Experience: Spearfisherman, Scuba Diver
Regions: Fiordland, Stewart Osland
Interview Location: Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 05 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Perry Barr and Steve Crawford
1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS
CRAWFORD: Thank you Perry. Let's start with where you were born, and the year, please.
BARR: I was born in Wellington, in 1963.
CRAWFORD: What was the first age that you recall spending a lot of time around the New Zealand marine coastline?
BARR: Pretty much from my youngest years, when I was at the beach.
CRAWFORD: Did your family live close to the shore?
BARR: We went to beach on holidays, up and around north and that.
CRAWFORD: Was that a regular thing? Your family going up north to the beach?
BARR: Yeah. We had been up there a few times. And many times, there was a shark seen on the beach.
CRAWFORD: You would have been up for a week or two weeks at a time - that kind of thing?
BARR: Yeah, about a week.
CRAWFORD: When you said there was a shark seen, was this the type of thing when there were Surf Life Savers, and they would raise an alarm or something?
BARR: No, just a little private kind of beach.
CRAWFORD: So, very small scale?
BARR: Yeah, small.
CRAWFORD: Those types of visits to the beach up north from Wellington, those would have been from early days until what age, roughly?
BARR: From probably 3 or 4 till about 8 or 9, I think.
CRAWFORD: The family started spending time elsewhere during the holidays?
CRAWFORD: Also near the shoreline, or inland, or what?
BARR: No. We’re from the beach in Wellington, so our house is just above the shoreline. I was always down in the water.
CRAWFORD: At what age were you able to go down to the shoreline without adult supervision?
BARR: Pretty young. About 12, I think. And we just used to have a couple of jerseys on, and a homemade sling, and just splash around in the weeds and shoot the odd fish.
CRAWFORD: You were spearfishing as early as 12 or 13?
BARR: About 12, yeah. Just Flounder. It was exciting. Once my mate saw a shark, he thought it was a fish coming behind the weeds, and it was a shark. He was yelling "Shark, shark, shark!" and I dived down and looked around. I couldn’t see a shark, so we all went back to the shore. I never saw it, but he saw it and he was about to shoot it with his hand sling. [laughs] And he thought it just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and he thought, "Oh, don’t like that, I’m out of here." We were pretty young, and we were pretty scared.
CRAWFORD: When you were spearfishing as a kid, was it always from shore? Or did you use a dinghy, have access to a boat?
BARR: We just jumped in the water, because it was just 50-100 metres out.
CRAWFORD: In terms of seasonality, were there periods of time when you and your mates as went out spearfishing?
BARR: Just mainly summer, when it's warmer. Winter was too cold, and we didn’t have wetsuits.
CRAWFORD: And during the summers as a kid, how frequently would you go out spearfishing?
BARR: Maybe five times over the season. Then when I got to about 16, my Dad bought me a wetsuit and scuba gear, and I really got into it. I started to Crayfish dive on the south coast of Wellington, and spearfishing at the same time, and did a lot more time in the water because my mate had a little dinghy with a 10 horsepower. We’d head off out of Wellington, down to the south coast past Steeple Rock, and out towards Barret's Reef and get crayfish and spearfish for Butterfish.
CRAWFORD: So, that was a significant increase in amount of time on and in the water?
BARR: Yeah, lots.
CRAWFORD: What age did you get your scuba suit and start diving?
CRAWFORD: And pretty much all of your trips would have been day-trips from home?
CRAWFORD: When you were scuba diving, roughly how many times per year would you be going out?
BARR: In the summer pretty much, at least once a week or once every two weeks. In the winter not as much, just because it was cold and bad weather, and stuff.
CRAWFORD: When did you start travelling further afield?
BARR: When I came here [Milford Sound]. I left Wellington when I was 24, came straight here to this air traffic control tower, and worked here ever since. Then, I started scuba diving out of the Sound. I used to get rides off Crayfishermen in boats out of Milford, then up the coast, up to Yates Point.
CRAWFORD: Did you start spearfishing as soon as you got here to Milford Sound?
BARR: Straight away, yeah.
CRAWFORD: Did you talk to the guys in the fishing fleet, the Crayfishermen, the guys who shuttled you out with mates?
BARR: No, just myself, they’d drop me off. This was 20 years ago. I’d jump in the water, and I’d say, "I’ll be 25 minutes, because that’s how long my tank would last." Then I’d surface, and they’d be nowhere to be seen! It was really unreliable because they were doing their thing, they were in the rocks getting their Crayfish pots. And I was bobbing around, waiting for them, in the open ocean. It was a bit scary. I cut it after the first five dives, because I thought I was not going to survive.
CRAWFORD: Ok. So, you had that exploratory kind of spearfishing phase, and you figured that wasn’t going to work out. After that did you get alternate access to a vessel that you could take out on your own?
BARR: Yes, I did actually. I bought myself a little Lance, a 10-foot boat with a 25 horsepower motor. I used to fang out to the mouth, and go diving out there.
CRAWFORD: That meant then you had your own dependable source of transport. Did it increase the amount of time that you spent spearfishing?
BARR: No, because I had a couple of bad experiences out there that kind of put me off for a few years. I bumped into a shark once, and then I ran out of air at 75 feet, and then people out there were looking after me, so I thought "Nah, I’m just going to free dive here, from now on."
CRAWFORD: When you made the transition to free-dive spearfishing, were you still concentrating on the Milford Sound region?
BARR: No. I mostly spearfished at Stewart Island.
CRAWFORD: Really? When was the first time that you started spending a significant amount of spearfishing effort at Stewart Island?
BARR: I’ve probably been going there for over 15 years, starting approximately 1993. When I was going spear fishing, it was a mix of fishing, spearfishing, and Pāua diving. I would go with a mate from up north, my hunting mate, and we go down pretty much every August, because it’s a nice weather pattern down there. Go down there and spend a week fishing with the same little boat, the inflatable, fang around, spearfish, lots of Blue Cod fishing. All in the same places that I still go now.
CRAWFORD: That’s interesting, because you have a time series at Stewart Island that predates both the Department of Conservation [DOC] shark tagging work, and the shark cage diving. Were you based out of Halfmoon Bay?
BARR: Yes, actually we were. We rented it for a week, the beach house it was called, and our boat was parked on the beach. And we just dragged it into the water, and there we were.
CRAWFORD: Roughly what was the split in effort between linefishing, spearfishing and Pāua diving?
BARR: Pretty much all the same. We were out in all weathers. It's always showering down there, so you just take a jacket and the boat, and off you go.
CRAWFORD: But on the Island, there’s always someplace you can be - that’s protected in that sense.
BARR: We do that quite a lot for the linefishing. And then we get a couple of dives spearfishing, just south of Ackers Point in a big patch of weed which has really big Butterfish. Then the next one up to the north in toward Horseshoe Bay, and that was sort of where we went.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Has there been any other marine experience that you've had on or in the water, other than what you've described already?
BARR: That's pretty much it.
2. EXPOSURE TO MĀORI/LOCAL/SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS
CRAWFORD: How high would you rank the influence of Māori culture and knowledge on your understanding of New Zealand marine ecosystems, generally?
BARR: Very low, because I haven’t met many people.
CRAWFORD: In terms of Science? How much influence has Science culture and knowledge had on your understanding of marine ecosystems?
BARR: I would say pretty much medium to high. I love the shark programs and the research they do with it. And then to get a good understanding for me - what they’re about, and they’re not just mindless, senseless, killing things.
CRAWFORD: If you had to pick medium or high in terms of Science influence on your understanding, what would you pick?
BARR: Probably high. One scientist I met was Kina Scollay. He came in to do some drone work in Milford Sound, so I approved the drone work for him and coordinated with them. I heard about him because he got attacked by a White Pointer in Chatham Islands, and that interests me a lot so I’ve had a few beers with him at a lodge so I was very interested to hear, "God, what was that like? And you still get in the water?" And he goes, "Yeah, I still film sharks." He’s really into it, and they are doing the deep blue or something, still filming for the series of the national board out of Dunedin, two hours of TV programming anyway. So that, I’ve had a good chat with him about it and stuff. They were doing drones, but they were diving as well. They had a big dive tank, so they were all in the water doing underwater photography of the big blue out there, and they came across sharks, and that kind of thing.
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: What was your first recollection of either hearing about, or seeing, a White Pointer?
BARR: The movie 'Jaws' when I was young.
CRAWFORD: How old do you reckon you were?
BARR: I might have been 10 or something.
CRAWFORD: Just prior to you having your interest in spearfishing in the first place. Were sharks in the back of your head then when you were spearfishing?
BARR: Yeah, I was always a bit nervous.
CRAWFORD: Did you know that there were White Pointers around New Zealand coastal waters?
BARR: Probably not then. I knew there were sharks, but I didn’t know about White Pointers.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Specifically, with regard to White Pointers now, what’s the first time you recall hearing about them or seeing them? Besides 'Jaws'?
BARR: Probably on tv, seeing a documentary of them. And their major habitat is Stewart Island. "Oh, that’s interesting, that’s where I go all the time." [laughs]
CRAWFORD: When you were a kid and you were swimming with family on the beach on the North Island, you made some reference to the fact that there was at least one occasion when a shark was seen off the beach. Did you ever see any sharks there?
BARR: No. I think someone caught a Hammerhead.
CRAWFORD: Any other shark incidences, when you were in that early phase?
CRAWFORD: When you were a kid, including those teen years when you were learning how to spearfish, and your scuba diving years - did you see any sharks on the North Island?
CRAWFORD: Did the old-timers there ever take you aside and caution you against certain places, or times of year, or times of day, or anything else - with regards to sharks in that region?
BARR: No, they never did. I did know on the south coast, further out towards Reef Rocks off Wellington, about the Seals. They would say, "Oh, you just be careful diving around there, because where there are Seals, there’s known to be sharks in the area." That was further around the coast.
CRAWFORD: Do you recall hearing in the Wellington region - did the old-timers talk about White Pointers at all? Did anybody up there ever see one?
BARR: No. Not that I knew of.
CRAWFORD: When you first arrived in Milford Sound, were there other spearfishermen here?
BARR: No, not really.
CRAWFORD: But you made friends with some of the Crayfishermen who shuttled you out. Did the Crayfishermen or anybody else in the community ever caution you about sharks in general, or White Pointers in particular?
CRAWFORD: When you went spearfishing during those limited number of times here, did you ever see sharks of any kind?
BARR: Yeah, I did. At Yates Point. I was spearfishing there, it was quite swelly, and I just shot a big Moki. I put that in my catch bag, and then I saw a Crayfish. I went to grab the Crayfish and I thought, "Aw, something doesn’t feel right." I looked over my shoulder, and there was a shark coming straight for me, and it just came across the back of my neck and passed me, and I thought, "Oh no, now I’m going to be lunch for this shark, because I’m getting my lunch, and he’s going to have me for lunch and, oh gosh, what do I do?" I’ve never had an experience with them before, so I thought, I’ll get onto the bottom of the floor of the ocean. Then it started to circle me slowly, and it moved so slowly, but it went so fast in the water. I had my speargun and my catch bag and my bubbles going flat out. It was getting so close that I had to actually push it off with my spear gun, "oof." It was a Blue Shark, and it was only 2 metres long, but when it's right in front of you, it's quite big it seems. It just looked at me, and was just sussing me out, and was just getting tighter and tighter with the circling. I couldn’t believe how slow it went, hardly moved at all, and how fast it went around me. It felt like ten minutes, but it was probably only two minutes. But it just wouldn’t stop, and I thought "Oh God, I’m getting low on air, so I can’t do this for too long." Then after a while, it wasn’t interested and it drifted off.
CRAWFORD: What depth were you at?
BARR: I was only probably at 30 feet, possibly.
CRAWFORD: And what was the visibility?
BARR: Probably only 5 or 6 metres.
CRAWFORD: And you said you had fish on you?
BARR: In a catch bag.
CRAWFORD: Dis you tie that off to your belt or something? Or dis you have it on a float?
BARR: I just hung onto it.
CRAWFORD: Well, you’re scuba diving. So it's not like when you’re free-dive spear fishing - taking your fish back up to the float, and dumping it in there.
BARR: No, I’m hanging onto it with one hand, and the speargun in the other hand, because now I’m putting crayfish in it. Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. All in this time, we used to have a stringer, a piece of string with a spike through it, we always used to carry our fish on our body, like it was attached to our belt, and a whole stack of fish, like on a line, just sitting there.
CRAWFORD: That was standard practice?
BARR: That’s how you did it.
CRAWFORD: Both free divers and scuba spearfishermen?
CRAWFORD: What was the split between those two? What percentage of people were doing spearfishing by scuba vs spearfishing by free diving?
BARR: I don’t know, I didn’t know many people who did it. It was just me and a mate, really. Most people would just go scuba diving to get crayfish and that’s it, and they would hardly ever take a speargun. But we always took everything, because we wanted everything. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: After that experience with the blue shark at Yates Point, did you see any other sharks out in Milford Sound?
BARR: No. I said to the guy who operates at Yates Point, "I just saw a shark." He said, "Oh, that’s not surprising, it's full of sharks up here." I went "Oh, that’s good to know! I won’t be diving here again." Just off Yates Point, coming back this way there’s a place, there’s the Brig Rock, which is great diving. And there’s a place called Halfway Rock, which I used to get dropped off as well - you could see the rock is about 20 or 30 feet down, and it kind of just broke the low tide. I’ve dived down there, it was huge and so open. I had this image of a massive shark just cruising past, but I never saw one, even though it's the most ideal place for them to be.
CRAWFORD: But you did not see them there. Tell me more about what the Craypotters said about sharks. They said that region was sharky' - did they say what kinds of sharks?
BARR: No, they didn’t.
CRAWFORD: Did they say why the sharks were there?
BARR: They didn’t. But I know the Seals up that coast and around Yates Point, there’s a lot of Seals,
CRAWFORD: When you think about Seals and Seal colonies, aggregations of Seals in the Milford Sound region of Fiordland that you’re familiar with - what regions have the highest density? Which regions are most aggregated, in terms of Seals?
BARR: Oh, up the coast here, Yates Point. There’s a couple of spots just around the corner here by Poison Bay, and it's great for fish and Pāua, brilliant for the Seals. I’ve heard from the boys there’s White Pointers around there as well.
CRAWFORD: When you say 'the boys' - do you mean the Crayfishermen?
BARR: Other spear fishermen and divers.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned the pilots here at Milford Sound, let's talk about them a bit more please. As an air traffic controller, you obviously are in communication with these guys, you know them personally, you talk to them, coming and going. How much of the flight traffic here is actually over the water of Milford Sound and the waters along the Fiordland coastline?
BARR: Yeah, they fly over the Sound. High, about 3,000 feet to the mouth, turn about at the mouth, and then come in lower, about 1,500 feet. So, if they are looking down from 1,500 feet, they might see something. But I’ve never heard anyone report anything to me.
CRAWFORD: For the pilots who do fly over Milford Sound, you’ve never heard any incidental comments that they saw sharks?
BARR: No, I haven’t. Which is weird that, after 20 years, you know? It's probably the height, they’re too high. Because flying at 1,500 feet. And the water, it's often rough, so it would be hard to see one. If it was completely calm and clear, there’s a good chance - if the pilots were looking. The people in the planes see Dolphins, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything about sharks.
CRAWFORD: Ok. In 1993 when you started your annual weekly trips to Stewart, did people take you aside when they realized that you were going to be spearfishing and Pāua diving, and warn you about White Pointers - about certain places, certain times of the year, times of the day or anything like that?
BARR: No. We were the only ones spearfishing, that we knew of.
CRAWFORD: During those trips to Stewart Island, did you ever see any White Pointers?
BARR: Never. And I even dived right in the middle of the bay off Oban where the wharf is. There's this little patch of weed, and there’s a few fish around there, right in the middle. It's quite exposed, because there’s just a tiny bit of weed, and it's just open water all around you. Only just recently they said there’s White Pointers come around in the evening or at some time of day. There’s at least one or two have been seen, all the way into the bay, and then back out again. They’ve probably been doing that when I've been there, and I’ve been spearing fish and I just get my fish and throw it in the boat. But I’ve never seen one. I kind of would have expected to see one, because it's that kind of area. But I never did.
CRAWFORD: Did you see any sharks of any kind at Stewart Island, in all the time that you were diving there?
5. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - EXPERIENCES OF OTHERS
CRAWFORD: What was the first time you remember hearing from somebody else about White Pointers in the Milford Sound region?
BARR: Probably 10 or 15 years ago, I heard a story of someone going scuba diving in Harrison’s Cove just out here, and they jump in the water, they've got their hands on their mask, and they just took their hands away from their mask, and there’s a White Pointer just sitting there right in front of them, and they go "Holy Shit!’ And they just got straight out of the water, and back into the boat. That’s one story I heard about 10 years ago.
CRAWFORD: Was that a local person that had been doing that, or a visitor?
BARR: I don’t know the details at all for that one. There’s another good story about someone down the coast here somewhere, they were Crayfish diving, and they came across a White Pointer, so he jammed himself up between a crack in the rocks - he fitted in the rock space and he protected himself from it. And the story goes, that the White Pointer went straight up to him and just stayed in front of him and just started to vibrate and shake. And they go, "Gosh, what’s it doing that for?" It's apparently to scare the prey out of there, and then if you’re a Sea Lion or that, you’d be scared, and when you’d come out he’d get you. I don’t know how true that story was, but it’s a good one.
CRAWFORD: When was that encounter, roughly?
BARR: About the same time, about 10 or so years ago.
CRAWFORD: Do you remember who was associated with that?
BARR: No I don’t. It was a long time ago.
CRAWFORD: Any other White Pointer stories that you've heard from your time here in Milford Sound or along this stretch of the Fiordland coastline?
BARR: I heard just up the coast here about a year ago, there was some guys diving just off the Kaipo River mouth, which is just a bit further up the coast. They were scuba diving and then two sharks cruised in and bumped them, and they went "What the hell?" They were after crayfish, and so they had a few on them.
CRAWFORD: How long ago was that?
BARR: About a year ago I think. Yeah.
CRAWFORD: What time of year, roughly?
BARR: It was round about getting towards March/April, right about then.
CRAWFORD: If someone was scuba diving there, would it typically have been morning, mid-day, afternoon, early evening?
BARR: I’m not sure what time of day it was that it happened.
CRAWFORD: They saw two sharks?
BARR: Yeah, two. Jeff is the owner of Milford Helicopters, and all of those helicopter pilots, the two new guys here are going out - Sam and Brayden and Josh - we go out on a little boat, right out to the sound there to do spearfishing, Pāua diving. Sam Innes has got some really good stories about White Pointers at Stewart Island - sightings and stuff like that, so he’d be a really good person to talk to. Sam's here, well he’s just out on his helicopter at the moment. His Dad’s just brought this 9-metre boat in for us to use, so we can go a lot more out there.
CRAWFORD: What’s Sam's Dad’s name?
BARR: Pete Innes - he’s got a house on Stewart Island.
CRAWFORD: And they spend regular time down there?
BARR: Yes, quite a bit of time.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever hear from other people around Stewart Island about White Pointers in that region? Did you hear of anybody else that had seen or had encounters with White Pointers during the time that you were there?
BARR: Not really. We knew that they were around, but it didn’t kind of phase us, because we never saw them. I just heard from Sam that there was a guy in a little boat just parked in one of the little bays right in Oban, just around the south side, a picturesque little bay. There was this little girl on the boat, and a White Pointer came up to the boat and started nibbling on the back of the motor, and then he gazed up, and started nibbling on the back of the transom. Because he’s just dropping his fish carcasses off, and the White Pointer was eating them.
CRAWFORD: When did he say ...
BARR: When did that happen? You’d have to ask him, I don’t know. I think it was just recently. He’ll have a few more stories as well, because he’s done a lot of diving down there. He’s done a lot of Cray dives, spearfishing, Pāua diving
Copyright © 2017 Perry Barr and Steve Crawford