Ben Yates


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


CRAWFORD: Alright Ben, let’s start with the first thing that you indicated in your introduction - you were born in Canterbury?

YATES: That’s correct. 

CRAWFORD: And what year was that? 

YATES: 1974. 

CRAWFORD: At what age do you remember first spending a significant time around the water?

YATES: Being an inland Canterbury boy, at a very early age we had kayaks, and so we would paddle from an early age in our summer holidays. Once we were a few years older, we spent some time around the coast of Canterbury.

CRAWFORD: When you first started spending time around New Zealand marine coastal waters, where would that have been?

YATES: Christchurch, Lyttleton, Akaroa. Some of the smaller little island and areas around the coast there. And Kaikoura. And we also had a bach [cottage] in the Marlborough Sounds

CRAWFORD: How old were you when you started to spend time around the Banks Peninsula?

YATES: From about 7 to 12, I suppose. 

CRAWFORD: Did your family have a crib there?

YATES: We were living in this area for a few years, and then we moved to Canterbury. But we still had friends remaining, so we still spent a lot of time in that area. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly, what was the age when you didn’t need adult supervision?

YATES: I was about 10 when I started hunting. I was already in the outdoors, doing my own thing. 

CRAWFORD: So, from 7 to 10, what were the different types of activities on and around the coastal waters?

YATES: Little bit of kayaking, bit of sailing, fishing. I’d be off the coast from time to time on boats.

CRAWFORD: And when you say fishing, do you mean rod and reel fishing?

YATES: Yeah, rod and reel fishing. Whether it was off the wharf, or a little dinghy, or from time to time in smaller boats. 

CRAWFORD: These were mainly family trips?

YATES: Yeah, family and friend trips. 

CRAWFORD: How would you describe the split in those activities? Were you mostly boating, or mostly swimming?

YATES: I didn’t like to swim a lot, but there would have been people in the water for most of those activities. I might have been swimming, from time to time. 

CRAWFORD: You were mostly on the water, in a kayak or a boat?

YATES: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Sail boat, power boat?

YATES: Power boat, mainly. 

CRAWFORD: When you were on a power boat, were you boating for the sake of boating, or were you fishing? What was that split?

YATES: Just pleasure boating a lot of the time. 

CRAWFORD: What kind of seasonality was there in your boating activity. Mostly in the summers, when you were a young fella?

YATES: Yes, I would say so. 

CRAWFORD: And during those summers, roughly how many weeks do you figure you would have spent on or around the water?

YATES: Between seven and nine weeks. We would have been around the water a majority of the time, because of where we were living. And we would have been swimming in the water as soon as it was warm enough. So, 12-13 degrees as a kid, and you’d be happy to be swimming.

CRAWFORD: Pretty much all the holidays and weekends and whatever?

YATES: Definitely.

CRAWFORD: Pre-teens and early teens, I’m guessing you were still needing transportation. When did you become mobile?

YATES: I did move inland, with less time along the Kaikoura area. At 16, I started hitching.

CRAWFORD:  Were the activities pretty much the same, but in a different location?

YATES: No, they were more beach-based actually, or swimming from a beach, as opposed to boating. 

CRAWFORD: And what other types of beach-based activities, other than swimming? Did you do any kayaking, that type of thing?

YATES: Yeah, but not a lot. There would have been more with a ring, going out in the surf and floating around, what have you.

CRAWFORD: Did you do any surfing?

YATES: No. In a kayak yes, but not on a surfboard. 

CRAWFORD: When you finally got to the age where you could drive, was that around 16?

YATES: Yeah, about that. 

CRAWFORD: What happened then? How did that affect your ability to engage in coastal water activities?  

YATES: I don't think I had a lot at that stage. Apart from going through high school at Christchurch, and we would go down to the beach, from time to time. Visiting these different places to go for swims.

CRAWFORD: Ok. What was the next major change in the amount of time or activities that you spent in New Zealand coastal waters?

YATES: Three years of an outdoor recreation course, based out of Timaru at Aoraki Polytechnic.

CRAWFORD: How old were you when you went there?

YATES: 18 to 21.

CRAWFORD: That was for a broad range of different outdoor activities?

YATES: All sorts. 

CRAWFORD: And of those, is that where your specialization in kayaking came in? 

YATES: That’s where I’d say I became a kayaker. As opposed to kayaking from time to time. You know, your own gear, and desire to frequently get out there. I was surfing the sea or river. 

CRAWFORD: Did you do that, knowing you were going to become a professional in outdoor recreation?

YATES: I chose kayaking and rock climbing as the two main subjects to study for that reason. But I also deemed them to be something that increase the chances of a job. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. You graduated from the course at 21. What happened then?

YATES: I did about a year or so at the YMCA in Christchurch. And then after that, I went to Queenstown, working for the bungee-jumping company for a couple of years. And after that I left and went to Milford

CRAWFORD: During the time in Christchurch or Queenstown, were you still spending significant time around New Zealand coastal waters? Or were you kind of an inland boy for a while?

YATES: Water-based things while I was in Christchurch, going to the beach, especially in summertime. A little bit of kayaking, a little bit of sailing. Not super-regularly, because I was instructing high schools, so things that weren’t really ocean-based. 

CRAWFORD: Then in Queenstown, were you mostly dealing with inland lakes and rivers then?

YATES: Correct. 

CRAWFORD: What year did you move here to Milford Sound?

YATES: 1997-98. We were working in-season, so the summer season of 97-98. 

CRAWFORD: When you came here first, where did you work?

YATES: I worked for Rosco’s Milford Sound Sea Kayaks. When I first started, there wasn’t really a winter job here for the coldest months. I started guiding from Queenstown where I would fly into Milford and do guiding trips in wintertime, and then fly back again. And then I wanted to stay in Milford, and they said "Well, let’s see if we can run all winter." So, I told them I would stay in the winter as well.

CRAWFORD: When did they start running all winter?

YATES: Probably 1999. After my first season, I wanted to stay all year round. 

CRAWFORD: From that point you have been living and working out of Milford Sound full-time? 

YATES: Totally. 

CRAWFORD: What is your split in activities now? Kayaking is an important part of what you do professionally - what other types of coastal activities are you engaged in as well? 

YATES: For the time in Milford, it was predominantly kayaking. 

CRAWFORD: Are we talking 80% of your time? 

YATES: I was probably on the water about eight days a week. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Of those eight days a week, was there a seasonality to the kayaking jobs that you were doing? Was there still more work in the summer - more than there was in the winter?

YATES: It was dependent on your guiding, and your desire to go. If you wanted to guide, and you were good enough to do what you wanted to do, and you wanted to stick around, there’s probably a job. If you were able to cover all of the different tasks required. I’d operate small boats, I’d operate and manage a small kayaking business in here. And run solo, which I was able to do after the Polytech course. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. For your kayaking work, roughly how many hours on the water?

YATES: We’d do ten days on, four days off. And in your ten days, you would run a trip from about 7:30 to pick your clients up. If you could get them organized, you could be on the water in 45 minutes, and not return until after lunch. And then you would have other trips, which would be either round Deepwater Basin, or all the way out into the fiord and surf back. 

CRAWFORD: The point is, you were pretty much on the water all day?

YATES: Yep. To give you an idea, one season for Rosco I did 27 days in a row, had half a day off, and then another 18 days straight on the water. 

CRAWFORD: Right. Was there a natural split between the trips that you’d be doing? Were there some that were relatively close to the head of the harbour in Milford Sound, and others that were more adventurous, at a more expert level?

YATES: Certainly. Morning trips were predominantly calm in the summer, peak season, due to the katabatic winds that we get here, and height of the mountains that draws the seabreeze in - up to 20-25 knots pretty solidly, all through summer. To get people that had not kayaked before, or not so experienced, to take them out early in the morning and have them back before the 1 o'clock roaring breezes.

CRAWFORD: How far out might you go on those morning trips?

YATES: If you had a good crew, you’d go out to Harrison’s, which is 5-6 kilometres out.

CRAWFORD: That’s where the Discovery Centre is?

YATES: That’s correct. Up one side, across the fiord, hook around, back down, across the fiord, and back. 

CRAWFORD: That would be a typical, intro-level morning session?

YATES: Between 11 and 14 kilometers total. 

CRAWFORD: For more serious kayakers, what might you do?

YATES: Once the day breezes picked up, load some kayaks onto a fast boat, race out, put them down at the end of the fiord, and use those same katabatic-generated winds to surf back until sunset.

CRAWFORD: How long would that take?

YATES: Depending on how good the clients were, if they could catch every wave, you could keep up with the tour boats. 

CRAWFORD: Really? So, you’re talking about 10 knots? 

YATES: You’re talking faster than 10 knots. 

CRAWFORD: Wow. Did you spend any significant amount of time outside of Milford Sound? Did you go down to Doubtful Sound, places like that?

YATES:  I’ve been through all of the other fiords, in and around. I spent two months on a Dolphin survey boat, in and out studying them.

CRAWFORD: Dolphin survey boat run by whom? By DOC [Department of Conservation]?

YATES: By a chap who was also doing a bit of a study on Dolphins, that’s his passion. A chap that’s over in Dunedin, by the name of [Dave Grunden]. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Was he doing this because of an academic interest?

YATES: I believe so, and also personal.

CRAWFORD: Was it also an eco-tour operation that he was doing? Or was this straight-up research?

YATES: Mainly research. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That was roughly when?

YATES: That was after I finished in the fiord, so roundabout 2000-01. No, it was actually after that, maybe it was more like 2003-04. It was research based every six months. He would sail all the way down to the bottom, and then go in and out of every single fiord - noting where the Dolphins were. We’d spend about two and half weeks in Dusky and Doubtful. Be watching the four main different pods that were around here, and how they moved around, when they interacted, what their daily behaviours were, water temperatures, how they were feeding. 

CRAWFORD: You were doing this as a guide, or as a paid assistant, or as a volunteer?

YATES: A volunteer, basically. Yeah, he said "Hey. 400 dollars worth of food. Do you wanna come along?" I’d helped him the previous umpteen years. But being involved in the kayaking operation here, I could never go. And then after I’d finished working for Rosco Kayaking, the opportunity was here, and it came about. 

CRAWFORD: How many times did you do that Dolphin survey?

YATES: Just the once, unfortunately. 

CRAWFORD: And that was 2003?

YATES: I think about 2003, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: How many years did you work for Rosco's? 

YATES: Off and on, over five years. 

CRAWFORD: Then you had a break, it happened to coincide with the Dolphin survey along the Fiordland coast. Then what happened?

YATES: And then after working here I went to Abel Tasman, and guided there for a short period of time - about one season. 

CRAWFORD: This was based in the national park?

YATES: That’s correct. Mostly do trips on the short section. And again, the more experienced guides get to run multi-day trips which can end up all the way into Golden Bay. 

CRAWFORD: How long did you guide up at Abel Tasman?

YATES: That was for six months.

CRAWFORD: One six-month period?

YATES: Yep. And going to Abel Tasman, after working in Milford Sound, and not having storms that would destroy everything, or various other parts of nature that would just say 'No' to humans, regardless what you wanted to do ... I had to return back south where that sort of stuff happens. I lasted for six months there, and handed in my resignation and said "I’ve gotta get back down south, where there’s mountain and lakes, and a crazy ocean."

CRAWFORD: It was a little too soft for you?

YATES: I mean, on my first trip out I had a whole bunch of grey rents ...

CRAWFORD: Grey whats?

YATES: Grey rents. You know, when you see the old people, and they tint their hair a little bit, sort of getting close to that age

CRAWFORD: [laughs]

YATES: There was a section that we were trying to get to, called the Mad Mile, to get to a place called the Anchorage - standard day-trip. From there you’d get on the aquataxi, and people would get transported back. We’ll stay the night and move forward. And it was really windy, it was blowing some really good gusts - you’re talking 18-20 knots. But there’s patches of shelter behind rocks, etcetera. After working in Milford, I thought "I can get these guys there." I told them "It could be hard, but if anything happens the wind’s blowing perfectly back where we’re coming from - if we need to run with it." And we managed to get there, and encountered nobody else on the way up, because everybody else was parked on the earlier beaches. And I came around the corner, and they said "Where have you come from? Just around the corner?" I said "No, we've come up the Mad Mile." They looked at my clients, and they said "With them?" I said "Yep." They said "Are you that new guy from Milford?" I said, "Why’s that?" They said "Everybody else cancels on days like today."

CRAWFORD: [Laughs heartily].

YATES: ... and I decided this was going to be a pretty easy season. 

CRAWFORD: Alright, ok. After Abel Tasman, did you return to Milford Sound?

YATES: I’ve worked off and on at MiIford Sound for the last 17 years now, doing various jobs. 

CRAWFORD: When you’re not 'on' here, where else are you?

YATES: I started working for, and then bought, a whitewater kayaking business in Wellington. Which I’ve operated for the last 12 years.

CRAWFORD: Roughly, what's the split in time between the inland whitewater kayaking, and your kayaking here on the Fiordland coast over those years? 50/50?

YATES: No, no. Definitely not. Cameo trips to Milford. 

CRAWFORD: Pardon me?

YATES: A cameo trip to Milford from time to time, to do the kayaking. Not guiding for Rosco, but occasionally helping out, very infrequently. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. So, mostly inland, whitewater work during that time?

YATES: Mostly, yeah. And in my winters, my partner ... her brother owns the Milford Sound Lodge. So, I would be coming over here, staying and working here. And occasionally helping Rosco out - maybe the odd trip here and there. And I’ve worked out on fishing boats. I was at the Lodge, and it happened to be wintertime, and they were short of a crew, and they said "We’re going to do a 14-day fishing trip down the coast." I said "I'd love to." So, we went all the way to the bottom and fished.

CRAWFORD: Was that an occasional thing, or a regular thing?

YATES: I regularly would go with Crayfishermen around here. 

CRAWFORD: Day-fishing operations?

YATES: Yeah, or simple overnights. I would frequently go out, up and down the coast, helping them with the Crayfishing. Basically, from the time I’ve moved here since my time in Queenstown, Rosco said to me after two and half months "You haven’t left yet." And I've pretty much lived in Milford full-time. And on the fishing boats and Crayfishing boats. 

CRAWFORD: Currently then, over this last block of time, how many weeks of the year are you spending in Milford Sound, or along the Fiordland coast? 

YATES: This last year very little. Years before, I was here off and on for the six months working. And I would have been on the fiord, for personal reasons rather than guiding, probably every second or third day. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. I think that brings us up to the present. Did we miss any other either places where you have spent time in New Zealand coastal waters?

YATES: No, that's pretty much it. 


CRAWFORD: With regards to Māori culture and Māori knowledge, how much that has that influenced your understanding of the marine environment?

YATES: Could be Medium. I spent a week in Kaikoura when I was at polytech. And there was a cultural base week of ...

CRAWFORD: Immersion?

YATES: Yeah, a cultural immersion week, exactly. And there was a lot of talk about harvesting. 

CRAWFORD: Would you have had Māori mates through the years? People you’ve worked with maybe, or hung out with?

YATES: Yeah, my best mate, a Māori chap. Been one of my best mates for the last 20 years. 

CRAWFORD: With regards to Science, how much has it affected your understanding of marine environments?

YATES: In my personal interest in it, and through my career and guiding. I have also sought it out through media, through my interests, and through the people that I’ve worked with, and asked questions through the fishermen.

CRAWFORD: Would you say the influence was High or Very High?

YATES: I would go High. I’ve certainly had thoughts where I could have asked more, I could have learned more, I could have done more, with just the resources that were around, without being pushed. I used to say to them in the fiord "If anyone’s got a question, I’ve got a radio here that goes to people which have cell phones and internet. There is no question we can’t try."


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?


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. 


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.


CRAWFORD: Have you personally seen any White Pointers in the wild?

YATES: I think I've seen one here in Milford, and I was on a vessel that saw one down at Stewart Island.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Tell me about Stewart Island first, please.

YATES: I’ve got friends that live in Bluff, and they frequent Stewart Island. 

CRAWFORD: They frequent it socially, or they’re working there?

YATES: Frequent it socially. And they have their own boat, and go there frequently. They had their wedding there, which was when I was there. I was in Halfmoon Bay in a little inflatable, as in a little inflatable single-person raft with my five-year-old boy, paddling through Halfmoon Bay - where the last buoys are. That’s when he asked me about sharks, and I said "No actually we get them here, some of the biggest White Sharks that we get on the planet, and they live around here. This is a great area for them." And the next day, when we were leaving after the wedding, as we were getting to that spot I turned around to say "Hey, this is how far out we paddled." And that was when the Skipper goes "Ladies and Gentlemen, on your right-hand side, there’s a 4.5 metre Great White Shark."

CRAWFORD: That was in Halfmoon Bay? 

YATES: That’s correct.

CRAWFORD: Do you remember what year that was?

YATES: Yeah, I certainly do. He was five years old. He’s now eight.

CRAWFORD: So, three years ago, 2013. A 4.5 metre White Pointer in Halfmoon Bay?


CRAWFORD: How far past the last buoys?

YATES: We were by the last ... where the last boats were moored. He was only a five-year-old boy. I didn’t want to go too far, like in a whitewater kayak.

CRAWFORD: So, you were not very far out into the bay itself then?

YATES: And we weren’t that far off the swimming beach, either. 

CRAWFORD: Did you get to see that animal?

YATES: No, I didn’t. Because I was standing there in the middle of the crowd, and as everyone went "Oh my gosh!" After working in Milford for a long time, you don’t want to be that pushy person with a camera. 


YATES: And there were certainly a lot of people pushing for the handrail, and to push their camera through, and what have you. 

CRAWFORD: Was this on the Foveaux Express? The mainstream ferry service?

YATES: Yes. When I got to look for it, I looked down into the clear water. I was like "I think I can see it." As in, the last of it - cruising along. But I know enough about guiding, and going fact-fiction, etc to go "I can’t count that as a guarantee of what it is I saw." I’ve watched Dolphins disappear to nothing, and you’re like "I think I can still see them." But you’re not sure. And the same when they resurface. I've spent hours up the mast, watching animals and Dolphins like that. 

CRAWFORD: Right. Tell me about the White Pointer you think you saw here in Fiordland, please.

YATES: I believe it was a White Pointer that I saw from an airplane flying in. We would fly with a friend up the coast, and drop off the gas bottles for the guided walker's huts, and fly back in pretty low. We flew over Seal Rock which is sort of positioned toward the mouth, or the far end of the fiord. A popular place for tourists to stop. And the size of the big Seal that sits on the top was about a metre and half - he was quite a monstrous thing. And off the rock about 20 odd metres, looked pretty clearly like a shark. What stuck out was the size of his fins out to side. And I do remember from the Blue Shark, swimming around me, his fins just looked very fine. But the shark at Seal Rock - these fins were big, old triangles. 

CRAWFORD: Do you have any sense of your altitude in the plane at the time? Roughly? I mean if you could see the Seal ...

YATES: Yeah. Normally, you have to fly at a certain height. But it was overcast - there was virtually no other flight traffic in here at all.  I mean, it was not a tourist day. There weren't commercial flights going in and out. So, we would have been cruising in under the inversion. No more than 300 feet, for sure. 

CRAWFORD: This was a fixed-wing aircraft?

YATES: That’s correct. 

CRAWFORD: So, you were still doing a decent clip?

YATES: That's right. 

CRAWFORD: And you probably saw the whole thing in a brief period of time?

YATES: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Do you remember when this was? What year, roughly?

YATES: Would be probably about 2003. 

CRAWFORD: Do you remember what time of year?

YATES: If I was changing the gas bottles, it would have been near the end of the season, round about March or April. 

CRAWFORD: Tell me about Seal rock - roughly how big is this rock?

YATES: Probably roundabout 8-10 metres square, and angled quite steeply.

CRAWFORD: Typically, how many Seals at any given time would be on that rock?

YATES: On the rock itself, there would often be up to 10-15 Seals. It’s one of the few places on the fiord where Seals can actually get out of the water. Both sides of the fiord, for the majority of the time there is nowhere for a Seal to lie down. So, this is one broken rock section where you could get up to 30-40 Seals out of the water. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. But this is a haul-out, not an established Seal colony? Seal Rock is not an active pupping site?

YATES: No, definitely not a pupping site. The males are generally kicked out of other colonies by larger males. They are immature males, and they are coming to some of these other places where there’s a lot less pressure. Generally, very few females, and they just live a bit of bachelor life for a while. Build a bit of size, you know. Historically very good fishing for them in the fiords.

Copyright © 2017 Ben Yates and Steve Crawford