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Cray Tales from Tawharanui

By Steve Hathaway

This is what they call aqua aerobics, cray style. For many, just hearing the word ‘crayfish’ will cause their mouths to start salivating at the thought of eating these tasty morsels. Yes, I had some cray tails the other day that were cooked on the BBQ with a coating of sweet chilli sauce and butter, and I have to say for about five minutes it was as if I’d been transported to heaven. I’m sure some of you have experienced this: when you’re with a group of people and mention you’re going on a diving trip to catch some crays, something almost miraculous happens. The atmosphere in the room changes – it’s amazing what affect that five-letter word can have. Often you’ll find yourself the most popular person in the room!

cray1

I’ve put plenty of thought into how I could get better at catching crays – especially those cunning ones that hang right at the back of caves out of arm’s reach. There is one crayfish that got the better of me and it still gives me flashbacks, even though it was 20 years ago! I was staying on the ocean side of Great Barrier Island for a few days. I had some new schemes I was keen to try if needed, and sure enough, on the first excursion I found a huge cray hiding in a dark hole just out of arm’s reach. So the next day, full of expectations, I took a bottle of dishwashing liquid with me and looked in the hole hoping my nemesis was ready to be tamed. He was there alright, but now he was slightly deeper in his hole and difficult to see. Undeterred, I squirted the bottle directly in his face, expecting him to come walking straight out of the hole towards me, but no – he stood his ground like nothing had happened. The next day, after a restless night’s sleep dreaming of this massive cray, I took a nylon stocking with some fish stuffed into the end of it (I know you’re probably thinking “what the heck was he doing with a stocking on a boy’s trip away?” – I can assure you it was for the crayfish!)

Swimming down into the hole, the cray was now nearly impossible to see – so much so that if I didn’t know he was there, I would’ve swum to the next hole without even noticing him. I pushed the stocking attached to some rope as far into the hole as I could and waited… and waited… The theory was that the cray would come out for the bait, get caught in the stocking, and then I would quickly rip it out. However, this fella obviously knew my intent and was not going to risk moving from its lair for a free feed. I visited the hole day after day for the same result each time. By now it was starting to torment me, and I felt quite annoyed. Finally, on the last day I snapped and did something that to this day I am not proud of, and would never consider doing again. Using a Hawaiian sling I shot it directly between the feelers. I knew I was breaking the law, but after so many days of trying, my blind frustration somehow found a way to justify it. I pulled this huge buck from the hole, and as soon as I could see it clearly, I immediately realised why he was hiding so far back in this dark retreat. He had an absolutely minuscule, anorexic tail, and must’ve been hiding out in the dark so that he wouldn’t be laughed at by the other crays!

I felt as if I was the laughing stock now, with the words “your sins will find you out” flooding through my mind. This was totally out of character for me, but guilty as charged. (Even though it’s a semi-humorous story, I was an idiot, and as I said, it’s not a moment I’m proud of!) Recently I was asked if I wanted to film massive crays being hand-fed at Tawharanui Marine Park, just around the corner from where I live. The reason for filming the feeding was that this beautiful piece of coastline was about to become New Zealand’s newest marine reserve. In practice there’s very little that will alter with this change of status, as it’s been a total no-take area since 1981, but one change that mattered hugely for this trip was that – as with all marine reserves – it will become illegal to feed the fish or crayfish. So it was about taking the opportunity before the door shut, and it sounded way too much fun to pass up! (Tawharanui became a marine reserve on September 28, 2011).

cray2I’ve heard lots about the Tawharanui cray population from Dr Roger Grace, one of New Zealand’s most respected marine scientists. He knows more about this population than anyone else, as he’s been doing annual crayfish surveys there since the late 1960s. His research is showing that there are approximately 1000 legal-sized crays per hectare inside the protected area. If this doesn’t sound like a lot to you, then check out this fact: exactly the same surveys were done on a couple of very similar pieces of unprotected Northland coastline – Whananaki and Mimiwhangata – and the difference is staggering! Those areas average out at about two legal crays per hectare!

Now I know some of you might be sceptical of figures showing 500 times more crays inside than outside this reserve, so I had to ask the questions. I gave him a grilling to make sure I understood him correctly and that both surveys were equally systematic. His response was that it’s actually much easier to do a count outside the reserve, as he didn’t have to burrow through the kelp to count the crays. Also, the results don’t mean there are only two or 1000 crays in that particular hectare, but that was the number of crays counted on the transect lines. Once in the water, something that amazed me was the number of large buck crayfish between 1.5 to 4.5kg in every area I dived. Wow! Outside the park on the surrounding coast you would be lucky to find one of these in a full day’s diving, let alone in the big numbers we saw here. But despite this abundance, the problem I faced was finding a very specific location to set up my tripod and camera to get a good view of the action.

The first buck I saw was not only the biggest of the trip, it was also very bolshy. As soon as it saw a fish in my hand, it marched towards me with it’s colossal body and front claws with the swagger of a disproportionate top-heavy bodybuilder strutting his stuff. I actually got a bit of a shock at how quickly it lurched forward, lifting it’s front claws, giving a quick one-two like Mike Tyson in his prime, before rapidly ripping the fish out of my fingertips (note to self: don’t be such a pussy next time and hold onto the fish more firmly). Much to my disgust, this prime candidate for my filming didn’t read the script: having secured its meal, it was totally disinterested in me for the rest of the dive. Doh!

cray3Thankfully, it didn’t take long to find what appeared to be the perfect cray. He was sitting in the open, in a rocky basin, with no fear of me at all. So I meticulously set up my underwater camera and got the lights in position ready to film this beauty – but he was having none of it, marching straight at me and attacking the lens. My apprehension levels went up: “Hey don’t you know that’s over $7000 worth of glass you’re scratching?” Thankfully, this wilful vandalism quickly subsided before any damage was done, but now he was climbing over the camera, looking like he was operating the controls with all ten legs. I was thinking, “if he does much more of this I’ll have to include him in the camera credits!” All of a sudden, the cray noticed my dive buddy carrying a catch bag with some bait inside. Quickly dismounting the camera, he made a beeline for him, leaving the relative safety of the rocks and marching out onto the sand maybe 15m from his first resting place.

cray5Now came the funny part: he caught up to my buddy and grabbed the catch bag from his hand! I’ve caught a lot of crays in my life, but this is definitely the first one that wanted to get into a catch bag! These were only two of the many crays I filmed that day, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Thankfully I have the footage to prove it or no one would believe me! So, if you want to check the footage out for yourself, click here and view the first of my monthly video blogs. There were heaps of these XOS models hanging around, but not all were posers, especially once they had been fed.

Courtesy of New Zealand Fishing News October 2011
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