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
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: What was your first recollection of hearing about or seeing a White Pointer?
MCKIRDY: Hearing about them. I’ve always heard about stories here in Milford Sound.
CRAWFORD: Let’s put a placeholder on Milford Sound, and go back to when you were a kid. During your early days, in the region between Dunedin and Oamaru, did anybody talk about White Pointers?
MCKIRDY: Not really, no.
CRAWFORD: Did the old-timers ever talk about the Otago Peninsula or White Pointers in those waters?
MCKIRDY: I’d certainly heard of the unfortunate incident where a spearfisherman was taken on the Otago Peninsula. And of course, about attacks on surfers some time ago.
CRAWFORD: Roughly how old were you when you heard those stories?
MCKIRDY: Probably around the time I became very interested in spending a lot of time on the water. Around 14.
CRAWFORD: What would you, as a kid - perhaps an hour drive or so north of where the attacks took place - what did you hear about the attacks?
MCKIRDY: Well, I think that there was a certain amount of professional composure, where you don’t want to be putting fear into your students. As to how much knowledge my elder instructors knew, I don’t think they shared much, because it wouldn’t sit well.
CRAWFORD: Yes, I can understand that. So, I’m guessing that these old-timers, they did not mention anything about places that were perhaps specifically ‘sharky,’ or activities, or times of day, or times of season, or anything like that?
MCKIRDY: No. It really wasn’t talked about.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Let’s go up to the time you spent in Cook Strait then. And for our purposes, let’s combine Marlborough Sound and Nelson and all of that. Did you ever see any White Pointers up there?
CRAWFORD: Did you ever hear from your mates or the old-timers, about White Pointers in that region?
MCKIRDY: No. My instructor trainer, who’s been a professional diver for 40 years - first around Kaikoura and then in Cook Strait - he said he’s never seen one diving.
CRAWFORD: Had he heard any stories from other people in that region?
MCKIRDY: Not that I know of, no.
CRAWFORD: Then you spent time in Queenstown. Not a lot of sharks in those freshwaters.
MCKIRDY: No. Just big eels.
CRAWFORD: Oh. That’s interesting. Did you ever have any interactions with those big eels?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, they’re nice. Most of the time they’re quite friendly. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Under what circumstances might they not be friendly?
MCKIRDY: Territorial? I don’t know. But they can be quite big. It’s a perception thing. You know, you see an eel, three metres long, a 90-year-old eel swimming out of the murk. It’s like a serpent, it’s black, it's going straight into your fear. But for me, I learned to see them as beautiful, and hence the fear started to dissolve.
CRAWFORD: That is an important observation. Because it’s true ... there are some people who are on a surface vessel looking down into the water. But to have an encounter in the water, especially with something large under low visibility conditions ... there’s nothing preventing direct interaction by what you are seeing.
CRAWFORD: I would like for you to briefly tell me what your thinking is, specifically regarding what people perceive when they are scuba diving. How it relates to their previous experiences, and what other people need to understand when we hear accounts from them.
MCKIRDY: Well, I mean when people are scuba diving for starters, their perception changes. It’s an interesting thing, because you become essentially ... you’re in an alien world. Everything that you are perceiving, especially as a new diver or in a new environment - it’s for the first time. So, the mind tends to be more in the moment, more than in would be terrestrial-based. And that has an effect on people. Either people are really, really engaged - because they’re taking in so much beauty, everything is so new. Even if it could be perceived as threatening, like a small shark, they still see it as beautiful. But there are also the people where the water environment, due to the light and dark nature, it has an effect on the subconscious mind. And some people will indeed, under some circumstances, shift towards the subconscious mind. And then they start projecting shadows out into the water.
CRAWFORD: Yes. Thank you for that. The issue of perception when you are physically in the water is very, very important. I’m glad that it came up. And you have a unique perspective, because of your professional experience dealing with the whole spectrum - from brand new divers to well-seasoned veterans.
CRAWFORD: Ok, back to Milford Sound. When you got here in 2012, did the old-timers take you aside, and mention anything about White Pointers?
MCKIRDY: It had been talked about, that occasionally there were sightings out in the fiord. There certainly wasn’t anything like “Hey, this is where you don’t dive.” Nothing like that. It would just come up that someone had seen a shark from a boat. And that tends to happen a couple of times every summer.
CRAWFORD: Where was that knowledge coming from? From the commercial fishermen, or from the Skippers of the tour boats, or other people around town?
MCKIRDY: Pretty much the Skippers of the vessels. You know, they’re up high, they can see a lot. Certainly, if they see a lot of birds and activity out in certain areas, they can see shark action from time to time.
CRAWFORD: What’s the relationship between the bird activity and the sharks?
MCKIRDY: Well, I assume bait schools and things like that.
CRAWFORD: Ok. During those first couple of years, did you see any White Pointers in Milford sound?
MCKIRDY: Not personally.
CRAWFORD: Many of the people here at Milford Sound have told me about the importance of rainfall and the freshwater surface layer on top of the saltwater layer. Skippers have also told me about the conditions of visibility changing dramatically, depending on rainfall. But as a scuba diver you see those things from under the water’s surface - that’s a unique perspective. Are your four years of observations on the freshwater and saltwater layers pretty much consistent with what people have seen from the surface?
CRAWFORD: Even when you’re diving further out in the sound?
CRAWFORD: Is it the case that visibility effects caused by freshwater are less pronounced out where you’re diving?
MCKIRDY: No, I wouldn’t say so at all.
CRAWFORD: You still see rather dramatic effects of that freshwater layer, almost out to the end of the sound?
MCKIRDY: I’ve seen it 18 metres thick.
CRAWFORD: That deep, that far out?
CRAWFORD: Wow, that’s incredible.
MCKIRDY: The other day it was 7 meters or so.
CRAWFORD: When you’re diving in the freshwater layer, what’s your visibility roughly?
MCKIRDY: Depending on how tannin-stained it is, less than 5 metres visibility.
CRAWFORD: Okay, when you and your divers descend through that transition boundary between the freshwater layer and the saltwater layer, is there a difference in temperature?
MCKIRDY: Yes, there’s a thermocline. Also, where it mixes you get sort of like looking through an oily layer.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. What’s the temperature typically above in the freshwater layer?
MCKIRDY: Well, at the moment, on our peak summer temperature we have about 17C on the surface, and about 13C or so on the bottom. During summer, yeah.
CRAWFORD: And finally, with regard to visibility ... is there a significant increase in visibility below the freshwater later?
MCKIRDY: Yes. Peak water visibility would be around 30 metres, about 20 meters yesterday. But it can go all the way down to 3 meters.
CRAWFORD: And those two visibilities can be very independent of each other?
CRAWFORD: When you’re diving, do you see animals tracking that boundary between the freshwater and saltwater layers? Or do you see animals crossing above and below?
MCKIRDY: There’s certainly the fish species which are very comfortable in that top 5 metre band, where its mixing. And they’ll be quite happy swimming there. But generally, for instance the Dogfish or something like that, I don’t see them liking the freshwater too much. The Crayfish will go a lot deeper when the freshwater gets thicker. They go down, they don’t like it.
CRAWFORD: And Seals? When you see them, are they all over the place?
MCKIRDY: When we see Seals in the water, they’ll come all the way down. They sneak up on us and give us frights.
Copyright © 2017 Lance McKirdy and Steve Crawford