Posted on Friday, 28 March 2014
Visiting New Zealand in search of Great White sharks has been on our radar since the first cage diving operation started here about seven years ago. So, we were thrilled and excited when the opportunity of being involved in a new documentary for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week presented itself.
Although there are a number of areas in New Zealand that provide fairly good chances of finding Great White sharks our location was perhaps the most well-known; Stewart Island, which is located south of South Island. We based ourselves here with local operator Peter Scott aboard the Argo and each day headed 5 miles across a rough channel to the shelter of Edwards Island. Peter’s trusted boat is well worth a mention. It is a very sturdy 70 year old wooden boat that looks very similar to Quint’s boat that was used in the infamous “Jaws”. Stewart Island is home to a resident population of only 350 people, and this coupled with the old boat truly gives the trip here an early-day-expedition-like feeling. One of the best ways to experience Great White sharks!
Many smaller islands are dotted and scattered around Steward Island and almost all of these are home to a number of New Zealand fur seal colonies. Presumably this is the draw card for the Great White sharks here. Edwards Island provides a good lee for any wind direction making just about every day here from mid-January to early June workable. Tracking studies have shown that once the sharks depart the area in June they travel up to New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga. So, like the South African and California sharks, the New Zealand sharks are also covering huge distances.
Our first day was in beautiful calm conditions and we did not have to wait long for our first magnificent sighting of a Great White shark rising up from below. Within thirty minutes we already had three sharks cruising around Argo. By the end of the afternoon things had picked up remarkably and we had seen eight different sharks as well as a natural breach. I happened to be looking at the exact spot as the Great White shark did a full vertical white belly breach towards us, a mere 10 meters from the boat. According to Peter this does not happen very often so we considered ourselves very fortunate to have seen this beautiful sight.
After three days of working on the western side we got the feeling that working with the sharks here is very easy! I know we were only here for a short period so we are by no means experts here but from chatting with Peter the days we experienced were fairly normal. We waited no longer than five minutes each day for the first shark to arrive and when they did arrive they stayed with very little encouragement from us. In fact due to filming we often would not have any bait out while we prepped for different shots but once we were ready we only had to put the bait back in the water and they would all be back again almost immediately. It also became apparent that we were seeing the same sharks every day and over the nine day period of filming there were ten sharks that we came to know. Just like at Seal Island they all had very distinct characters and each individual behaved in the same manner as they did the previous days. My favourite was a shark we named “Mr Nice Guy”. It may sound corny but this really was a very nice shark! Very slow swimming, very relaxed and he liked to cruise at the surface with part of his face and eye out of the water while we looked at us. I was in love!
There seems to be a very clear sexual segregation here of the Great Whites at certain times of the season. During our time period all sharks we saw were males, apart from one small female identified on the last day. Apparently the large females start to arrive from the end of March onwards and all the males depart at this point.
There are two other clear differences to Seal Island. The sharks here seem to stay around the boat for long periods and there does not seem to be a high or radical change over of sharks. For instance at Seal Island we can do morning and afternoon trips and record completely different sharks present, as well as from day to day. But the most interesting and fascinating difference for me is that the sharks here are completely comfortable with each other’s presence, even in close quarters. I know this sounds crazy but it was almost like they knew each other and actually enjoyed hanging out together. I have never seen this kind of Great White shark behaviour before and I was completely astounded by it. At home the Great White sharks can be described as “twitchy” and are very aware of keeping their distance from one another and strictly obey the law of the biggest is the highest on the hierarchy ladder. At Edwards Island the sharks here all appear to be 100% comfortable with each other.
Chris did a lot of filming work on the bottom which gave him a perfect opportunity to observe the sharks down below without the influence of bait and he confers with all of the above. As we get closer to Shark Week we will post a few more blogs on the project. Save to say there are some very interesting and exciting encounters Chris had in a small protection capsule that he wondered around the bottom of the ocean in.
Buller’s and White capped Albatross were another highlight of the trip. It was strange for us to be watching Great White sharks and have albatross bobbing on the ocean’s surface, something we would never see back home. Both Chris & I did worry about this situation as it would be very easy for a White shark to catch one, and seeing an albatross swallowed by a shark would not be a happy sight. In fact one had a very close call and after two attempts by the shark, the albatross eventually left. It was certainly not a full blooded attack by the shark, more an investigatory foray. Still, every time an albatross landed we did our best to chase it away. Like the bird attacks at Seal Island, the sharks here do not eat the albatross, they just get spat out, normally with fatal injuries. For a magnificent species of birds that are faced with tremendous pressures they do not need another one which is indirectly caused by us, hence our scaring the birds away.
When weather conditions changed we needed to work on the western and northern sides of the Island. Even though we had to wait a while (between one and two hours) we still saw the same sharks. I guess it just took them some time to patrol the island and they eventually would come across us.
Besides Mr Nice Guy there were a number of standout sharks, but none more so than the 4.5+ meter “Fred”. Fred is well known to the researches here and they have been seeing him for the past six years. He seems to be the big boss here and although I mentioned that the sharks all seem to be comfortable with each other, Fred is the exception. He is a giant and has the typical “no neck” feature of all very large Great White sharks. The other sharks give way to him and Chris will explain in a later blog how much this shark likes to show his authority. It is definitely worth waiting to hear about!
The Maori name for Stewart Island is Rakiura which means 'Land of Glowing Skies'. And it is true. We got to see some breath-taking sunrises and sunsets. But, the best was most certainly saved for the last evening. Sunset is around 8pm, and as Stewart Island is so far south, the sunsets tend to go on for a long time. This last evening on the water for us was a particularly moody one with light wispy pre storm clouds covering most of the sky. There was zero wind and the sea was eerily calm. As the sun went down the most dramatic back drop to a Great White shark’s dorsal fin cleaving the surface was created. Filming did of course take priority but Chris did manage to get a few shots off. Regardless of whether Chris got an image or not, it was a truly beautiful and intensely vivid sight of our last Great White shark in New Zealand. For this year at least!
Thank you to Peter Scott for hosting us and to Discovery Channel and Jeff Kurr for the incredible experiences we had with the New Zealand Great White sharks.
We are planning on putting together an expedition to New Zealand for our Apex Shark Expedition guests who wish to visit another of the world’s truly great shark sites. In addition to this the trip we will have a strong photographic theme and we will also be doing trips to view and photograph Hectors and Dusky dolphin, as well as up to eight species of Albatross at very close quarters. This trip will be guided by Chris and I so if you are interested in being part of a small group going on a very special expedition feel free to let us know as spaces will most definitely be limited.