Experience: Recreational Fisherman
Interview Location: Sawyers Bay, NZ
Interview Date: 21 December 2015
Post Date: 08 July 2017; Copyright © 2017 Warren Lewis and Steve Crawford
4. WHITE POINTER ENCOUNTERS - DIRECT EXPERIENCE
CRAWFORD: Did your grandfather ever talk about the White Pointers responding to the [Otago] fish sheds? How did the fish sheds deal with their refuse?
LEWIS: Throw it out the side.
CRAWFORD: Right there?
LEWIS: Put it on the carts, on the boats, and take the drums and drop it outside the harbour. Depends how rough it was. In the old days, you’d tie-up here on the other side of the lighthouse. They used to drive the trucks all out there, and fire it over the cliff. And I have very early recollections of going down there with my uncles and cousins. I have cousins who are older than my father. Going down there, and watching the trucks pull up, and seeing these trucks dump there, and seeing the shapes of these extremely large sharks. Obviously, they had to be White Sharks - that type of shark. You could just see them, and they were gathered there. They must have known the times that this stuff was being dropped down. So, they were habit forming. And then what’s to stop these sharks swimming 50 to 100 metres on a flood tide, and swimming into the harbour?
CRAWFORD: You have opened an important door here. You have first-hand observations about the fish dumping at Taiaroa Head. You were roughly how old?
LEWIS: 7 or 8. We’d wait down there. Later, we had rifles and we were going to shoot a shark. These were the sillier days.
CRAWFORD: These sillier days, you would have been how old?
LEWIS: 15 or 16.
CRAWFORD: Cliff shooting. Roughly how far away from the water’s surface would you be?
LEWIS: Pretty substantial, I’d say. Between 45 to 50 metres from the water level. But you’re looking during high tide, straight down. Laid out on the rocks, waiting it out. Madness, you know. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: 15-year-old madness. That puts it in a different category.
LEWIS: We were fearless, you know? We were armed, and had a pocket full of ammunition.
CRAWFORD: Is it the case that your firsthand observation of the dumping ... did you have the sense that this had been going on for some time?
LEWIS: Oh, yes. Long before I was there.
CRAWFORD: And this offal would have been from the fish plant at Otakou?
LEWIS: Yeah, and Dunedin. Port Chalmers had one. Actually, I washed all the floors in there. They would just hose it down, and it went straight out into the bay at Port Chalmers.
CRAWFORD: They didn’t dump their offal? They just flushed it directly?
LEWIS: No. They put it in cases and stuff, and when the fishing boats came in and unloaded, they’d load fish waste. There’d be these big old hand carts for taking it.
CRAWFORD: If it was poor weather, they’d dump it in the harbour; and if it was ok, they would take it outside the harbour?
LEWIS: If the fisherman had time to do it. But there’d be cases where the boxes which had the fish in them, also had the frames. And so, they would dump it out, and wash the box, and put the fish in for the next day.
CRAWFORD: With regard to the Otakou and Dunedin fish facilities, they were the ones who trucked fish waste out to Taiaroa Head?
LEWIS: On the truck, yeah. The offal chute was there on the cliff.
CRAWFORD: And you had the sense that White Pointers responded directly to the dumping?
LEWIS: Oh, yes. You could actually see them coming from points, come round the coast, they were coming in from the seaboard side. Whether the tidal flush was taking the scent of the stuff out, and creating a burley trail - which it undoubtedly did. It might have been low tide when they did one dump, but as the tide came in and the surges washed this stuff around ...
CRAWFORDL Hydrodynamically, that is a very active region.
LEWIS: Oh, very much so. When the tidal flow comes up, with this offal, which is dumped at Taiaroa Head down that chute, the tide would come in. The flow is automatically coming into the harbour. So, you know, you’ve got this supply of food.
CRAWFORD: This burley trail ... what’s the distance to the harbour mouth?
LEWIS: The offal chute which was there - probably 75-100 metres to the harbour.
CRAWFORD: That’s nothing.
LEWIS: You go there this day and age, and the tidal flows ...
CRAWFORD: Even the intermediate eddies are going to carry that in.
LEWIS: Absolutely. It's the most wonderful burley trail you’re going to get.
CRAWFORD: If I drive over now, is there an access or even a path that takes you over - where you can see where the offal dump was?
LEWIS: Yes. You go down to the Albatross colony, and you just walk to the seaboard side, and there’s a rock wall that goes down.
CRAWFORD: Natural rock wall?
LEWIS: No, no. Built. Go down and stand on the edge of the cliff, there’s a fence there. The offal chute used to go straight out over, probably two metres long. No washing or hosing it out. God knows what the stench was.
CRAWFORD: It must have been terrible.
LEWIS: And the bird life, you would’ve loved it.
CRAWFORD: But there was substantial enough quantity that there was enough offal actually making it to the surface of the water?
LEWIS: Oh, absolutely.
CRAWFORD: And this would have attracted all sorts of birds, as well. And you saw them dumping?
CRAWFORD: Roughly how many boxes of offal might go over - on average?
LEWIS: Well, this is my earliest recollection. You wouldn’t call it a big truck these days, but a substantial flat utility truck.
CRAWFORD: Are we talking 10-20 boxes?
LEWIS: Probably more. You’re talking tons of stuff.
CRAWFORD: When you watched - was it consistent, was it rare, or common to see these White Pointers at the offal dump?
LEWIS: We’d go there every day, but the times we were there, and the time it took these animals to turn up ... And I’m not talking hordes of them, but at least three or four very large fish, which to my mind can only be White Sharks. And what you know now, given the size and dimensions, there could have been smaller blue sharks or something, but these particular large animals - they were Whites.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever get the indication that the animals may actually been there prior to the dump?
LEWIS: They turned up pretty quickly.
CRAWFORD: Do you have any reason to believe they would have been there prior to the actual dumping?
LEWIS: Well, you couldn’t say. There was a rather strange occurrence. That these fish did not take long to turn up.
CRAWFORD: Right. I think that’s where we are going to focus our effort. You’d really have to have some kind of striking observation to say that these animals were there prior. I mean you’d have to be there prior to the dump yourself, and see that they were there. Waiting in anticipation or otherwise. You said that it didn’t take them very long to come in, and that you could see some of them come in. Roughly what kind of distance away would you be able to see them come in?
LEWIS: You could spot the fish 100 metres away - at least as far away as you were looking down.
CRAWFORD: And you saw them coming in casually?
LEWIS: Yes. But they were making a b-line. They weren’t just swimming around.
CRAWFORD: They were coming in to that location?
CRAWFORD: Give me a time frame, this response would have been within 1 minute, 5, 20?
LEWIS: 5 to 10 minutes.
CRAWFORD: Would have been both upstream and downstream?
LEWIS: Yes. Because the tidal surge would be whipping in and out. Certainly the tide is flowing in, the water goes around it. But the tide that’s ebbing, there’s a bit of an eddy in there.
CRAWFORD: You also said that it was possible, I’m not sure if this is your thinking or your parents' or grandparents' generation, that there may have been something about the Taiaroa Head that potentially could have attracted them as well?
LEWIS: Yeah. A lot of the stuff that went over the cliff ... If it was a good stiff northerly, a lot of the rubbish was just blowing against the rocks and stuff, and then it would rely on the high water and the wave action to disperse that stuff in to the water. But the placement of the chute, nothing seemed to go straight out and plunge into the water, it was always onto the rock margins. So, I presume the ocean and tide, the optimum tide would probably have been a full tide with a good surge to take it out. When the tide drops out, you can actually see the shapes of the rocks and everything on the bottom. Given the water clarity, location, you could certainly see these fish.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever think there was a relationship between tidal conditions and the response of the sharks?
LEWIS: No, we were just down there, "Here goes all this rubbish going out," "Oh hell, here goes a big fish," you know? I remember my uncle saying, "Here’s a big one coming there." Then you carry on.
CRAWFORD: When fish cleaning was happening inside the harbour, were there preferred places that were more convenient than others? Or did it matter, did they just drop anchor anywhere and clean?
LEWIS: Just drop and anchor off Pilots Beach, up around Wellers Rock, and right up the harbour.
CRAWFORD: Any place convenient?
LEWIS: Any place convenient, out of the way, just depending on what the time pressure was. You know, no fisherman likes to dump fish over the side, but certainly I saw some boats ... A chap, he tied up to the pilot wharf at Aramoana, and my father, being a worker at the National Mortgage Fish Agency and him fishing, I remember he says to my father and myself, "Have a look on the other side of the boat." So, we stepped off the wharf onto the boat, and they had a deckload of fish, and they were shovelling this offal over the side. And behind the boat was this big shark, you could define the shark. It was just lying there, consuming huge amounts of frames coming over the side. No physical activity at all because of the deepwater flow. So, it was just laying in the deep water beside the boat. My recollection was "Holy hell, that’s a big fish!" That was at Aramoana on the pilot wharf. The boat was just sitting there, tied up.
CRAWFORD: If you had to guess, how big would that shark have been?
LEWIS: Oh, 6 metres. But all the sharks in those days were either 12, 14, 16, or 18 feet long. [laughs] [But we also used the alphabetical scale, you know, Big One, BB Bloody Big One, and so on, till you got right down to BBB Big One. [laughs]. But that’s just good old Kiwi.
CRAWFORD: Any instances when you personally encountered a White Pointer in the harbour?
LEWIS: When I built that new boat when I was 16, we caught a lot of Barracouta. We went out, sat there, tied the boat up, we didn’t have access to the outboard then, because we weren’t allowed to go and get it. Well, we decided to go after one of these White Sharks. We had two drums and 25-30 metres of rope, tied to a beacon. This was down by Pulling Point, Hamilton Bay. And my grandmother lived there, so we spent a lot of time down there. On the outgoing tide, we set the drums, and I remember the 12-gallon drum going 'blup blup’ and then disappeared. The rope tightened, then the 45-gallon drum, which is a large bin you know, it also half submerged. The rope we had tied to the beacon - it went off like a rifle shot, and to this day and age we never saw those drums turn up. There were no ships going past, so we hadn’t snagged a ship or anything. Whatever it was - was very, very large.
CRAWFORD: When you say the 45-gallon drum took off, did it ever get completely submerged?
LEWIS: Yeah. And we never saw it again.
CRAWFORD: That's a big drum. I think we can work out the math on this one. But you never saw the fish that pulled it down?
LEWIS: Never saw the fish, never saw either drum.
CRAWFORD: What depth would that have been in?
LEWIS: Probably 15 m, 20 m. Only just off the channel.
CRAWFORD: So, not that deep really?
LEWIS: No. That was the last time I specifically went with big gear to tackle a big shark.
CRAWFORD: With you on the water, in your dinghy?
LEWIS: In the dinghy, tied up to a beacon.
CRAWFORD: How long was your dinghy again?
LEWIS: 18 foot.
CRAWFORD: How far away were you, when this happened? Less than 50 feet?
LEWIS: No. The drum would probably have been 50 feet max, out the back of the boat. But we weren’t attached to the drum. The drum was attached to the beacon.
CRAWFORD: What happened to the beacon?
LEWIS: The line snapped between the drum and the beacon. It may not have been nylon in those days. It was probably hemp or something.
CRAWFORD: Still a fairly sturdy line?
LEWIS: Oh hell, yes. Not much bigger than what they used as whaling lines. But it just sprang off like a rifle shot. And the drum just didn’t go plop. The speed, it towed the drum until it was submerged.
CRAWFORD: Never to be seen again.
LEWIS: We didn’t really go looking, though.
CRAWFORD: And you reckoned the barrel was still intact?
LEWIS: Well, we presumed it was. Whether it had ... you know a weak point? it could have filled up, or punctured or something,
CRAWFORD: It could have, but it was floating the last time you saw it. And that force would have been constantly affecting the animal that had it.
LEWIS: And it never fell off, never came untangled in the line.
CRAWFORD: Other people in the harbour, they never saw or reported, you never heard of anybody reporting these drums?
LEWIS: No. I was just saying to my mate, "Oh, that was big." [laughs] For a while we sat there, and I said, "If it pops up, we’ll go after it." But in our visual line of sight, it never popped up.
CRAWFORD: Have you personally seen live White Pointers in Otago Harbour?
CRAWFORD: Roughly, over all of your years, how many White Pointers do you figure you’ve seen in the harbour?
LEWIS: Off the top of my head? Probably no more than 10. Maybe a few less. That’s actual live fish.
CRAWFORD: In the wild, in the harbour?
LEWIS: That would be in a line from Taiaroa Head to Aramoana, in the harbour.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Let’s say, roughly 10 fish. Over that time, give me some sense of how many you’ve seen in the harbour - over the decades. Was it consistent, was it increasing, was it decreasing?
LEWIS: I would say it has not increased and not decreased. But it depends on the time you spend on the harbour, and the observations you make.
CRAWFORD: Keeping that in mind, was there any seasonality to those observations?
LEWIS: Yeah, again very seasonal. The summer months, when there’s a huge abundance of feed, and certain influxes of fish into the harbour - the chances of seeing one were greatly increased. The majority of sharks I’ve seen have been in the lower harbour, which is Port Chalmers to Taiaroa Head. I’ve never seen one south of the Midway Islands. But most of my time was in the lower harbour, not the top harbour. I’ve never seen any in the top harbour. I don’t believe the top harbour is conducive to having Great White Sharks swimming around it.
CRAWFORD: Why don’t you think so?
LEWIS: Perhaps water quality in those days. And the shallowness of the channel. Most of the top harbour, if you look at it, is very tidal, very shallow at times. But the lower harbour has good natural deep water, a wide channel, deep basins.
CRAWFORD: Give me some sense of the depth of the top harbour.
LEWIS: I’d say the majority of it is less than 6 metres of water. Then you have the channel, the Victoria Channel, which has been artificially deepened by dredging. It’s 9-11 metres maximum up through there.
CRAWFORD: And the lower harbour?
LEWIS: Lower harbour is consistently, naturally 12 to 16 metres deep.
CRAWFORD: Was dredging something that happened prior to your day?
LEWIS: Dredging’s been going on in this harbour since 1880, to various scales. The lay of the harbour, there’s more sediment that goes in, the more it comes out. So continually dredging, even to this day.
CRAWFORD: You spent most of your time in the lower harbour anyways?
CRAWFORD: Ok. So, your White Pointer observations in the lower harbour, they were still rare events - on the order of one or two fish per decade?
CRAWFORD: You also said it was seasonal?
LEWIS: Yeah. If you get a huge number of Barracouta coming by, Red Cod, Warehou. These come in huge numbers. Like anything else, I suppose it’s the predatory nature of the sharks.
CRAWFORD: With regard to the Encounter Levels we discussed, of the 10 animals that you’ve seen in the outer harbour. What was the distribution across levels? How many Level 1 observations, versus Level 2 swim-bys, or interest visits?
LEWIS: I’d say about a 50-50 split between Level 1 and 2. The big fin, tail, you try to get closer, it goes down and disappears. But you know, by seeing the fin and the tail, we knew what it was.
CRAWFORD: Those would be Level 1s?
LEWIS: Yeah. I have one very active fish, tangled in a setnet.
CRAWFORD: Whereabouts was that?
LEWIS: Lower Portobello Bay. It was extremely lively. This fish would have been a good 12-14 feet long. Very much alive.
CRAWFORD: Was this animal wrapped up in one of your setnets?
LEWIS: Yes! I had been setting there for Warehou, because there was a very still tidal flow, no snags, just a big deep natural hole in the bay here. And the shark was very much alive, with its nose into the net. It wasn’t rolled up or tangled, you know? And I’m in an 18-foot boat, by myself!
CRAWFORD: With a 12-foot White Pointer.
LEWIS: [laughs] Yes! And very much alive. I can remember it rolling around in the space and crashing. And it wasn’t going to get away by me, no matter what. So, a tug of war ensued, and the fish rolled up, and swam away quiet by itself.
CRAWFORD: It really didn’t give you any issue?
LEWIS: Oh, yes it did. [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Well it gave you a bit of a hard time in the boat?
LEWIS: Just heart palpitations! [laughs]
CRAWFORD: But it didn’t transfer its heightened level of activity to focus aggressively on you or your boat?
LEWIS: No, no, it didn’t. It just floated around in the water while it worked my net. It was only wrapped around the head. It was only nose deep in the net, to grab the fish.
CRAWFORD: It was not gilled in your net?
LEWIS: No, no. Only a 4-inch mesh net. And you’ve got something that’s a meter across the head right there. I managed to secure the net to the bow of the boat and it crashed around and bashed around. It was probably only for about three or four minutes. But it seemed a lifetime. And then it rolled up, and swam away.
CRAWFORD: That’s one of your ten observations in the harbour. And you said that roughly half of those would have been Level 1 - observation only. Anything else by way of circling behaviour?
LEWIS: No, nothing aggressive like that. Other than say the incident I described where we had put the baited drums down. The rest of it was, “Oh hell, big fish there,” or “Oh it’s a shark” - you know? Some sharks are inquisitive, come around your boat. But if so, that was just a swim-by, or something like that.
CRAWFORD: Let’s go offshore now. Have you seen White Pointers offshore in the Otago region?
CRAWFORD: Same process as before - in your 5+ decades of experience, approximately how many White Pointers would you have seen in those offshore waters?
LEWIS: Probably between 8 and 10.
CRAWFORD: Approximately the same as in the lower harbour?
LEWIS: I think the chances to see them in the harbour are greater, because the waters are confined. If the fish is there, you have more of a chance to see it. But if you’re out in the sea, it’s a needle-in-the-haystack scenario.
CRAWFORD: The harbour is also more sheltered, in the sense that the water is generally calmer as well. If a shark was below the surface, your chances of seeing into the water would be greater. Even seeing a fin - you’re more likely to see it in the harbour. But as you’ve described, most of your early time was spent in the harbour, but as you got older …
LEWIS: As I got older, I went offshore chasing the sports fish.
CRAWFORD: You spent significantly more time offshore than in the harbour?
LEWIS: The amount of time I spent offshore - not terribly far offshore, 16 km radius was as far as we needed to go - I probably have put down tons and tons of burley to get sharks.
CRAWFORD: Let’s put a placeholder on that. In terms of before and after burleying for sport fishing in offshore waters, what was your distribution of White Pointer observations. Would have seen half of the animals prior to your sport fishing with burley?
LEWIS: About 50-50 would be a fair estimate.
CRAWFORD: My reason for asking is that obviously, when you are big-game fishing, if you are burleying to attract the fish, then you’re changing the odds of encounter with a White Pointer. For the fish that you saw prior to actually targeting sharks, what were the circumstances of those observations?
LEWIS: Just large fish, finning in the water, swimming through.
CRAWFORD: Level 1 observation only, or perhaps a Level 2 swim-by?
LEWIS: Some of both. Two of those observations were complete breaches out of the water. One down here at Taieri Mouth, and another one up here at Shag Point during a fishery event, lots of boats fishing. Obviously, a fish would come up a line, and float at the surface and the shark flicked out of the water. Huge splash, you know?
CRAWFORD: The nature of that breach - was the shark on a line?
LEWIS: No, no, no. It was same as the first breach. It was just the shark out of the water.
CRAWFORD: Were you line fishing at the time?
LEWIS: Yeah. But not for sharks.
CRAWFORD: You were just out there at the time?
LEWIS: Yeah. I know up at Taieri Mouth, it was what we call a Hāpuku or a Groper. It had broken off of someone’s line, and they float. Swim bladder up, and the hook pops out - they just lay on the surface, and flop away. Before they could get to it, the two boats were pretty close together, and bloke up the road says, “I’ve just lost my Groper, its floating out in the bay.” And all of a sudden there was this great splash. This shark, obviously a White Shark, burst out of the water and made a big splash and the fish was gone.
CRAWFORD: It took the Groper?
LEWIS: Yeah, he had a feed.
CRAWFORD: A partial breach?
LEWIS: A lot of the fish was out of the water, that was real. Wasn’t terribly high - like a Dolphin. But it was just a big arch, and then boom.
CRAWFORD: But that shark came up, with speed, to the surface?
LEWIS: Yeah, and grabbed that fish.
CRAWFORD: And the Groper was still alive, still flapping? You reckon that likely triggered the hit?
LEWIS: Not sure. This Groper floated up, and the shark decided it was going to have it.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Tell me about the other breach.
LEWIS: The other one was up here at the Dangury fishery. Again, it was close proximity to the other boats, and that was just a free breach. Seen one up top, just come out with a big splash, you know?
CRAWFORD: Those breaches were both prior to you actively shark fishing. Your other observations would have been Level 1 observation or Level 2 swim-bys?
LEWIS: Yeah, mostly swim-bys.
CRAWFORD: Have you ever seen, or heard from others about seeing, multiple White Pointers travelling together?
LEWIS: This bay here, we’ve seen three together moving north, near what we call Wickliffe Bay. One extremely large animal, and two smaller but still large animals, probably 14 and 16 feet. At the same time, three of them. The big one made the other big ones look smaller. It was a huge fish.
CRAWFORD: You had the distinct impression that they were travelling north?
LEWIS: Travelling north. Dead calm day, big fins up. And I know a Basking Shark when I see them. These were definitely White Sharks.
CRAWFORD: What would a seasoned veteran notice - right off the bat - as a difference between a Basking Shark and a White Pointer?
LEWIS: Oh, the dorsal fin and the tail.
CRAWFORD: Tell me about the dorsal fin first.
LEWIS: The dorsal fin is a true 'V'. It's not like you see on the cartoons, with the big circle fin you know. The Basking Sharks are stumpy, rounded fins; coloration brown, blotchy brown. When you get a grey color, dark color, we knew what. We could see the outline of the fish from the surface, the swells went up, you get to see the fish in the water, and it's quite impressive.
CRAWFORD: Do you have any other indication, you from direct observation or anyone else that you know of, about multiple animals behaving as a group in one way or another?
LEWIS: Well, let's just say, the ones at the Taiaroa Head offal dump - I think that’s an unnatural thing. But these in Wickliffe Bay were just free swimming, and not deviating.
CRAWFORD: They were holding formation together?
LEWIS: Yes. No more than 20-30 metres apart.
CRAWFORD: Any other observations that you’ve heard of with regard to White Pointers moving together? Multiple animals?
LEWIS: Not multiple, no. But I’d say, where the people congregate for the sports fishing, the more likelihood of getting reports of the fish. And what’s being observed is where the people are fishing.
CRAWFORD: Right. But that one observation about those three White Pointers travelling together, you were not burleying at the time?
LEWIS: Nope. We were going one way, they were going the other. They were headed straight out. And it was observed by two or three other boats, you know? We were all heading down the same area, and we all just looked at it.
Copyright © 2017 Warren Lewis and Steve Crawford