Across the Strait from Where I Was Spearfishing Last Week, A White Shark Opens Up On a Discovery Channel Film Crew

by Owen James Burke

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Somewhere off Steward Island, New Zealand, Discovery Channel camera crew find themselves in exactly the compromising position one wants to be in when a 3-meter white shark has a go at their 2.5-meter boat. Meanwhile, completely unaware of this drama, I was swimming nearby with dead fish strapped to my waist. Screenshot from “Little Bitty Boats and Big Sharks Don’t Mix”.

Recently on Foveaux Strait off Stewart Island, New Zealand, right across from where I was spearfishing in Bluff, an imbecilic film crew decided to seek out white sharks from a dinghy that could just as easily be mistaken for a portable bathtub. How do we suppose they attracted the suspected 20-foot shark? A big hunk of bleeding meat, as always, only this time hanging within feet of what surely appears to be an inflatable rubber raft.

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Screenshot from “Little Bitty Boats and Big Sharks Don’t Mix”.

And get this: these guys were hoping that the 20-foot shark would lead them to the nocturnal feeding grounds of a supposedly larger “mega shark,” which of course, like the fabled subjects of many a Discovery Channel docudrama, has eluded mankind to date.

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Screenshot from “Little Bitty Boats and Big Sharks Don’t Mix”.

You don’t have to have seen or read “Jaws or any fake Discovery documentary to know this wasn’t a good idea. Just listen to the voice of one of Discovery’s film crew in the video below. For this show, Discovery won’t have to trade science-free melodrama for attention. Still, never underestimate Discovery’s ability to botch or contort a good story. We still have a few months till Shark Week yet.

Now about that spearfishing I was just referring to.

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Somewhere between those two islands on the not-so-far-off horizon, a pair of Discovery Channel dopes were getting the thrill of their lives. Photo courtesy of Owen James Burke.

I’ll let on that I felt a little unsure jumping off the rocks into the Arctic blue water and diving below the kelp in search of paua (that’s Māori for “abalone”) and butterfish, a mild, flaky white fish and New Zealand culinary favorite. Still, if there’s a way to go for me before old age, I fear it’ll be by shark. Good grief, I can’t imagine dying in some stuffy office, or playing golf, for that matter.

My mind fell back at ease and then into focus as three large butterfish came into sight. I went to load my gun and, in my excitement, spooked the creatures as the band (the rubber loading mechanism) snapped back, taking my finger with it. I mumbled a few expletives into my snorkel while the pain subsided to a dull freeze.

I continued on for over an hour, and while a brush-up with a white shark stayed off my mind, I barely saw any more fish. Here I was, diving in some of the colder, most remote  waters of New Zealand, an already remote country – and these waters looked like a supermarket picked clean by looters after a citywide blackout. I wondered how many others were regularly diving here. It was a Saturday, and as far as I could tell, I was alone, at least among the lung-bearing crowd. I figured there must be a large commercial diving industry around the area – famed otherwise for its oyster, spiny lobster and blue cod fisheries. Then again, maybe it’s not fishermen or divers but something bigger, something toothier… duh duh… duh duh…

After a long drive back up the coast, I got a room in a hotel for the night. I woke up the next morning and walked into a cafe only to pick up a newspaper and read that quite literally, just across the Strait from me, a camera crew’s boat had been struck by a large white shark. The real story seemed to be the outrage of the local fishermen (and divers), who were complaining that a pair of recent permits granted by the Department of Conservation (DoC) to cage-diving operators had led to a spree of recent (and undesired) shark encounters.

Later on I read that the coastline along the Southland region of New Zealand (where Bluff and Stewart Island lie) is supposedly among the nation’s most productive diving grounds for paua, yet in my experience, the waters off Bluff may have been the worst. I’ve also found absolutely no evidence of sharks ever eating paua, and can’t imagine why (or how) a white shark would gnaw a snail from a rock.

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All morning long, trawlers like this came in and out of Bluff Harbor. Stewart Island in the background. Photo: Owen James Burke.

While many local fishermen of Bluff and Stewart Island want the diving operations shut down, I can’t help but wonder how, after diving in dozens of locations around New Zealand, this cold, quiet village could be so heavily depleted of paua, a resource once so abundant that the meat of the animal was deemed useless and hucked back into the sea, while the shell was sold back west as some otherworldly relic upon which to glue a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps it is not sharks that are the trouble, but people. In fact, sharks are often an indication of a (generally) healthy ecosystem, and encountering them is an assumed risk (and reward) each and every one of us conscious beings takes when we enter the water.

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At this moment, the two cameramen were at the mercy of two white sharks in their direct vicinity, which was when the crew’s guide puts them in their place. Screenshot from “Little Bitty Boats and Big Sharks Don’t Mix”.

Shark Dive New Zealand owner Peter Scott (whose charter the camera crew was on) told New Zealand’s Southland Times that white sharks have always been present in the Foveaux Strait, and fishermen, divers and sharks have been brushing shoulders since 1886 when Bluff’s first blue cod industry was established. Most people simply hadn’t been looking for them, as was once the case in South Africa, Australia and California.

Golfers accept they might be struck by lightening; truckers take to the road knowing an elk, a deer, or someone else’s drunken revelry could bring their own untimely ending; and politicians enter office knowing that at least someone, somewhere wants them dead. Why can’t water people accept that there will always be something bigger and hungrier than them in the water? –OJB

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(Almost) safe ashore, tossing a sea urchin onto the rocks for morning tea, catch bag–or chum sack, as you like–at hip. They called me ‘Sharkbait’ at my first job. I still haven’t figured out why. Photo courtesy of Owen James Burke.

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