Chris Lalas

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YOB: 1950
Experience: Marine Ecologist
Regions: Otago, Catlins, Foveaux Strait, Rakiura/Stewart Island, Fiordland
Interview Location: Harwood, Otago Peninsula, NZ
Interview Date: 26 January 2016
Post Date: 16 September 2017; Copyright © 2017 Chris Lalas and Steve Crawford

4. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - DIRECT EXPERIENCE

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

LALAS: Coming from Australia they are legends. Everybody knows about White Pointers.

CRAWFORD: What part of Australia are you from?

LALAS: Sydney. White Pointers were just always part of the conversation. We'd do a lot of skin diving up and down the coast. I did a lot of skin diving as a kid throughout summer. If it was calm you went skin diving, and if it was rough you went surfing. In the constant background, you didn't want to get eaten by a White Pointer. 

CRAWFORD: This was back in the 1970s?

LALAS: '60s. Never saw one. 

CRAWFORD: You never saw a White Pointer in Australian waters?

LALAS: No.

CRAWFORD: Have you ever seen a White Pointer in New Zealand?

LALAS: Yeah. When I first started - this is mid-70s - the caretaker at the Portobello Marine Lab had a setnet out at Taiaroa Head, and he caught ... I think it was the largest White Pointer recorded in New Zealand. There's this great photo of him where he's just so amazed with the thing, which is dead, that he put his hand in its mouth and slashed his little finger down to the bone. There's a photo of him standing beside it, and his arm's all bandaged up. You've probably seen this photo.

CRAWFORD: Mid-1970s then, and this was a setnet. What was it he was setnetting for? For a research project?

LALAS:  Research. [laughter] He was the old style New Zealander. He was employed to do all the technical aspects of the laboratory. He was a small boatman, they had a small trawler that he was for. And he ran the aquarium. He would go out, and he was very handy for me because he would provide me with a supply of drowned shags in nets. He knew where to set the nets to get shags accidentally when needed. This net was set to catch fish. I can't tell you if it was a formal project going on or not, but it was just the standard monofilament and the White Pointer went through it and somehow got caught. I think he had to call in a fishing boat, because he just couldn't tow it.

CRAWFORD: The White Pointer was dead when he arrived?

LALAS: Yes, I'm pretty sure that was the story. It certainly would have died soon after. 

CRAWFORD: And then a fishing boat got called in. They towed it?

LALAS: They towed it back to Portobello Marine Lab. There's a bit of a rocky beach there, and it was pulled up onto shore. I think the jaws are on display, or certainly the museum people came and took all the bits away. 

CRAWFORD: What time of year was this?

LALAS: I don't recall, but it would be documented somewhere. The museum will know because they've got the jaw. 

CRAWFORD: Do you know if anyone dissected the animal?

LALAS: Can't remember.

CRAWFORD: But you don't have any recollection of them cutting it open to see what the animal had been feeding on, or anything like that?

LALAS: I'm pretty sure we did, but I don't remember. We're now talking 40 years ago. It’s just too far back for me.  A curiosity of the whole marine set-up with the university, is that they didn't have a fish person up until a decade ago. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That was the first White Pointer you had seen. Have you seen any White Pointers in the wild?

LALAS: Not alive, no. As a fishery observer, I saw a few in the nets through the fishing off the west coast. Mini's - that size. They look like they're five meters long, just identical shape of the adults. But they're maybe one and a half meters - and that’s the largest I've seen. 

CRAWFORD: Offshore, White Pointers, 1-1.5 meters long, 

LALAS: That's as I remember. They'd have to be newborns or something, at that size. 

CRAWFORD: How far offshore, roughly?

LALAS: This was Hokitika Canyon. It’s a 12 nautical mile limit there. And further north, there's a 25 nautical mile limit I think. This was during a Hoki fishery which is winter. It starts in the beginning of July and goes to mid-August.

CRAWFORD: But you were still a substantial distance offshore, finding these small, juvenile White Pointers?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: Were they are entangled in setnets?

LALAS: No. These were trawl nets, so it’s just caught in the trawl.

CRAWFORD: Bottom trawlers or mid-water trawlers?

LALAS: Could be either. I would figure probably mid-water, because we tended to knock off Porbeagles like popcorn. You would expect one, two, three a day. One for every other tow. Whereas with White Pointers, all my years including working for the fishing company as well - I only saw two or three, total.

CRAWFORD: And isolated events? They weren't clustered in time?

LALAS: No.

CRAWFORD: They just happened to be out there?

LALAS: Yeah. Because I remember us talking about how would you recognize them ...

CRAWFORD: A White Pointer?

LALAS: Yeah, because you think of how you see sharks in the water - it's quite difficult to tell. But you get them in the hand, and there's this wavy line half way down, and then white underneath and grey above. Nothing else looks like that. You know if you just had the outline, they would be a Porbeagle.

CRAWFORD: Question for you regarding your mates at that time. Were these kinds of events - catching small White Pointers offshore -  did you get the feeling that this happens occasionally? Or was it astounding for them that it was observed at all? 

LALAS: No, it wouldn't have been that anyone thought it was commonplace. Technically, all this stuff is documented in the observer records.

CRAWFORD: But the fact that these White Pointers would even be out there at all. I'm going to cross-reference this with some of my other sources regarding life history and ecology, but that’s definitely an observation I wasn't expecting.

LALAS: I mightn’t have the size right, but I just remember being stunned by how small they were - but so classic in shape. They were identical shape. I was expecting a small shark to look different. 

CRAWFORD: But these had reached the definitive phenotype?

LALAS: Yeah. It was just totally unmistakable. Saying a meter and a half - maybe. I don't remember it right, but it’s in the records.

CRAWFORD: We can certainly track that down.

LALAS: And I think where the important records would be, with a fisheries company, they would be confidential. I don't remember whether I got any with them or not.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Lalas and Steve Crawford