Stefhan Brown

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YOB: 1972
Experience: Surfing, Surf Life Saving
Regions: Otago, South Island, North Island
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 December 2015
Post Date: 14 September 2017; Copyright © 2017 Stefhan Brown and Steve Crawford

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3. WHITE POINTER DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE

CRAWFORD: For all of the time that you've spent around both South and North Island - as a surfer that has been travelling and swimming and surfing throughout - when you think of hotspots for White Pointers in particular, where do you think?

BROWN: Catlins.

CRAWFORD: Catlins. Would you have also included Dunedin? The Otago Peninsula?

BROWN: Yeah, I will. But I guess from a surfing side of things, people use a term like ‘sharky’ and you know just to be careful with those kinds of comments.

CRAWFORD: Yeah, fair enough.

BROWN: Catlins because of the isolated, remote places. Lots of Seals, rugged terrain, and all that kind of thing. Giving it that edge you’re all alone. So, you know, urban myths and the like. 

CRAWFORD: Ok.

BROWN: Kind of like a kid being afraid of the dark. Because you can go down there and be the only one there. Whereas a lot of people are more comfortable surfing with others. If you have 70 people you have a 1 in 70 chance. Down there, you are likely by yourself. 

CRAWFORD: Yes, ok. That’s an important distinction between perceived risk and actual risk.

BROWN: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Let’s just deal with that for a second. Is there any reason that you can think of that Otago Peninsula is a ‘sharky’ area when it comes to White Pointers?

BROWN: None whatsoever. 

CRAWFORD: More or less than anywhere else on the southeastern coast of South Island?

BROWN: If I were putting my scientific hand up, I cannot see any rhyme or reason why there wouldn’t be just as many White Pointers there, as there are there, or there, or there, or there, or there. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. What about Stewart Island? Some people say it has not just a reputation, but it is actually higher in abundance or denser aggregations. 

BROWN: The only reason I am aware at all of White Pointers being there, was because of the shark cage diving making the news. I wouldn’t consider it to be any higher in sharks than anywhere else, in my opinion.

CRAWFORD: Do you think that if you went to any other place around coastal New Zealand, and you put the same kind of effort in terms of observation, or had the same number of people in or around the water - that you would find that these White Pointers are all over the place?

BROWN: I would believe so. I mean, I don’t know about their behaviour at all. But there is just as likely to be a White Pointer here as there. Why wouldn’t there be?

CRAWFORD: I’m thinking about what you learned from being directly connected to the surf and the surf life saving communities in all of these different regions. They’re there all the time. Are there places around South Island in particular where people never see White Pointers? Or rarely see them?

BROWN: That’s interesting. I think it’s interesting because of where I work, and the amount of tourists that come in. They come in with their little guide book - there’s a surfing book called ‘New Zealand’s Surfing Guide.’ It’s not a little book, it’s 450 pages long. It actually has a little ‘X’ on it to caution for sharks. And I always laughed at it, because it’s like “Where did it get its information from?” Because you know, it’s just a book on all the waves. But I get asked an awful lot - we get a lot of surf tourists come through down to the Catlins. And the most common question I get asked from them is “Oh, I heard ...” You get some Europeans coming in, and they want to live the New Zealand dream, surf and catch fish all day. “Oh, I heard the Catlins are sharky” It’s quite remarkable. I’m always fascinated because I’m like “Where did you hear this?” This one German tourist had just landed in Christchurch, and driven from there to here just to do the trip.

CRAWFORD: The scenic tour?

BROWN: Yeah, they do the scenic thing. But they all go the same route. We sell a lot of surfboards and wetsuits to the tourists that are doing this route. Even today, we sold two boards and wetsuits to two girls who are in a camper van, just driving around. So, they’re going down to Porpoise Bay, and they’re going to Parakanui Bay, and the comment is often “Oh, I hear it’s quite sharky down there.”

CRAWFORD: [laughs]

BROWN: [laughs] "Well you should see them up around here then."

CRAWFORD:  That’s a very good point. And just so you know, this work I’m doing gives some coverage in terms of knowledge holders not just from Otago or Stewart Island, but also the Catlins, Fiordland, and Foveaux Strait. I want to get a little bit more deeply-seeded in there, and then we’ll see what they say when it comes time to understanding the tourists and their impressions of the Catlins being ‘sharky.’ 

BROWN: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: What, if anything, do you know about population migration, dynamics or anything for White Pointers?

BROWN: For White Pointers, I know that they travel a lot further than people originally thought. That they migrate. Before you came along, I was already familiar with the fact that the little group from here in New Zealand will go over to Australia, and over to Thailand I think it is. And then come down around, almost on a yearly loop, which I find quite fascinating that they went away and came back like that. I had heard that they hung around Long Point and stuff like that, and then they moved out. I didn’t know that, this is myth speaking about the surfing, myths of twilight and all that. 

CRAWFORD: Yes. Common wisdom or some call them ‘old wives’ tales’ - but they’re much more than that.

BROWN: Yeah, but winter, cold water - sharks hate it so there’s no sharks around the winter. If you’re surfing in the winter, in the middle of the day, you’ll never see a shark - that’s what a lot of people believe. 

CRAWFORD: Do you believe that?

BROWN: No, not at all. Because there are sharks that live over in Antarctica that I’m sure come up here.
 
CRAWFORD: Campbell Island?

BROWN: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: People were surprised when that attack happened at Campbell Island in 1992, because they didn’t even think that White Pointers migrated that far south. 

BROWN: Yeah. You know, there'll be plenty of sharks that are a risk to humans, and there are some that no doubt will migrate down this way for the winter because although that water’s cold, this water’s warmer. So, this is their summer/our winter, so to speak.

CRAWFORD: Good point. Last question is about the Dunedin City Council shark nets that got deployed at your beaches - St. Clair, St. Kilda and Brighton - after the attacks. What was the general feeling of the surf life saving community and/or the surfers, with regards to the DCC shark nets?

BROWN: Most of the people hated them, because they were just killing little sharks. They were indiscriminately killing everything that was going through the nets, you know? We’d go out there quite often. We’d tie up the IRB at one end, swim along the net with a snorkel mask, and go along and see the whole thing. I’d look and see huge holes in it where something had gone through and had just ripped right through it. It didn’t stop something that was obviously quite big getting through, so what the hell is the point of it then? And they’re only 100 meters long at best. On a five-kilometer-long piece of beach. There could be 100 people at Long Beach in the water. There were no shark nets there, so what’s the point? And we had a huge pod of Dolphins that came through. And there was always a risk that they’d get snagged, you know. I hated those nets.

CRAWFORD: Were those general feelings in the surf community? 

BROWN: Very much so. There were a lot of people that were pretty happy when they removed them.

CRAWFORD: Yet DCC ran them for a substantial period of time?

BROWN: I remember there were a lot of people through the years wanting them gone. But like Murphy’s Law, they get rid of them and then someone would get hit and then, they would be the ones who would take the blasting. So, they didn’t want to put their necks out. 

CRAWFORD: A liability issue?

BROWN: Yeah. But for me to get rid of the stigma of White Pointers would probably be the question of how to not make them seem like such a dangerous creature. 

CRAWFORD: And people manage risks by becoming informed about the things that matter. And the things that don’t.

BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. And controlling the myth of “Oh, there are always White Pointers that don’t like us humans,” you know? 

CRAWFORD: Back in the day, back in the late 60’s early 70’s, there was this spate of attacks around the Otago Peninsula. In a very short period of time, and in some regards in a very small region. Why was that? Any idea?

BROWN: I don’t know. Apart from the ‘water revolution’ - and you can quantify this with actual facts of drowning rates to be honest. Because people started really going to the beaches. Late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the beaches were the places to be. And I’d say more people started interacting with the ocean. 

CRAWFORD: You think it was an adjustment of probability of encounter based on human density in the coastal waters?

BROWN: Yeah. Totally. Surfing came to the front during the 60’s and 70’s. It became huge. 

CRAWFORD: Was it more than it is now?

BROWN: No. No. 

CRAWFORD: Okay so that slightly argues against that idea, because you’d still expect ...

BROWN: No, because I think there was a line in the sand of “Well, we’ve lost a few people now.” They started actively killing the White Pointers. You had a lot more people actively going out to fish and kill White Pointers through the late ‘60s and ‘70s. 

CRAWFORD: Independent of the DCC nets?

BROWN: Yeah, I’m fairly sure. From what I can remember about the old stories - that people would go out, get them close and shoot them.
 
CRAWFORD: Really?

BROWN: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Around the Otago Peninsula?

BROWN: I believe so, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Okay, see this is again, that’s a piece of embedded knowledge. And while you don’t know it to be true, you’re under a distinct impression that it was the case.

BROWN: Well, I was at a point where if I read something I didn’t generally forget it. And in our old surf club, we used to have this old folder and unfortunately it got heavily water-damaged and in an incident with the roofing. But there were all these newspaper articles, and I read something then, it’s suddenly in my head. I can remember reading lots of articles about killing lots of White Pointers. I would say the majority of the bigger fish were probably killed off. And they take quite a long time to grow, to become big ol’ girls or boys. So those big dominant males and females, or whatever the way it works, they probably got removed from our system.

CRAWFORD: That is the first time I’ve heard anybody mention that specific cause and effect here at the Otago Peninsula. The possibility of a relationship, aside from the DCC nets. Specifically, about people going out, and not necessarily fishing for them, but going out there and attracting them to shoot them on principle. 

BROWN: Yeah.

Copyright © 2017 Stefhan Brown and Steve Crawford