crayfishing season only lasts so long, they’ll be droplining or longlining, which is what I was doing.

CRAWFORD: Ok. I’ll be talking to at least one of the commercial guys. it’s quite possible they would remember that shark as well. 

YATES: It wasn’t very big. But I just remember how incredibly pointy its little nose was ...

CRAWFORD: When you say 'it wasn’t very big' - how not very big was it?

YATES: Probably just over two metres. 

CRAWFORD: That’s pretty not big. That’s not much bigger than a White Pointer pup after its live born. 

YATES: Is it?

CRAWFORD: Yeah, because the animals are pretty large when they’re born. The fishermen who brought it in, they were the ones who said it was a White Pointer?

YATES: I think so, yeah.

CRAWFORD: Sometimes there are other species that look like White Pointers. But if you’ve never seen sharks before, you might jump to the conclusion. Alright, I will check with them on that one - commercial guys typically are very good at identifying fish.

YATES: Yeah.

Copyright © 2017 Ben Yates and Steve Crawford