Experience: Scuba Dive Instructor/Guide
Regions: Canterbury, Cook Strait, Fiordland
Interview Location: Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 08 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Lance McKirdy and Steve Crawford
1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS
CRAWFORD: Ok, Lance - where and when were you born?
CRAWFORD: What is your first recollection of spending any significant amount of time around the coast?
MCKIRDY: Well that’s an interesting question, because I got my first swimming certificate at a year and a half old. I was born to be a diver, I believe. So, I was swimming any time I could. But we also used to holiday in Nelson, pretty much every summer.
CRAWFORD: Those holidays, as a kid in Nelson - was that for a few weeks per year?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, I’d be there for a couple of weeks every single summer. And that would be swimming in the beach everyday, and also the local rivers.
CRAWFORD: Other than swimming, did you do any harvesting or anything like that?
CRAWFORD: Any snorkeling at an early age?
MCKIRDY: Yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: Starting when, roughly?
MCKIRDY: Probably around nine years old.
CRAWFORD: When you say Nelson, I’m guessing that means the Cook Strait side rather than the Tasman Sea side?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, exactly. More and more Tasman Bay area. So around Tasman Bay, and up around here - a place called Rabbit island.
CRAWFORD: When you were back home in Timaru, did you spend time on the coast?
MCKIRDY: Not so much.
CRAWFORD: As you got older, was there a shift in location? Or were you still consistently up near Nelson?
MCKIRDY: Once I turned 14 I think, that kind of family holiday kind of stopped. That’s when I learned to scuba dive.
CRAWFORD: Did you take scuba diving lessons in Timaru?
MCKIRDY: Yes. I had a Timaru-based instructor. And for our open-water training, we’d go down to Moeraki.
CRAWFORD: Prior to 14 and the beginning of scuba diving, were you involved in any other activities? Boating, boarding or swimming?
MCKIRDY: Just competitive swimming and competitive springboard diving.
CRAWFORD: In a swimming pool, not in a coastal environment?
CRAWFORD: Ok. You got your scuba certification at age 14. Where did you do you open-water dives?
MCKIRDY: Moeraki, being halfway between Oamaru and Dunedin. You have Shag Point, which is quite a common reef area to go for water users. And the offshore reefs, Danger Reef and Fish Reef. For my first couple of open-water and advanced years. But I also did a couple of trips where I dove Kaikoura, up into Tasman Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, and the Picton area.
CRAWFORD: Was there a seasonality to your diving? Was it mostly summertime, or was it throughout the year?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, it was mostly summer. Because being a kid I was too skinny and I couldn’t stay warm. I did that for ... it was two summers of diving, before I left that alone for a while.
CRAWFORD: What month would have been the most prevalent - in terms of dive activity?
MCKIRDY: During my school holidays, so the month of January.
CRAWFORD: Ok. And roughly, during those mid- to late-teen years, how many dives would you have done in a season?
MCKIRDY: Well, I got a total of 40 dives over two summers. So, that gave us about 20 each summer. Something like that.
CRAWFORD: I’m presuming something important changed at 16, after those two years of scuba diving?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, I found snowboarding. But the main thing with me leaving diving, was that I felt disconnected - due to the fact that most New Zealand divers I was going on trips with, were much older than me, and could go to the pub. Obviously I could not, so I wasn’t in that friendship circle. But also the main interest in most New Zealand divers was in collecting seafood - which was not my interest.
CRAWFORD: When you say that their main interest was on collecting seafood, what kind of harvesting specifically?
MCKIRDY: Catching Crayfish would be the main thing. And I never understood why that would be the only focus of the scuba dive.
CRAWFORD: Even at an early age, what were the kinds of things about diving that were more attractive to you?
MCKIRDY: Exploration diving. It was the legends of Jacques Cousteau and people like that. And some of the real knowledge, and the connectedness to the marine life, which inspired me to explore. Yeah, I had the explorer complex, as opposed to the dive-for-the-gut complex.
CRAWFORD: Fair enough. Did your interests in school kind of reflect that? Did you show interests in biology or geography? Or were you mostly a scuba diving, snowboarding kind of guy?
MCKIRDY: No, no. My first few years in high school ... when science was quite well-rounded, I used to do quite well. But by the time I was 16, it had become separated into physics, biology and chemistry. It became too specialized, and I didn’t see the practical application for it at the time. So, I lost interest.
CRAWFORD: When you discovered snowboarding, did that take you away from New Zealand coastal waters for a spell?
MCKIRDY: Yes. I followed back-to-back winters. for about six or seven years.
CRAWFORD: Back-to-back winters?
MCKIRDY: I’d snowboard in New Zealand, then in Europe, and then back to New Zealand.
CRAWFORD: Wow. So, you were seriously not around coastal New Zealand during that time. In the summertime, you weren’t even in the country?
MCKIRDY: No, no.
CRAWFORD: Ok. When did you re-establish significant amounts of time on or under New Zealand coastal waters?
MCKIRDY: In 2006, I was looking for something to do. I decided I needed a change in lifestyle at that time. I was 26 years old, and I hadn’t yet obtained any kind of professional qualification. I was around New Zealand for the summer, and I didn’t like the idea of repeating jobs with little point to me. So, I looked into professional dive training, and I was very lucky to choose a very good operator in Picton. And it was through them that I became a full-time intern for the entire summer.
CRAWFORD: Let’s refocus. When you say ‘professional’ diving, what does that mean?
MCKIRDY: Essentially, training to get paid for recreational scuba diving, training and guiding.
CRAWFORD: As opposed to professional commercial, industrial diving?
MCKIRDY: Yes. It’s recreational divers, mostly involved in tourism, exploration diving. And for some people, teaching them how to be in the water safely.
CRAWFORD: Alright. And that professional training was based out of Picton?
CRAWFORD: Was it a certification process or a mentorship?
MCKIRDY: Both. I became a full-time intern, but qualifications went from Rescue Diver - the last non-professional rating - to Dive Master to Instructor, Specialist Instructor. And then I hopped out again the following summer, but I was an integral part of the day-to-day operations, in that I was assisting and guiding divers every single day.
CRAWFORD: When was that?
CRAWFORD: Based out of Picton, what was the region through which most of those dives would have occurred?
MCKIRDY: Well, it was certainly around the Queen Charlotte Sound, and the internal area was around Picton. We were diving around up here, and by boat access to Internal Cove, Double Cove. Up to Long Island here, which was a beautiful marine reserve. Some of the points around here - Waihi Point where the water moves. A couple of wreck dives up around Cape Jackson. And then finally into Port Gore, we have the shipwreck of Mikhail Lermontov, the third largest wreck in the world.
CRAWFORD: And this is all pretty much a day’s boat ride from Picton? This was the focus for most of your activities?
MCKIRDY: Anywhere from simply 20 minutes to get to the internal waters, up to two hours around the Mikhail Lermontov in Port Gore.
CRAWFORD: Ok. That was for two years, and it was a combination of training and guiding and learning the ropes of professional eco-dive chartering?
MCKIRDY: It was qualification building, volunteering and basically learning everything I could about diving operations.
CRAWFORD: Right. Was there seasonality to that whole part of your dive career?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, summer.
CRAWFORD: And for a typical summer, how many dives would you make?
MCKIRDY: In those operations, probably about 300 dives per summer.
CRAWFORD: So, a significant increase?
CRAWFORD: Then what happened?
MCKIRDY: The following summer, my partner Simone and I were based primarily in Queenstown, and we did a tour around New Zealand looking for somewhere to set up our own operation. Due to budget restraints, we could afford equipment or a boat, but not both. So, we ended up deciding to start in Queenstown offering freshwater diving tours, river drift diving and PADI training. To work our way up to a view of Fiordland in the future, when we could be in a position to do so.
CRAWFORD: To acquire a boat?
MCKIRDY: Yes, in order to get our earnings up to a point where we could purchase a vessel.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Leaving your freshwater dive experience for a moment, while you were based out of Queenstown did you do any significant amount of diving in New Zealand coastal waters?
MCKIRDY: Not a significant amount, no. Because it was very time consuming with tourism. Just a couple of marine dives each summer. I dived in Jackson Bay a couple of days.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Then what happened after Queenstown?
MCKIRDY: Four years ago, an opportunity presented itself in that sense of Milford Sound. An operation opened up, because it’s very regulated for offering any activity here. We filed for Consent, and were granted it during the winter, during which time, a previous Milford Sound operator had ceased operations, so we became the Milford Sound diving operator full-time.
CRAWFORD: That was 2011?
MCKIRDY: Sounds about right. It’d be 2012, yeah.
CRAWFORD: And from that point, you were fully committed for the season to Milford Sound?
MCKIRDY: 50/50 with alternate days between Queenstown with the river drift diving, and Milford Sound.
CRAWFORD: Roughly, how many dives would you have run out of the Fiordland operations?
MCKIRDY: I think we probably operated 100 days of the seasons, so I probably clocked about 200 dives total.
CRAWFORD: Is it normal for the Milford operations that you would do a morning and an afternoon dive?
MCKIRDY: Correct. Qualified divers do two dives, yes.
CRAWFORD: Is there a standard kind of pattern, in terms of your dive operations here? Especially with regard to where the dives would be?
MCKIRDY: Yes. We focus on marine reserve diving, so the northern wall of Milford Sound, And a particular favourite site would be the last kilometre of the marine reserve before Dale Point, which opens up to the external waters. We quite enjoy the mix between the coastal species, and the deepwater species, which sort of mix and agitate the fish life in that area quite well.
CRAWFORD: Do you ever get out on to the exposed coastline, or any of the offshore reefs?
MCKIRDY: No, not as yet. It’s more of a safety factor for the average recreational diver that is experiencing our product.
CRAWFORD: Most of your divers are coming in from overseas?
MCKIRDY: Many, yes. It's mostly American and Europeans.
CRAWFORD: They need to be certified to go out with you?
MCKIRDY: They need to be certified to participate in the group, whereby they do two dives. We have an allowance for up to two first-timer dives a day. They would dive privately, with an instructor for one dive.
CRAWFORD: Have you offered in the past, specialized trips for experienced divers?
MCKIRDY: That’s coming, yeah. At the moment, we’re focusing on the main, largest volume of experience levels.
CRAWFORD: Ok. So, typically two dives a day, and the area of specialization is out towards the final third of Milford sound on the northern side?
MCKIRDY: Correct, although we do also dive the other side as well. But yes, primarily the northern side.
CRAWFORD: Has that regional focus been consistent from 2012 to the present?
CRAWFORD: Seasonally, when would the bulk of those dives take place?
MCKIRDY: December to the end of February.
CRAWFORD: A three-month window?
CRAWFORD: And after your transition year, the last two years have been full-time here at Milford Sound?
MCKIRDY: Yes. It would be probably stepping up to around close to 400 dives per summer.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Is there is anything else, Lance, in your history to date that hasn’t been discussed so far? Have you spent any significant amount of time on or underneath New Zealand coastal waters that we haven’t discussed?
MCKIRDY: Nothing, no.
Copyright © 2017 Lance McKirdy and Steve Crawford