Experience: Marine Ecologist, Fishery Scientist, Diver
Regions: Otago, Marlborough Sound, Catlins, Fiordland, Foveaux Strait, Stewart Island
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 29 January 2016
Post Date: 16 Sep 2017; Copyright © 2017 Bob Street and Steve Crawford
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: What was the first time in your life that you remember either hearing about, or seeing, a White Pointer?
STREET: Oh, the first time in my life I heard about White Pointers would have been in Marlborough, because they used to come into the whaling base when they were hauling in the whales. The whaling base that’s at the entrance to the Tory Channel in Cook Strait. The White Pointers used to follow the whale carcasses, and sometimes they’d ... I never saw any of them there, but the whalers used to say the White Pointers used to come in and take chunks of blubber out of the whales' carcasses floating in the water.
CRAWFORD: The whalers used to say that the White Pointers would actually follow their boats with the whale carcasses into the whaling station?
STREET: More at times when they were actually hauling the whales up the slipway for flensing - removing blubber. There would sometimes be White Pointers there. Sometimes lots of them.
CRAWFORD: Was there any indication that you remember from the old-timers, the whalers, that the White Pointers would follow their vessels?
STREET: I can’t remember them specifically saying that, but they may have while the whales were being towed.
CRAWFORD: Ok. But you say they would definitely aggregate around the slipway associated with the whaling station. I'm guessing that would have been because there was the carcass of the whale and a lot of blood. Ok, that was the first time you heard about White Pointers. Would you have heard that from the whalers themselves, or people who knew the whalers?
STREET: No, I heard that directly from whalers.
CRAWFORD: Did they say anything else that you recall about the White Pointers? In terms of their behaviour, or anything about the ecology of the White Pointers?
STREET: No, I can’t recall any comments other than the fact that they used to bite into the carcasses. Just pried and pulled their bites out.
CRAWFORD: Did you get the sense from the whalers that there was some degree of local residency of these White Pointers? That they would maybe hang around the whaling stations?
STREET: No, I can’t recall any specific comments on that.
CRAWFORD: Were you a young man when you were talking to these whalers?
STREET: I was a middle-aged man.
CRAWFORD: And that would have been the first time that the White Pointers actually showed up on your radar screen?
STREET: Yes, yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: When you were going through school, your undergraduate bachelor of science degree, did White Pointers ever come up? In terms of what people thought about their population ecology?
CRAWFORD: Really? They didn’t show up at all?
STREET: No. That was unmentioned.
CRAWFORD: In all of the time that you spent as a fishery inspector, in the Cook Strait region, did you ever see or hear about White Pointers there? Other than the whalers?
STREET: No, not other than what the whalers said. Yes, I used to go to sea - and bearing in mind that I was the inspector in those days, and had a wide variety of jobs to do. But no. The only comment heard about White Pointers was that from the whalers.
CRAWFORD: Was the type of following behavior you described before, was that something that you saw yourself, or you heard about it from people that were fishing on the islands?
STREET: I heard about that from fishermen. That would be a logical reason. There wouldn't be other reasons for White Pointers hanging around anchorages. It's not a feeding ground for them normally, unless there was offal and heads, etcetera being put over.
CRAWFORD: Through your extensive discussions with commercial fishermen throughout the rest of New Zealand, for instance over at Fiordland or the Foveaux Strait, were there other similar examples where fishermen told you about White Pointers that were either attracted to their boat when they were cleaning - or followed their boat when they were cleaning?
STREET: Only in one instance. At Halfmoon Bay at Stewart Island. In the early days, you know there were a few White Pointers there that were hanging around. And one fisherman there caught a few in the setnets. Whether they were put down there deliberately or not, I don’t know. But it would have resulted, in my opinion, from just following the boats.
CRAWFORD: When you say 'back in the day,' roughly when was that?
STREET: This would have happened about 40 years ago.
CRAWFORD: The nets that you are referring to, were those Joe Cave's shark nets?
STREET: I think it was Joe Cave, yeah. Obviously, you’ve heard of that.
CRAWFORD: That’s part of the beauty of this approach - when you hear the same stories from different sources. Sometimes you get different perspectives, but it lays out the importance of what was going on. At Halfmoon Bay, do you remember where the fisherman were cleaning their fish?
STREET: No, I don’t know that. They would have been cleaning them up on the way in. That would have been putting out the burley trail.
CRAWFORD: Getting back to the Otago Peninsula specifically, do you ever remember fish processing plants dumping their waste around Otago Peninsula.
STREET: Yeah, just off the south of Taiaroa Head, at the entrance to Otago Harbour.
CRAWFORD: And where was that fish waste coming from at the time?
STREET: Just from the fish factories in general.
CRAWFORD: Dunedin? Otakou?
STREET: Just from Dunedin as far as I knew. That was back in the day. I think nowadays that’s all used for fertilizer.
CRAWFORD: The dumping did end, but do you know when?
STREET: No, I don’t. I mean, that was often blamed for the presence of White Pointers around the area, but that's not the sort of stuff that they would go after. Certainly, smaller shark species would. But I wouldn’t go along with that attracting White Pointers. It's right close in shore. I suppose that’s a large-scale burley trail. It's not going on now anyway. It's an academic point.
CRAWFORD: Back in the day, were there other major freezer works in the Otago region?
STREET: Not really, no. There haven't been any great discharges like that. Of course, the sewage would have gone out, but I don’t know if that would have been attracting White Pointers or not. But if the Otago Peninsula is a hot spot, it’s because of the Seal colonies.
CRAWFORD: You’re one of the people who has spent more time in this region than anybody else that I’ve interviewed. In your 85 years now, of which you’ve spent 60 years here based out of the Otago Peninsula working in a variety of places, would it be fair to say that throughout that period of time, commercial fishermen would have always referred to the Otago Peninsula as being ‘sharky’ with regards to White Pointers? Is it a hot spot?
STREET: Not necessarily. If you have a fisherman who is fishing for Groper, and he has danline down, and they're wriggling on that line, they could bring in sharks. Going back to 1965, we were doing some diving on Rock Lobster grounds, it was in quite deep water, 26 fathoms, south-east of Taieri Mouth. We assessed the Rock Lobster on the bottom, and also noted Groper to be abundant. About a week later, a boat came into the Carey's Bay landing, and the fisherman beckoned me over and said "They tell me you’ve been doing some diving down on this lobster patch?" I said "Yeah." They said, "Come and have a look at this." And they had a good load of Groper there, but they also had about 20 Groper heads only, and they’d been ripped clean off, just after the gills, and it would only be a very large shark like a White Pointer capable of doing that.
CRAWFORD: What about a Mako or a Porbeagle?
STREET: Yes, they could. But they would not be as common as a White Pointer. Now that you say that, that is a possibility. I’ve been circled by a Porbeagle once, I got him on video too, but he certainly never attacked although they could take an arm or a leg off, I suppose.
CRAWFORD: Yes, but in that case, when the fisherman came up and showed you the heads, did they say that they saw the shark that did it?
STREET: No, no. It would have been a substantial shark, though.
CRAWFORD: Was is likely in their opinion, perhaps your opinion, to be a White Pointer?
STREET: They seemed to think so. I’ll tell you what, White Pointers do tend to frequent Groper grounds sometimes.
CRAWFORD: Well that’s important. There are some people who say that Otago Peninsula is 'sharky' with regards to the White Pointers, and some people who say maybe just seasonally.
STREET: Yeah. Look, you just jogged my memory here. At Cape Saunders, it was just at the head of Otago Peninsula, not me but several divers in the old days that I’ve known, have had very close encounters with White Pointers. But it would be ‘sharky’ in the sense that there are Seal colonies on the Otago Peninsula.
CRAWFORD: Do you reckon that White Pointers are going to aggregate at places where Seals, major Seal colonies exist?
STREET: Yes. Particularly at the time of year when the pups are first heading for the water. You jogged my memory again. At Nugget Point, many years ago, DOC had an observer there, during that time of the year, particularly when there were a lot of pups there, and there were two occasions where one of the observers saw pups take to the water, a fin and then a pool of blood. So, they would be White Pointers. This has been very well documented in South Africa - False Island I think they call it. You’ve probably seen it on television.
CRAWFORD: Very well documented, in the sense of White Pointers and Seal colonies - especially during pupping season?
STREET: Exactly, yeah. So I think that’s the reason for them saying that Otago Peninsula is ‘sharky,’ as you said.
CRAWFORD: The changes in the Seal abundance around the Otago Peninsula over the past 40 or 50 years while you’ve been here. What have you noticed in terms of the abundance of Seals?
STREET: I haven’t been doing any specific counts at all. But a lot of the fishermen say that they are increasing in numbers, and of course the argument that they are cleaning all the fish out. I actually dealt with a lot of Fur Seal gut analysis in the early days when I worked for the Marine Department, and I put out a paper on their diet. I had to shoot them, when they were coming out of the water. I had a licence, of course.
CRAWFORD: That’s important, because we’ve talked about White Pointers eating Seals, and feeding on Gropers on the line. On Chatham Island, the story about White Pointers feeding off fish that had been cleaned around there, or perhaps following the burley trail. You also talked about the White Pointers back in the whalers' day, feeding on the whale carcasses. So, these animals, definitely feed on a wide variety of things. In all of the years that you worked as a fisheries observer or scientist, did you ever hear about anybody who actually had White Pointers, and opened them up and had a look to see what they were feeding on?
STREET: Yes, a fisherman once who roped one up and it had Seal remains inside it.
CRAWFORD: Was that locally here in Port Chalmers?
CRAWFORD: And that was roughly when?
STREET: About 40 years ago. But here, he caught that old White Pointer accidentally in his fishing net.
CRAWFORD: I understand that through the post-protection provisions in the Wildlife Protection Act there were going to be some White Pointers that were incidentally caught in setnets or longlines or other gear. The important thing is that the incidental catch has to be reported and that DOC has to be advised. Regarding the Otago Peninsula, you had mentioned about the White Pointers responding to offal associated with the commercial fishery after cleaning. Have you ever heard about associations between White Pointers and freezer works or municipal discharges? Sewage?
STREET: I think a lot of that material going out would be a lot of blood and fairly small bits.
CRAWFORD: You haven’t heard anything about association between White Pointers and freezer works?
STREET: No, no.
CRAWFORD: Or White Pointers and municipal discharge or anything like that?
STREET: No, I haven’t heard of that.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever hear back in the day, about a White Pointer here at Otago Peninsula called KZ-7?
STREET: Yes, I have heard about that one.
CRAWFORD: What did you hear about it?
STREET: Just the fact that it was a whopper. Something on the order of 20 feet or so. And that’s about all, really.
CRAWFORD: Was that animal around for an extended period of time?
STREET: No, I can’t comment on that. I had heard fishermen saying there’s some monstrous White Pointer which they call KZ-7.
CRAWFORD: What region did you hear that KZ-7 was around?
STREET: Let's think. Mainly off the north Otago coast, past the northern part of the peninsula too. Might have been just off Taiaroa Heads there.
CRAWFORD: Ok. With regards to Otago Harbour, you made reference to a fisherman who got a White Pointer wrapped up in his setnet in the harbour. Did you ever hear anything else about White Pointers in the harbour?
STREET: Yes. Several years prior to that, about 50 years ago, there was a White caught on a line off of Deborah Bay.
CRAWFORD: By a line, what do you mean?
STREET: Well, the fisherman knew there’s a shark around, and he put a heavy line with a big hook, and he baited it deliberately to catch it.
CRAWFORD: With a barrel as a float?
STREET: A barrel and a float. It was about a 12 to 14 footer.
CRAWFORD: Anything else with regards to White Pointers in the upper harbour or anything like that?
STREET: There was another one, one or two caught in a setnet at the Mole near the entrance to Otago Harbour. I’ll tell you what though, I can’t do it at the moment, it will take me a lot to do, but over the next week or two I could go through my records. Actually, I’ve got some old photos I can dig up too, and let you have them.
CRAWFORD: Sure, to the extent it is convenient for you.
STREET: A lot of the stuff I want to file, you know? I’ve just accumulated over the years. I’ve got a lot of stuff, actually.
CRAWFORD: Fiordland. For all the time you spent on commercial fishing boats or talking to commercial fishermen, did you ever hear about White Pointers over there?
STREET: Yes. At the entrance, I have heard about them.
CRAWFORD: Any indication perhaps why the animals were there?
STREET: Not really, no. They just saw them while they were diving.
CRAWFORD: Any seasonality to it that you recall?
STREET: No, no. Again, I don’t know what to put this down to. Seal colonies, that’s bouncing around and so, looking for Seals. I think that’s the key point.
CRAWFORD: With regards to further south, did you ever hear about White Pointers along the southern coastline of the South Island or Foveaux Strait or around Stewart island?
STREET: That western Foveaux Strait area, Centre Island, Escape Reefs, and there are little rocks that come out of the water off Invercargill Heads - Halfway Rocks, I think they call them. Now Groper fishermen in all these three years that were mentioned, they told me that they had seen them there, and had lost Gropers, just come up with their heads. They are White Pointer areas. I think White Pointers often tend to hang around areas frequented by habitat for Groper. Probably they do predate on them, being a large fish.
CRAWFORD: You think that it is quite possible that where the Gropers aggregate, that would attract the White Pointers?
STREET: Yes, that’s another area too.
CRAWFORD: Give me a sense of the average size of these Gropers.
STREET: Oh, they would be about a meter long.
CRAWFORD: One of the things that has come up consistently in the interviews is that when they pull up the line and there’s just a head. So, there’s a Groper that’s taken a baited hook, and there’s a White Pointer or at least a large shark, that came up and took the body, didn’t take the head. It only snapped the body off from behind the gills. Under normal circumstances, does that not seem unusual in terms of shark behaviour? That it wouldn’t actually try and take the whole Groper?
STREET: That’s right. When I talk about the White Pointers following the boat that’s tossing out the Groper heads, there’s an anomaly there. But it could well be that they felt it on the line. Why would he snap it off, that might be the most efficient, you might say.
CRAWFORD: It's possible, I don’t know. You’ve identified certain areas in Foveaux Strait, and the southern shore of the South Island, Escape Reefs, Halfway Rock, that type of region ...
STREET: Centre Island.
CRAWFORD: Centre island. And the one thing that you offered straight off was the possibility that if these are Groper aggregations, or areas where the Groper fishery is targeting, that that could be one of the attracting features for the White Pointers?
CRAWFORD: Anyplace else along the southern coast of South Island or Foveaux Strait that you’ve heard are areas of White Pointer aggregations - throughout your 50 years of experience?
STREET: You probably already know this, but you also get White Pointers in the Subantarctic Islands. Like at Campbell Island, there’s a meteorological station there, and one of the guys was diving, once again it would have been off a Seal colony. He lost his arm. Did you hear about that?
CRAWFORD: Yes, I did. Several times. And one thing that comes up when people share that story - it surprised the hell out of everybody that the White Pointers were that far south. I mean this was a substantial animal, and it was a very severe incident. But it shocked everybody.
STREET: Yes, certainly.
CRAWFORD: It gets back to that idea that perhaps we don’t know nearly as much about these animals as we need to. Because if we have those kinds of surprises happening still ...
STREET: White Pointer sharks have got something about their blood system. I think that they've got warmer blood than a normal shark, and are able to withstand cold water temperatures better than other shark species.
CRAWFORD: If you take a look at their global geographic distribution, I think that that is reflected adequately, because they’re found in relatively cold waters here, but you’ll also find them at other times up in the subtropical waters. With regards to your experience, and from commercial fishermen or other scientists, what do you know about the kind of migration patterns of White Pointers in general, and specifically around New Zealand?
STREET: I don’t know much at all, apart from the stuff that’s been shown on television where they’ve done tagging work on them.
CRAWFORD: What do you know about that New Zealand White Pointer tagging project?
STREET: Just the fact that they’re doing this at the Chathams and I think at Stewart island, too. Oh, that’s one thing here too. You’re talking about things that are coming back to me. I was talking to an Abalone diver, this was in Portland in Western Victoria, and one of his best Abalone spots was at Lady Julia Percy Island, that’s west of Victoria, and he’s had two encounters with White Pointers there. One took half of his fin off, but he still used to go back there because it's an excellent Abalone diving spot. That was in western Victoria and that whole southern Australian coastline is a bad place for sharks.
CRAWFORD: Getting back to Stewart island, the story from the days of White Pointers going into Halfmoon bay, and the setnets capturing those animals. Do you know any of the details of what happened with those setnets?
STREET: No, no. I’ll tell you what, do you know Joe Cave?
CRAWFORD: I interviewed him
STREET: Oh, that’s good.
CRAWFORD: I think the thing I’m mostly interested in, is from your 60 years of experience, even though it wasn’t so much around Stewart island, but you would have heard things as well. Back in the day did you hear that there were certain regions, certain areas around Stewart island where White Pointers aggregated?
CRAWFORD: The Ruggedies?
STREET: The Ruggedies, and all through there. It's got a bad reputation.
CRAWFORD: That was a reputation back in the day? Was always considered bad by people?
CRAWFORD: Doughboy, yeah.
STREET: And the White Pointers came up, feeding on them, when the water came in.
CRAWFORD: That links to one of the first stories that you shared with me, you talking to the whalers about the White Pointers being attracted to marine mammal carcasses, and beached whales.
CRAWFORD: In terms of shark-human interactions, other than the ones at St. Clair, St. Kilda, Aramoana, are you aware of any other types of attacks or near attacks in the entire region: Fiordland, Foveaux Strait, Stewart island, all the way up to Otago Peninsula and north of Otago? Are you aware of any other kind of severe White Pointer-human interactions?
STREET: Well, just on occasion divers north of Otago have been circled by a White Pointer, but no actual attack.
CRAWFORD: [Discussion about project classification levels for human encounters with White Pointers: Level 1-Observation, Level 2-Swim-By, Level 3-Interest, Level 4-Intense] Why do you figure these animals, these apex predators, have some Level 4 encounters with humans, but for the most part, you don’t find them going that way. What’s your thinking on this?
STREET: You could say that some pit bull terriers will attack. But probably most won’t.
CRAWFORD: That underscores the importance of the nature of the individual animal, and the individual animal could have been abused, or trained, or maybe had something wrong mentally.
STREET: In the case of a White Pointer, it might depend how hungry the animal is. You often hear that they don’t like human flesh anyways. That a bite will be a tester.
CRAWFORD: But the number of attacks where a human body or body part is actually consumed, that's very small.
STREET: That’s the point, yeah. That’s exactly right.
CRAWFORD: One interviewee said, if these White Pointers wanted human flesh, there would be a lot of humans missing.
STREET: Boy, you take a surface mammal ...
CRAWFORD: Easy pickings.
STREET: Absolutely. Of course. [laughs] Almost petrified people when 'Jaws' came out.
CRAWFORD: We are still struggling with that movie. That was back in the mid-70s. And there are so many people who are still talking about it in 2015.
STREET: I’ll tell you an ex-diver you would like interviewing is Rodney Fox. You’ve never met him?
CRAWFORD: No, but he was famous back when I was a kid. One thing that’s come up is that people, when they have an encounter with a White Pointer, for the most part, it's fleeting, it happens for a very short period of time. There have been some accounts including the Halfmoon Bay incident, where White Pointers have been swimming around in groups of two or more. And there is some reason to suspect that this might be something that happens more commonly than most people think - that it might actually reflect some degree of social behaviour in these White Pointers. Based on your experience, have you ever heard of White Pointers swimming around in groups?
STREET: No, I’ve never heard of anything like that.
Copyright © 2017 Bob Street and Steve Crawford