About January last year I was eating breakfast watching TV, about to start a day’s paua diving in the Chatham Islands, when the news of a shark attack off the Auckland coast came on.
Adam Strange was swimming off Muriwai Beach when he was bitten by a great white, becoming New Zealand’s first shark death in a generation.
Needless to say, thoughts of sharks were never far from my mind that day diving in one of the world’s great white shark hotspots. Since then there have been a number of deaths in Australia and a surfer was bitten off Southland last month. Beaches have been closed for days in the peak of summer and newspapers have been full of sharky headlines.
There can be no doubt about it; sharks have been big news over the last few summers. There is just something about the word ‘shark’ which immediately sends us into paroxysms of fear.
No matter how much sunscreen we use, the fact remains that when we enter the sea, perhaps the world’s last great wilderness, we are not the top of the food chain. Little wonder then that every summer journalists fill their newspapers with headlines designed to provoke the most primitive of human fears: that of being eaten alive.
The overwhelming theme in the papers is that there are more sharks around and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is true. And it’s not just me; virtually everyone who I’ve spoken to on the subject shares the same conclusion.
It hasn’t been a sudden increase of 6m great whites or makos that we’ve noticed, but a large increase in bronze whalers, Carcharinus brachyurus. These sharks alone seem to have bucked the sad, global trend of decline amongst apex predators above or below the waves. The numbers seen over the last few summers are unprecedented.
Encounters range from simple swim-bys to losing fish off floats or spears and even being bailed up onto rocks. For many years I, like many other divers and spearos, considered any shark sighting an all-too-rare privilege and to actually lose a fish to one an honour. Nowadays, from January to March, it seems to happen all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, it is this interaction with real, wild animals that drew me to freediving and spearfishing in the first place. I have snorkelled all my life before ‘graduating’ to scuba. After the initial novelty of breathing underwater had worn off, I realised that the artificial hiss of the regulators and the fleeting glimpses of disappearing fish wasn’t really what I was looking for.
A struggling fish attRacTs sharks, so iki them quickly.
I wanted to get closer, to see the fish in their own environment and as they really are. But not as a spectator – I didn’t want to just watch, I wanted to be a part of it. For me the change back to ‘just snorkeling’ was inevitable. Entering the water as a freediver you are but another fish in a big ocean. Put a speargun in your hand and you’re now a part of the food chain and guess what? You’re not at the top.
It is unclear what has sparked this resurgence. Some have put it down to rising sea temperatures caused by global warming; others a decline in predators. Even our Prime Minister was quoted blaming commercial crab-potters for attracting them to his beloved Omaha Beach.
Personally I believe it’s the relatively recent ban on in-shore netting that has allowed bronzy numbers to bounce back. Now after reaching a critical mass, the population has grown exponentially. As far as I’m concerned any increase in fish stocks is a good thing.
Despite being a large shark – up to 3m long and 300kg – bronzies don’t have the fearsome reputation of bull or white sharks. I guess this is for the good reason that they very, very rarely bite. The last recorded attack in New Zealand was in the ‘70s when a spearfisherman was bitten on the leg (in the shark’s defense he was going for our spearo’s fish which he had attached to his weightbelt, a practice universally abandoned for very good reason).
The diver was tragically killed in the attack and until last year it was the most recent shark-related fatality in mainland waters. Given the hundreds – if not thousands – of encounters before and since, it would be irrational to label all bronzies as ‘man-eaters’, in the same way we don’t ban dogs as pets every time one is involved in a human death. Still, they are a very big fish with big teeth and they deserve our respect.
As spearos we need to accept that sharks are a part of our sport and that we’re going to have run-ins with them. Bronze whalers are a coastal shark and inhabit all the best spearfishing spots. In fact, the presence of sharks is a pretty good indication that you’re in the right place. As an apex predator they need healthy ecosystems to provide their prey and this is exactly where we want to be spearfishing.
As spearfishers we have a few advantages in the water over swimmers or surfers who make up the bulk of shark victims. We are equipped to operate freely in the water column rather than just floundering on the surface. Our mask lets us see and our snorkel lets us breathe with our face in the water – and I reckon this is our key advantage.
This is just my opinion, but based on the shark behaviour I’ve seen, I seriously doubt a shark bites anything without scoping it out for a long time first and they seldom approach if they know you can see them.
It takes them quite a while to even start eating berley so there’s no way they’re going to just impulsively lash out at something the size of a human, and that leads me onto our next advantage – our size. With a couple of very notable exceptions, most sharks don’t eat anything even approaching the size of a human.
A swimmer or surfer on the surface doesn’t really look like something that belongs in the water, but I reckon a diver just seems like another very big fish to a shark.
As spearfishers, we definitely do a few things that put us at greater risk though. The simple fact that we’re out spearing fish is a major factor, with all the struggling – and sometimes blood – in the water, and let’s not even mention berleying!
Once you’ve been around sharks a while it is easy to get a bit blasé about them but they are potentially dangerous and there are a few things we should do to keep ourselves safe.
A divers plat is a small boat that you tow along behind the spearo to put your fish into
Here's a few tips on staying safe from sharks
1. Iki your fish as quickly as possible. Nothing attracts sharks more than struggling fish so dispatch them as quickly as possible. Don't be concerned about the blood this may spill, as blood will attract a shark from nearby whereas the vibrations of a wounded fish attract them from miles away.
2. Get your fish out of the water as quickly as possible. The nature of our sport is such that we will end up towing dead fish around with us. It should go without saying that you never, ever attach them to yourself.
The standard method is to attach them to your float and tow them around 20 or 30 metres behind you. This is pretty safe as any action happens away from you, but it is frustrating to lose fish and in certain times of the year they just don’t last long before they get taxed.
Some species of fish seem to be worse than others as well. I’ve found that kingies, butterfish and tarakihi are by far the bronzies’ favourites and in sharky spots I won’t shoot them unless I know I can get them out of the water quickly, and I often actually call a dive once I’ve got a kingie onboard.
The best option for long shore dives is a divers plat. These are small boats that you tow along behind you that you actually put your fish in. They’ve always been used by competition divers, as losing fish to a shark can be the difference between winning and losing, but they are quickly becoming a standard piece of kit for anyone sick of losing fish to sharks.
3. Look them in the eye. Sharks hate eye contact. If there’s a shark around, simply eye balling him is often enough to send him slinking off. Watch behind you though, as they’re a bit like dogs in that they’ll try and circle around to check you out without you noticing them.
4. Dive in schools. Never dive alone in sharky areas. In high-risk situations such as blue water or while berleying, diving in groups is much safer.
5. Don’t shoot them. The best way to make a shark angry and to lose all your gear is to put a shaft into them. If they get really close a good prod with your spear should scare them off.
6. Don’t feed them. Once a shark has had a taste of fish they become much more persistent and it can be hard to keep control of the situation. All my scariest shark moments have occurred once the sharks have started to catch speared fish. Any berley situation can be difficult to manage, but I’ve always found that provided you make sure they keep well below you and wait for berley to drift to their level, things are alright.
Bronzies love kingfish.
Set a depth limit for them, I usually use about 10 metres, and anytime one comes above that ceiling, dive down and shoo them off. If they get too brave you’ll need to move on. Same goes for speared fish.
Few spearfishing moments are more exciting than watching a razzed up shark smashing a kingy off a spear but once that happens, you’re unlikely to land anything. When a shark is following a speared fish, wait until they lunge in and jerk the fish up a metre and they’ll miss every time. Work with your buddy and dive down to shoo them off and watch each other’s back as you land them.
At this time of year we just have to accept that there are sharks around. More than anything else, they add a bit of excitement to our diving rather than real danger. A man who knows about these things once told me not to worry about sharks but if I do see one then “for God’s sake don’t tell your mother”. It seems like good advice to me.