Chris Hepburn

Hepburn_Chris Small.png

YOB: 1974
Experience: Marine Ecologist
Regions: Otago, Banks Peninsula, Catlins, Foveaux Strait, Rakiura/Stewart Island, Fiordland
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 21 December 2015
Post Date: 17 May 2017; Copyright © 2017 Chris Hepburn and Steve Crawford


CRAWFORD: Going back to your earliest days, what was the first time that you remember hearing about or seeing a White Pointer?

HEPBURN: Oh, I had a picture in a book of a pretty scary looking Great White, I still remember it.

CRAWFORD: This is when you were a kid in Nelson?

HEPBURN: Could have been in Nelson, could have been in Cromwell. I just remember this picture of a horrible looking shark eating something. That's my first memory of a Great White. 

CRAWFORD: That was your first memory? You didn't have any exposure, you didn't hear any stories, up in Nelson?

HEPBURN: Nah, not that I remember.

CRAWFORD: What about the Cook Islands?

HEPBURN: Not Great Whites.

CRAWFORD: Ok. So, you picked up books on marine stuff at some point …

HEPBURN:  I had sea fishes of New Zealand books since I was about eight. 

CRAWFORD: Other than the books, when was the next time that you heard about or saw a White Pointer?


CRAWFORD: Was this as a teenager?


CRAWFORD: Ok. What's the next thing?

HEPBURN: That I had heard of Great Whites? Just some stories that were floating around Dunedin.

CRAWFORD: You would have been at University when you heard those stories?

HEPBURN: Probably when I started diving. That was when people started talking about them.

CRAWFORD: When you and your brother were diving in Otago Harbour?

HEPBURN: Not us. It would have been people in dive courses, dive instructors. Yeah, people like talking about sharks in the dive community.

CRAWFORD: What did people in the dive community, the dive club, the divers, what did they have to say? What did you hear?

HEPBURN: The classic story, it was a guy at Aramoana that got his leg bitten off while he was spearfishing, and bled to death. That was the one that stuck with me.

CRAWFORD: Other than recounting the story, was there any suggestion of places or things to avoid, or any type of guidance?

HEPBURN: Well, people just say all the time, "Don't go diving in that bay" or "don't go there, there are great whites there."

CRAWFORD: Which bays?

HEPBURN: At the mouth of Otago Harbour. But they're full of it.  Those people wouldn't know. 

CRAWFORD: How would you know, as a kid?

HEPBURN: I was pretty sure about it. You hear stories of where they are.  You've probably heard of the shark that they always crap on about called KZ-7, and it used to hang around the [Taiaroa] Heads a lot, just at the end. 

CRAWFORD: What do you know about KZ-7?

HEPBURN:  It used to hang around the Heads a lot, and it was big.

CRAWFORD: Do you know why it was called KZ-7?

HEPBURN: Because of the famous plastic Americas Cup sailing boat, I would assume. KZ-7. 

CRAWFORD: Do you know what the link would be between the boat and the shark?

HEPBURN: It was about the same time that the shark arrived, I guess.

CRAWFORD: To the best of your knowledge, where did KZ-7 hang out?

HEPBURN: Oh, this is just stories from old drunken dudes. Just around Taiaroa Heads, at the end of Otago Harbour. Aramoana. That region. The harbour sometimes. 

CRAWFORD: Into the harbour?

HEPBURN: People told me "Yeah, you should've been out here the other day, there was a Great White here." Whatever.

CRAWFORD: it seems clear that you are a sceptic, with regards to White Pointers in the harbour or at the harbour mouth

HEPBURN: No. I'm a sceptic of people identifying them. I'm not a sceptic of believing they are there. I believe that they are there.

CRAWFORD: Ok. We have two different issues here. First, why do you believe the white sharks are there?

HEPBURN: That's part of their range.

CRAWFORD: On the basis of what evidence do we say ...

HEPBURN: Well, people who are trustworthy have seen them there before.  But there are people who are just absolutely full of shit.

CRAWFORD: So, let's talk about the trustworthy ones. Who are the trustworthy people, whose observations of the White Pointers you trust in this regard?

HEPBURN: People who have done a lot of diving. Someone like Ate Heineman says to me "I saw a Great White," I'll believe it. If someone like Jim Barrett from Stewart Island says he saw a Great White, I'll believe him. But if some fella on the side of the road says he saw a Great White, or he was attacked by a Great White in the surf, I wouldn't be 100% convinced that it was a Great White.

CRAWFORD: I understand. You're coming up through the science system, you are becoming a trained sceptic because in science we train our students to be good sceptics. To not jump to conclusions, not believe without appropriate evidence. Believe in the possibility, but don't assign the probability unless there is evidence. And the reliability of the person who is telling you is important. Had you heard from Ate or other reliable sources that White Pointers were around the Heads? 

HEPBURN: No. Well, I hadn't known Ate for very long.

CRAWFORD: I meant somebody like Ate. Any reliable knowledge holders.


CRAWFORD: Other reliable people had said there had been sightings, and you took that to indicate the animals are around?

HEPBURN: Yeah, yeah.

CRAWFORD: Let me boost up one level. For all of the 30+ years that you have spent on, around, and largely under the surface of New Zealand coastal waters, have you ever seen a White Pointer in the wild?

HEPBURN: No I haven't.

CRAWFORD: Despite all of those years, and being in places where White Pointers are either reputed or known to exist?

HEPBURN: I've never seen one.

CRAWFORD: In terms of people who you consider to be reliable, how many different credible sightings would you have heard about first-hand? What range: 0-5? 6-10? more?


CRAWFORD: Very rare?

HEPBURN: The observations I believe are Steve Wing from across the corridor here [Marine Science, Otago]. He said he saw one in Fiordland, and he saw one in Port Pegasus [Stewart Island] as well.

CRAWFORD: Whereabouts in Fiordland?

HEPBURN: I don't know. I imagine in Doubtful Sound, somewhere like that.

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] In terms of Steve Wing's description from Fiordland,  I don't know that you would recall - but if you did, what interaction level do you think that was?

HEPBURN: I'm not sure if the shark changed its course or not, but they saw it and it was coming towards them.

CRAWFORD: Oh, it was an underwater observation?

HEPBURN: Yeah, yeah.

CRAWFORD: You think it was maybe a swim-by in the sense that the animal didn't break stride?

HEPBURN: They've got a picture of an underwater slate, and saying "That was bloody big" and someone said "There was white to it." But it must have been there for a wee while.

CRAWFORD: Maybe a Level 3 if it was around for a bit.

HEPBURN: Yeah, yeah. And then Port Pegasus, a similar situation.

CRAWFORD: This was Steve's observation again?

HEPBURN: Yeah. He's the guy here who has seen them.

CRAWFORD: What was the interaction like at Port Pegasus?

HEPBURN: Pretty much the same I think, but you could ask him.  I've also heard of a shark bothering a dive class at Shag Point.

CRAWFORD: North of the Otago Peninsula?

HEPBURN: Yes. I've heard of them being on the bottom, and the shark being around the boat.

CRAWFORD: Circling around the boat? Between the divers and the boat?

HEPBURN: Yeah, but I wouldn't know how reliable that is. The other reliable one was ... I'm just thinking if it was this last summer, no it was the summer before last ...

CRAWFORD:  Two summers ago?

HEPBURN: The guys were at a place called Papatiki. Do you know where that is? It's in Paterson Inlet, just outside the entrance to Bravo, to Big Glory Bay, sort of opposite Native Island - to the east.  The guys were doing scallop work, doing survey work and tagging. They were looking at scallop movement, growth and stuff.  They were working, and a Great White came along the tide line that was there. It didn't interact with the divers. The guys on the boat followed it, they just wanted to keep an eye on it, because there were a bunch of divers in the area.  Then they went across and got the divers out of the water.

CRAWFORD: Who was in charge? Who would have had the best vantage point?

HEPBURN: Bill Dickson. He drives the Polaris. He's worth talking to. He's got a lot of experience around Stewart Island. He understands science, because he spent a long time working with scientists and students. Bill is not full of it. He will tell you the truth.

CRAWFORD: Ok. That was another observation; it might have been a Level 2, but could have been a level 3. Did you get the sense from him that the animal was doing anything except cruising by?

HEPBURN: No, but it put the shits up the students.

CRAWFORD: Right. So that's another confirmed sighting of a White Pointer by a reliable observer?


CRAWFORD: And that was two years ago?

HEPBURN: Yep. And from that we bought shark shields, and got everything all ready to go for diving. So now we dive with shark shields.

CRAWFORD: Tell me about the shark shields.

HEPBURN: They are an electromagnetic unit that you wear. You have a battery on your leg, with a tail that comes off, and it's like wearing an electric fence in many ways. You get shocks, and it's not very much fun to wear. We talked to a Professor from Adelaide University in South Australia. He had lost a student to a Great White. We talked to him about what we should do, and what was the best course of action, because we didn't want a knee-jerk reaction to it. 

CRAWFORD: He’s a scholar, and the victim was his student?

HEPBURN: Yeah. it was pretty bad. We didn't want to have that risk ... That's not so much that we were trying to avoid ourselves getting in trouble, going to jail and all the rest of it. But we wanted to be sure that if something happened that we could say to the parents of a student or staff member, that we did everything possible to protect them in what we were doing. We were really changing our approaches to diving, Trying to minimize the risk of what we were doing. Focusing diving more in winter, stuff like that.

CRAWFORD: Did you do any evaluations of the shark shield technology?

HEPBURN: We had a review of it ...

CRAWFORD: A review that you did?

HEPBURN: No, no. There were some reports on it, on different things about using the shark shield on different sorts of Great Whites. There is some science on it, it was good enough for us to say "Yep, we're going to use that."

CRAWFORD: How much do these units cost?

HEPBURN: I think it cost us about $10,000 for about 12 of them. They're quite expensive. I don't know how much the students are using them now. We did a big survey of the Catlins, a lot of headlands and stuff down through there, a lot of seal colonies, so we wore them then. And I would wear them down at Stewart Island. They are available, but you don't have to wear them.

CRAWFORD: You don't have to? The students have a choice?

HEPBURN: On the open coast around Stewart Island, you have to wear them. But in the inlet, in some situations like being a kelp forest, you just get tangled and stuff, so you didn't necessarily have to.

CRAWFORD: But definitely, steps were taken.

HEPBURN: Yeah, we were quite concerned about it. But we didn't observe anything for a long time.

CRAWFORD: You had mentioned something about Ate's observation? That he was the type of knowledge holder; you would considered to be reliable. Do you remember if he saw anything about these White Pointers around the harbour?

HEPBURN: He said he hasn't seen many. One was Port Pegasus, he had one come right up to him.

CRAWFORD: In terms of KZ-7, did you have any reliable knowledge holders, people you consider to be reliable, that confirmed that there was a resident large white pointer in that region?

HEPBURN: It's all hearsay. It could come from a reliable person, but how reliable was the information that came to them?  So, it's kind of hard to evaluate.

CRAWFORD: So, nothing directly from a reliable knowledge holder?

HEPBURN: Not directly no. One of the guys, our technician when we were diving off Cornish Head just north of Karitane, probably in the early 2000s, and they saw a big shark. They said it was not a Sevengill, but they weren't sure if it was a Mako are not. They thought it might have been a Great White, but it wasn't confirmed. 

CRAWFORD: That would be a swim-by?

HEPBURN: Yeah. With whatever it was.

CRAWFORD: Right. Keeping all of that in mind then, when you think about New Zealand coastal waters - North and South Island in general -  what regions do you understand to be places of higher then typical aggregations of White Pointers? I mean they can be seen, they can be found, anywhere. But when you think about places where White Pointers tend to be in numbers - where are those places?

HEPBURN: Seal colonies.

CRAWFORD: Wherever there are seal colonies?

HEPBURN: Yeah, I would be careful diving anywhere near a seal colony.

CRAWFORD: Let's divide this into two things. Let's think about it geographically, first of all.

HEPBURN: Well, obviously the islands around the Foveaux Strait are the places I would say are high risk. And probably places I haven't dived ... I've dived a little bit around Jackson's Bay. But not on the islands off there. I would assume they would have a good population of Great Whites as well.

CRAWFORD: What about Banks Peninsula?

HEPBURN: Up there, quite a lot of historical information about it. Guys showed us a tooth about this long, and there were pictures of Great Whites that have been taken out of Port Levy which is right next to Lyttelton Harbour. I would not be surprised if there were reasonable numbers around there. But how could you tell, you can't see anything. That's the thing, with diving and quite low visibility water. We're not really in a situation to be able to see them a lot. And they probably see us - we just don't know. Sharks, all sorts of sharks. It's rare to see a shark when you're scuba diving.  I'm just trying to think back, the number of sharks I've seen scuba diving - very low numbers. Like I've seen a sickly blue shark swim by, I've had Sevengills swim over me, Carpet Sharks. The only time you see sharks is when you're spearfishing or when someone's fishing. That's when you see them. Otherwise, doing research - nope.

CRAWFORD: Let's talk about seeing sharks when other people are fishing. Give me an example of that, please. Have you ever been diving, when somebody else was fishing nearby?

HEPBURN: Yeah. We were out doing some survey work up at Karitane. It was really low visibility. And a guy came out fishing. Instead of waiting for us to finish diving, he started fishing. A shark turned up while we were working. We looked across our quadrat, and the shark was coming straight in - a Sevengill. It wouldn't leave us alone, so we got out. 

CRAWFORD: it was harassing you?

HEPBURN: Oh yeah, it was just around. And you couldn't see anything. It's fine if you got a bit of visibility, but with something like that, it can hurt you in a major way. You just have to be careful.

CRAWFORD: What kind of visibility?

HEPBURN: Would've been a couple metres, at most.

CRAWFORD: You also made the point that you were reasonably convinced that these animals can detect humans way better than humans can detect them?

HEPBURN: I think so. Yeah, they would have to be able to be.

CRAWFORD: What about Cook Strait? Marlborough Sound? Any reliable sense that is a sharky region?

HEPBURN: I don't really know much about that region.

CRAWFORD: What about North Island, generally?

HEPBURN: Just the odd one that pokes by. Big females, it seems. Just from media reports, stuff like that. Kaikoura’s probably got a few. Seal colonies, deep water. But it really wouldn’t know.

CRAWFORD: What do you know about some of the recent research that has been conducted about White Pointers in NZ coastal waters?

HEPBURN: I've had a wee bit of experience with Malcolm Francis’s supervision of Jordan, so he worked on that stuff with Clinton Duffy. I haven't followed it too much, but mainly migrations is what I've picked up on.

CRAWFORD: What do you know about the techniques that were used, and the conclusions that were reached?

HEPBURN: I think they were satellite GPS-tags. They tagged the sharks and watched where they went. This is just from memory, and it's not really my field, but I think the sharks were seen in northern Australia. Tonga, places like that. They were moving a lot further than had perhaps been expected.

CRAWFORD: Anything about the photo ID work?

HEPBURN: Not sure. Don't know. I would assume they might be looking at markings and things like that. That's what we do. Because I work with dolphin people who have don’t want to do tagging. They use visual marks - they don't whack a tag into a dolphin. In some ways it's a lot better.

CRAWFORD: Although using visual identification doesn't tell you where it goes when you're not visually observing it.


CRAWFORD: As someone who has worked on a project where sharks were being tagged, do you have any concerns regarding the effects of tagging on individual sharks?

HEPBURN: Well, I would hope that it would be covered in an ethics review that they would have to go through to actually handle an animal
like that. From what I've seen, they've got vets on board, and they seem to be using some pretty high tech. I imagine the proportion of fish that they were tagging, compared to the population, would be quite low. That's not one of the things that keeps me awake at night.

CRAWFORD: in terms of the importance of Foveaux Strait, Titi Islands, Stewart Island - why do you think the White Pointers and there?

HEPBURN: Ah, I'm not a specialist in that.

CRAWFORD: No, but you are a marine ecologist, and you have worked with sharks, and you have worked specifically in that region, and you know a hell of a lot more about New Zealand coastal ecology than I do.

HEPBURN: Availability of marine mammals, I would say.

CRAWFORD: Definitely one plausible hypothesis that would jump to mind. In terms of that region being an aggregation site for feeding?

HEPBURN: Yep. I would say that's probably most likely. But I gather there are theories that they are breeding there, but I'm not really sure how strong the evidence is.

CRAWFORD: Do you think that, a similar hypothesis that could be put forward to explain the aggregation of White Pointers around the Otago Peninsula?

HEPBURN: Yeah. Yes, it certainly could.

CRAWFORD: That the animals are primarily here for feeding?

HEPBURN: There is an excellent abundance of marine mammals along this coast. A lot of bays and islands up here. It's quite a productive area, with upwelling and canyons.

CRAWFORD: It's very productive, both directly and indirectly. The White Pointers are also known to feed on fish. What do you know, if anything, about the relative contribution of fish versus mammals in White Pointer diets?

HEPBURN: I don't know anything about that. I would have assumed that in this area it would be dominated by mammals. They don’t seem to be netting any large fish in commercial gear, certainly in those bigger sizes.

CRAWFORD: Around the Otago Peninsula?

HEPBURN: Generally.

CRAWFORD: What about around Stewart Island?

HEPBURN: Yeah, might be.

CRAWFORD: Do you think that, in general, White Pointers around southern New Zealand, they would generally have a predominance of mammals in their diet - relative to fish?

HEPBURN: I think it would have to be. In the past there was Hāpuka/Groper. Large fish, but they are long gone.

CRAWFORD: What about the changes in marine mammal abundance over the past 20 or 30 years?

HEPBURN: I guess that you're talking about the increase in Fur Seals, though there has been a decline in other marine mammals - dolphins and the like. Yeah, there's more seals around.

CRAWFORD: Dramatically more?

HEPBURN: I wouldn't say it's dramatically more. There are a few more Sea Lions around in certain places on our coast. I just think people are exaggerating a little bit. There are some good numbers coming back in places, but compared to what was here …

CRAWFORD: Maybe that's more a reflection of how badly the seal population had been hit in the first place?

HEPBURN: Probably more Sea Lions - I see a lot more of them. But seals have always been here. Would have been, at least in this area.

CRAWFORD: Have you not noticed a dramatic increase in Fur Seals around the Otago Peninsula over the past 20 or 30 years?

HEPBURN: Not from memory. You have to look at the data. I have some observations, but I'm not looking at them much.

CRAWFORD: What about Stewart Island? Have you noticed any dramatic changes there?

HEPBURN: Well, I've only been diving down there for a few years. When we were working in Paterson Inlet you'd see the odd Sea Lion. It's rare to see seals in there. 

CRAWFORD: Any reason that you can think of that might explain why there wouldn't be so many seals in Paterson Inlet?

HEPBURN: Because they feed off the shelf. They feed in deeper waters. Sea Lions are feeding on reefs. So the seals are further offshore, feeding on small fish, squid, stuff like that. That's what pisses me off when people talk about what a problem the seals are for fisheries. I hear it every day, at all these meetings - sorry I'm getting off track. The Marine Protection Forum, “It's all the seal’s fault.”

CRAWFORD: Let's talk about White Pointer breeding. I mean these animals have to reproduce someplace. They are large animals. Very rarely do we get any indication of their courtship behaviour. They are live bearing and have to copulate. To some extent they pick and choose when they engage in reproduction. Some people have suggested that the southern end of the South Island could be a mating ground as well. Have you heard those types of things?


CRAWFORD: And what do you think of those ideas?

HEPBURN: I don't know. Could be. I've heard several things about the Dunedin Coast as well, as a mating area. 

CRAWFORD: Based on any kind of evidence?

HEPBURN: Nah, just people saying.

CRAWFORD: If courtship and mating was taking place, how would we even know?

HEPBURN: Hard to know. It can be a pretty quiet place in deep water.

CRAWFORD: In terms of the work that you've done on the Sevengill Sharks in Paterson Inlet, is it a place where courtship and/or mating occurs for that species?

HEPBURN: We don't know. They aggregate up fresh water, up those arms. That could be associated with getting rid of parasites, or perhaps some sort of feeding that occurs up there. We don't know.

CRAWFORD: In terms of Paterson Inlet I think you are aware of one very clear example of a White Pointer in there, within the last two years.

HEPBURN: I've heard of others, from people down there.

CRAWFORD: From people that you would consider to be reliable?

HEPBURN: Yeah. There was an observation of one in Golden Bay, not exactly sure about the details, it was secondhand information. They see them around. Jim Barrett was telling me that when he was going across to the aquaculture facility, seeing one. Slowed his boat, as it drifted off into the depths he could see eye to eye - it was quite scary.

CRAWFORD: Does Jim Barrett work for the farm?

HEPBURN: He runs his own oyster farm. Jim's on the Mataitai Committee. So, they do see them.

CRAWFORD: Have you heard or thought that perhaps it didn't use always be the case? Or perhaps the animals have always been going in there, and we just don't see them often.

HEPBURN: I have a feeling that the animals are there and we just don't see them. And if you don't do human activities that attract these sharks, you don't tend to see them.

CRAWFORD: Let's focus specifically. What are those high-risk activities that would attract the attention of a White Pointer?

HEPBURN: Spearfishing.

CRAWFORD: Spearfishing, in terms of a struggling fish? The smell of a captured fish?

HEPBURN: Yeah, everything. But mainly the struggle of the fish. Just the locations that you end up when you're spearfishing. Off points, next to deep water. It's a great place to go spearfishing, but it's also a great place to get ambushed.

CRAWFORD: in terms of a vertical strike?

HEPBURN: Yeah. I'd have to say that we were actually spearfishing quite close to there, where they do the shark feeding. That was probably a number of years ago now. I don't think they do that anymore.

CRAWFORD: Tell me about that. You had said before that you dove on Bench Island?

HEPBURN: We didn't go spearfishing out there. We went and had a look for some crayfish there. We went spearfishing in a place called Bob's Point, I think it is. It's quite an interesting place. We did a fair bit of work at a place called West Head out of Port William. Bob's Point sticks out right there, and I'm fairly certain that they do the cage diving around there. 

CRAWFORD: Bob's Point is just northwest of Halfmoon Bay? You've done spearfishing there, or diving there?

HEPBURN: All sorts. Diving, spearfishing, putting down light loggers in kelp.

CRAWFORD: Well that's interesting, because you said you've done it in the past, but you wouldn't do it now.

HEPBURN: No, I wouldn't do it now, because I learned more about the risk.

CRAWFORD: What do you know more about the risk now, that you didn't know then?

HEPBURN: Just the number of people that I have talked to. Scientists are talking about it, and the locals are talking about seeing the White Pointers more, Maybe I just got smarter about it. I don't know.

CRAWFORD: There are few things that you mentioned about that already. Number one, it could be your sense of risk, or perception of risk and associated responsibilities. Number two, it could be an increase in abundance of the White Pointers - that there are more of them now then there were 10 years ago or more. Number three, it could also be a change in White Pointer behaviour. 

HEPBURN: Could be any one of those.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Hepburn and Steve Crawford