Chris Lalas


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


CRAWFORD: I believe you told me you were born in Australia - what year was that, Chris?

LALAS: 1950. I'm 66 years old.

CRAWFORD: When did you emigrate and/or start spending a significant amount of time in New Zealand?

LALAS: I immigrated in 1973, and seriously started working on the coast with the early years of postgrad work, which would have started 1975 based in Otago Harbour and the surrounding coast. Then for my PhD that started 1977, that was broadening up. It ended up being focused on the diet of Southern New Zealand Shags, Cormorants. So, I spent a lot of time on the Otago Peninsula, Stewart Island, Marlborough Sound and one long trip to Chatham Islands.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Let's back up for a bit. I think you referred to it as a first episode - you said you were focusing your efforts mostly within Otago Harbour?

LALAS: Yes. That was an MSc, and then I went on to do a PhD in the Department of Zoology. I think I started in 1975, and I know I finished in 1977. But I took a long time. I ran out of money. 

CRAWFORD: What was the key ecological uncertainty for your Master's thesis? What was your research question?

LALAS: That was back in the day when nobody knew anything, so I literally selected a species and found out about them. I studied Black-Fronted Terns, where essentially all that was known was where they breed. And that was about it.

CRAWFORD: A migratory species?

LALAS: No, it’s dispersive inland in summer, and coastal in winter.

CRAWFORD: For the field component of that thesis, you spent most of your time in Otago Harbour?

LALAS: The inland stuff was based at [Mount Cook], and the coastal stuff in Otago Harbour.

CRAWFORD: Did you ever go outside the harbour for your MSc work?

LALAS: Just briefly - a couple of trips. It was more the PhD that I went with the other stuff.

CRAWFORD: For your Tern research, the MSc thesis, specifically for the time you spent on Otago Harbour - was there a seasonality to it? 

LALAS: Yes. When the Terns were here, roughly from about January through to July-August.

CRAWFORD: During that period, what kinds of surveys were you doing in the harbour?

LALAS: I was finding hot spots for being able to record them feeding. They're a Tern that glides around. It doesn't pick stuff up off the water. I found the ideal spot to study them at Wellers Rock.

CRAWFORD: Were you surveying from both land and water?

LALAS: No, just from land. I had the question of what are they eating, and at what rate are they eating. And I found the best spot that would give me that information.

CRAWFORD: Your observations were shore-based, but you were watching the birds interacting with the marine system?

LALAS: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: When you were involved in your field work, were your surveys every day, or once per week, or what?

LALAS: A couple of times per week, I suppose. It was tidal-influenced and weather-influenced. For example, I only went out on calm days so as not to have to account for weather. I made the weather conditions, environmental conditions, tide as well, constant across the surveys.

CRAWFORD: That’s good to know, in terms of your observations. Let’s talk about your PhD field work. That started in 1977. If there was one overarching research question for that thesis, what would it have been?

LALAS: How do species differ in foraging. So, that involves where they feed, how they feed, and what they're feeding on.

CRAWFORD: Which set of species?

LALAS: Cormorants - we call them Shags. In the harbour here, we have three species that are common and one that is rare. So, we've got a total of four species here.

CRAWFORD: And you also introduced a new level of spatial stratification? You said you had work that was undertaken in Otago Harbour, but also you did some work around Stewart Island?

LALAS: Based at Paterson Inlet - and Ackers Point, because Ackers Point gives a nice panorama.

CRAWFORD: In that case, some semi-enclosed waters - but also you had some open ocean exposure at Ackers Point?

LALAS: And I did a couple of field trips, before the formation of DOC - which was 1987 I think. The conservation work down there was done by Forestry Service and Lands and Survey. Forestry Service had a very nice boat, and I got in with the ranger there - he would take me places, so we went out to various islands in Foveaux Strait

CRAWFORD: Islands - as in Bench Island, Edwards Island, the northern Titi Islands?

LALAS: No. The small stuff that had birds. Places without people. A lot of the islands were closed in those days.

CRAWFORD: Who was your mate that you went with in the boat?

LALAS: Ron Tindle, but he's dead just now.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Otago Harbour, Paterson Inlet, Ackers Point, some of the smaller islands in Foveaux Strait off Stewart Island. What were your other study locations?

LALAS: Marlborough Sound, based at French Pass and the Chathams.

CRAWFORD: in terms of time spent in the field in each of these cases, it was a mix of terrestrial- and aquatic-based observations?

LALAS: Marlborough Sound and Chatham Islands were observations from land.

CRAWFORD: And for Otago Harbour and Stewart Island, it was a mix of observation from land and water?


CRAWFORD: Give me a sense of how many years your field program ran?

LALAS: It was six years to do the PhD, but I had to work and get some money. I guess the field work was split over three or four years.

CRAWFORD: Was it the case that you would have been to each of the four locations in each of the years?

LALAS: No. Chatham Island was a one off - it was a five-week trip which curiously was funded by a pharmaceutical company. They wanted a particular type of seaweed which was very rare, and offered a payment of $1 per kilogram, which wasn't a lot but at the time ...

CRAWFORD: You combined that harvesting work with getting over to Chatham Island?

LALAS: No. I knew a spot where we'd go in about an hour, and that paid for the whole Chatham Island trip. $500 paid for five weeks.

CRAWFORD: And that was for one year only?

LALAS: It was a one off. And Marlborough Sound work ... I don't remember how many times I went there, but it was two or three times - a couple of weeks at a time.

CRAWFORD: Perhaps once a year, on average?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: The same thing for Otago and Stewart Island?

LALAS: Stewart Island I don't actually remember. I probably went three or four times. And at Otago Harbour it was every day I wasn't somewhere else. So, it turned out that the ideal spot for me to be observing the birds behaving naturally was from the tea room at the Portobello Marine Lab. Similarly, at Stewart Island the best spot was at the pub at the hotel. I'd sit there with a pair of binoculars and they'd buy me a beer, because they felt sorry for me.

CRAWFORD: I think I have a general sense. For Marlborough Sound and Stewart Island, it would have been maybe two or three trips through the thesis. Fieldwork of approximately two or three weeks each time. Something like that? 

LALAS: Yeah. I'd say usually about two trips for each.

CRAWFORD: Your observations were specifically focusing on bird life, in association with the marine environment?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: When did you finish the PhD?

LALAS: 1983 I submitted. It was back in the day when things were a lot slower. There wasn't the rush to get things done. And also there was a problem of too little information known, so I ended up probably spending half my time cutting up fish to get what the prey remains looked like, because it was totally unknown. I was doing diet from prey remains in the birds, but nobody knew what the prey remains were. So, I had to do that as well. 

CRAWFORD: That's a lot of natural history.

LALAS: Yeah. It isn't done these days, because that information is known before you start.

CRAWFORD: After the PhD, what was the next time and place that you were spending significant effort around New Zealand coastal waters?

LALAS: I was quite lucky, because when I finished, the Government of the time - which was the first Labour Government of any substance forever - they set up a work scheme where anybody was guaranteed a job in their field. So, I went right into a position working for Lands and Survey, which was a precursor to DOC. This was in 1983, and my job was to survey sea birds of the Otago coast.

CRAWFORD: 'Otago coast' - what did that mean, geographically?

LALAS: I concentrated on what now are DOC reserves, which were pretty much Lands and Survey government reserves. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly where would those reserves have been?

LALAS: Shag Point, that would have been the northern most one. Heyward Point, Taiaroa Head, Sandfly Bay, Sandymount. And here's where it got curious. I concentrated on two spots, Green Island and another ... unclassified Crown land, and as a result of my work they were made into major reserves. I thought that was quite significant. Then there was Nugget Point, and there's nothing in between - in terms of reserves.  I got to know Taeiri Mouth - sorry, there is a reserve there. I didn't go there often, because you can only walk there on occasion. Very low considerable tide. That turned out to be where the first Sea Lion was born on the coast. So, I ended up getting to know a couple of the locals, and went there quite regularly later. 

CRAWFORD: Before you go on, you talked about being able to walk over. The work that you were doing, this surveying, was it predominantly terrestrial? Or did you have access to a boat? 

LALAS: Purely terrestrial, because it was a bit of a dual thing. One was to learn what seabirds are in the Government reserves, and the other was to know what are the hotspots. What are the important places for seabirds? 

CRAWFORD: But in terms of accessing the islands, you would have had to be shuttled out there by boat?

LALAS: Yes. For Green Island, [Keith Simmond] would take me out there on his Lobster pot trips.

CRAWFORD: While he was fishing, he would shuttle you over?

LALAS: Yeah. He would drop me off, and pick me up a couple of days later. For the other island I went to fairly regularly - [Wharekakahu] - I had an inflatable boat. In those days, I had good lungs. You walk from the end of the road down to the nearest beach, roll this thing out, blow it up, hop in it, and go out. Because it was only a couple hundred meters offshore.

CRAWFORD: A couple of hundred meters off the end of the Otago Peninsula. What time of year were you doing these surveys?

LALAS: I was employed for 18 months, two years, something like that. I was going to all of them regularly throughout the year, summer and winter. Not so much in winter. I got more into Yellow-Eyed Penguins, because they’re present year-round - whereas most of the other species disappear if they're not breeding.  

CRAWFORD: Ok. All of this work was being done on the coastline, with some occasional transit overland. To get to the island, it was throughout the year, and it ran for approximately 18 months. Refresh my memory, what year was that?

LALAS: 1983-85.

CRAWFORD: What was the next installment of your history with marine environments in New Zealand?

LALAS: I got involved with another project. It was back in the days where you didn't apply for jobs - people asked you if you wanted to be employed. The start of the New Zealand observer program, so I went out on large fishing boats. In those days, it was just foreign ones. You monitored what they were doing.

CRAWFORD: This was for the Ministry of Fisheries? Or what would become Ministry of Primary Industries?

LALAS: I can't think of exactly who it was it those days, but yes it would have been something like the Ministry of Fisheries.

CRAWFORD: That was observing fishing vessels offshore. How far offshore? What was the closest you got to the coastline?

LALAS: Twelve nautical miles - that was the limit, because they were all too big to fish within the twelve nautical miles.

CRAWFORD: Was that throughout the year?

LALAS: Yes, and the concentration in winter. I suppose I did it for three or four years. Then I had a bit of a gap where I sort of left because of some other things. So, then I was just a guide out at the Albatross Conservatory for probably a couple of years. And then I took up the fishery observer job again, but working for a fishing company. 

CRAWFORD: So, there were two installments of that job then?


CRAWFORD: The first installment was for two or three years?

LALAS: Yeah. It was '86, and I left in '89. And it was summer, so that all but the last six months I ended up getting brought into the shore staff.

CRAWFORD: But it was three years, throughout the year, with a focus on the winter, offshore fishery. What region roughly? Was it only South Island? 

LALAS: Yes, nothing north. A little bit in Cook Strait, but not much of the strait is outside twelve nautical miles. Mainly west coast of the South Island.

CRAWFORD: West coast - Fiordland?

LALAS: No, further north. Hokitika Canyon, Greymouth to Hokitika.

CRAWFORD: Ok. If I heard you correctly, there was also a stint where you were working with the bird observatory on the Otago Peninsula?

LALAS: Yes, just as a guide there to make some money.

CRAWFORD: As a guide, but you were working along Taiaroa Head?

LALAS: What was happening was, for some key species of seabirds, I was maintaining monitoring. 

CRAWFORD: You were doing abundance monitoring?

LALAS: Yes. That would have been for a couple of species of Shags and Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Then I got involved from the early '80s up here at Moeraki - Kaitiki Point, I started getting seriously involved with conservation work ashore.

SCRAWFORD: What kind of conservation work?

LALAS: What you can see up there now if you go out, it was all bare paddocks. And three of us, where I was the minor party in that trio, we planted forests. Which is now quite impressive to go and look at 30 years after the day. We did things like maintain trapping to protect animals. 

CRAWFORD: Both terrestrial and aquatic work?

LALAS: No, just terrestrial. And that continues to today - where it’s picked up in recent years.

CRAWFORD: After working in association with the bird observatory, you went back to doing fisheries observations?

LALAS: Yes, working with a fishing company - Sanford out of Timaru. That was less variety, because they wanted people to monitor what the Korean joint venture vessels were doing. I never worked on Russian or Soviet vessels in those days. Otherwise It was Japanese and Korean vessels, but for Sanford it was just Korean vessels.

CRAWFORD: Still all offshore?

LALAS: Still all offshore. Same as before, the west coast of South Island mainly. And also the Auckland Islands during the squid fishery. In the early years, further south for Southern Blue Whiting as well. 

CRAWFORD: How long did that second fishery observer job run? How many years?

LALAS: Probably 6-7 years. I can't give you the exact time, but something like that. I certainly got more sea time heading it up, than I did working for the government. 

CRAWFORD:  Ok. Early 2000s now, what happened then?

LALAS: There's all this background monitoring going on in my spare time, from the late '70s onwards. Looking at the coastal monitoring, in particular special species with a focus on birds. Birds initially, and then Fur Seals and then Sea Lions. When I took notice of the Fur Seals, it was around '82. The first pups born in southern New Zealand.


LALAS: Where they'd been wiped out. What we know now, they were wiped out by Māori, and the early Sealers finished them off. Reading between the lines on the records, I think more men drowned than Seals were killed, because essentially the Māori subsistence hunting had wiped them out. So, that was the start of their comeback.

CRAWFORD: 1982 was the first recorded pupping? For what region?

LALAS: Southern New Zealand mainland.

CRAWFORD: Including Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island?

LALAS: I don't know. There's information on the start of breeding there at some places, but to my understanding - sorry, my memory - if it’s important we can find out, but they were definitely breeding in Foveaux Strait. So, we're talking strictly on the mainland. They definitely weren't further north. And my studies went down ... the furthest place south I went was Waipapa Point, which is the southern-most tip of South Island. 

CRAWFORD: The important thing for me to focus on is the idea that it was early 1980s when the first recorded instance of Seal pupping occurred along the southeast coast of the South Island?

LALAS: And when we say southeast, it’s the whole of the east coast of the South Island. First it was here, later it was Banks Peninsula, later it was Marlborough Sound. 

CRAWFORD: To the extent that you know about Seal pupping, what observations have there been from Kaka Point south?

LALAS: They started at the Nuggets later. For those early years, I was senior author for a paper on Otago Peninsula and a paper for further south. They started at Cape Saunders, which was the first spot. And then they appeared at my nemesis - Sandymount. There's a sea cave at Sandymount that's tried to kill me several times. And then I think it was the Nuggets. They spread out in both directions. 

CRAWFORD: The Nuggets puppings would have been mid-80s, late 80s?

LALAS: Sorry, I don't remember. The paper was written the mid-90s, so it was before then.

CRAWFORD: What about down through the Catlins?

LALAS: Yes, they were slowly spreading down - north to south.

CRAWFORD: We'll come back to this. We're actually dipping into part two of the interview. We're still trying to map out your experience. You were doing these surveys. We got through the second round of you being a fisheries observer. And then I think you started to talk about doing these Seal assessments in the background, through the entire period?

LALAS: Publications started in the mid-90s, because that’s when I got a computer. The next job was working for a rather weird American, what’s it called - a 'tertiary organization' called School for International Training. They brought students, groups of either about a dozen or two dozen, and they would come over here for the equivalent of half year, and it would get credited to their university.

CRAWFORD: Was this an out-of-doors experience program?

LALAS: It was out-of-doors - we called it 'We're keeping rich Americans amused.' Conservation was the topic, but the theme I made was using ecotourism for conservation purposes. Literally, we would allocate a week in Kaikoura and go Whale watching, swimming with the Dolphins. The reason we allocated a week is the weather there is so unpredictable that those were the only two things that we could do. I was the accompanying lecturer. This was a five-week road trip.

CRAWFORD: How many of those trips would you do in a year?

LALAS: Two. And I did it for about six years. It would have brought us up to 2006. 

CRAWFORD: Both trips in the summer?

LALAS: No, they were six months apart. One summer, one winter. At the end of them, the students had to do a five-week undergraduate project. I would supervise some, but I would have to organize supervisors for some, university people for others, and a lot of those were marine-based. A couple with small boat work. 

CRAWFORD: Would these projects have been focused on the Otago Peninsula? In the harbour, or spread out?

LALAS: Spread out. I would very regularly have students working up north at Kaitiki Point where I was basing my conservation work. I remember we had maybe four projects on mussels in Marlborough Sound. It was at the turn of the century or so. I was contracted as a consultant for applications for mussel farms in Marlborough Sound - for the seabird component.

CRAWFORD: You would have spent time on or around the water for periods?

LALAS: Very little. I think all out maybe a week. I got familiar with Marlborough Sound from zipping around.

CRAWFORD: What was the next significant installment of coastal New Zealand experience - either from shore or on the water?

LALAS: That moves us up to mid-2000s, and then I started on this seismic exploration project, which was mainly offshore.

CRAWFORD: Offshore, as in continental shelf offshore? 100+ km offshore?

LALAS: Yeah. I got to see the Fur Seals on their feeding grounds. Nicely it was in Australia. I have a few weeks out of Raglan, straight west from Hamilton. It's meant to be New Zealand's best surfing beach. We had to straddle it in a small boat, so we went surfing - and it was quite exciting. 

CRAWFORD: When did the seismic activity project wrap up?

LALAS: Theoretically it’s still going, but I think it’s done. 

CRAWFORD: Effectively done by 2010?

LALAS: No. Done last year.

CRAWFORD: So, it continued on for several years?

LALAS: Yeah. I did have an inshore survey, and the reason I was brought in was that it was beside a marine reserve beside New Plymouth. That brought us in to conflict because people had decided it was an important area for Maui's Dolphin, even though none had been seen there before. We were expected to visually be able to tell the difference between Hector's Dolphin and Maui's Dolphin.  But the only way you can tell the difference is through blood tests - you cannot visually tell.

CRAWFORD: Within the past five years, other than work you've done with offshore seismic surveys and a couple of contracts here and there, is there anything else in this region, the Otago Peninsula region or elsewhere, that you've spent a significant amount of time near the shoreline - if not on the water?

LALAS: Yeah. I had two weeks down at the bottom end of Stewart Island within the last three years.

CRAWFORD: Where specifically?

LALAS: Port Pegasus.

CRAWFORD: What were you doing in Port Pegasus?

LALAS: Diet of Sea Lions. We had perfect weather for the whole time we were there. Actually getting low on fresh water, which doesn't happen very often. Boat-based work - a university offshore boat.

CRAWFORD: Was it a research program?

LALAS: Yes, not mine though. I would tag along with other people, doing other projects. We had exclusive use of small boats. 

CRAWFORD: So, Port Pegasus for 2-3 weeks a year?

LALAS: Yeah. I think two trips to Port Pegasus, and I've done trips to the Snares and Auckland Islands - all of them in the past few years. Piggy backing on other people's trips, and paying big money to go.

CRAWFORD: Research trips or ecotourism?

LALAS: Research trips - based on Sea Lion diets, but supplemented by some bird work as well.

CRAWFORD: And does that pretty much bring us up to date, with regard to your experience around New Zealand coastal waters?




CRAWFORD: If you would consider the influence of Māori culture and knowledge on your understanding of marine ecosystems, where would you rank that?

LALAS: Low. And I think much of their information was lost. I've spoken to Māori about Fur Seals, and I think much of that information has been lost.



CRAWFORD: Let’s go back to your early days - the Master's thesis and the PhD in and around the Otago Harbour. For all the time you spent in and around that region, you said you didn't see any White Pointers in the harbour, but did the old-timers or any of your mates mention any observation of White Pointers in Otago Harbour?

LALAS: Not that I remember. Definitely Jack, when he caught this big White Pointer [see Direct Encounter below], he was amazed. 

CRAWFORD: He was shocked that it was there, or shocked that he caught it, or both? 

LALAS: That it was there. You'd know about this ... before the [Dunedin City Council] shark nets and stuff, some people attacked, but I don't know if it was established. 

CRAWFORD: Do you know anything about those attacks? Details, locations?


CRAWFORD: Was there an indication that perhaps outside the harbour, around the Otago Peninsula further down, that they were ever seen? Were there ever any occasions?

LALAS: Not that I recall. It sort of exists even today, that up to a decade ago that if you caught a shark in the harbour you were on the front page of the newspaper and heroes for killing marauding sharks. 

CRAWFORD: I want to get back to your time when you went to the Chatham islands on that corporate-sponsored trip. For the time that you spent there, was there any discussion about White Pointers?

LALAS: No, but I didn't meet up with a lot of fisherman. I was there at the time of Crayfish boom, and there were a lot of fisherman came over from the mainland to fish Crayfish.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Let’s consider your time down on Stewart Island. Was there any discussion about White Pointers, either in Patterson Inlet or Ackers Point and some of the surrounding islands?

LALAS: Not that I recall.

CRAWFORD: Marlborough Sound region?


CRAWFORD: To the extent that you have experience as an ecologist, as a field conservation biologist - if you had to characterize, at the national level for North and South Island - what regions are known to have White Pointers? What would you think? 

LALAS: Stewart Island, the Snares, Auckland Islands.

CRAWFORD: You spent time at the Snares and Auckland Islands. Was there discussion about White Pointers down there? For the people who worked down there, who have experience down there, have there been any surveys or observations? Maybe people were working on Sea Lions and they witnessed attacks? That type of thing?

LALAS: No, but I tagged along with people doing other studies - mostly water chemistry. And the other studies have been winter trips with people studying live whales. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. I'd like to shift to Seals and Sea Lions for a little bit. You've got a particular perspective, but you also have a time series associated with your experiences that goes back a fair way. I think you said that around the turn of the century, 1900s - big news flash, Seals present around Otago Peninsula again. And then over the decades from then I'm presuming there was recolonization, growth in the population abundance. And then in the early 1980s, the first reported pupping. From the 1980s to the present, has that population growth increased? And if so, has it gone in a linear fashion or an exponential fashion? 

LALAS: Logistically stable. I've got the first record of a pup being born. They've been stable for about 10 years. I think about 25 years from the start to stability.

CRAWFORD: When did protection come in for the Seals?

LALAS: Late 1800s, and formalized in the 1920s or 1930s. But there was an open season in 1948. One year it was an open season, because fishermen were complaining.

CRAWFORD: That there were too many Seals?

LALAS: Fisherman complained that the number of Fur Seals had increased, and they were eating 'their fish.' They stopped catching Blue Cod. There was an interesting paper written about it - its frontispiece had a fishing boat with a Blue Cod fish trap, a fish pot. This guy worked out that what was really happening was that the Blue Cod catch was down, but they'd been exporting the Blue Cod, and the market had fully dropped, and the freezers ashore were full. So they stopped catching them, and looked for someone to blame. I guess what I’m saying is that peoples' attitudes towards Fur Seals, they're not regarded as 'nice animals.' Bit by bit, the furry equivalent to sharks.

CRAWFORD: With regard to the Seal population - at least the animals on the Otago Peninsula - is it something a biologist would recognize as a self-sustaining population on its own?


CRAWFORD: Is there significant immigration and emigration with other populations?

LALAS: You got it - that's the question. For the Seals, once a female starts somewhere, she'll be there every year. She doesn't have a helluva lot of choice - because if she has a pup, she weans the pup at the same time she gives birth to the next one pretty much. So she's stuck there. The same is true of Sea Lions. They are very dispersive before they breed. Definitely. In terms of 10-20 years ago now, there's been quite a lot banding - we've got animals here from everywhere that we've tagged. 

CRAWFORD: They're mixing it up quite a bit?

LALAS: Yeah. And the rate of increase in the early years - say the first decade - the rate of increase was too high to be through breeding alone. It had to be through immigration as well.

CRAWFORD: So, a lot of mixing going on. Although, I think it’s an important observation you made that once a female Seal begins to pup, she's locked in for a variety of reasons - not the least of which is that she's got a cross-generational commitment. 

LALAS: Yeah. Theoretically, she could move on if she doesn't have a pup or something. I forget what the stable number of pups is, but it’s a few thousand, it’s not huge. 

CRAWFORD: At a very general level - the Otago Peninsula south to the Foveaux Strait - when you think of major Seal colonies, what places come to mind?

LALAS: Obviously the Otago Peninsula. The next one down was the last to get going really - Green Island.

CRAWFORD: That’s a major colony?

LALAS: Yeah. My problem is that I haven't been out there for a long time - less than a decade, but last time there was less than a couple of hundred pups there's probably 500 or so now.

CRAWFORD: That's just pups?

LALAS: Yeah. Taieri was just starting up when I stopped doing surveys.

CRAWFORD: Is that a major colony now?

LALAS: I wouldn't think so, no. The Nuggets is a major colony. I've forgotten the maximum number of pups, something like about 500 there. But then it drained down - they were just spreading. I think the next major area is probably Long Point. The next one down is around the corner from Tuhawaiki Island. Then there's [White Head], that’s the next one - actually the bay short of it. And the next is Cosgrove Island; perhaps it's spread south to include Long Point. I would have done my last survey down there maybe ten years ago. The rest, there was really no indication.

CRAWFORD: Really? From Long Point all the way down to Waikawa ... nothing really? Did you do any Seal surveys down around Foveaux Strait, down to Stewart Island?

LALAS: No. But I was involved with a couple of students that had done work at Bench Island.

CRAWFORD: Was Bench Island known to be a Seal hotspot back then?

LALAS: It became one. I think you might even be able to get a first pupping. There’s a publication on that.

CRAWFORD: Would anything else you know about Stewart Island Seals be fragmentary?

LALAS: Yeah. It’s not coherent. But I know some others have done some surveys for that area. One of the long term established spots was one of the islands out about here.

CRAWFORD: The Solanders?

LALAS: Yeah. There was a thorough survey done in this area by Wilson - a paper from the late 1970s, and there was bugger all breeding at accessible places. It’s one of these tricks that they breed in inaccessible places. So, if you only check accessible places, you're never going to find them. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. For the time that you did spend in Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island, was there strong numbers of Fur Seals there that you recall?

LALAS: No, I don't recall having seen any. I would have remembered, because that was something I was interested in. 

CRAWFORD: When were you there? Paterson Inlet?

LALAS: Late 1970s, maybe early 80s. 

CRAWFORD: I want to have a discussion with you about the importance of Seal colonies to the White Pointers. There's been a tremendous amount of discussion about where the White Pointers are, and what they're doing there, and the changes over time, and the relationship with other important changes in the ecosystem. From your experience, and the people you have worked with and the old-timers, was there a really strong, tight correlation between the distribution of White Pointers and Fur Seals - in particular the pups?

LALAS: That’s what I've been thinking about since you called, and I would say no. What's happening with Sea Lions ... the first Sea Lion birth in Otago in modern times was 1991, I think - and I was studying them for diet. For about 15 years it was me and one of my students. I've kept up on the diet stuff. What was happening starting in the mid-90s, was that adult male Sea Lions eat Fur Seals, and it's really distinctive damage on what you end up with. You end up with bits washed up.

CRAWFORD: When you say Seals, do you mean Seal pups or Seal adults, or both?

LALAS: The biggest I've had is a sub-adult male. I looked up what its weight should be for its length, it was over a meter and a half long - it was near full grown, and would have weighed 60 kilos. What happens, you can tell at distance the body's degloved, which means the body's been ripped apart, essentially the skeleton is largely intact, but everything has been eaten out of it and the skin by the time it washes up. It tends to turn up over the head, so it’s like a cape. Imagine an animal that’s been stripped of all its body innards, and its skin is just loose. I was going to say the Sea Lions eat Seal pups whole, but they don't eat them whole - they break them up, but they'll eat the whole thing. For example, I've got vomited skulls of pups. It must be quit something to swallow that. But that's also classic. Once they hit two or three years old it’s very distinctive canines through the skull, so that they are almost inevitably killed by a bite to the head. When I clean up the skulls, you can see the puncture wound. I haven't seen anything in terms of Fur Seal remains that don't fit that profile. If they're being attacked by a shark, the damage would be quite different. There would be bits turning up, but they're not going to be degloved. They might be through time by Gulls. 

CRAWFORD: There are going to be different types of cuts?

LALAS: There's no such thing as a cut on a bone by a Sea Lion. 

CRAWFORD: I think this is an important part of the conversation. First of all, when you get Fur Seal remains after a Sea Lion attack, where are you getting these remains? Are they washing up on shore?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: In the time that you've been doing these surveys, have you ever seen anything that you would suspect was the result of a shark attack on either a pup or an adult Seal?

LALAS: Here I can be quite categorical because I document, I have to collate the evidence. Where I'm lucky is that they end up eating quite a lot of stuff and vomiting it up - pup skulls and stuff. I can see what it is - well there are three sources. One is vomit, one is where a degloved body has come up, and the other is where myself or somebody else has seen a Sea Lion attack, and then the body washes up and we go out on the boat and get pieces. 

CRAWFORD: Before we go on, we have to recognize a White Pointer attack on a Seal could by nature be a very different thing. I'm not sure what extent we'd expect White Pointers to regurgitate anything, or where they would do that regurgitation. But the helpful thing about your classification is that there are regurgitations, remains and observations. In terms of regurgitation, for the sake of argument we're just going to remove that for a second. White Pointers, if they do any regurgitation, they wouldn't do it necessarily along the coastline where they attacked.

LALAS: This is without question Sea Lion regurgitation - something that’s washed up. Whereas a degloved body or bits are washed up.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Let’s go to the remains. Whether it was regurgitated or not, the point is that when a White Pointer takes a Seal there can also be bits and pieces. For instance, when I did interviews at Curio Bay, there were several Seals, and they were quite known to the local people, and a shark took one of the Seals. Then there was another attack the same year. And then the third and fourth attacks on Seals in the next year.

LALAS: This is Sea Lions you're talking about?

CRAWFORD: No. White Pointer attacks on Seals.

LALAS: I would be cautious there because there's a difference in behaviour between Fur Seals and Sea Lions.

CRAWFORD: The important part was that there was a flipper remaining. The witness saw the attack, he called it into DOC, somebody came down and did a beach scan. They found remnants, including a Seal flipper, and they buried it. Whether it was the same White Pointer or whether perhaps there were other sharks, there was a series of attacks on Seals on rocks, adjacent to the rocks. In that case, there were very clearly remains from the attack. And in that case, you have the ability, potentially at least, to recognize incisions. If there were White Pointer attacks on Seals, along the places where you have done surveys and found remains, these were washed up on shore?

LALAS: Yes, that’s the norm.

CRAWFORD: I suspect if you were finding those, and there were bits and pieces of Seals, there's a good chance you would have found at least some that resulted from White Pointer attacks?

LALAS: Yes, if the shark is doing what the Sea Lions do - which is cruise the colonies, then you would expect bits to wash up.

CRAWFORD: And that’s the point that I'm trying to come to. You've spent a significant amount of time assessing nearshore conditions, specifically with regards to predation on Seals by Sea Lions.

LALAS: But collecting the evidence would indicate that it’s not sharks doing so. The only injury on bone that I've got are the puncture wounds. The older the Seal, the thicker the skull, and the clearer the marks.

CRAWFORD: Out of all that work, did you ever find a substantial amount of evidence that could have been shark attacks on Seals?

LALAS: Nothing. But keep in mind we're just talking Fur Seals here, because we haven't started on Sea Lions. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. For other professionals, other people who you think would be knowledgeable and credible Seal biologists - have they done similar types of work and found evidence of White Pointers feeding on Seals?

LALAS: I'm not recalling anything.

CRAWFORD: Let’s get back to the Sea Lions. What do you know about interactions between Sea Lions and White Pointers?

LALAS: It looks like White Pointers could be a major cause of mortality down south.

CRAWFORD: When you say 'down south,' what do you mean? 

LALAS: Auckland Islands, Campbell island, and the Snares. It's normal when you walk around to see Sea Lions with shark damage. Whereas up here I recall only one, it was a flipper - you could see the line of the teeth.

CRAWFORD: But that’s the exception in this region?

LALAS: Up here, yeah. But it’s not unusual down south and that’s where I mentioned Louise's contact, because I'm pretty sure she's quantified it.

CRAWFORD: Louise Chilvers, working out of Massey University?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: Ok. So, based on your discussions with other professionals, you have a strong feeling that White Pointers can be a major source of mortality on Sea Lions in the sub-Antarctic islands?

LALAS: Yes. But given that where we see an animal with shark damage on it, it means it got away. We don't see the ones that didn't get away.

CRAWFORD: Would you predict that the number of instances where you see a Sea Lion with scars would be correlated in some sense to the number of Sea Lions that were taken by White Pointers? Those that didn't get away?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: Is it the case that people you know who are working in the sub-Antarctic islands - have they seen White Pointers preying on Sea Lions as well?


CRAWFORD: Observed attacks there, but not so here on the Otago Peninsula? Is it also very low in terms of scarring here?

LALAS: Yes, but also keep in mind the number of Sea Lions up here. Let’s say they were eating 1 in 100 Sea Lions a year. We've only got a hundred Sea Lions here, so you're not going to get the same kind of observations of attacks or scarring.

CRAWFORD: Let’s put things in perspective. What’s the population abundance of Sea Lions down on the sub-Antarctic islands?

LALAS: Oh, it’s probably 8,000-10,000 animals.

CRAWFORD: So, two orders of magnitude higher?

LALAS: Yeah. And you could walk ... in a day you could see several hundred animals there. I know that Louise, one of her ambitions was to quantify the number of animals showing damage, and what that damage was.



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?


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?


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.



CRAWFORD: The final part of the interview we're going to skip over because you're not in the focal region, Foveaux Strait-Stewart Island where the cage tour dive operations are - unless you have very strong opinions ...

LALAS: No, none. But I was bemused at Kaikoura, in one bay they had shark cage with people inside the shark cage and they were feeding them, and in the next bay they had 'swim with the Seals.' 

CRAWFORD: Kaikoura? They had shark cage diving?

LALAS: Yes, very briefly. They stopped because the main focus was the Seals and Dolphins and the like, and there were a lot of people swimming.

CRAWFORD: This is the first I've heard of any shark cage tour dive operations up there.

LALAS: Really. Well, pull it up because maybe I was having my leg pulled. This would have been ten years ago now. Presumably the 'Swimming with Seals' operation in Kaikoura is still there, and they would tell you if it’s just a legend or true or not.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Lalas and Steve Crawford