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Freediving with Sharks

By Steve Hathaway
Freediving-With-SharksAs each summer rolls around, something more predictable than the All Blacks being named favourites for every Rugby World Cup occurs. Along with the usual buzz in the air as we prepare to hit the beach for the hugely-anticipated Christmas holidays, the sensationalist shark hype begins.

Here are a couple of titles of articles from the NZ Herald prior to Christmas which illustrates what I am saying: “Going to the beach? Keep an eye out for sharks,” December 22; “Shark Closes Mt Maunganui beach”, Dec 23; “Holy **** – get my kids out of the water!” Dec 24. The shark most commonly singled out in these ‘close encounters’ is the bronze whaler or bronzie.

What is this fear and obsession that we have with sharks, and is there any truth in the notion that sharks are the deadly creatures they’re made out to be? Why do sharks still rate so highly on people’s ‘most feared’ lists? In New Zealand’s recorded history, we have had about 40 unprovoked attacks, of which 11 were fatal. The last was at Te Kaha in 1976 to a spearfisherman.
The first was in 1852 in Wellington. (Data) That is 11 deaths in at least 158 years of recorded data, which is only about one death every 14 years (and the last one was 34 years ago!). Compare this to ACC’s figures reporting that 12 Kiwis die each week on average from accidents at home! Now, I’m not a great mathematician, but comparing these two figures alone, it makes a great case for spending lots more time in the ocean. (Try this argument with your wife and see how far you get, though!)

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In other words, the chances of being bitten by a shark when you are just minding your own business in the sea are next to none. Before I saw my first shark in the water, I often wondered how I would react. Would I freak out or would I enjoy the moment? I thought I would probably enjoy it, but when you have never experienced something like this before, you can never be sure how you will respond.

This is pretty embarrassing to admit, but as a kid after seeing the movie ‘Jaws’, I can remember having anxious thoughts about swimming alone in our pool. However, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one affected by this movie, or who had the Jaws music playing in my head while out swimming afterwards! The first shark I saw was when I was spearfishing with a mate near Leigh. Dave had just speared a fish and I was feeling the pressure: I had better get the next one! All of a sudden, Dave spotted something down deep and quickly dove with his gun pointed with obvious intent towards what he thought was a kingfish. “Bummer,” I was thinking. “He is cleaning me up. How am I going to come back from two fish down?” Then, all of a sudden, Dave was back-peddling towards me with this large ‘kingfish’ following him up towards the surface. “This is an unusual way to spear a kingie,” I thought, until it suddenly all made sense as a bronzie about 1.8m long materialised before me. I was hooting and hollering all right, but not the freaked-out kind of way – I was like a little kid opening a Christmas present.

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This was the moment I had been unsure of. The shark was amazing to watch as it cruised in for a close look, then passed on by, out of our visibility. It was great to finally get that monkey off my back, and it still rates right up there as one of the most amazing sights I have seen in the ocean. Since that first encounter, I have been really fortunate to swim with lots of bronzies, and they still amaze me with their agility and grace. Over the last five years or so, there seems to have been a large increase in the number of bronze whalers on the northern coast in summer.

Up until then, shark encounters while spearfishing were infrequent, but now they are so common that you can almost guarantee you’ll see at least one in certain locations on the coast when spearing or towing a fish. However, scuba diving on this same coastline is a very different story – the chances of seeing a shark while in the water and blowing bubbles is very low, almost non-existent. Bronzies are mostly very shy, and unless there is an opportunity for an easy feed from someone catching fish, they are very unlikely to come near enough for you to see them.

Even at the more likely locations – such as the Creme Gardens on the northeastern corner of the Poor Knights, where good numbers of bronzies congregate in the winter – they are still very shy animals and may not hang around too long. If you really want to see a shark in New Zealand while diving, I have a few suggestions. Heading to the Creme Gardens in the winter would be one of your best shots, and even if you don’t see a shark, you will be diving New Zealand’s premier dive location when the water is typically at its clearest.

Go online and check out the different cage-diving operations around the coast – feeding the sharks to come in is not a very natural way to do it, but probably offers your best chance of seeing one. However, a totally different scenario occurs when free diving with a speargun. Seeing and having close encounters with bronzies is so common these days that I’m concerned these sharks are learning bad behaviour. Bravado tends not to be the best option to take in many of these instances as far as I’m concerned. Yes, pushing a shark away with your speargun if it wants one of your fish is a reasonable thing to do, but continuing to spearfish and/or feed sharks can lead to things becoming a little more ‘interesting’ in my experience.

That’s when this placid shark sometimes has a personality change and becomes quite aggressive. I think it’s from such scenarios that New Zealand’s next statistic from a bronzie is likely to come. I am not saying anyone will be killed, but an accidental bite when a shark is going for a fish, or a bronzie becoming aggravated with you, is a very real possibility. Otherwise though, if lucky enough to see one, relax and enjoy the experience – they don’t come around too often.

Courtesy of New Zealand Fishing News 
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