Can You see all of NZ in five weeks?
Not really! But it's simply a return to a destination I left a few years ago with different diving gear and better cameras this time. Also on this trip a DJI photo/video drone accompanied my luggage to the land down-under.
My New Zealand bucket list included:
• Shark Cage Diving with Great Whites Sharks (GWS) out of Bluff, South Island)
• Filming local dolphins underwater in Kaikoura (Dusky/Common/Hector)
• Filming Sting Rays, sharks, marine life around Poor Knights Islands
• Filming Gannets and other sea birds in colonies and/or in their fishing habitats.
1. DIVING WITH GREAT WHITES (Bluff, South Island)
I learned about the story of GWS been around the Steward Island area for quite some time. Since about ten years a local dive operator Shark Dive in Bluff started this safe diving with GWS in a spacious aluminum cage ( 1.5mt x 4mt x 2mt)
We left the harbor in Bluff around 7 a.m. The weather was ugly and windy. Although the protected harbor didn't indicate what kind of weather we may have to expect, but so far it looked pretty calm.
Once in the open the sea became more choppy. Westerly wind brought in more nasty wave action, even a little drizzle set in. Not a sunny weekend trip we all been looking for.
2 hours out of the harbor we approached a few small islands East of Stewart Island. I have been told that most of them have been claimed by the local Maori iwis (clan, tribe) and used for harvesting Paua (Abalones) and fish (mostly King Fish and Snapper). This steered up some dust when the "Shark Dive" operation started.
The Paua divers expressed concerns about baiting and chumming (fish pieces and liquids dropped in the sea) to attract the sharks to the boat. They felt exposed to possible attacks by the GSW when free diving for the abalones, particularly when the water was steered up and murky.
When I confronted the owner and captain of the shark diving boat he told me an interesting story. Years before he started diving with GWS he fished and dived these waters and often saw large sharks around. Fishing also creates various attraction to sharks; fish smells when caught and on the hook, acoustic vibrations when fish were hooked and finally sea birds and electromagnetic vibrations.
" The sharks have been around this era for a very long time" told me the captain and "there is no proof that chumming and the human activities underwater attracted more large sharks.
Studies in Florida's waters also unvailed interesting results when dive operators were chumming sharks there were not more attacks on divers, surfers and swimmers. Now years after baiting and chumming is illegal in Florida attacks have not changed in these waters. Most interaction with sharks (lemon, bull, tiger sharks) happened in busy beaches and surfing areas not were shark diving charters operated.
Also, the captain said. Over those years he collected a lot of information about the pattern and timing of GSW appearance. "We don't know what attracts them here", he said. The DOC (Dept. Of Conservation) has not enough funding to tag GSW in these waters to find out where the sharks come from and where they go. But the captain had lots of pictures of sharks and most data about numbers, sizes, gender and appearance collected over the course of ten years. But he will keep them for himself, he said.
Also there is a colony of fur seals in the vicinity of the island the main source of food for GSW. The cold, nutrient rich waters around the most Southern part of New Zealand seem to attract these large predators. The same can be said about Tasman Island, South Australia and Shark Alley in South Africa.
After this informative conversation the Shark Dive crew continued chumming the sea between two small islands with a significant current between. Over the course of seven hours they baited over 20 Abalone Tunas (bought from overstocked restaurants) and not a single shark fin appeared.
The waves picked up and nasty winds forced the captain to return to port. We all agreed, it was not worth hanging around any longer.
2. DIVING WITH DUSKY DOLPHINS (Kaikoura)
Once I left Bluff I drove back to Christchurch to rethink my plans and arrange gear. Next trip on my list; Kaikoura NE of the South Island, recently shaken by a severe earthquake ( 7.8 Magnitude). Most access routes were closed due to landslides, shifts and cracks.
The inland Highway #7 made it possible to get into this tiny tourist destination, known for dolphin excursions and sperm whale watching as well as observing newly born New Zealand Fur Seals (which are in fact sea lions).
Meandering through the hilly back country of the Canterbury District I finally reached Kaikoura, still in after shock of the Earthquake that happened during the night of November 16th 2016. Most damage occurred by landslides covering streets and rail ways and also to a home of an elderly couple who lost their lives when the house was destroyed by a land slide.
The small town appeared very quiet when I pulled in, older buildings were packed in scaffolding and marked as "UNSAFE TO ENTER". The old mortar in the walls had crumpled and made some historic hotels and the town museum uninhabitable.
The Dolphin Encounter Tour office was reopened and they signed me in for a full day cruise and snorkel with Dusky Dolphins.
I packed my belongings and headed down to the front street of Kaikoura to sign in for the Dolphin Snorkel Trip. In the presentation room we followed a briefing and fins, hood and wetsuit were handed out. Once everybody was geared up we met at the shuttle bus to get a short ride to the North side of the Kaikoura peninsula.
The skies were overcast but the wind died down, no ripples on the ocean - perfect for a smooth snorkel day with the dolphins.
Shortly after we left the boat ramp we saw the first pod (term for dolphin school) and stopped. We all pulled up our wetsuits, put the mask on the face and fins on feet and off we jumped into the cold morning sea.
Our guides told us to make noises under water, so I could hear screaming and squeaking as the snorkelers stuck their heads under water. I followed their example but had to laugh. It sounded like a bunch of piglets screaming under water. The dolphins came very close and approached us in high speed, missing the snorkelers by inches. They gave us an amused look and disappeared in the blue. This game went on for a while but soon the dolphins vanished in the distance. They lost interest. Back on the boat we took off again, circled the pod and repeated the launch of the snorkel group. Again the dolphins came back.
I held my underwater camera in the direction where I expected to see dolphins and filmed them as they swiftly swam by. At the end I had quite a few good sequences taken but if was not easy shooting footage with a too buoyant wetsuit. My legs dangled on the surface and it was uneasy to keep up with the dolphins circling.
Follow this link to see the live clip. Dolphin Encounter