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.
2. EXPOSURE TO MĀORI/LOCAL/SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS
CRAWFORD: In a general sense, how much has Māori culture and knowledge affected your understanding of New Zealand marine ecosystems?
MCKIRDY: High. I’d put it about a 4 out of 5.
CRAWFORD: For those that say High, I ask them why.
MCKIRDY: Because I think that Māori had a better natural understanding, and more connectedness to the marine life.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Do you have particular people in your life who have shared that with you?
MCKIRDY: No, it’s more general. There isn’t much of Maori tradition in this region.
CRAWFORD: What about the Science influence on your understanding of the marine ecosystems?
MCKIRDY: I would say that, of course, scientific knowledge should be ranked Very High. However, I don’t like the fact that a lot of Science around fisheries is about how much fish they can keep catching, before it’s all gone.
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.
4. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - DIRECT EXPERIENCE
CRAWFORD: Ok. Let’s move to your personal experiences. Have you had direct observations of White Pointers in the Fiordland region?
CRAWFORD: How many?
MCKIRDY: Two that I’ve personally identified.
CRAWFORD: And others that you did not personally identify?
MCKIRDY: Yes. Other peoples’ sightings close to the day that we have been diving.
CRAWFORD: Ok. For the first category, when was the first instance that you saw a White Pointer here?
MCKIRDY: Only around one month ago.
CRAWFORD: We’re talking mid-January 2015?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. Early January.
CRAWFORD: Please tell the story in as great detail as you feel appropriate. Focus on location, focus on what you saw, and focus on interactions if any.
MCKIRDY: Well there was two sightings over a three-day window. The first thing I’d seen was a Seal that was sitting on Copper Point. We always stop to look at the Seals, and there’s normally 20-30 Seals there. We got around the corner, and there was only two Seals, and one was very clearly wounded around the flanks, through the fat layer, though not bleeding. And it was quite obvious he’d been bitten by something very large. Apart from the fact that it was not a nice sight to see whatsoever, of course. No Seals. It was obvious that there was something big in the water that had attacked the Seal. We were about to go diving a bit further on in limited visibility conditions. Certainly, you know the fear and the ability to temper that fear to maintain professional composure is certainly there. And then I think it would have been the following day, or around that time, I had divers in the water at the end of the marine reserve area, and clearly distinctively saw the form of a shark - a very large shark - on the depth sounder of the boat. I was pretty sure that it was what I thought it was, a White Shark. And even before I had an opportunity to inform the divers that were already descending down. What I’d seen on my depth sounder was in the range of 25-30 meters depth, and the divers were descending onto the shallow water where the shark was just cruising. But I was very aware that I had six divers going underwater, and a very large shark just underneath the boat.
CRAWFORD: Getting back to the Seal with the wound the day before, you indicated that it was not bleeding at the time?
MCKIRDY: No, the fat layer was so thick, and it was on both sides.
CRAWFORD: So, it wasn’t missing a chunk?
MCKIRDY: No, it was alive.
CRAWFORD: It had the bite marks, but not the piece removed?
CRAWFORD: And there were only a pair of Seals on the rock, when there were typically ...
MCKIRDY: Probably 20-30 Seals on that one spot. So, they'd vacated.
CRAWFORD: Did you happen to get a picture?
MCKIRDY: No. But I know all the Skippers saw the Seal. It was there for two days, and then gone.
CRAWFORD: You indicated that when you were back a day or so later, you saw a shape on the sonar. I’m presuming you’ve got a standard, retail sonar rig on your vessel?
MCKIRDY: Fairly basic depth sounder. But you know, you can’t mistake something live, swimming underwater.
CRAWFORD: The morphology to you was unlike anything you had ever seen before?
MCKIRDY: I’ve seen something similar. Like I know the difference between say seeing a Sevengill Shark and what I saw.
CRAWFORD: In terms of a sonar read?
MCKIRDY: On the sonar, yeah.
CRAWFORD: How do you tell a Sevengiller from what you saw?
MCKIRDY: Because it’s more slender. Certainly not as long, or as deep in the body. And of course, there is no predominant fin.
CRAWFORD: You have seen Sevengillers - both on sonar and in the water where they co-occur. When you see their sonar signal, you’re confident it’s a Sevengiller?
MCKIRDY: That I know. What I saw was not a Sevengiller.
CRAWFORD: Before we move one, please tell me a bit about the occurrence of Sevengillers in Milford Sound.
MCKIRDY: Sevengillers are always here. We don’t see them so often further out towards the coastal waters where we tend to dive. Occasionally, yes. Certainly, if we come further into the head of the fiord, the darker areas, then there are sites which are fairy reliable to see them. I’ve been face-to-face with them on a couple of occasions.
CRAWFORD: Do they interact with you?
CRAWFORD: Describe those interactions, please.
MCKIRDY: They usually stalk up from underneath. And they will come up to, generally about two metres close. I’ve had two divers at dusk filming for BBC in Harrison's Cove, filming Sea Dragons. And there was a film diver here, and a lighting diver here, and at a particular time of day the Sevengillers were letting them know it was their hunting time - time to get out of the water. He just swam right between them, and this was about a three metre shark.
CRAWFORD: This was at dusk?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. it was getting into the shadows, the light was getting low.
CRAWFORD: And to be clear, when you are running your regular dive charters, it's typically mid-day?
MCKIRDY: Mid-day, yeah. Generally, we'll get in the water just after noon, and get out around four.
CRAWFORD: That’s something I should have asked you before, but I’ll ask now. In all of the time that you have been diving, was there any indication from the dive community that you should avoid dawn and dusk?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, it’s common knowledge.
CRAWFORD: Is it because of sharks in general? Or White Pointers specifically? Well, I guess you hadn’t heard much about White Pointers at that time. What was the basis for avoiding dawn and dusk?
MCKIRDY: I think it’s more from the surfing community.
CRAWFORD: Ok. In terms of the Sevengillers that you have encountered, have you or your clients even had bumpings or bitings?
MCKIRDY: No, not personally. Nothing like that. I have heard distinctively stories of people who’ve gone night-diving in Milford, who have been bumped. But not in my operations.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Back to your observation of the Seal that had been bitten, and then shortly thereafter the sonar signature. Did you or any of your crew or your clients see a White Pointer that day?
CRAWFORD: But it definitely raised the distinct possibility, in that place, at that time?
MCKIRDY: Yes. And it alerted my mind to the fact that "Hold on. I have to accept, instead of putting it to the back of my mind, that occasionally there are White Pointers in here." To like "There is a White Shark in here, which of course then came around the following days." And that’s when I had a surface sighting.
CRAWFORD: Just before you get to the sighting ... Did you change your dive behaviour because of what you’d seen? With the Seal and the sonar signal?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. Now I sweep the dive site with the sonar first. Just checking that nothing’s hanging out, and potentially putting my motors in neutral and giving them a rev. Just to, you know, make a bit of noise.
CRAWFORD: To alert any potential shark in the region that you are there?
MCKIRDY: Maybe. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Ok. Tell me about your sighting. Same location?
MCKIRDY: It was near. It was in the first dive site where we dive pretty much every day. Penguin Cove.
CRAWFORD: That’s on the north side?
MCKIRDY: It’s on the north side, and it’s about 800 metres in from Dale Point, being the end of the internal waters. We had already done our first dive, and it was a nice, quite sunny day. We were motoring out to show them the view out towards the Tasman Sea, and we were cruising out just at a few knots. I could very clearly see a very large fin in the water, and it certainly wasn’t a Dolphin. But I could also see the rear fin - like there was the distinct water between them.
CRAWFORD: So, this animal was cruising at the surface?
CRAWFORD: As we discussed before, it’s difficult to estimate, but under the circumstances - relative to something that you knew, like your vessel ... what do you reckon might be a reasonable estimate of the size of this shark?
MCKIRDY: I'd say it was about 3.5-4 metres. I don’t think it was a huge shark, but it was a big shark certainly.
CRAWFORD: And it was right at the mouth of Milford Sound?
MCKIRDY: Yeah, effectively.
CRAWFORD: In the middle of the sound?
MCKIRDY: It was swimming from what I would call North Dale point right there.
CRAWFORD: In what direction was it swimming?
MCKIRDY: Towards the southern side, so towards Greenstone.
CRAWFORD: Southward across the sound?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. And that’s where I’ve heard of other sightings - in Greenstone Bay as well.
CRAWFORD: You have?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. There's this distinct story last year. It was April the 7th. I remember that because it was Simone’s birthday. We were about to go diving, and we started quite late in the afternoon. The recreational guys were already coming back in after the morning’s fishing.
CRAWFORD: A 'morning's fishing' - do you mean rod and reel fishing or spearfishing?
MCKIRDY: I don’t know the answer to that.
CRAWFORD: Ok, that’s fine.
MCKIRDY: But one of the kayak managing guides who we have a good relationship with, he said "Just to let you know there was a White Shark, a big White Shark spotted at Greenstone Bay." And at the time, that would have been our second dive site, so it was quite good to get that piece of information beforehand.
CRAWFORD: You avoided that site then?
CRAWFORD: Greenstone Bay, that’s - where’s that relative to Anita Bay?
MCKIRDY: Just further in.
CRAWFORD: And are there Cray traps, holding traps there?
MCKIRDY: Often recreational, but yeah.
CRAWFORD: And there’s recreational diving that takes place there as well?
MCKIRDY: People will dive there, yes.
CRAWFORD: For Crayfish or sightseeing?
MCKIRDY: Yes, for Crayfish, but for scenic purposes as well.
CRAWFORD: At this point because you had a direct encounter, we need a frame of reference. [Discussion about project classification levels for human encounters with White Pointers: Level 1-Observation, Level 2-Swim-By, Level 3-Interest, Level 4-Intense] What level would you put the interaction with this White Pointer that you saw?
MCKIRDY: It would be closer to a Level 1, I guess.
CRAWFORD: No indication that the animal was responding to you?
MCKIRDY: No. Well, it went underwater, very casually.
CRAWFORD: Oh, it did? Did you approach?
MCKIRDY: Well, it was directly in front of the vessel.
CRAWFORD: Ok. So, it was crossing your path? And as you approached you saw, and it submerged?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. You know I had the chance to say “Shark!” And Simone turned around, and it was already going down, so she must have seen the back fin and she said "Oh. Well, if it was a shark it wasn’t a very big one."
CRAWFORD: [laughs] Alright. Did you mark anything on your sonar at the time?
CRAWFORD: Did you see any other sharks in that region, over that day, or the following week?
MCKIRDY: No. We dived Dale Point the next day, and I was comfortable while doing so.
CRAWFORD: Ok, good. Have you seen any other White Pointers in the Fiordland region?
5. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - EXPERIENCES OF OTHERS
CRAWFORD: Did you hear about observations of White Pointers - either in Milford Sound or the adjacent waters?
MCKIRDY: Occasionally, yes.
CRAWFORD: Roughly how many occurrences had you heard about during those first few years?
MCKIRDY: Oh, just a few.
CRAWFORD: And where would those occurrences have been?
MCKIRDY: I’d certainly heard a direct story about Doubtful Sound. A National Geographic photographer was dropped down there.
CRAWFORD: Okay, when was this?
MCKIRDY: It was a few years ago. I was speaking to one of the old charter operators, shortly before they finished. This was before, when I was looking at coming into Milford, and I heard the direct story of a photographer - I believe it was a National Geographic photographer who submits work, wanting to shoot a White Shark. They were quite aware of where a particular shark tended to spend a lot of time, and sure enough they dropped him down, and he came up to the surface laughing because he had his photo.
CRAWFORD: That’s interesting, in at least two different regards. First, you heard it was in Doubtful Sound?
CRAWFORD: Do you have any idea whereabouts in Doubtful Sound it might have been?
MCKIRDY: I could give you the name of the operator.
CRAWFORD: Please, if that’s okay.
MCKIRDY: Sure, It’s Ruth and Lance Shaw, the former operators of Fiordland Ecology Holidays. They’re in the phone book, they’re located in Manapouri.
CRAWFORD: They run surface vessel charters? Eco-charters?
MCKIRDY: They did. From a vessel which is now sold, and setting out as a private vessel.
CRAWFORD: And they would know more about the incident and the specific location?
MCKIRDY: Oh, they know more about Fiordland diving than anyone.
CRAWFORD: Good, thank you. The other important thing about that observation, is the possibility that a particular White Pointer would be in a particular place over a period of time. That seemed particularly clear in this story, as it was recounted to you. Reliable enough that when they dove in that particular place, the diver found the shark.
CRAWFORD: Was there anything in the story that you heard, anything about a distinguishing feature of that individual shark?
MCKIRDY: No. But you’d probably be able to identify the photographer if you’d spoke to Ruth and Lance.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, okay. So, that’s good. It establishes an account of White Pointers in at least one of the fiords.
CRAWFORD: Do you recall if the story mentioned any kind of interactions between the White Pointer and either the diver or the people on the vessel?
MCKIRDY: No. He got his shot, and he was happy.
CRAWFORD: Alright. Any other White Pointer accounts that you have heard about in the Fiordland region?
MCKIRDY: Very little direct stories. Just what I had heard from people who had seen them, occasionally within Milford waters.
CRAWFORD: Would there have been some inside the sounds, versus others out offshore along the coastal waters? Or seen more or less in certain places?
MCKIRDY: Well, I have heard about sharks coming all the way up to Stirling Falls, and have been sighted by cruise boat skippers.
CRAWFORD: That’s half way up the sound?
MCKIRDY: Yeah. But other than that, I haven’t heard anything else. Nothing that I’m particularly familiar with.
Copyright © 2017 Lance McKirdy and Steve Crawford