Experience: Surf Life Saver
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 December 2015
Post Date: 08 July 2017; Copyright © 2017 Peter Gibbons and Steve Crawford
1. EXPERIENCE in AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS
CRAWFORD: Ok, Peter - let's start the interview with origins. Where were you born?
CRAWFORD: Roughly at what age did you start spending a significant amount of time on or around the water?
GIBBONS: From age 15 in Dunedin. In 1968/69, I joined the surf club, so my water involvement has been around surf life saving. St. Kilda Surf Life Saving Club, in particular.
CRAWFORD: Have you spent any significant amounts of time elsewhere around the South Island, or North Island?
GIBBONS: No, we lived in Invercargill for a year, and I was in the Oreti Surf Life Saving Club for one season. But in terms of the amount of time I spent, that was only one year out of the last 40 odd years.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Your coastal experiences start seriously when you’re 15 and you joined the surf life saving club?
CRAWFORD: Those activities would have been associated with the club. Did you do recreational swimming as well?
GIBBONS: A lot of swimming, but not open water swimming as such. Only associated with the surf club and competition and you know, general surf life saving activities.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever do any boarding?
GIBBONS: No, no not as a board rider. Only as a rescue board, in terms of a piece of equipment we use.
CRAWFORD: Rescue boards for the surf life saving club?
GIBBONS: Yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: In terms of boating experience, either through work or through recreation, did you spend any significant time on a boat?
GIBBONS: No. We’ve developed into having these inshore rescue boats or IRBs that we use as a major tool in surf life saving now. I’ve been pretty involved with those for the last 20 years. But that’s only as another advance or tool through the surf life saving fraternity, in the way that we operate - as opposed to recreational boating or fishing. I have no part of those activities.
CRAWFORD: Age of 15 when you join the club, I presume you started training and competing?
CRAWFORD: Would it be mostly a summer activity or throughout the year?
GIBBONS: Oh no, no. In-water activities are only summer, as opposed to the surfies or the board riders who so their stuff year-round. We will start training in October, in terms of club training. We would have competitions back in those days, as of probably the third week of November that they would start, and finish in March. So, late November through to March.
CRAWFORD: So, a distinct season for your on-water experience?
GIBBONS: Yeah, very distinct.
CRAWFORD: What is the general purpose of Surf Life Saving New Zealand?
GIBBONS: Well, basically it is to patrol the recognized swimming beaches, to provide safe swimming areas for the general public. We learn about and understand our beach, and we mark the safe areas during patrol time for people to swim. In New Zealand that’s done with red and yellow flags, and we encourage people to swim in a specified area of specified beaches - because we offer them the ability to do that with supervision.
CRAWFORD: What types of things go into consideration, about where those designated beach areas would be located? Would that include the water currents?
GIBBONS: It’s really historical, because the surf life saving clubs evolved through time, through population pressure. In my life time, there have been no new clubs or new beaches opened in our area. It’s only been historically-patrolled beaches. People swim in New Zealand at a lot of other locations, and obviously we have issues with river and lake drownings, but the coastal surf swimming where it’s offered, the designated safe swimming with surf clubs, has been pretty constant in the Otago and Southland region throughout my involvement.
CRAWFORD: I’ve seen a chart from the surf life saving club website, I think there are approximately 74 clubs across North and South Island. And there are several, multiple clubs in the region of the Otago Peninsula, is that correct?
GIBBONS: Well, four clubs in and around Dunedin City. One each at the North and South, and two in the city itself.
CRAWFORD: Can you identify those clubs for me?
CRAWFORD: At the base of the peninsula?
GIBBONS: Yes, traditionally the two opposing ends. So there are two life saving clubs serving that shore, built up Dunedin City and the town called St. Clair and town called St. Kilda. And then to the South of town, there’s Brighton just out here. And our other clubs are at Kaka Point down at Balclutha, and Oreti Beach down at Invercargill. So our grouping is those 6 clubs. The Southland clubs are part of our Otago grouping, if you like.
CRAWFORD: That’s an important point because when you joined at the age of 15, the training - both the fitness training and the surf life saving training - it progressed to the point of competition. Would it be the case that the competitions would take mostly within that Otago region, or were they across South Island or national?
GIBBONS: Oh, we would travel to both South Island and national events, and we still do. But our local activity tended to be around those beaches that I’ve named. In particular, Warrington is used a lot because it’s a safer, flatter and safer, less open beach. St. Clair and St. Kilda are more open and exposed. You see, the different aspect in terms of swell and wind and so on. So yeah, the competitions are hosted by the various surf clubs. And we would travel, as would all the clubs, to various venues right throughout the country.
CRAWFORD: So, the responsibilities for designated locations would be that surf life savers would keep eyes on the water and the swimmers, between the flags. And if somebody was in trouble with a rip current or something like that, there would be a deployment of the life savers to assist or retrieve?
GIBBONS: That’s right. To respond. And obviously take preventative measures, trying to identify situations and take action prior to the problem occurring, using standard operation procedures. Nothing has changed over the years really, other than the equipment and the way we do our business administration.
CRAWFORD: When did the clubs around the Dunedin region, when were they first established?
GIBBONS: St. Clair is our oldest club and it’s just had its centenary, so it can point to 100 years. St. Kilda is about 90 years. So that sort of tenure. Warrington beach hasn’t been there for that particularly long, because it was another town club on the city stretch of beach that was initially an all-female club, a women's-only club. But due to coastal erosion and so on and so forth, that club closed down and moved out of Warrington, so it hasn’t got that long-term tenure on Warrington beach. But as a club it can trace its history that same amount of time.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned something about changes in practices over time. What was it like back in the day, and what kind of significant changes have there been in terms of rescue deployment?
GIBBONS: Well, the biggest issue has been that all our rescue, genuine rescues out to retrieve somebody from the water, we actually used to be in the water [with the person being rescued]. In fact, a major rescue method was called a 'Line and Belt' in which the rescue swimmer was actually tied to the land on a reel of line, and towed the floating line out. And then once they secured the person, they were physically reeled back in, rather than swimming back. So you know, in those days it seemed pretty good at the time, but when I started that was a thing. Nowadays we’ve advanced to rescue boats, and we’re on top of the water. It went through paddle power, canoes that were paddled out, and now it’s all motorized. They’re inflatable boats with outboard motors, and even jet skis and those types of petrol-propelled craft these days. Now we do most of our significant work from on top of the water, whereas when I commenced it was from within the water.
CRAWFORD: Roughly what was the time period where that transition was made?
GIBBONS: Probably in the 70s I think. You know the technology came in slowly, and then took a while to spread from the North Island to the South Island. The boats that we use now, they took a while to spread, but now they’re just the standard everyday thing. Before there were motorised boats there were canoes and various other waterborne craft that we used. But not motorised.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Starting at the age of 15, you would have done this on a seasonal summer basis, and did you do this pretty much every year?
GIBBONS: Yeah, I’ve been in it for life as we say. I’ve never missed a season. I had one season away in Invercargill and I just transferred to the club down there and carried on and then transferred back the next year. So, it’s unbroken involvement for myself.
CRAWFORD: You would have been around with the old-timers that were perhaps closer to the origins of the clubs. They would have been training you back in the day?
GIBBONS: Yeah, that’s a fair comment.
CRAWFORD: That’s important for me, because it means that there is some type of exposure to previous generations. And if they had knowledge that they shared with you, it becomes part of this discussion. Did you ever shift from being somebody who was in the deployment side of things, versus the kind of management side of things?
GIBBONS: Oh no. I’m still actively involved, and do my actual turns on volunteer patrol. So I’m still actively involved. Yes, a lot more involved in administration and management and so on. But still actively involved.
CRAWFORD: And you are currently the Club President?
GIBBONS: Yes, President of St. Kilda.
CRAWFORD: Alright that’s an effective description of your history on the water. You have been very focused on surf life saving, and you have a tremendous amount of time and consecutive years focused in one region. So that is a very different perspective, compared to many of the people that I've interviewed, where they have extensively shifted activities and places. Before we wrap up this part of the interview, one last question about the club competitions. What types of specific skills would be the basis for these competitions?
GIBBONS: Well in the early days, the basis skill was swimming ability and swimming fitness, because of the other things that all stemmed from that. That still goes on - we still find our Otago champions and our New Zealand champions at swimming in open water and surf. But all these other skills that have come along, we now also have competitions in those. So for example, we go every year to the New Zealand and South Island Championships. We’re actually racing the rescue boats because we firmly believe in terms of competition and training the life guards of the current day to go better and faster through competition, which makes them better life guards. You don’t have to be an athlete to be a significant life guard anymore, because it’s not purely and simply swimming. But that was the core skill, and it’s still a core skill. There is an external exam where to become a life guard they have to swim to a certain standard, both in the pool and in the surf where they can be ticked off as a life guard.
CRAWFORD: In terms of policy at the club level, at least when New Zealand life saving club at St. Kilda is operating, there are numerous risk factors. Rip currents would be one, perhaps inexperienced swimmers would be another, boating traffic could be a concern, and sharks could be another. It would be one of a suite of risk factors. Would that be fair?
GIBBONS: Well, that’s right. It’s a recognised factor, and if we see indicators of shark, like fins or something - it may even be Dolphins until it’s established - we will clear the water, and we will attempt to investigate. But the issue in our area is not seeing shark fins. We see very few Dolphins, whereas around the corner at Warrington, you can see them [Dolphins] all the time. We very rarely see sharks, but we continually have issues with Sea Lions, increasing issues over the last decade.
CRAWFORD: In terms of the Sea Lion-human interactions, are they the type of thing where swimmers have been harassed by Sea Lions?
GIBBONS: Yeah, they’re very aggressive. They clear the water. We don’t have to sound the siren to clear the water, because you don’t know they’re coming. They come underneath the water, and the next minute they’re snapping. A Sea Lion bit a boy last year. So they’re aggressive. And they think it’s playing, they love to interact and to chase the humans out of the water. And then they come and play. We’ve had people out of the water for an hour, waiting for them to go away so we can go back into the water. So yeah, the Sea Lions are a nuisance. We have a document, so you talk about the policy, we have a document that we run called a 'Patrol Operations Manual', and that has got specific sections for each club, apart from the generic stuff. In our copy, we have some paragraphs and instructions around Sea Lions, and that’s where our involvement with DOC [Department of Conservation] has increased over the years.
CRAWFORD: There were two important things I think that you said there, from my perspective. Number one is building on your previous comment about club-based policies, Warrington versus St. Kilda. You know if you guys don’t get Dolphins on a frequent basis like they do, it’s obviously a factor for them and not for you. You’re focused on the Sea Lions. Would it be fair to say that the Sea Lion issue is further in front for surf life savers at St. Clair and St. Kilda, more than the sharks would be?
GIBBONS: It certainly is, yeah. It’s the issue of the moment. The shark issue had been an issue 20, 30 years ago. I assume the Sea Lions come down from their breeding, and they end up down here - so we get them at St. Kilda and before long we get them at St. Clair. Just around the corner at Tomahawk, it’s quite traditional and regular for mothers to even look after babies and take up residence. And then DOC has to fence them off and it’s in the newspaper, "Don’t walk your dog, don’t let the dogs attack the babies" and all that sort of stuff.
CRAWFORD: You’re talking Sea Lions now?
GIBBONS: Yes. They’re colonising, they seem to be slowly coming down and colonising more and more of this particular piece of the coast, which is why we are getting more and more of them here. And I just assume without scientific knowledge that they see people and things splashing around in the water, and they just go and investigate.
CRAWFORD: Well that’s interesting because you're still talking about the Sea Lions. Other people say exactly the same thing about the sharks and their response to splashing.
GIBBONS: Well, we don’t see the sharks.
CRAWFORD: Well just to wrap up on that side of things, if a shark is seen or if something that is suspected to be a shark is seen, what is standard club policy?
GIBBONS: Just clear the water.
CRAWFORD: Some type of alarm?
GIBBONS: Yes, yes. We have an alarm system, and we will send life guards down with whistles and so on, and physically get everyone out of the water. Then we will try and launch a boat, but very safely on top of the water and motorised boat to actually go and see if it’s a shark.
CRAWFORD: So there are two components, part one is alarm and retrieval of whoever is out in the water, and part two is deployment of an IRB?
GIBBONS: To check whether it is a shark. If it’s a couple of Dolphins, then away we go, we just let the swimmers back in the water.
CRAWFORD: That's important. Standard practice is the intention to verify. If it’s not a shark, then obviously the heightened state of alarm can be brought back down.
CRAWFORD: If it is a shark, then it becomes important to deal with the fact that there are different types of sharks. Is there any type of conditional response if it’s one kind of a shark versus another?
GIBBONS: Well we don’t, because we don’t profess to be experts. If we saw a shark cruising around in our vicinity, we would keep the water clear. It’s going back some years but for example, we had a shark and it was estimated 25 foot long and it turned out to be a Basking Shark. But it hung around our area for a week. And we kept people out of the water until we got somebody down to actually tell us, "No it’s a plankton feeder, and you can let them back in the water." Our response is simply - if it’s a large marine animal we aren’t going to take the risk because we’re not experts. I wouldn’t know the difference between, you know a Bronze Whaler or a Blue Shark or whatever it happened to be. So we just don’t take the risk.
CRAWFORD: If there is a shark, it’s 'beach closed' until such time as the shark has moved on?
GIBBONS: And we’re satisfied that it’s gone.
CRAWFORD: You naturally led into something that I was going to bring up later, but let's talk about it now. You referred to a Basking Shark. When was the first time that you saw a Basking Shark in this region [Otago Peninsula]?
GIBBONS: Well, that’s probably the only experience I’ve had, and that’s what it was identified as. This is years ago. This fish was bigger, longer than our boats [IRBs].
CRAWFORD: Right, a very large fish.
GIBBONS: Yeah, easy to see.
CRAWFORD: Roughly what was the estimated size?
GIBBONS: It was over 20 foot. I think the boys reckoned it was 25 foot long.
CRAWFORD: Did you see this animal personally?
CRAWFORD: And when you saw it, what did it look like?
GIBBONS: It wasn't just a great big long black thing that floated around. It wasn’t particularly active, it was ducking and diving and swimming and catching waves. It was just floating around.
CRAWFORD: Do you remember anything in terms of its colouration or shape? I’m thinking specifically about contrast to any White Pointers.
GIBBONS: Oh probably. Whether it was because of the jaws or you recognize what you might think might would be a White Pointer. But this was darker and skinnier, probably long and skinny - as opposed to having a rounded body shape.
CRAWFORD: Anything about the dorsal fin?
GIBBONS: It was some years ago now, to be honest.
CRAWFORD: Of course. This was during one season that perhaps a single Basking Shark took up semi-residency in the region?
GIBBONS: This particular fish hung around for a week, and then it just disappeared again.
CRAWFORD: But every time it came, if I remember the story you told me out at the club, it was, "We’ll get everybody on the beach again because of the policy that we’re not experts in identifying. Until such time that the IRB went out and confirmed that it was the Basking Shark." Then were people allowed back in the water?
GIBBONS: No. During that period, we were pretty cautious in our club because of the history which we may discuss where a member had been taken allegedly by a shark. So we were on the side of caution.
2. EXPOSURE TO MĀORI/LOCAL/SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS
CRAWFORD: What kind of contributions to your knowledge of New Zealand coastal environments has come from Māori culture?
GIBBONS: Well, pretty limited in the South really. I mean, as you’ve probably picked up from your time in New Zealand, it’s significantly different now, going back to the 60’s and 70’s even more so in the South Island to the far north. So very limited Māori input. We’ve had life guards and members of the club who have been Māori, but I haven’t had a significant interaction or exposure or change or thought process or thinking because of involvement with a Māori sector.
CRAWFORD: With regards to the contribution of science culture and knowledge to your understanding of these marine coastal environments?
GIBBONS: Only through what I’ve read, really. I mean we’re fortunate obviously with the Otago Varsity and the marine aquarium at Portobello. As an interested person, I read lots of articles and go to public meetings, and so on and so forth. We have a good relationship with DOC. As a current example, we have on our patrolled areas Sea Lions, since the population has expanded and they have become more aggressive. But that’s in terms of DOC keeping us up-to-date, and what they would like us to do, and how to deal with problems, and so on. So, more general knowledge and publicly available information than a specific study or involvement.
CRAWFORD: When did DOC and New Zealand surf life saving start working together? When did that interaction become more active, in terms of what it is now?
GIBBONS: From my perspective it’s more of a club-based thing. I mean, the local DOC people probably interact with all our clubs, but I don’t go to meetings with all our clubs and meet with DOC and have a round table. It’s more when they’re talking to us, they’re talking to us. And I suspect that they talk to our own clubs, but it’s not something that we really communicate. It’s probably been a growing communication or liaison over the last ten years. But as I say, it’s more specifically around the marine mammals.
CRAWFORD: I’ve done a little bit of background work, and went specifically looking for a policy at the national level for New Zealand Surf Life Saving regarding sharks. I’ve found something very small, but I didn’t see anything in terms of science education or training programs at a coordinated level.
GIBBONS: No I don’t think you would see anything. I’m not aware of anything. I mean our philosophy is simply that the sea is the environment of the marine inhabitants - it’s not our environment. So we would cede right of way to them. We don’t want to kill the sharks so that they get out of 'our territory.' We would rather get out of their territory, but we don’t have any formal education around it in either our national lead training or our club based training. Our club has some significant history of shark issues which no doubt you will want to discuss later on but it hasn’t led to, as I’ve said, any specific science training. But as we’ll come into, we don’t believe we have a significant issue in the areas that we utilise anyway.
CRAWFORD: As a life-long member and active participant in the surf life saving club, what do you know about the ecology of the Otago Peninsula in general? The marine ecology. Do you know anything about that?
GIBBONS: No, not a lot. I mean we know there’s something going wrong because the Penguins aren’t feeding properly, and they’re all dying, which they believe is due to the food chain issue. But again that's from media. We’ve got a girl at the surf club who works at the Penguin colony, but it’s not really an avid area of interest to me, I’ll read anything that’s in the media about it, but I don’t research or know anything.
3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
CRAWFORD: I have a question for you in regard to distribution of the animals - but on a very small scale. I mean, surf life savers are looking from their vantage point - the flags are there for a reason, that’s where they’re focusing their attention. For the number of times that you’ve seen sharks, or people have told you that sharks were seen, was there any kind of indication about the animals not coming in close to shore or a certain distance? That they typically were not coming in close to shore? That you had to be more kind of further offshore - that kind of thing?
GIBBONS: No there’s nothing around my personal involvement around our area that suggests that. I mean it’s not even regular, we can go through a whole season with nothing. I don’t think we’ve cleared the water for a shark for at least five years. But whether that’s because our focus is on the Sea Lions - and they’re right here, right at the water's edge? But the sharks are just not a problem for us where we are. Or at least they’re not perceived by us to be. We know that they’re there. I know from work I’ve done that the fishing club - they catch world record sharks out in the bay.
CRAWFORD: Which bay?
GIBBONS: Out here off Warrington and that. They chuck a bucket of berley over and the next thing, there’s ten big sharks around.
CRAWFORD: That’s an important observation. When did you first get exposed to the fishing club?
GIBBONS: I’ve never been fishing with them, but through things that I’ve done at work, I know that people in that fishing club have caught a 300 kg shark on a 15 kg breaking line as a world record. I mean those guys in that Tautuku Fishing Club are all about the big fish out here and they catch them. So we know that there are big sharks out in our area.
CRAWFORD: Ok. That’s an important thing. Who are the key contacts at the fishing club that I should be inquiring with on that?
GIBBONS: I wouldn’t know who their office holders are, but probably Warren Lewis. We could probably track Warren Lewis down. He’s a recreational fisherman who would then be able to put us on to it.
CRAWFORD: But the idea is that through your peers, you know that their recreational fishery has engaged with a relatively high abundance of large sharks around Warrington Bay?
GIBBONS: Yeah, round this bay. Once when I went on a recreational trip on a big boat and they were fishing Blue Sharks. And it was like fishing for Goldfish. It’s like when you chuck the berley over and the guy said "They’re all just Blues, what do you want to catch? Throw this line over there." Just sport. Reel them in and let them go again. So I know that there are at least hundreds of Blue Sharks here, from personal experience.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever spend any time, or know people that have spent time, in Otago Harbour?
GIBBONS: No. I mean we do a little bit of training in the harbour, we’ve seen Seals and Dolphins, but personally I’ve never seen a shark in the harbour.
CRAWFORD: Do you ever remember hearing from other people about sharks in the harbour?
GIBBONS: No, you would probably need to talk to the fisherman at Carey’s Bay, much further down the harbour.
CRAWFORD: I have spoken to some of them.
GIBBONS: And they would be able to tell you. Right up the top, even up as far as here, we’ve seen Dolphins, obviously when the mum’s calf is looking for warm water and stuff like that.
CRAWFORD: Right up into the inner harbour?
GIBBONS: Right in.
CRAWFORD: You’ve seen Dolphins there?
CRAWFORD: Well, that actually brings up an interesting thing that somebody brought up yesterday. And that was the perception - and they didn’t know if it was real or not - but common knowledge that wherever Dolphins are, sharks are not. Because the Dolphins will actively interfere with the sharks. Is that kind of thing common knowledge, in your experience?
GIBBONS: Well that’s a common New Zealand thing. I don’t know if it’s a myth or not, but it’s absolutely common. Every New Zealander would probably tell you that.
CRAWFORD: I’m thinking now in terms of St. Clair and St. Kilda. How frequently do you see Dolphins over there?
GIBBONS: We really only tend to see them when they’re migrating past. We don’t have them frolicking round, whereas you can go to Warrington and so on and play with them for the day.
CRAWFORD: By migrating past, is there a particular time of year that they migrate past?
GIBBONS: Yeah, it seems to be late summer. Huge schools, massive schools.
GIBBONS: Oh yeah, hundreds easy. There’s another beach down here called Long Beach, that we go and train at often because of the conditions. We use it because it’s better conditions to train at, with the kids and that. We’ve often seen huge schools of Dolphins up there. It’s quite remote from St. Clair and St. Kilda. They’ve got the GoPros these days - the kids go out, they film them and play with them and hold them - and then we go back and put it on the TV at the club. They think it’s magic. But that never happens at St. Clair and St. Kilda. We only see them going past, as I’ve said. Sometimes we’ve seen Orcas going past. But not hang around.
CRAWFORD: Some people have raised a concern that there have historically been places where humans are discharging sewage or some organic offal into the coastal waters. From the time that you have spent in this region, do you know of any of these kinds of rendering plants or freezer works or whatever in this region?
GIBBONS: Well they’ve tidied it all up. We didn’t get involved in it. There used to be what they called the 'Green Island Outfall.' I think that was what you’re talking about, the freezing works, that sort of stuff. And yeah, they tidied all that up.
CRAWFORD: When was this roughly?
GIBBONS: Probably 10 years or so ago.
CRAWFORD: Why did they tidy it up?
GIBBONS: Oh well, just because as the world has gone on, the City Council has become more responsive you know. You just can’t dump untreated stuff into the sea.
CRAWFORD: And this would have been a freezer works, like say for lamb?
GIBBONS: Yeah, all your New Zealand meat.
CRAWFORD: But terrestrial stock rather than fish processing?
GIBBONS: Oh yeah. Beef, cattle, lamb you know? And that’s been tidied up. Just off our beach, it’s marked on your map there, the end of our beach is called Lawyer's Head. The Dunedin City Council sewage used to be pumped out 50 m. The whole Dunedin City sewage came out there 50 yards, and that’s all it was. We’re about one and a half km down from there.
CRAWFORD: And the prevailing current is northward along here? Does that current ever reverse?
GIBBONS: Oh, yes. During the winter, we get a lot coming this way. But what they’ve done is put the treatment plant, we submitted and were witnesses at the hearing, that now goes 1.1 kilometres offshore. So now it is A, treated and B, goes out 1.1 kilometres. It’s made no difference to the shark sightings or anything, because we traditionally haven’t had big sightings. But because of the modern public response, City Council has had to clean those issues up. Both ends of our beaches have been tidied up, probably in the last decade or so.
CRAWFORD: Back in the day, was there ever any discussion or did people ever raise the concern that shark-human interactions might have been associated in any way with the organic effluent?
GIBBONS: It’s not something that I’ve got personal knowledge of. I know they did a lot of work on it, because we supplied boats. When the divers were down, we used to sit on top as safety boats because we were contracted to do a lot of that stuff. They certainly did a lot of work. Exactly what they did, I don’t know.
5. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - EXPERIENCES OF OTHERS
CRAWFORD: What is your earliest memory of knowing that there were White Pointers in these coastal waters?
GIBBONS: Well, we believe that there are White Sharks around our waters, and the historical belief is based on really two things. I’m not a fisherman, and I’ve never spoken to anyone that has caught one, in terms of when they’ve been fishing in a boat. But, I recall in my early days in Dunedin, there used to be shark nets. That the Dunedin City Council paid for shark nets, and that was because of the fatalities at these beaches. I came along reasonably soon after, as a 15-year-old I came along reasonably soon after that. So it was a very fresh situation.
CRAWFORD: And it was at that point that you learned about the White Pointers here?
GIBBONS: In stepping onto the surf club, one become aware that this beach and at St. Clair beach, which is only two kilometres down the road, there have been shark attacks. One guy sitting on surfboards as they do with the feet dangling down and the shark bit the guy, got his leg and the board, he got to safety, but the board was recovered with tooth marks. Back in that time, there were a number of shark issues around Dunedin. There was another attack at Aramoana, where a diver was attacked off the mole.
CRAWFORD: Ok. In terms of putting that marker down on your personal history, it’s when you joined the club. You didn’t have any prior kind of White Pointer understanding prior to that?
GIBBONS: No, no. But I learned all that from my early involvement in the surf life saving club, if that makes sense what I’m saying. I stepped into it at the time that the shark paranoia was fairly rife in Dunedin.
CRAWFORD: Let's talk about that. When you entered into that context, what did you hear from the people who were telling you things? What did you hear in general about White Pointers in this region, or the attacks specifically?
GIBBONS: Well the biggest thing was really the fact that there was a life guard taken off St. Kilda beach and killed. And it had always been anecdotally put down to a White Pointer shark attack.
CRAWFORD: Did you speak to anyone who had first-hand knowledge of that incident?
GIBBONS: Yeah, I could put you onto people who were there when it happened.
CRAWFORD: No, I’m more interested in your recollection of what first-hand observers said.
GIBBONS: People would talk about it. When I came to the surf club there were still people there, from that era.
CRAWFORD: What did they say happened?
GIBBONS: In general terms they would say that Bill [Black] got taken by a White Pointer. Just went bang, one hit, blood in the water and they pulled the line in because he was on one of those belts and lines, there was nothing.
CRAWFORD: So this was a competition. And it was mid-summer?
GIBBONS: It was an evening at the club. It was a club competition as opposed to an inter-club.
CRAWFORD: And it was evening?
CRAWFORD: Did anybody say what the water conditions were, anything like that?
GIBBONS: No, I don’t know.
CRAWFORD: The idea that it's a club competition, Bill is connected through a harness on a line. There’s a team on the spool on the beach, he goes out and ...
GIBBONS: Never seen again.
CRAWFORD: Bill was not seen, was the shark seen? Did anybody see the shark?
GIBBONS: I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I had only heard about it.
CRAWFORD: And in terms of the incidences, are you aware of any other fatalities in the general Otago region?
GIBBONS: No, not fatalities. There were shark attacks over that period and I wondered ... my personal thought was whether there was a rogue shark that was unwell, and those sorts of things. Whether it was the same shark that was responsible, and the attacks stopped because that shark deceased. But that’s only a personal theory that I’ve got.
CRAWFORD: That is an extremely important theory, in my opinion. Did anybody else share that kind of thinking back in the day, or was that just you? Do you ever remember anybody else talking about that, an individual shark that might be a problem?
GIBBONS: No, no. We didn’t sit round and talk about the shark. I mean, as I’ve said our philosophy is that it’s their environment, not ours. We enter their environment, they don’t come into ours. My view with the life guards and the people joining the club is that if you are scared or concerned of sharks or any other marine animals, you can’t be a life guard. It’s as simple as that. And I just say to them "Look, you’ve got more chance of getting hit by a car crossing the road, than getting bit by a shark. And if you don’t accept that, don’t join our club." That’s our philosophy.
CRAWFORD: In terms of non-fatal incidences - interactions between sharks and boarders or swimmers - there were other non-fatal incidences that happened over time?
GIBBONS: We’ve had incidences on our beach of sharks appearing, and I’ve been present at some of those. I recall one competition ... what happens is that a safety boat follows the swimmers around the course. That’s not because we’re fearing attacks, but it’s in case someone gets a cramp or feels unwell, whatever. And I remember distinctly a shark surfacing during a swim race, no equipment, they’re all in the water, they’re all swimming and this shark surfaced and we just screamed at them all to stop the race and swim straight back to shore. We cancelled the competition. So we know that there are sharks of various sorts out there, but we don’t see them regularly. From time to time we’ll see what we believe to be a shark, but even then I’ve seen Orcas swimming across our beach. Sometimes we’ve seen pods of 400, 500 Dolphins go by. And we send all the kids out, go and jump in with them. We know that there’s huge fish out there, but sharks per se on our stretch of beach is not regarded as an issue for us.
CRAWFORD: With a couple of very noticeable exceptions, would it be fair to say that shark-human interactions like bumping boarders or circling around swimmers - these things don't happen very often?
GIBBONS: Not with the type of stuff that we do. And not anecdotally, with people that we talk to. There’s a lot more surfers, board riders out there at odd hours. They’ll go early in the morning or late in the evening, and there’s always been those old wives' tales, "Don’t be out there at dusk" and things like that. Those sorts of guys are out there, so they may have more incidences. But we don’t have a lot of stories about sharks coming up to investigate boats or investigate our people or anything like that.
CRAWFORD: I’m interested in the thing you referred to as an old wives' tale. Was that something from your early days that you remember hearing about that? The dusk and dawn thing?
GIBBONS: Yeah, yeah. There’s no scientific basis that I know of. No, that’s just something that’s just one of my thought processes, that’s been with me all of my life. "You don’t go out there at dusk because a shark might get you." As stupid as that might be.
CRAWFORD: That’s exactly what I’m talking about, in terms of knowledge that gets embedded in a culture. Were there any other similar types of things, like certain places or certain times that swimmers should not go?
GIBBONS: No, no. Not that I’m aware of - in response to sharks and our environment. Time has moved on from the Bill Black episode. Obviously, the people coming through ... I mean there are very, very few people that are still coming to the surf clubs that were actually at the surf clubs when the Bill Black incident occurred. Time changes everything, as you’re probably well aware. And the kids coming along now, they don’t even know what a line and belt is. Because it’s just obsolete now, and not even contemplated. Not even used as a museum piece to do a display. It’s just gone. So the young ones coming in now, just have no concept of that sort of history. And there are people in our club who were there on that night Bill Black was attached. People who have never set foot, never even put their ankle in the surf again, because of the shock of actually being there itself. But they moved away from the club straight away, and that historical sort of feeling has left the club, if you know what I’m trying to say.
CRAWFORD: Yes, I think I do.
GIBBONS: Very, very few people in the club who have been there as long as I’ve been there. Let alone older heads than myself.
OK. Back in the day, do you recall any type of anti-shark - I’m not talking about the nets now - but any other type of anti-shark strategies or equipment that was associated with New Zealand surf life saving?
GIBBONS: Yes, there was. They went through a phase ... you’re aware of the shark netting, so that was DCC’s response to the attacks - to pay for the nets. I didn’t say to that question before, but one of the reasons I’m aware of White Pointer apart from the anecdotal stuff, is that I know from actually talking to a fisherman that actually used to clear the DCC nets that they would catch White Pointers in the nets.
CRAWFORD: They were several fisherman that contract to DCC. Do you remember which one?
GIBBONS: A guy Malcolm from Port Chalmers. And I also vividly recall a photograph in the Otago Daily Times where he caught a White Pointer. I don’t know whether it was in the 'Jaws' era, but to make it a spectacular picture, they opened the sharks mouth and wedged a four by two in it, so that his jaw was like that. And it was a photo on the front page of the paper. So from those sorts of things, we’re very aware that they are out there.
CRAWFORD: Ok. I was going to get back to the DCC nets anyway. What was your understanding about the purpose of those nets?
GIBBONS: Well, we thought that they were completely and utterly a waste of time because they didn’t net an enclosure. They just put some strip nets out, and they were well aware that sharks don’t swim to a pre-determined pattern. And it was only by chance that they caught various fish in their nets. But I think that it was a sock to the public conscience. Going back because I didn’t answer your question before because I got side tracked ... the other issues in terms of anti-shark or shark repellent measures? Yes, there were measures taken. So again, in this knee-jerk reaction to the Bill Black thing. The other thing that they did was raise money and the surf clubs were supplied with shark boats. We actually got these boats called 'shark boats'. They were fibreglass canoes with a pointed bow and a stern where we could fit an outboard motor. They were the first motorised craft we had. They were absolutely useless. Nowadays they’re very mobile and flexible and that, but these were absolutely useless. They were equipped with actual harpoons with shotgun cartridges in them. And these were in the surf clubs. And you didn’t have to have a firearms licence or anything. Sso I could go out there and let off shotgun cartridges and fire these harpoons with these great big barbs. And they lasted, they were never used and we never fired them in anger. But they were in our club and at St Clair because of the attacks on St. Clair and St. Kilda beach.
CRAWFORD: Thank you very much. That is the first, first-hand account I've heard from that perspective. You were trained on these units, this was part of the standard club gear? And it was very club specific, at St. Clair and St. Kilda?
GIBBONS: From memory, Warringon didn’t exist in those days. It was Moanarua which was on the same stretch of beach. And I don’t think Brighton, but I could be wrong. My memory is that it was St. Clair and St. Kilda. But in fact, because of the nature of our surf, the technology of the craft made them useless quite frankly. And they weren’t used, apart from going out for a giggle and having a play. It was just a white elephant, a knee-jerk reaction to the attacks.
CRAWFORD: Like the nets, but in a different way. These boats lasted about a year, one season, maybe two?
GIBBONS: Oh, because it was equipment that had been purchased and donated to the clubs, they sat round in our basements until I think we ended up selling ours to a fisherman to put on flat water somewhere. It didn’t suit the surf and the conditions.
CRAWFORD: To your recollection, was there ever a deployment of these harpoons, harpoons fired on a shark?
GIBBONS: No. Never that I’m aware of.
CRAWFORD: Just wrapping up with the DCC shark nets. Do you remember roughly how long that netting program ran?
GIBBONS: I’m guessing now, because time runs away with you. It must have been at least 20 years I guess, because it seems to have only been five or six years ago that they stopped it. I could be wrong, but we could get those dates if you want them from the Council, I guess. They sort of ran over a couple of decades, and it was just another white elephant. The reason they stopped it was because it was rate-payers' money, and the threat had dissipated or whether it had dissipated or just wasn’t at a raised consciousness level in the general public. So they could save some rate-payers' money by doing away with the contract, and not having to replace the equipment on the nets, I guess.
CRAWFORD: If I’m understanding correctly, the perception of the New Zealand surf life saving clubs, these two clubs in particular, was that it was a waste of money in the first place.
GIBBONS: That’s what we would say. As I mentioned, if they wanted to net an enclosure, they would have to net three right angles, so that you could have your swimmers in an enclosed situation. Nets safely anchored to the sand at the bottom.
CRAWFORD: Given the longshore currents and the rip currents and those sorts of things, it’s very difficult to imagine that. With regards to the deployments for sharks, I’ve seen incident reports on the New Zealand surf life saving website. When did those incident reports first become things that had to be filled out?
GIBBONS: Oh, we’ve always had them in various forms. I mean they’ve always been there, the historical ones that are 40 years old probably don’t exist. but there’s always been a reporting system, because Surf Life Saving New Zealand collates the volunteer hours, and the number of good works, and the rescues it does. The only way that they can collate that information is by individual clubs collecting and submitting their data. And nowadays of course it’s all computerized, at the click of a button. But that’s always been collected - I just don’t know where you would go to get that stuff from.
CRAWFORD: That’s fine. My reason for asking, I brought this up when we spoke at the club is that, completely independently of any perceived risk, the number of responses where a pair of eyes belonging to the club saw something that was at least perceived to be a shark. And if there was a deployment, even regardless of whether or not the shark was identified, that observation can be used as an index of abundance over time - which is something that is important to a fish ecologist. If there truly was a period of time where the shark abundance was higher, when you go through the historical records of the shark encounters and the shark attacks, there’s a very distinct pattern. There’s a number of engagements, encounters over a fairly short period of time. Different people have their opinions about what caused that. You’ve already brought up one implicitly when you were thinking, was it a 'problem shark'? Or was it an animal that perhaps was sick and couldn’t fend for itself? Couldn't get food in another way? So it took the next easiest thing? That’s definitely a plausible hypothesis.
Copyright © 2017 Peter Gibbons and Steve Crawford