Experience: Spearfisherman, Scuba Diver
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 December 2015
Post Date: 08 July 2017; Copyright © 2017 Iain Govan and Steve Crawford
1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS
CRAWFORD: If I recall correctly, you said you were born in Dunedin?
GOVAN: Yes, in 1959.
CRAWFORD: At what age do you remember spending a significant amount of time around the water?
GOVAN: Probably from 3-4 years old.
CRAWFORD: Very early on; under parental supervision.
CRAWFORD: Around what places, what regions?
CRAWFORD: Did your family have a holiday home there?
GOVAN: We had a crib at Taieri Mouth, and used to go down there quite a bit. We spent time there before I went to school, and when I was in school also.
CRAWFORD: When you were still under close supervision, what kind of activities were you involved in?
GOVAN: Mostly swimming, fishing, and playing around rock pools - and collecting mussels.
CRAWFORD: What kind of fishing? Rod and reel fishing?
GOVAN: Hand-line back then, I didn’t possess a fishing rod.
CRAWFORD: Did you and your family have access to a dinghy that you would go out in?
GOVAN: No, just form the shore.
CRAWFORD: Ok. How much of your activity was in the river, the estuary, versus along the coastal zone itself?
GOVAN: Probably half and half. We used to fish in the river as well, off the rocks.
CRAWFORD: On a seasonal basis, was it more likely for you to be there during the summertime, as opposed to the winter?
CRAWFORD: As a kid, roughly how long during the summer would you spend there?
GOVAN: Oh, I suppose collectively three or four weeks over the summer. Something like that. Hard to say.
GOVAN: I have memories of the Long Beach area. Just going out for day trips around the beach.
CRAWFORD: There comes a time when you no longer require adult supervision. What age do you figure that was for you, roughly? When were you allowed to go off on your own a little bit?
GOVAN: About 11.
CRAWFORD: And when you reached that age, was it still the same pattern - that you spent most of your time at Taieri Mouth?
GOVAN: No, at that stage I’d spend most of my holiday time at central Otago. So, inland, not coastal waters.
CRAWFORD: That kind of represents a block of time away from marine environments?
GOVAN: That’s right, yes.
CRAWFORD: What age did you resume spending time around New Zealand coastal waters?
GOVAN: At age 21.
CRAWFORD: Was that based in the Dunedin area, or did you relocate?
GOVAN: Dunedin area.
CRAWFORD: What kind of activities?
GOVAN: Scuba-diving and spearfishing.
CRAWFORD: You got certified as a scuba diver?
CRAWFORD: And when you got certified, where would you go? What kind of regions would you be diving in?
CRAWFORD: Anything around Blueskin Bay?
CRAWFORD: Would you dive down here around The Nuggets as well?
CRAWFORD: What kind of spots in the Catlins would you dive?
CRAWFORD: This was recreational diving?
GOVAN: Yes. When we were scuba-diving our sole goal was Crayfish. We didn’t get in the water just to look around.
CRAWFORD: What kind of seasonality for this?
GOVAN: Principally summer, but at times we’d go out in the winter as well.
CRAWFORD: During the summer, how frequently might you go out diving? Once a month?
GOVAN: More frequently than that. We’d go out weekly if we could.
CRAWFORD: But on average?
GOVAN: On average, perhaps once a week.
CRAWFORD: During the winter, something like once a month?
GOVAN: Something like that, yes. Certainly much lower frequency. But through spring through to autumn, we were out reasonably regularly.
CRAWFORD: These were day trips? Length of time in the water would be on the order of hours?
GOVAN: Yes. We might have gone out and done a couple of dives, so depending on depth obviously. But yes, two hours maximum would be the case generally.
CRAWFORD: Roughly how many years did you dive for Crayfish?
GOVAN: Probably about ten years. That would have been that period of regular activity.
CRAWFORD: Until you were about thirty?
CRAWFORD: Did you do any substantial amount of boating, sailing, line fishing or rod and reel fishing?
GOVAN: Very little of any of those. It was all centered around either scuba-diving or spearfishing.
CRAWFORD: When did you start to spearfish in a big way?
GOVAN: Virtually as soon as I learned scuba-diving.
CRAWFORD: Early 20s?
GOVAN: Yes. The guy who was my instructor was a very keen spearfisherman. In fact, I’ve put you on to him as another person to contact - Paul Cobby and his diving and spearfishing friends John Amsden who now lives in Byron Bay, and Chris Dodds who is the other name I gave you. They were very keen spearfishermen. I started going out with them right from the get-go.
CRAWFORD: Relative to the frequency of scuba-diving, what was the frequency of spearfishing? About the same?
GOVAN: Yes, the same. We would always look to combine the two of these. We wouldn't be just going scuba-diving; we’d look to do a tank dive, and then spearfish as well.
CRAWFORD: I see, that’s helpful. The frequency over seasons?
GOVAN: Pretty similar. Really the only thing is that we probably wouldn't have spearfished as much in the colder months, because of poor visibility.
CRAWFORD: Fair enough. In that regard, were there some places you would scuba-dive but not spearfish, or vice-versa?
GOVAN: Seal Point. We'd spearfish a lot more than scuba-dive.
CRAWFORD: Why’s that?
GOVAN: Just in our experience we caught a lot more fish there than Crays. And you’d have to walk down from the road, which was quite a ways, and you wouldn’t want to be carrying scuba gear down there.
CRAWFORD: Any other places that were predominantly one type of diving, rather than the other?
GOVAN: A lot of the spots around the [Otago] Peninsula, perhaps around Cape Saunders, would have been principally scuba-diving
CRAWFORD: With boat access?
GOVAN: Yes. At Cape Saunders we’d at times ... not sure if you can get there anymore, but we used to walk down there and spearfish or scuba-dive. Places further north such as Karitane or Shag Point, that was principally spearfishing.
CRAWFORD: That brings up an important question. Roughly what percentage of your dives, whether it was scuba- or free-diving were shore-based as opposed to boat-based? Did you have a boat?
GOVAN: No, I didn’t myself. The majority would have been shore-based diving.
CRAWFORD: Maybe 60 or 70 percent? Something like that?
GOVAN: Yes, possibly 70 percent.
CRAWFORD: That takes us from your 20's to your 30's. Were you still doing both free-dive spearfishing and scuba-diving through that period?
CRAWFORD: When did things change after that?
GOVAN: I went to Scotland in 1987. Back here in 1988, then over there again for 1989/90. Came back at the end of 1990. Just about all the diving I’ve done since then has been spearfishing only.
CRAWFORD: Roughly four years that you were pretty much offline?
CRAWFORD: Were you diving in Scotland?
GOVAN: Yes. We dived for a living for Scallops and Crayfish, plus did in-shore construction work just as it came up, and a bit of salvage work and so on.
CRAWFORD: Did you get your commercial dive certificate?
GOVAN: No. I don’t have an instruction qualification at all.
CRAWFORD: When you came back, you didn't care to scuba-dive anymore?
GOVAN: I still went out and did the occasional scuba dive, but wasn’t much interested in it anymore - having done it for a job in Scotland. I think it might have been after two or three years, I got rid of my tanks because I couldn't be bothered with it. But the spearfishing carried on, as I never wanted to relinquish that, as long as I was physically able to.
CRAWFORD: Just before we get into your post-Scotland spearfishing phase ... You had also mentioned that you had spent a fair amount of time down around Stewart Island. Had that already happened prior to Scotland? Or was that still to come?
GOVAN: We went down to Stewart Island quite a bit during the early years.
CRAWFORD: So, prior to Scotland?
CRAWFORD: Tell me about your spearfishing experiences down at Stewart Island, during those early years.
GOVAN: Most of the time I was down there, it was just charter trips. You know, like a bunch of us would charter a boat.
CRAWFORD: A bunch of spearfishermen?
GOVAN: Tank divers and spearfishermen both. And just do like a week trip or something. Tripping around the coast area.
CRAWFORD: Would you start around Bluff?
CRAWFORD: If you chartered out of Bluff, what regions might you have been diving?
GOVAN: To be honest I can’t remember how far south we went. I really don’t recall the place names.
CRAWFORD: That’s fine. What kinds of things do you remember?
GOVAN: Quite a bit around Paterson Inlet, and north and south from there. I remember fishing around that area.
GOVAN: I can’t remember diving there.
CRAWFORD: Foveaux Strait region, due west along the southern end of the South Island. Did you ever do any substantial diving over there?
GOVAN: Back in about the early 80’s, I spent a few days spearfishing and diving there.
CRAWFORD: And you might go here for a day, and then someplace else?
GOVAN: Absolutely. We were just living on the boat, and we’d anchor up here and there.
CRAWFORD: Was this an annual kind of thing? Or maybe every other year?
GOVAN: We would have done that at least once a year, for a few years. Yeah, we went down there reasonably regularly, from memory.
CRAWFORD: Ok. And that’s all in the pre-Scotland period?
CRAWFORD: Did you ever go diving around Stewart Island and the associated islands in the post-Scotland period?
CRAWFORD: Let’s bring this chart back because I suspect from what you've said that most of your post-Scotland is going to be along the eastern Otago coastline?
GOVAN: Yes, absolutely.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Post-Scotland, you come back, do a little scuba-diving. But mostly your passion is free-dive spearfishing?
CRAWFORD: Same general regions, or did you shift regions?
GOVAN: Just the same, principally. Karitane was a favourite spot. And Shag Point. I haven’t been up there for a while, but that was a favourite spot as well. Also, Seal Point, and around the entrance to the [Otago] Harbour.
CRAWFORD: Still spearfishing around Green Island as well?
GOVAN: Oh yes, Green island. Went out to Green Island a lot.
CRAWFORD: Popular spot?
GOVAN: Possibly the place we went out to ... probably more than anywhere. I think that and Karitane and Seal Point.
CRAWFORD: Taieri Mouth still? Or not so much?
GOVAN: No. It’s a long time since I’ve been down there. In recent years, I’ve fished a bit round Papatowai, Tautuku [Peninsula] and so on.
CRAWFORD: But Green Island and Otago Peninsula would account for maybe 80 percent of your spearfishing?
GOVAN: Yes, those places and Karitane. Certainly.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Is that pretty much the pattern from 1990 to the present? Has it been a fairly consistent pattern over the 25 years?
GOVAN: In recent years, I had a period where I wasn’t going out much for other reasons. I couldn’t. That would have been about 2001 through to 2008.
CRAWFORD: That was another block where you were pretty much out of the water again?
GOVAN: Yes. I wasn’t in the water very often at all, over that time.
CRAWFORD: When did you resume? Around 2008-2009?
GOVAN: Yes, about that. I kind of mix it up with hunting and trout fishing and so on. At the moment, I haven’t been out. Haven’t been in the water at all this year. About half a dozen times, It would cap out at that probably.
CRAWFORD: Does that bring us up to the present?
2. EXPOSURE TO MĀORI/LOCAL/SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS
CRAWFORD: To what extent has Māori culture and knowledge affected your understanding of the marine ecosystem.
GOVAN: The Māori influence, very low.
CRAWFORD: And the contribution of science to your understanding? It could be from mates, it could be form books that you read, or documentaries or anything.
GOVAN: Low, probably.
GOVAN: I would say that the vast majority of my understanding of it is from my own direct experience and - and also recounting of experience of the people I know and trust in terms of what they say.
CRAWFORD: Right - that’s the local component of knowledge.
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: What was the first time you recall either hearing about, or seeing, a White Pointer in the wild?
GOVAN: Hearing, definitely would have been the first.
CRAWFORD: And when was the first time you recall hearing about White Pointers? How old were you then?
GOVAN: Early teens.
CRAWFORD: This would have been when you were at the crib at Taieri Mouth? Or would it have been when you were in town [Dunedin]?
GOVAN: Yes, would have been in town. I knew of their existence. I’d seen pictures of them and so on. Just a general awareness, if you like.
CRAWFORD: Through all of your time based out of Dunedin, and you’ve been here a while, have you ever heard of anybody seeing White Pointers in the Harbour?
CRAWFORD: Have you ever heard, historically, before your time, about White Pointers in the harbour?
GOVAN: I’ve heard of them coming into Wellers Rock. At times when there used to be fish you know, remains of frames and so on - thrown into the water there.
CRAWFORD: Fish frames from what?
GOVAN: From commercial fishermen. I understand there used to be sort of a commercial operation. Boats used to park there, and I recall hearing a lot of fish frames were thrown into the water.
CRAWFORD: But this was back in the day?
GOVAN: This was a long time ago. Yes, well before my time.
CRAWFORD: Are we talking 1950’s or something?
GOVAN: Probably something like that, yes.
CRAWFORD: Ok. So, there was an association between cod frames or fish offal, and previous settings of White Pointers in the harbour?
GOVAN: Yes. And of course, the fatality with Graham Hitt was at the entrance to the harbour, which kind of supports those anecdotal tales.
CRAWFORD: But in your lifetime of experience, you have not seen White Pointers there, and you have not heard of any such sightings?
GOVAN: Not in the harbour, no. The sharks up in the harbour since then have been Sevengillers, and there’s been umpteen sightings of them.
CRAWFORD: And increasing?
GOVAN: Increasing, definitely.
CRAWFORD: Did the old-timers ever tell you that Shag Point was sharky?
GOVAN: I’m trying to think. Just from memory, someone may have heard of an encounter out at Danger Reef - out further. But it’s not significant enough for me to remember.
CRAWFORD: And what about Taieri Mouth - at the mouth of an estuary? Do you ever recall hearing anything about that?
CRAWFORD: In the Catlins, was there any reference to places along there where White Pointers might be?
GOVAN: At Long Point. A couple of old diving cronies, Lou Anderson somebody who is now dead and Trevor Gray, from memory. They had a White Pointer sighting at Long Point.
CRAWFORD: What Level for your mates' sighting at Long Point?
GOVAN: I think a Level 1, maybe 1.5. They were in the water I think, and saw one.
CRAWFORD: Any incidences - Level 3s or Level 4s - that you ever heard of along that stretch of the Catlins coastline?
GOVAN: Not with White Pointers, no.
CRAWFORD: And finally, around Stewart Island, Paterson Inlet. Did you ever see a White Pointer on any of those dives?
CRAWFORD: Did you ever hear about other people, other spearfishermen, having seen White Pointers in that region?
CRAWFORD: And no reference to White Pointers in Paterson Inlet?
CRAWFORD: Just so I'm clear - those trips were a combination of free-diving and scuba diving as well?
GOVAN: Yes. So, you had maybe ten people in the water, three aboard all times of day, doing a variety of things. You know, a lot of fish being shot and so on, so forth.
CRAWFORD: And cleaned?
CRAWFORD: So, this is probably about as high risk as you can get - in terms of all the shark encounter factors, right? You’ve got fish on lines, fish on floats, fish offal, fish frames?
GOVAN: Yes. And of course, the offal and frames all went over the side.
CRAWFORD: And you’ve got people on and under the water?
GOVAN: Often all happening at the same time. And no one ever had a single encounter.
CRAWFORD: In general, other than here on the Otago coastline, where would you reckon are the major aggregation points of White Pointers in New Zealand coastal waters, from what you’ve heard? When you think White Pointers, you think where?
GOVAN: Well, now I think Stewart Island.
CRAWFORD: Is that from what’s been in the media?
GOVAN: Pretty much, yes.
CRAWFORD: Back in the day, it wasn’t on you radar screen as being particularly sharky?
GOVAN: Not any more or less than the Otago coast.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Otago Peninsula would have been one place. Anyplace else you can think of - either South Island or North island?
GOVAN: Not really, no. I understand they travel up and down the west coast around Fiordland. But that was never somewhere that featured in our thinking.
CRAWFORD: How did you come to know that?
GOVAN: To be honest, I can’t remember how that came up. Somewhere along the line, I heard that they trip around over there, and whether there’s any substance to it - I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve heard.
CRAWFORD: What about time? Is there a time of year that if you were going to see a White Pointer, it would be then?
GOVAN: Well of course, the common thought was while the Seal pups were around in the summer. That’s when there might be more likely to be something around.
CRAWFORD: Some people have said there are certain times of day that people advise you don’t go into the water. What do you know about that?
GOVAN: I’ve heard that. I don’t think there’s anything in it. Other than it’s just a psychological thing. If it’s starting to get dim, and the light’s not as good, then you speculate that things are ... monstrous.
4. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - DIRECT EXPERIENCE
CRAWFORD: What about your own experiences with sharks?
GOVAN: Perhaps an interesting thing here is, the incidents of other shark encounters, other shark varieties, has gone up.
CRAWFORD: Tell me a little about that.
GOVAN: I think probably out of the last few times I’ve been out I’ve had two encounters. One was very direct, if you like.
CRAWFORD: A bumping?
CRAWFORD: Or more than a bumping?
GOVAN: Uh, no. I lost my gun trying to fend the thing off. My gun was disappearing down it’s throat, so I had to had to let go.
CRAWFORD: What kind of shark was it?
GOVAN: It was a Broadhead Sevengiller. It was a big fella. I would have said it was probably about three meters, from head to tail.
CRAWFORD: Whereabouts was this?
GOVAN: That was down at the north end of Tautuku Beach In all fairness to the Sevengiller, it was probably just interested in the fish.
CRAWFORD: You had fish in a float?
GOVAN: Yes. I had just shot a fish, and turned to swim to the float. I saw the shark up at the fish already on the float. It disengaged, turned, and swam at me. All I could do was hold on to the shaft of the speargun, and try and keep some distance with it. But of course, my fish was stuck on the end of the shaft. I was using a multi-pronged head, so the fish was stuck on the end of it.
CRAWFORD: Kind of like, it’s having an hors d’eourve?
GOVAN: And it’s a hungry pit bull, yes. So, terrible timing. Of course, it was opening its mouth, and everything was rapidly disappearing into it. It was like a big cavernous hole. My mate who was in the area appeared, and he was jabbing the heck out of it with his gun, but it didn't take any notice. It was like a one-way ratchet, My hands were only a few inches from its teeth when I decided it was time to let go. So, I let go, swam back to the boat. The shark spat the gun out, and came back at us. We got to the boat and jumped out, and that was the last we saw of it.
CRAWFORD: Within the spearfishing community, are these kinds of interactions with the Sevengillers increasing in frequency?
GOVAN: Absolutely, I would say yes.
CRAWFORD: Throughout the entire region?
GOVAN: Yeah. I think the very next time I went out, a mate of mine who had just started spearfishing ... I said "Look, we’ll go up to Karitane - nothing ever happens up there, you know? It's a nice safe place for you to go." Took him up there. It was a reasonably rough day, and we were not far off the shore in kelpy, rocky terrain. I hadn’t seen him for a while, turned around, and saw him standing up on a rock out in the water. I called out “What are you doing up there?” and he called back that there was a shark up by the float. I asked him “How long have you been up there?” “About two or three minutes it’s been thrashing around out there.” “Did you not think to tell me?" I yelled. He’d shot a fish, and I had about half a dozen fish on the float. He’d shot one, and was putting it on the float and had quite a strong bump on his thigh - he thought he must have hit a rock. He turned around and there was a shark right there. Sounded by his description of it, that it was a Sevengiller as well. He dropped everything. Said it grabbed the fish on the end of his gun and that was the last he saw of it while he was in the water, until he was on the rock and saw it thrashing about.
CRAWFORD: So, once the Sevengiller got the fish, he didn’t bug you anymore?
GOVAN: No. So, in all fairness to it, the encounter I had ... that’s what it was interested in. But it had no fear at all of the other activity that was going on. So, I’d say those encounters have increased a lot here. And there was another one down in Preservation [Inlet] when we flew down there ...
CRAWFORD: That’s southern Fiordland?
GOVAN: Yes, right down the very bottom corner. A couple of years ago, just hunting and diving. I didn’t bother to go spearfishing, but my friend was keen to get out, so he went out and saw another one in the water there. I had been at the same place about 30 years earlier and had spent several days diving for Crays and spearfishing, but had had no encounters.
CRAWFORD: Another Sevengiller?
GOVAN: Yes. There are also quite a few encounters that I know people have been having in the [Otago] Harbour. Around the entrance to the harbour.
CRAWFORD: Let's talk about White Pointers down towards St. Clair, St. Kilda, and points southwest. What do you know about observations of White Pointers in that region?
GOVAN: I had an interesting experience off Green Island. I can’t say for sure what it was, because I didn’t see it. I was spear fishing out there with my friend Chris Dodds - we regularly went out to Green Island together.
CRAWFORD: When was this?
GOVAN: Maybe 1987 or 88
CRAWFORD: Summer or winter?
GOVAN: Would have been over the summer or autumn.
CRAWFORD: What happened?
GOVAN: Dropped down the bottom. Free diving off of the eastern tip - there’s a reef running out there. There were a lot of fish around on the bottom and I thought I’ll fish up and down here for a bit. Dropped down to about 30-35 foot. And then suddenly I just had a sensation "There’s something not right," you know? Things seemed to go dark, and it was just the hairs on the back of your neck thing. For no apparent reason the light seemed to change around me. Headed back up to the surface. I'm almost at the surface, and all of a sudden I was just in red. Just a cloud of red. I broke the surface, and was in a patch of blood. I saw Chris about 20, 30 meters away or so, swam over to him, and said I’d just swam up through a big patch of blood on the surface, and there’s another one there, another patch of blood there. He thought I was imagining things and said it would just be krill, and I said you go and have a look! He swum over and stuck his head into it and immediately agreed that it was blood. So, we swam to the island, and got out. Chris’ inflatable was anchored up in the bay around the back. We probably spent about 20 minutes looking, but no sign of anything. So, we swam out to the inflatable and came home. Thinking about it - I thought and thought and thought - the only thing I could surmise that happened, was that literally right over my head, a Seal had been bitten.
GOVAN: Never saw any remains of the Seal, never saw the White Pointer, if there was one. There was just no other explanation for it. I cannot see any other explanation at all for what happened then. Anecdotally, that’s kind of supported by ... It was two or three weeks later, Chris was out there spearfishing by himself.
CRAWFORD: At Green Island?
GOVAN: Green Island, in same area. Poor visibility that day. He had, he said, 10-12 fish on his float. He used quite a heavy wire trace from his float to the fish spike. I used a thick cord, he used a wire trace. He was towing his float about, felt a sudden jerk on the float, couldn’t see anything, swam back to it, and found the wire snipped off and no sign of any fish. So, in other words, something had come along - there was no other thing that could have happened. Something had come along, one bite, taken the whole lot, and carried on.
CRAWFORD: Roughly how big was the float, in a case like this?
GOVAN: The float itself, would have had about so much.
CRAWFORD: Half a meter?
GOVAN: A bit less perhaps a third. Then from the float, the wire or cord goes down to the spike, with the fish stacked up on that. You know how it works? You stick the spike through the eye cage, and they just load up like that. We generally work with a line or wire just under a metre long. There was only two or three inches left of his wire. That happened in a very short time, in almost exactly the same spot as that over-the-head thing.
CRAWFORD: Have you seen Basking Sharks in the wild?
GOVAN: I’ve seen lots in Scotland.
CRAWFORD: In Scotland? I’ll take that. You’ve seen lots in Scotland but you have also seen White Pointers here.
GOVAN: I’ve only seen one White Pointer in the flesh, and that’s when, early 80’s, we were heading out to dive, spearfish at Shag Point and there was one cruising along off the rocks.
CRAWFORD: Right, but you have seen both species in the wild.
GOVAN: I've seen both.
CRAWFORD: I'll ask you then the same question I ask everybody who has seen both. How do you discriminate?
GOVAN: Yes, well the fin shape.
CRAWFORD: What about it?
GOVAN: At Shag Point, the fin was a very distinct sort of triangle, you know, sort of sail boat type.
CRAWFORD: As opposed to a Basking Shark?
GOVAN: I’ve got to say I can’t remember too much, because I was mostly looking down on them. But certainly a lot less prominence than the fin on a White Pointer, and more of big kind of broad head with the basking shark. Colourwise it [Basking Shark] was very dark - more darkish, a browny-fawny colour. And there was an occasional wash of a tail. I suppose 7-8 foot, like a person length or so, behind the fin.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever see any of the Basking Sharks feeding?
GOVAN: No. I’ve swum up to them and grabbed them, well not grabbed them because they’re slippery, but tried to grab them. When I was in the water. Never saw them feeding. They’re cavernous.
CRAWFORD: Huge mouths.
GOVAN: Front-end yes. There’s sort of like a prominent, snouty thing, yeah.
CRAWFORD: Ok. But to be clear, you haven’t seen Basking Sharks here?
GOVAN: No, not here.
CRAWFORD: Any of your mates seen Basking Sharks here?
GOVAN: No, not that I’m aware of. I probably would have heard about it.
5. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - EXPERIENCES OF OTHERS
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?
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?
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