Great white fight: The battle over shark cage-diving

by Mike White / 29 December, 2016
 

An angry battle about shark diving near Stewart Island has led to people carrying guns for protection, death threats, and High Court legal action. There are accusations of an island mafia, protected animals being shot, and sinister “black ops”. Many believe it’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed. Mike White travels south to investigate how the issue of diving with great white sharks has reached breaking point.

 

Rastus Keen was diving for paua that day, about 5m down, off Stewart Island’s remote coast that’s thrashed by swells and visited only by fishermen. Keen knew the area well though. He’d lived on the island since he borrowed a hundred bucks, skipped home on the mainland, and landed a job on a boat here when he was 14.

In 30 years working as a diver and fisherman, he’d never seen a great white shark, the almost mythical beasts that congregated around the island. Until that day.

“I was down the bottom, chipping away, and a shadow comes over me. Looked up – fuck. And in milliseconds you go through what it isn’t – and then you know what it is. And it has just come along and stopped and was looking at me.”

Paua divers can’t use scuba equipment, so with the shark a couple of metres above him with its mouth 5cm ajar, Keen realised he had no options. “I had to swim past his nose, coz I’d run out of breath. I passed him about six foot away, and it just looked straight through me. It was big – the dinghy was 16 foot and it was bigger than that. I reckon it was four foot across – it was fucking huge.”

Strangely, at no time did Keen think the shark was going to lunge, but he kept eye contact the whole time he was ascending.

At the surface Keen yelled to his mate in the nearby dinghy, who didn’t hear him. As he continued shouting, Keen kept looking down at the shark. “And he’s just sitting there, still. And I mean still. Nothing moving. Not his head, not his fin, nothing – he’s just parked there. And then just before the dinghy came along, he just idled off, away and down. The only thing I was thinking was, I need to get in the dinghy. You’re probably no safer in the dinghy though – one bite and you’d be sunk anyway.”

Once on board, they raced across to their other diver who’d also seen the shark. “He leapt in without even taking his weight belt off.”

Rastus Keen.

They moved up the coast and began working again, but everyone was paranoid now, Keen says. “A bit of bull kelp touched me and I was ‘arrrghh’!  I said, ‘We’re going home, I can’t dive this shit.’”

Later, over beers, Keen figured that given all the hours he’d spent diving, and all the years his bosses had dived and never seen a great white, the chances of encountering one were pretty small. But in the 10 years since then, Keen says encounters have become much more frequent around Stewart Island. And not just that, the sharks are more aggressive, he says, ramming boats, chomping buoys, coming into the harbour at Halfmoon Bay. Things have changed, people are scared to get in the water.

Someone’s going to get taken by a shark someday, Keen insists. “It’s not about if, it’s about when. I’ll guarantee it.”

The other thing he’ll guarantee is that all this started about the time he saw that first great white – about the time a bloke started coming round the island, throwing food to the sharks, getting in a cage, and swimming with them. For fun. And then for money.

 

Peter Scott began commercial fishing about the same time as Keen. Dunedin was home, but Scott fished all round the country, including the deep south. In 2008 he was running the 50ft Lady Anna out of Bluff, trawling for skate, flounder, red cod. He knew great whites hung around Stewart Island for much of the year, and figured between fishing trips he could perhaps dive with them from the safety of a metal cage submerged alongside his boat. “It started as a hobby. We had the boat, we’d watched plenty of Discovery Channel programmes, so we knew how to do it.”

Over the next couple of years, Scott studied overseas operations and designed a protective cage. He switched to another boat, the 55ft Argo, and began taking paying passengers to the northern Titi (Muttonbird) Islands, 8km northeast of Stewart Island’s main settlement, Oban. Diving with great whites already occurred in the United States, Mexico, Australia and South Africa, but Scott’s operation was the southernmost in the world.

In late 2009, Scott became aware some Stewart Islanders were unhappy with his trips, particularly paua divers who worked around the Muttonbird Islands archipelago. About 10 boats from Stewart Island and Southland catch 90 tonnes of paua each year near the island, with several workers on each boat. The divers believed that Scott throwing ground-up fish into the water to attract great whites, meant the sharks were now associating boats and humans with food, and were more likely to attack anyone in the water.

So a meeting was held between Scott and the divers, chaired by a Department of Conservation (DOC) manager, where they established a few basics. “It was just a gentlemen’s agreement that this was how it was going to work. There was friction, but it was controlled friction – unlike what it is at the moment.”

Tension between the paua divers and Scott ramped up over the next few years as more tourists came to Stewart Island to see great whites, and film crews arrived to document them. In 2011, a second shark diving operator, Mike Haines from Bluff, began business.

Scott says the operators always wanted some oversight of the new industry but it wasn’t until December 2013 that DOC issued a code of practice. Two months later, after seeing alarming footage of a great white appearing to attack a film crew’s dinghy, conservation minister Nick Smith announced shark dive operators would need permits from DOC. Scott and Haines were issued these in December 2014, restricting how they could attract the sharks and limiting them to one Muttonbird Islands site, around Edwards Island.

Peter Scott.

But neither the code of practice nor the new regulations calmed emotions. Tourists going shark diving were made to feel increasingly unwelcome on Stewart Island. Many were presented with flyers on arrival asking them to reconsider their trip, and some claimed they were harassed on the wharf and in the pub when they returned. Others cancelled their stay and quit the island. Documentary crews who’d poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the island while filming the sharks began to feel like pariahs. Locals wouldn’t let Haines and Scott use moorings or tie up at the private section of Oban’s wharf.

Peter Scott says they received death threats, and the intimidation got so bad, he began to carry a rifle on board. “I told the cop on the island the boat was armed and I wouldn’t start anything, but if it started, you can’t sit back. We’ve got to protect ourselves and our passengers.”

An anti-shark cage diving Facebook page was created, and in June 2015 a petition was presented to Parliament calling for the activity to be banned.

By then, Scott had had a gutsful of Stewart Islanders hassling him, despite the money his customers were bringing there. When the new season started in December 2015, he began operating his purpose-built catamaran, Fierce Elegance, from Bluff, and like Mike Haines, only rarely picking up passengers from Stewart Island.

But even this hasn’t quelled hostility. Islanders still accuse the shark cage operators of illegally feeding sharks to attract them and make them aggressive. Scott and Haines claim islanders are shooting great whites and dumping their carcasses around Edwards Island, hoping it will scare away other sharks.

“Whenever we get a Stewart Island boat coming close, everybody’s on edge as to what’s going to happen,” says Scott. “If we do pick someone up from Stewart Island, there’s that much tension there, we don’t even tie up at the wharf – we’re in, grab them, and we’re gone.  

“I just get pissed off they seem to have the god-given right to tell us how we can run our business. There’s no cure for this until they pull their heads in and leave us alone.”

 

When the ferry from Bluff arrives in Halfmoon Bay, the harbour is tranquil relief for passengers after 30km of Foveaux Strait furrows. The bay is filled with boats swinging on moorings to the command of the breeze, a sweep of sandy beach at its head. Across the road is the community’s hub and heart, the South Sea Hotel, a gathering place for locals and tourists. It’s got cheap rooms, a glorious view from upstairs, a quiz night on Sundays, and blue cod in beer batter or oven-baked.

It’s owned by Helen Cave, one of the island’s most successful businesspeople and also one of shark diving’s main critics. She’s distributed leaflets against it, organised a petition, and says there’s no doubt sharks are seen much more frequently in Halfmoon Bay now and have become more aggressive since Scott and Haines began operating. The school’s water activities have been restricted, kayak trips canned, and if someone falls off while water-skiing, they’re picked up smartly.

Under current rules, the shark boats can lay a trail of burley or chum – minced-up tuna – and use bait on the end of a rope, to draw sharks close to the cage where the tourists wait with their cameras. Islanders say tuna is like cocaine for sharks and note that all hell would break loose if someone put a worm on a string and tried to entice one of the island’s kiwi with it.

“We’ve been brought into this reluctantly,” says Cave, who has nine grandchildren on the island. DOC says, ‘Oh, just wait till this dies down.’ It’s not going to die down. I’m going to keep on printing those leaflets, people are going to keep on picking them up.”

Politicians didn’t seem to care what was happening on Stewart Island, Cave says. To that end she plans to apply for a shark diving permit at Auckland’s Muriwai and Piha beaches – the playgrounds of the Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet – and see how keen they’d be to share the shallows with sharks that have been lured in.

Some islanders hesitate to talk publicly about the issue, preferring their privacy to stirring shit. Some just lob bombs into conversation. (“I’ll tell you about shark cage diving – they can all just fuck off back to South Africa.”) Others are sympathetic to Scott and Haines, having benefited financially from the tourists they brought here.

There are about 380 residents on Stewart Island: a Four Square, a pub, a school and just over 20km of road. Tourism is the biggest earner, DOC the biggest employer. The island is big enough to have most things available, but small enough that everyone relies on each other to keep things going. And that’s perhaps something that outsiders don’t appreciate when they see the islanders’ reaction to shark cage diving.

“If you live here, you know everybody, right?” says fisherman Paul Johnston. “I’ve worked with everybody, I’ve been to their houses, had cups of tea. Sometimes you have disagreements and think someone’s a total prick, but at the end of the day you’re a little community, you look out for each other. Nobody wants to see anybody hurt. And the community possibly looks at themselves as the crash test dummies, the guinea pigs, and people are very worried this might all end badly.”

Trevor Johnson is a fourth-generation islander. His dad was a fisherman, and he’s fished since leaving school at 15. Now 58, he says things have definitely changed around the islands where he lays cod pots, and he blames the shark diving companies for it. First, he noticed buoys on his pots were getting chomped and the lines cut. He thought it was someone playing silly buggers, but other fishermen reported the same thing, and they realised it was sharks biting their gear. Then, last year, he was off the Muttonbird Islands, lifting a cod pot, when a great white that had been following them, suddenly rammed his 38ft boat.

“It was a good thump. If you were in a dinghy he’d have tipped you over, easy. You don’t know whether he’d have done anything or not, but you don’t want to find out.”

Johnson reckons the shark was 3m long, and it hit so hard, it left a mark on the hull’s anti-fouling paint.

Nowadays, Johnson rarely fishes around Edwards Island, and wouldn’t dream of paua diving there. He’d have second thoughts even swimming in Halfmoon Bay, and says people are too scared to get a feed of paua or let their grandkids go out in a dinghy there. And that’s the thing he really objects to – how their lifestyle has been compromised. Life on Stewart Island is all about the water.

While islanders will tell you they’re seeing sharks more often now, they admit they’ve always been there, and before they were protected in 2007, people hunted them. “They were targeted,” says Rastus Keen. “Everybody wanted a white pointer tooth to hang round their neck, to say, ‘We got one of these fuckers – he didn’t get us.’”

In the torrent of accusation and exaggeration scouring this issue, Keen is a something of an eddy of comparative reasonableness. “Personally, I think it’s got blown out of proportion a wee bit. It never needed to get as nasty as it has. If Peter pulled up now, I’d go and have a yarn with him. I’m sort of caught in the middle. Stu [Cave, Helen’s son] and Helen would like it just to go away. But in the real world, we need to say, well, it’s not going to go away – they’re not going to shut their business down – so how can we resolve it?”

Keen’s answer is to let shark diving continue, but stop them using any burley or bait – anything that connects food with people in the sharks’ minds.

Peter Scott argues the burley isn’t food – it’s so fine it’s just oil. But Keen insists it doesn’t matter. “Is it soup or steak? It’s still food. The scary thing is that you’re putting a person in the water and feeding these sharks. So what’s that doing for the risk of a paua diver being mistakenly whacked?”  

Not feeding the sharks is something Nigel Laing could accept. He’s paua dived the island for nearly 30 years, but has avoided Edwards Island for the last five. “We used to just get glimpses of sharks. But now they just come to the boat and they’re hot, fired up and really aggressive. They’ve got no fear.”

The fact most divers now avoid the area is the main reason nobody’s been killed, Laing reckons. “Let it be a natural event. They don’t go to Kaikoura and throw anchovies around the boat to get the dolphins to come in. They don’t throw squid out around the whales. The kiwi guy on Stewart Island doesn’t pour chook food down the beach before all the kiwis come out at night so he’s guaranteed to see them – coz sometimes the kiwis don’t turn up.”

Laing’s family have always been fishermen and his son, Geoff, is now in the industry. “If I get taken, well, I’ve had a pretty good life, I’ve enjoyed the ocean and respect what’s in it. But if my son was to get taken – I don’t know how I’d react to that.”

Robbie Wallace of Riverton is in the same situation, with his son, Sam, now starting to work with him. Wallace takes the most paua around Stewart Island, catching 20 tonnes annually, but, again, hasn’t dived near Edwards Island for several years.

“You’re committing suicide if you jump in yourself, or you may as well be committing murder when you chuck the boys in there. The sharks are a protected species. What about the humans who get in the water? We’ve got a right to be protected too.”

Robbie Wallace.

The crux of the debate is whether cage diving is actually changing the sharks’ behaviour. In 2015, DOC commissioned a report by Australian shark scientist Barry Bruce, which reviewed studies of shark diving operations around the world. Bruce concluded that, given the tight restrictions on New Zealand operators and the very limited “rewards” sharks received, it was unlikely the sharks were any greater risk to other water users, away from the area used by the shark dive companies.

Of course, a report saying shark diving hasn’t changed great whites’ behaviour around Stewart Island isn’t worth much to anyone who’s encountered a great white underwater or seen its fin cut past their boat. That’s as real as it gets, that’s proof enough.

Paua Industry Council’s chairman Storm Stanley labels Bruce’s report “an opinion piece”.

For Stanley, the issue is clear – there’s no place for shark diving around Stewart Island, or anywhere in New Zealand. And he warns that if shark diving continues to be permitted near Stewart Island, other operations will quickly appear around the country. Otago’s peninsula, Kaikoura, Wellington’s south coast, all up the Wairarapa coast. “Anywhere there’s a seal colony where there’s predators to work it.”

He’s sent “secret shoppers” on board the shark boats and claims Scott and Haines are breaching their permit conditions, and is calling on DOC to shut them down immediately.

Stanley spent a decade on the island, paua-dived its waters for a quarter century, and says while he represents the paua divers, all the islanders are his friends. “And I don’t ever want one of their kids to be out paddling on a bloody lilo in Halfmoon Bay and bump into a 14ft white pointer that’s been chummed up and tormented and teased.”

 

Great whites are found all round New Zealand but Stewart Island and the Chathams are the two places you can virtually guarantee an encounter, partly due to the prevalence of fur seal breeding colonies. At Stewart Island they’re present between December and May, as they migrate between the subantarctic islands and the Pacific.

DOC marine scientist Clinton Duffy estimates there are about 60 great whites around Stewart Island each season, but in seven years using photographic identification, he’s seen 178 different individuals there. However, this year the sharks simply disappeared for weeks on end.

It added to a tough season for Peter Scott, following engine problems with his boat in January. Scott’s not a quitter though. With a gold anchor inset into a front tooth, there’s an air of the buccaneer about him, and the truth is, he’s invested far too much money in the business to back out now. “Sometimes I do think, what’s the point? But then you see the reaction of the people you take out, and being able to educate them – I think we’re doing a lot of good for the whole perception of sharks. But financially, I’d clearly be better off on the benny [benefit].”

His wife, Andria, has a full-time job and during the off-season Scott picks up other fishing work.

In hindsight, Scott wonders if he could have done anything to prevent the situation erupting.  “But even way back then, everybody was just too far apart. We weren’t going to shift, and they were never going to give up their theory they were all going to get eaten.”

Things may have been different if Scott and Haines were islanders. “But we were pouring a lot of money into an economy that was failing, that’s reliant on tourists. They’re begging five bucks off everyone that comes off the ferry. So why would they push away a tourist business that potentially, in the future, could support the whole island?”

More than 1000 tourists go shark diving each season, paying up to $630 for the adventure, and Scott estimates they were contributing well over a million dollars to the island annually. That’s disappeared because they now operate from Bluff. By comparison, Scott says with only three or four paua divers on the island, the paua price being so low, and most of the catch being landed in Bluff or Riverton, paua diving contributes little to the island’s economy.

“And I’d suggest if you took four influential people off that island, the whole situation would change. The island’s run by who has the money. It’s a very small community and people are too scared to say anything. And to a certain extent you can’t blame them – they’re getting work off the people who have the money – so what do they do?”

Scott is adamant shark diving hasn’t altered the great whites’ behaviour or increased the risk to anyone else, and points to DOC’s report that concluded this. “You know, I’ve been there 10 years, supposedly training these sharks to eat people – I’ve failed absolutely, dismally.”

Scott insists sharks have always been attracted to boats and humans with food around Stewart Island, as fishermen cleaned their catch, fish factory waste was dumped, and a salmon farm was established. But in all this time, there had only been two attacks by great whites, both on recreational divers, neither fatal.

“A few years ago I was motoring out of the harbour and I passed one on the surface. And it was a day when kids were swimming. Shit, if the shark had wanted to eat people, he’d have bloody cleaned up that day, coz there was a dozen of them swimming. They clearly know what their target is.”

The other shark diving operator, Mike Haines, says commonsense and perspective has gone out the window and been replaced by emotion and irrationality. “A few people over there just need a bit of a wake-up call. At the end of the day, the people jumping up and down, the likes of Helen Cave – she’s set up for life. She owns a hotel and lots of other business interests over there – she doesn’t give a hoot whether tourists go there or not.”

Haines, born and bred in the deep south and a paua diver for 36 years, felt sorry for younger islanders with mortgages and businesses, who benefited from the tourists he and Scott brought there. The money they spent on accommodation, ferry or plane fares, at the pub and cafes, and on other activities while on Stewart Island, has now been welcomed by Bluff’s businesses. Apart from a pissed guy who unbolted one of their signs and biffed it off the wharf, Scott says everyone there has been very supportive.

Meri Leask, “the voice of Bluff”, who’s run the fishermen’s radio service for more than 35 years, is staggered Stewart Islanders appear to have cut off their noses to spite their faces by shunning shark divers. “There’s nobody here whingeing and talking it down. These guys haven’t done anything wrong. All they’ve done is generate an income into Stewart Island and Bluff.” 

The one thing both sides agree about is how ineptly DOC has handled the issue.

“They need a bloody size-10 up their rear end to knock them into gear and make them realise they’ve caused most of this problem,” vents Mike Haines. “They just didn’t act soon enough.”

Islanders decry how DOC hasn’t come down hard enough on the shark companies, how their consultation has been meaningless, how one public meeting was held the night of an All Blacks test.

Peter Scott responds that at least the islanders have been consulted with – until a month ago, no senior DOC official had even spoken to the operators. “They need to stop being so soft and stop pandering to the Stewart Islanders and tell those people down there where to go.” 

To be fair, shark diving was an issue that crept up on everyone. Nobody was sure who had responsibility for it – Maritime New Zealand handles boats, WorkSafe New Zealand looks after people on the job, the Ministry for Primary Industries is in charge of fisheries, and DOC had to protect sharks. In the end, Conservation Minister Nick Smith gave his department the hospital pass of sorting the mess out.

But things had gone on too long by then, and now DOC’s southern region director, Allan Munn, rates it one of their toughest issues. Munn stresses DOC should receive credit for regulating an uncontrolled activity, by introducing permits and a code of practice. But for most, it still remains a yes/no issue – you either support shark diving or you don’t – and for many islanders, anything less than banning it amounts to a calamitous failure by DOC.

Munn recognises shark diving is a legitimate activity internationally and could provide jobs for up to a dozen people in Southland. Moreover, he accepts it can have environmental benefits in making people aware of special species like great whites. But he’s also been a commercial paua diver himself so empathises with the islanders. “Sharks are part of the island’s history. And they’re a danger to paua divers, shark cage diving or no shark cage diving. That’s the truth of it. Someone could get bitten on that island tomorrow, there’s just no question about it.”

He’s been to the island frequently, most recently in July, despite knowing people were lining up to have a crack at him. “It’s hard to win whatever we do. I don’t mind at any stage arguing with people who’ve got a reasonably held opinion, however strong. I just don’t like talking to idiots. Who does? But there’s good people on both sides of this debate, with genuinely held views.”

However, in a measure of how serious the issue has become, DOC’s boss, director general Lou Sanson, has taken the extraordinary step of personally intervening. Sanson used to do Munn’s job in Southland, knows many of the fishermen, has dived all around the island, and in 1981 had his own shark encounter there. “It was a great white. And it’s still a huge memory in my background. So I know what the locals are talking about.”

He visited Stewart Island in December, “because if there’d been an incident over that Christmas period and I hadn’t been down there to listen, it was pretty clear where the locals were going – that it was on my shoulders if anything happened.”

Despite how polarised and tense the situation has become, Sanson is determined to resolve it by mediation and compromise, with help from other government agencies with a stake. “There’s no substitute for getting everybody in a room and saying, ‘What’s the best way out of this?’” 

On July 6, a lot of people involved in the issue got in a room, hoping they might sort something out. It was Courtroom 2 at Wellington’s High Court, and PauaMAC5, which represents Stewart Island’s paua divers, was challenging the shark diving permits DOC had issued. It argued DOC should have taken into account the safety of all water users when granting Scott and Haines permission to operate.

But before that matter could be discussed, Justice David Collins requested everyone take a step back, and questioned whether DOC had any authority to grant permits in the first place.

DOC’s oversight of shark diving came from the 1953 Wildlife Act, which gives it control over protected species. But the act only gives DOC responsibility for catching or killing protected species – neither of which shark diving involves. After just 30 minutes, Justice Collins ordered both parties to go back and consider this.

As the issue remains before the High Court, DOC announced on December 23 it would reissue temporary permits to cover the period through to August 2017, or until the High Court makes a ruling.

Peter Scott is bullish and says he’ll be putting to sea, no matter what. If their permits aren’t valid, and there’s no legislation covering shark diving, arguably they can operate where they wish, and how they wish, as long as they aren’t harming the sharks.

“Mike and I worked really hard on a code of practice to try and get some sort of regulation around the industry to stop a whole lot of cowboys coming in and killing someone or killing the sharks. Now that’s come back to bite us in the arse severely.”

Being confined to one site for two years had severely hamstrung their businesses and hurt them financially, because they couldn’t look elsewhere for sharks when they suddenly disappeared from Edwards Island. Meanwhile, DOC was sending uniformed and undercover people on shark dive trips, to ensure the operators were complying with regulations – regulations which may now have no legal standing.

“DOC should just keep their noses out of it,” rails Scott. “They’re useless. I’ve disputed the permits all along and said it’s not worth a knob of goat shit, that bit of paper. What other bloody business in New Zealand has been shafted as hard as this one? I think there’s a good reason they’re making it very hard for us, coz I’m sure they thought we’d have bailed by now. It’s far easier to get rid of two people than 380 – that’s their attitude.”

As for Sanson’s hope the issue can be resolved by everyone sitting down and compromising, Scott suggests that time’s long gone. “Going back, those paua guys were really pushing hard for regulation. When the regulation came in, oh, they didn’t like that because they thought they were going to regulate us out of it. And now they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers to get us out of there. They’ve just been chipping away, chipping away, the whole time. And we’re not giving anything to those guys anymore because they’ve pushed us into this little corner.”

Strangely, the man who represents those paua divers, Storm Stanley, has some sympathy for Scott. “It’s a shit of a situation for everyone – for Peter and Michael as well. There was an opportunity there and they’ve taken advantage of it. I admire people who build up businesses. They’ve put their balls on the line to buy new boats. To me the fault lies with DOC. They dropped the ball on it – well, they never even picked it up, until it was too late. It’s just a total mess.”

Could he get in a room with Scott and Haines and thrash out a solution, as Sanson envisages?

“Yeah I could, but I don’t know how long the conversation would last. I think the situation’s irreconcilable, I really do.”

Stanley has great respect for Sanson – they’ve worked together on Stewart Island search and rescue operations. But he says ultimately the situation will have to be sorted out in the courts, because DOC and successive ministers of conservation, including incumbent Maggie Barry, hadn’t been staunch enough to ban shark diving.

“Look, I’ve made it really clear and said if someone gets taken or hit by a shark down there, I’ll be on TV calling the minister a fucking murderer because we have a paper trail going back to 2008 trying to alert you and begging you to do something about it and you haven’t. You’re the minister, the buck stops with you, and you can’t wriggle out of it. I’m really hoping it won’t come to that – but I fear it will.”

 

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of North & South.
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