Iain Govan


YOB: 1959
Experience: Spearfisherman
Regions: Otago
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 December 2015
Post Date: 08 July 2017; Copyright © 2017 Iain Govan and Steve Crawford


CRAWFORD: Have you heard from mates or other people about encounters with White Pointers?

GOVAN: The first sort of specific incidence of an encounter was one that my spearfishing companions had, which would have been in early 1982 - that was in Cape Saunders. 

CRAWFORD: Just a couple years after you started diving?

GOVAN: Wasn’t long after I’d started.

CRAWFORD: What happened? What did your mates tell you happened?

GOVAN: These were my friends Paul Cobby and John Amsden. They’d gone out there for a Crayfish dive, scuba dive. Jumped in off the inflatable. Started dropping down to the bottom. Good visibility, they could see the bottom.

CRAWFORD: Roughly what depth?

GOVAN: Just guessing, maybe 60-70 foot. Something like that.

CRAWFORD: That would be good visibility out at Cape Saunders?

GOVAN: Yes, absolutely that. On a good day over the summer if there’s been a north-west blowing for a few days, it settles out and you can get 70-80 foot vis. Otherwise, generally you won’t get anything like that. So there are very few times a year when that will happen. Anyway, they saw an enormous shape swim underneath them.

CRAWFORD: While they were descending?

GOVAN: While they’re descending, looking down. I remember Paul saying he thought it was a whale, because it was so big. It tilted up 90 degrees, and in slow motion swam straight up at them from the bottom. And they realized what it was. They’d only just started dropping down at this stage. It came right up to John, who pushed off on its head with his fins, and it sort of rolled off and swum around. They got back to the inflatable and jumped out of the water. It swum past behind them, and that was the last they saw of it. 

CRAWFORD: Did you get the impression from them that there was any sense of aggression or intensity? What they felt was a pre-cursor to an attack? Or was it on the more casual side of things? 

GOVAN: It was more, if you put it that way, the more casual side of things.

CRAWFORD: Or curiosity perhaps?


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]

GOVAN: Definitely a Level 3. 

CRAWFORD: A Level 3 interaction with a large White Pointer off Cape Saunders, where the shark was originally on the bottom and then reoriented ...

GOVAN: Yes, 90 degree deviation to swim to them.

CRAWFORD: Up close enough that one of the divers pushed off?

GOVAN: Pushed off on its head, yes. 

CRAWFORD: That’s pretty damn close for a big fish. But then you said that it rolled off?

GOVAN: Yes, disengaged - curious activity. Apparently, it passed by behind them as they were climbing onto the boat.

CRAWFORD: But it didn’t continue to circle?


CRAWFORD: Didn’t bump the boat?


CRAWFORD: Didn’t kind of 'give them the eye' again, or do anything else?

GOVAN:  The boatman saw the fin and the body pass by behind them. That’s my distinct recollection of the tale. 

CRAWFORD: What time of year do you reckon this was?

GOVAN: That would have been February perhaps. 

CRAWFORD: Middle of summer?

GOVAN: Yes, mid to late summer.

CRAWFORD: That would have been a story directly told to you by people who experienced it, right?

GOVAN: The day before - because we went out diving the next day.

CRAWFORD: Well that’s interesting. It didn’t deter them from diving?

GOVAN: No, no. 

CRAWFORD: And where did you go the next day?

GOVAN: Up to Karitane.

CRAWFORD: Did the old-timers ever mention to you or your mates that Otago Peninsula was sharky with respect to White Pointers?


CRAWFORD: So, it was known that the animals were there?


CRAWFORD: And what might the old-timers have said to a young kid like you, who was just getting into the game?

GOVAN: Oh, just sort of stories of experiences. A chap that I had a lot to do with back then - Colin Wilson - was with Graham Hitt when he was killed off the entrance to the [Otago] Harbour. 

CRAWFORD: And did he explain from his perspective what happened?


CRAWFORD: What was your recollection of what he said?

GOVAN: He said he suddenly saw the fish come past him in close proximity.

CRAWFORD: Where was this? 

GOVAN: The mouth around the harbour, at Aramoana.

CRAWFORD: Do you remember the time of year or anything like that?

GOVAN: No, no. I don’t recall that, sorry.

CRAWFORD: But he was diving with Graham?

GOVAN: Yes. They were out there, the two of them I think. There might have been three or four of them in the water. 

CRAWFORD: All free-dive spearfishing? 

GOVAN: Yes, they would have been spearfishing I think, from memory. Quite probably that was the case. Suddenly the fish came past him [Colin]. He said it was very, very close. The eye looked like a dinner plate sort of thing. Circled him. Swam off, reasonably purposefully. And next thing he knew, his friend in the water had been attacked.

CRAWFORD: How long between the circle, and disengagement, and the attack?

GOVAN: Pretty promptly, I couldn’t say exactly.

CRAWFORD: Less than a minute long? 

GOVAN: Yes, it would have been less than a minute that it happened. 

CRAWFORD: And the animal. Did Colin see the shark before it was in close proximity?

GOVAN: The first thing was the fish swimming past and circling him, then moving off. And then his friend after the attack. He didn’t witness the actual attack.

CRAWFORD: From his understanding of what had happened, was it like a multi-part event, or was it a strike and gone?

GOVAN: I think it was a hit, and then gone. I think it was all over by the time he knew it had happened.

CRAWFORD: Going back to my original question, what kind of advice, if anything, did the old-timers tell you young kids about things like this?

GOVAN: Just to keep going. 

CRAWFORD: Keep going as in ...

GOVAN: Get back in the water.

CRAWFORD: Did they ever tell you that there were certain places to avoid? Or certain times of the year? Or certain times of the day?

GOVAN: Not really, no. I mean Colin's story went on from there because obviously after that - such a traumatic event - I think it took him a little while before he went out again. I remember him distinctly telling me that the very first time he got back in the water after that, was at Cape Saunders. Getting in from the shore and he virtually landed on top of another one when he jumped off of the landing - there was a White Pointer right there!

CRAWFORD: Off of what landing?

GOVAN: In Cape Saunders. You used to be able to climb down, and there was a sort of a rock boat landing ledge there. He jumped off it and there was one in the water right there. 

CRAWFORD: And he didn’t see it?

GOVAN: Well, he did, yes - as soon as he jumped in the water.

CRAWFORD: I know, but he didn’t see it prior to jumping in.

GOVAN: No, no.

CRAWFORD: He jumps in ...

GOVAN: Yes. So, it was a freak, absolutely freak occurrence. 

CRAWFORD: That it happened to be the very next day?

GOVAN: That it happened to be the very next time he got back in the water. Although I’m not sure of the time between the events, perhaps a few weeks. 

CRAWFORD: Ok, but Iain, I’m starting to put the numbers together here, and there are a frequency of occurrences that are stringing together. Was there any indication among the spearfishermen that the Head of Otago Peninsula had always been sharky - or that it was just becoming sharky?

GOVAN: Yes, there was a reputation if you like. Or a knowing that these were places where ...

CRAWFORD: So, this was not news?

GOVAN: No, no.

CRAWFORD: It just so happened that there were some recent encounters - including a Level 4 encounter?

GOVAN: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Within the community, within the people that you knew and especially the old-timers, did they have a sense of why the White Pointers were around the Otago peninsula? Why the aggregation of these sharks there?

GOVAN: Possibly just food, the Seal colonies. Seal Point - obviously there's a pretty big breeding colony there. 

CRAWFORD: But back in the day, when you were in your early 20s, were there a lot of Seals distributed around that region?

GOVAN: There’s actually a lot more now, than there were back then. 

CRAWFORD: Yes. I’ve heard that from several people.

GOVAN: Yes. Very, very noticeable. That number has increased a lot over the decades from then to now.

CRAWFORD: Would you say that people, spearfishermen in particular, thought that the White Pointers were likely there because of the Seals as food. 

GOVAN: That was a logical thing. There was also perhaps a bit of a pre-conception that around this deep water, where this deep water was coming in close to the shore, there might have been a greater likelihood of interaction. But that was possibly more psychological than anything else. 

CRAWFORD: Did that impression change the way that you dove?

GOVAN: Not really, no.

CRAWFORD: Did you avoid drop-offs?

GOVAN: No. It was just that you never felt as comfortable about diving around a drop-off.

CRAWFORD: Give me a sense, please. What’s the cowboy factor amongst the spearfishing and scuba-diving community?  Are they pretty cautious people? Or do tend to be more on the daredevil side?

GOVAN: Well, I can only speak for things like it was back then, of course. There are a lot more young people who have gotten into it now, because gear is much more readily available and so on. Back then, it wasn’t so much a cowboy attitude. Just, if the opportunity came up to go out, and go in the water, even if the weather was bad, and it was often quite bad conditions - we went for a dive. That’s just what we did.

CRAWFORD: So, maybe just a little bit more on the rugged side?

GOVAN: Yes, but that’s just what we did.

CRAWFORD: I want to come back to Otago Peninsula, and I want to connect the dots on two things you said. First, you said it was already known the Peninsula was sharky - but that there were fewer Seals then, than now. 


CRAWFORD: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is that you’ve got that time series and experience going back the 1980’s anyways.

CRAWFORD: Would you say that there has been an increase in White Pointers, as there has also been an increase in Seal abundance at Otago Peninsula?

GOVAN: No, no. In reality there doesn’t seem to be a correlation there, in my experience.

CRAWFORD: Has the number of White Pointer observations been consistent through that time period? Has it gone down? Or up and down? Or what?

GOVAN: Well, of course me and my contemporaries got in a lot more then, so there was a lot more likelihood of sightings then. But from what I hear, I don’t think there are any more sighting now, than there was back then.

CRAWFORD: Do you reckon that overall, there are fewer sightings now or is it probably about the same? Do you still hear about sightings out there?

GOVAN: Occasionally. But probably heard more back then because, of course, I was speaking to more people who were in the water regularly.

CRAWFORD: Fair enough. But also, the number of people who are out in the water, has that increased in the past 20-30 years?

GOVAN: Ahh, yes. A lot of young people are into spearfishing now, relative to what it was back then.

CRAWFORD: Right. But you’re still a member of the community, and if a young person had ...

GOVAN: Yes, you would hear. Roundabout you would probably hear. I mean, I go into dive shops and talk to people and so, I would probably hear. Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Even though your hours may have reduced, your network is still intact?

GOVAN: The stories would circulate, yes. 

CRAWFORD: And have those stories of encounter, have they increased in frequency?


CRAWFORD: If you had to choose between the frequency having stayed the same, versus the frequency having gone down - what would you choose?

GOVAN: I would say gone down. 

CRAWFORD: What about attacks at St. Clair and St. Kilda? What do you know about those incidences? 

GOVAN: I know nothing other than just hearing about them and reading about them. One of the encounters was with Barry Watkins, who was actually a few years ahead of me at school. So that happened while I was still in school. He was attacked. I think there were also two fatalities out there, around that same time that Graham Hitt was killed back in that 60’s era. 

CRAWFORD: You heard about that. Did you hear anything about the circumstances or anything like that?

GOVAN: I think one was a life guard exercise, a training exercise off of St. Clair. One of the people was killed there. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. You’ve got a relatively high number of Level 4 incidences, in close geographic proximity, in a short period of time. And then nothing, for like, decades. What the hell was going on? What did the old-timers say? Or what was the common wisdom?

GOVAN: Yes, absolute curious thing that. That’s sort of been speculated on, you know. 

CRAWFORD: Tell me about the speculations. What did people speculate?

GOVAN: Just coincidence. Like I said, associated with the type of commercial fishing activity at the time. You know, fish offal and frames and so on being dumped in the water. 

CRAWFORD: Where was the dumping taking place?

GOVAN: I think around the Wellers Rock, Otakou area. 

CRAWFORD: In the harbour?

GOVAN: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: But the attacks took place outside the harbour ...

GOVAN: Well, Graham Hitt would have been here [off the Mole at Aramoana] and those other ones would have been outside, yes. But to be honest, it’s a mystery. That’s all I can say.

CRAWFORD: Were there any other kind of fish processing plants or freezer works that were in operation?

GOVAN: No, not that I’m aware of. It just seemed to be a period where for reasons unbeknownst to us, there was more activity. I mean there have certainly been other sightings since then. Apparently, there was a monstrous fish seen over a period of three or four years around the coastline. That was sort of through the 80s and 90s period.

CRAWFORD:  Was that KZ-7?

GOVAN: Yeah. Though I don’t know how much of it was rumour and how much wasn’t. 

CRAWFORD: Do you know anybody that saw KZ-7?

GOVAN: Not directly, no.

Copyright © 2017 Iain Govan and Steve Crawford