Regions: Otago, Marlborough Sound
Interview Location: Dunedin, NZ
Interview Date: 02 November 2015
Post Date: 17 May 2017; Copyright © 2017 Tristan Fraser and Steve Crawford
5. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - EXPERIENCES OF OTHERS
CRAWFORD: What was the first time you ever heard about White Pointers? Do you remember that? For some people there was something, it might have been something they saw, something they heard, where it triggers a memory. Do you have anything like that?
FRASER: The first ever time?
FRASER: I’d have to say that the first time I heard about White Pointers was when Jaws was on TV. The movie, like I’m not kidding you. I mean from that side of view, my first exposure to a White Shark probably would have been through the old movies.
CRAWFORD: Have you at any time while you were spearfishing or otherwise, seen a White Pointer?
FRASER: No I haven’t.
CRAWFORD: In the spearfishing community, the people who you talk to, and the discussions that they have in and amongst themselves, have there been spearfisherman you know who have had interactions with White Pointers?
CRAWFORD: What kinds of things have they said, or what kinds of things have you heard about their interactions with White Pointers?
FRASER: I can think of two occasions where people have been able to positively identify that it was a White Pointer. You've got to remember that there’s a lot of interactions on the water here, and the water visibility up and down the coast is not great. It’s not as clear… an average day down here, you’re probably looking at a maximum of five metres. And five metres is bordering on what I call the start of a good day. And 15 to 20 metres is an exceptional day. But the majority of the time you’re diving, you have less than five metres of visibility. Anything outside of that, you're not 100 percent sure of what you’re seeing. You might know that this is a shark outline, but you couldn’t positively identify one way or another. For the two positive identifications, the first was from an older spearfisherman. When I say older - probably in his 50’s. But he has spearfished for three decades.
CRAWFORD: The ripe old age of 50.
FRASER: Yeah, so a lovely feller. He had a time when he was up at Shag Point. One of my favourite spearfishing spots.
CRAWFORD: Where is Shag Point?
FRASER: Just South of Moeraki. And he was heading down to dive off the very front of the point itself, where the boat ramp is. And they actually saw a big White Pointer swimming right around the very edge of the rocks. Just a bit further North of where you normally dive, but on the main Shag Point road heading in.
CRAWFORD: Prior to them going in?
FRASER: Prior to them going in. They actually saw it swimming right round the edge of the rocks. And they decided they would not get in that day. So that wasn’t a personal encounter.
CRAWFORD: No, no, but remember. Your knowledge is also from the previous generations' experience. And then there are your contemporary peers. So all three of them, that's basically what’s coming out. And that story fits in the third category of contemporary peers, right?
FRASER: Yep, absolutely.
CRAWFORD: You had a second story? Mates of yours?
FRASER: Yes, second time was actually another observation, which was from a group of guys that I’ve spoken to that were in a boat in Kaikoura. And they were coming in for a dive, and they’ve had a rather shark come right up next to the boat, turn side on, and then basically with a kick of the tail, gone. And that was all it was for them - a couple of seconds. An observation. It came right up next to the boat, as they said; rolled nearly on its side and basically eyeballed straight in at them. It looked and then the part of the whole story was how quickly they move. That was this guy's excitement. The fact that it was one kick of the tail and it was just gone. It was mind-blowing how quick it could swim. Whatever made it do that, they don’t know. But yeah, that was just another observation.
CRAWFORD: But the important thing is, these are mates of yours who are also spearfisherman and are also Paua divers?
CRAWFORD: But they weren’t doing it at the time. They were on the water, in a vessel - and it could have been anybody. It could have been a boatie or anyone else. The activity that they were about to do was not actually relevant to the encounter. [Discussion about project classification levels for human encounters with White Pointers: Level 1-Observation, Level 2-Swim-By, Level 3-Interest, Level 4-Intense] And in this case that kind of interaction - where the animal comes up next to the boat - that puts it into the Level 3 category, because the animal itself came in closer.
FRASER: Yeah. I should point out that the second story from the people in Kaikoura, were customers of ours in the shop that I got talking to about spearfishing up there. That’s how the story came out. So they’re not in my immediate group, but the other fella at Shag Point, he was.
CRAWFORD: Doesn’t matter. It’s still in your knowledge system.
FRASER: Just to clarify.
CRAWFORD: I’m going to go out a little bit further on two different paths. The next path is with regards to spearfishermen. Is it a relatively small community?
FRASER: It is and it isn’t. It’s exploding right now, and has been for the last two years. It’s huge. And it’s growing again. I thought this was a new thing from my limited time doing it in comparison to some others. It wasn’t until I spoke to people like Ian Govan who was the fellow up at Shag Point who saw that White Pointer. It was actually a huge spearfishing base probably 30 years ago through that period. So from 30 years to 20 years ago, there was actually a boom in spearfishing around here. They used to have regional spearfishing competitions here in Dunedin. Which I didn’t know. I didn’t know spearfishing basically existed until I started doing it. Then there was a lull, from what I understand. A long period of time where it was a very select few that did it. But since I’ve started, I’ve seen a rising demand. I used to go to places five years ago, and you wouldn’t see another person. Now it’s not uncommon to go to one of my favourite spots at Harrington Point and there’s four or five other people diving in that spot. So, it has really grown in the last few years, back into popularity. It's a very big thing now.
CRAWFORD: What type of fish are being targeted?
FRASER: Primarily in our region down here, Greenbone, more commonly known as a Butterfish, but not to be confused with what everybody calls a Butterfish which is any small fish caught off a wharf, but the Greenbone themselves. Moki. Blue Moki. Trumpeter. Blue Cod. They would make up the four most common species. Other than that, there are some fringe species as well that come in, but they’re more you know - species that are moving through and don’t live here in the area. We’re talking Kahawai, Spanish Mackerel. I managed to bag one of them a couple of years ago. Again, they’re not here all year round, they’re a moving fish. I don’t know if you would call that a pelagic, but they’re on the move all the time. Also the Slenderfin Tuna, which we get here at certain times of the year.
CRAWFORD: That’s good and thank you for that. It’s interesting, all of those species. The Blue Cod is a common denominator with the commercial fishery as well. A lot of the interactions that I’ve heard about, for instance from codpotters. You’re not a beginner anymore, but I would imagine there are guys that have been doing it for 20 or 30 years that would have quite a bit of expertise. And this is one of those things where you develop skills over time. On a typical day for you, on an average day if you were going out spearfishing, how many fish might you come back with?
FRASER: That strongly depends on the individual. And I’m all for keeping food for the future. And often I’ll spear what I want to eat. For example, my last dive there a week ago, I shot three Greenbone and that was it. And that was all I intended to shoot.
CRAWFORD: That was your menu. That was your target.
FRASER: That was all I wanted, because that will feed me and the family for a couple of days and then next week when I go back I can do the same again. I’m not all about harvesting as much as possible.
CRAWFORD: Right. What I was trying to get at was - would you have three fish speared then go back to the boat, or would you have one fish, go back to the boat, then get another fish?
FRASER: Interesting you say that, because a lot of my diving is done from shore. Not all of it. But a lot of it is shore-diving. Getting in off the shore, and I know you don’t really want to know about technique ...
CRAWFORD: No, I do want to know. Do you carry your fish, trail your fish?
FRASER: I never put a fish on my person because I think that’s just silly. In all honesty. You’re putting on something that a shark would want to eat, on your person. Primarily that’s the reason why I don’t do it. You could get harassed by Leopard Seals. You could get harassed by Sea Lions. And they’re intimidating creatures, and we’ve got a lot of them around here. So I guess in the back of my mind, that’s probably a secondary thing. If I knew the sharks weren’t there, I’d still do it for that reason. When you got a 600 kilo Leopard Seal, Sea Lion hanging around.
CRAWFORD: Is it a 50-50 split between the time you spend Paua diving versus the time you spend spearfishing?
FRASER: Yeah. Pretty even.
CRAWFORD: They’re two very different activities, right?
FRASER: Yeah, absolutely.
CRAWFORD: In one case, you’re interacting with fish in distress, and in the other case you’re not.
FRASER: That's right.
CRAWFORD: In the time that you have spent either Paua diving or spearfishing, have you seen underwater any of the Sea Lions or Leopard Seals?
FRASER: I’ve never seen a Leopard Seal, no. But I have seen Sea Lions underwater. Yeah, absolutely.
CRAWFORD: Observation, swim-by, encounter
FRASER: Mine have all been observations luckily. Other people that have had bad experiences with Sea Lions. Yeah, for sure.
CRAWFORD: Sea Lions harassing them?
FRASER: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, and they can be quite aggressive too.
CRAWFORD: Give me an example of aggressive Sea Lion behaviour.
FRASER: Coming around and not letting you out of where you are. This is talking specifically about Harrington Point, where there’s a couple of Sea Lions around that live down there. They’ll come in, and they’ll circle around and try not to let you get back out of that area. They’ll also come in with big mouths open, and they’ll blow bubbles at you which I’ve been told, funnily enough from Clement - apparently, they can use the blowing of bubbles to show their might. This is in the natural world between Sea Lions. Have you heard of any such things?
CRAWFORD: I haven't heard of it, but I'll keep my ears open.
FRASER: Basically, it can be a challenge to say "Look how big I am. I can blow all this air out of my lungs and this is me, this is me now" sort of thing. And Clement said that can be a thing with scuba-divers. They’re continuously blowing bubbles when they’re scuba-diving. And he said in the Wellers Rock area [of Otago Harbour], there’s been a few interactions between the dive crew from Dive Otago and the Sea Lions. And he reckons there could be correlation there with the bubbles blowing continuously from these scuba-divers, that the Sea Lions are getting the wrong idea.
CRAWFORD: Just back up a little bit on that. Do people who you know, who have shared this knowledge with you, do you think that it’s possible that the Sea Lions were doing this bubbling behaviour with humans prior to anybody getting scuba tanks? Or was it actually caused by experience with bubbling humans?
FRASER: I couldn’t say. I honestly couldn’t.
CRAWFORD: Have there been any observations of Sea Lions doing this bubbling to each other - independent of humans?
FRASER: From my understanding, from the way that he was speaking, it was something that was known.
CRAWFORD: That’s very interesting. But you have not ...
FRASER: No, no. I’ve observed them. But I’ve never had an interaction.
CRAWFORD: Others, Paua-divers or Spearfisherman - either one?
FRASER: Yeah, it can be either/or. It can definitely be either/or.
CRAWFORD: And these are big animals?
FRASER: They’re huge. Very intimidating. I’d be in some ways more frightened of one of those if it became agitated, or it become an elevated interaction. I’d almost prefer dealing with a shark sometimes. Because they’re a big creature, these Sea Lions. And if they grab on to you, and decide they’re going to go deep or something.
CRAWFORD: Have you had any interactions like that?
FRASER: I’ve certainly heard stories of people having their fins grabbed. That’s a common thing that happens. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a Sea Lion or a Leopard Seal. I’ve heard from both sides of things, both species doing similar things. They’ll grab a hold of the ends of your fins basically. Don’t know if it’s a playful thing or if there’s truly aggression in it, I don’t know. I don’t know anyone that’s been dragged and drowned or anything like that, or ever heard of anything like that. To me it always seems like a territorial thing.
CRAWFORD: Do you know of, or have you heard of any spearfishermen who have had an interaction with a White Pointer?
FRASER: No. Plenty of other species, but never a White. No.
CRAWFORD: Plenty of other species meaning who? Sevengills? Others?
FRASER: Yeah, I’ve had personal interactions with Sevengills, and people I know have had interactions with Bronze Whalers as well. Tyson, my brother-in-law who’s the fellow we dived with up in Picton, he was up about a year ago in the Coromandel, and he was diving up there on his own. Silly boy shouldn’t have been doing that, but he went across a channel. He was diving out around an island. And he felt a great yank on his gun. And the reason why he felt the yank was because your gun is tied to a float which is floating 10 metres behind you, with your fish hanging on it, which is the safety device we use rather than carrying them on our person. We drag them behind us by 10 metres, because that gives you a false sense of that safe distance if anything happened. But he felt the yank on his gun, and knew straight away something's pulling on the line from behind.
CRAWFORD: So he’s got the gun on him, and the line is ...
FRASER: The line is tied off the bottom of the handle, and straight back towards the float that you’re towing around with you. He felt the yank and thought he knew what’s happening. What’s grabbing the other end, he doesn’t know - but something’s grabbed it. He’s turned to look, and he sees what he believes is a Bronze Whaler struggling to try and grab the fish. Had a Moki hanging from his float. It grabbed the line a second time, and pulled it, and actually ripped the line out of his gun. So he’s become detached from the float. He’s quite happy about this because he wants to keep his gun and he wants to say goodbye to the fish, and to the shark. He swims straight to the island which is closest to him. Climbs on a rock. And he watched that shark trying to eat that fish for about 100 metres. As it was coming up and trying to grab it, the float was pushing away from it. And it couldn’t do it. He said it was unbelievable. This shark just continuously would not give up trying to grab this fish. Eventually he saw that it was far enough away that he could feel confident to get back in the water and swim across this channel, because it was more or less like swimming across the channel of a harbour. He makes a mad dash for it. Jumps back in, swims back to shore. He got his float back. He had some guys that were coming in on an inflatable, and he explained his story and said "Do you mind taking me back out? I can still see the float a couple of metres offshore now, still bobbing around out there. Can we go back and get it?" They said, "Yeah, get in." And they went out. And he’s got photos of him holding this Moki with the big teeth marks on it. So that’s one interaction.
CRAWFORD: Thank you for that, because I hadn’t even thought to ask you about other species. What other shark species have you seen?
FRASER: Well, Sevengills that I've seen personally.
CRAWFORD: Did they interact with you?
FRASER: Both times.
CRAWFORD: What did they do?
FRASER: The first time was quite unnerving. And that was down at Harrington Point. Right at the tip of Taiaroa Heads. The visibility was really poor that day, it was like a couple of metres. We’d been diving in and around the kelp shooting Greenbone and Moki that day. I still remember it like it was yesterday because it was the first experience I had with a shark directly. And I had to be lying in the kelp, looking only one way, because the way the light was coming into the water - you know, it was the only way I could actually see anything. If I looked back this way, the visibility was virtually zero. I’d been lying on the kelp on the surface just looking down, and this one line where the Greenbone were moving back and forth. Just waiting to find the shot, so I could dive and follow it and shoot it. And I noticed movement below me heading in the opposite direction as the swell, which was quite unusual. I couldn’t make out what it was at first. And it actually turned and came straight up towards me, and that’s when I realised it was actually the front end of the face of a shark coming up. And it was within 2 metres of me and I panicked and I just turned and swam straight for shore.
CRAWFORD: One shark that you saw? My understanding is that they tend to pack up.
FRASER: I saw one and one only. And it was quite long. Let's just say that I never saw the end of it as it was coming up towards me. It had enough length in it that it was actually going down, it was turning to come up, but I never saw the end of its tail. And they are quite a long shark. That was the first one. The second one was at Wellers Rock, and that was the day I got the Spanish Mackerel. We had a whole school of Mackerel come past us. And I left the somewhat safety of the reef or Wellers rock itself and swam straight out, and shot one. Got lucky and brought it back in. Tied it to my float. I dive Wellers Rock because it's all pretty close proximity, and I often tie my float up to the kelp. I’m not dragging the float round. It’s anchored to one area, and I put my fish on it and I got back out and target something else. I’ve come back in. I’ve decided my day's spearfishing was over, which was kind of a coincidence. And I’ve come in to my float and my mate was already at the float and he was looking at me. I could tell something had happened. I said "Are you alright mate?" And his eyes were just wide open. What I didn’t realise was the shark was still there in front of him. And I mean he was just sort of frozen still. Me coming in, I don’t actually know if it knew that he was there or not. I don’t know. But it was in there trying to get the fish from my float. And I didn’t realise that it was still there, and I’ve swum in towards him and this thing has got a fright, didn’t realise I was coming or not and it’s turned and swum straight into me. So we’ve made full contact with both my hands on its face and actually pushed it down between my legs. And it swum straight out the back of me that way. And yeah, obviously I didn’t feel too good about that. It was nowhere near the size of the first one I saw. It was probably 2 and a half metres in full length. And I’ll never forget touching its face. I didn’t have gloves on that day, so it was sandy.
CRAWFORD: It was there for the fish in the float?
FRASER: Definitely there for the fish. It was going in for a feed. It disappeared and I never saw it again.
CRAWFORD: You mentioned Wellers Rock. You hadn’t talked about spearfishing there. But Wellers Rock is significant in a couple of regards. You characterized the water around Wellers Rock - I didn’t know that there was spearfishing there. This is primarily focused on the kelp beds adjacent to it?
FRASER: Yep. You've got to remember that a lot of the species that we target down here, from a spearfishing point of view, are all reef species. You generally find them where the kelp and the rocks are, you know? Not on the sand. So yeah, we tend to concentrate on these areas.
CRAWFORD: Ok. But there are other activities going on at Wellers Rock as well, right? In particular, I've heard there are commercial fishing boats that come in there?
FRASER: Yeah absolutely. They don’t stop in at Wellers Rock itself, but just a few hundred metres further into the harbour. They come right on by the end of Wellers Rock and pull up past.
CRAWFORD: One or two boats?
FRASER: Two boats that I know of.
CRAWFORD: Do you know the people that fish on those boats?
CRAWFORD: Do you know what kind of boats they are?
FRASER: Yeah, they’re fishing boats. Commercial fishing boats.
CRAWFORD: And do you know what kind of commercial fishing boats they might be?
FRASER: When you say kind…
CRAWFORD: Codpotters? Trawlers? Longliners?
FRASER: They’re codpotters, I believe.
CRAWFORD: So that’s a partial overlap in one place of two different human activities.
CRAWFORD: And if there is any interaction between the codpotters and sharks of any kind, you also happen to be in a place where they’re coming past.
FRASER: Yeah. It could be drawing them in there, that's right.
CRAWFORD: Have you ever seen any patterns between the boat's activity and what you see in the water?
FRASER: No. Not directly. But I know through my own talking to people that there’s more sightings of the Sevengill Sharks around Wellers Rock and Harrington Point, which is only just a bit further down the harbour. They could almost be deemed as the same spots to some people. More sightings of the Sevengill Sharks there than anywhere else that I know of. Hands down.
FRASER: I don’t know. I couldn’t say.
CRAWFORD: What would you think? Is there something about the habitat?
FRASER: Possibly. My thoughts for many years though was maybe that within the harbour in general, that they may come in there to spawn. That was one of my uneducated thoughts. Why do we have so many in our harbour here? Maybe it was a time of year thing.
CRAWFORD: Did other spearfisherman have the same thinking?
FRASER: I don’t think so. I mean this is something I thought about myself. And I’ve hooked large ones [Sevengill Sharks] on rod and reel in the harbour too. And I know of so many other recreational guys that target them. And they’ll catch a heap of them. We’re talking every night they could have 1 or 2 or 3 caught.
CRAWFORD: There’s a targeted fishery for Sevengills?
FRASER: It’s all sport. They don’t kill them. They turn them around and set them straight back out again. It’s nothing. it’s just sporting basically. But they do get a lot in and around Carey's Bay, which is coincidentally straight across from Wellers Rock. More or less.
CRAWFORD: And there’s a wharf just inside from Wellers Rock?
FRASER: Yeah, where the boats go in. There are two boats, that I know of. I know that they frequent that spot at least. And I know that the big Sea Lions I was referring to earlier, they often follow those boats right in there - my father’s got photos of them. Like massive noses right up to the lens, because they just hang out behind the boats and maybe eat the scraps.
CRAWFORD: Seals or Sea Lions?
FRASER: This is specifically Sea Lions. You don’t see a lot of Fur Seals in the harbour. My knowledge is that the Sea Lions live in and around Aramoana, which is directly across from Harrington Point. You see them up on the beach there all the time. And I guess they just jump in the water and follow the boat straight into the loading zone where they dock up.
CRAWFORD: So Sea Lions following the boat is something that your father or other people that you know have actually seen?
FRASER: Oh absolutely. Yeah.
CRAWFORD: I hope to talk to those guys, if they will talk with me.
FRASER: Those guys can have a lot of information, the commercial fisherman.
Copyright © 2017 Tristan Fraser and Steve Crawford