Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Taranaki Terror" has negative influence on community!

Of course, they saw it only when they stopped looking. It was Wednesday evening last week, the sun was beginning to set, and researchers Clinton Duffy, Demian Chapman and DoC officer Bryan Williams were bobbing off the coast of New Plymouth in their 6m aluminium boat, Orca. They'd been cruising the grey-blue waters all day, hunting for a great white shark, rumoured to be up to 6m long, that has enthralled the coastal community for the past three weeks. The local Daily News, delighted with a genuine summertime story, has dubbed it the "Taranaki Terror", a nickname which does not even slightly amuse researchers and DoC officers.

Duffy, 41, is a real shark fan, who was fascinated by the creatures even before Jaws inflamed our collective unconscious with that sinister cello heartbeat. He saw his first shark aged 4, sitting in the back of his dad's boat off the Wairarapa coast, open-mouthed as it swept through the dark below. Now a marine scientist, he has spent 15 years devoting weekends and holidays to his passion, attending international shark conferences and recording data on shark numbers around New Zealand.

When he heard the media reports of a giant great white off Taranaki the previous weekend, Duffy was on his honeymoon in the Bay of Plenty. He waited until Wednesday before rushing to New Plymouth to attempt satellite-tagging the shark. "I didn't break off my honeymoon - I'm not quite that obsessed." With Chapman, a researcher from the US-based Pew Institute for Ocean Science, Duffy tried spotting the shark from a hired plane, then went out on the water and spent about six hours spreading a trail of burley - a chopped-up bait mix of fishy swill.

As the light faded, they stopped in the Sugarloaf Islands/Nga Motu Marine Park to allow a cameraman, also in the boat, to get some pictures of the setting sun. "Then I just saw it, in front of us, at least 4m long, leaping out of the water after a seal, going a million miles an hour," Duffy says. "It's not polite to actually repeat what I said ... something like 'Oh **** look at this bloody big shark!"' Williams slammed the boat forward the 600m towards where the shark had been. But all they found were "three seals going for their lives towards the horizon".

It was luck and frustration - so close, but not nearly close enough for tagging, which would have helped increase scientists' scant knowledge of great white behaviour. Over the past three weeks, this shark - or several different sharks, or a pod of orcas, or "a complete load of bloody hype", depending upon whom you talk to - has been silently cruising up and down the coast, creating a frenzy on shore.

Surfers and jetskiers and fishermen have seen it (for it has become a singular beast in the public mind, this lone Terror) leaping for prey or hovering beneath their boats. A pair of kayakers claimed it ripped a seal to shreds, splattering them with blood. Oakura beach was briefly closed after one sighting. Surfer Stefan Freeman, 26, laughs about getting eaten, then picks up his longboard and runs out into the breakers. Tour-boat operator Dave "Happy Chaddy" Chadfield has rigged up four wooden shark-fins around the Sugarloaf Islands to thrill his customers. "I can guarantee you, by the time those pictures get back to England or Sweden or wherever, they will be real shark-fins," Chadfield says.

Everyone who comes in to buy a pair of bathers or a wetsuit at Taranaki Hard Core surf shop cracks a shark joke, says manager Phil Dwyer. All the boaties have heard rumours of hunters travelling to the coast to kill the shark for its jaw - potentially worth up to $30,000 - but all say they hope it will be left alone.

The recreational fishermen are irritated with DoC for trying to attract the shark, while DoC's Bryan Williams says reckless kayak fishermen are risking their lives by fishing in flimsy craft close to the shark's feeding spot, a seal colony. At the Hunting and Fishing New Zealand store by the port, $19.95 will get you a T-shirt emblazoned with "I'm not afraid of the Great White Shark" on the front and the more succinct "Bite Me" on the back.

The shark that zoomed out of the water 20m in front of Boyd Rutherford's boat last Friday was bigger than he had ever expected, nearly as big as his 6.5m boat Spot On, as he and friend Paul Drought slowly motored southwards along the coast after a morning's fishing. "There was a flock of birds sitting on top of the water and all of a sudden it just came rushing out. Nearly its entire body was out of the water ... You just have no idea how big they are until you see them," says Rutherford, 26, a quietly spoken butcher and fisherman, smiling at the memory as he guides the boat through the hilly seas around the Sugarloaf Islands.

After seeing the shark, Rutherford radioed friend Kevin Moratti, aboard a nearby boat. "You're not allowed to swear on the radio channels, so Boyd just said, 'Oh f.f.f ... far out, you'll never believe what we've just seen'," laughs Moratti, who is chairman of the Taranaki chapter of Recreational Fishers New Zealand. He thinks DoC's spreading of burley is putting divers and kayak fishermen in danger. "How would they like it if I trawled a silhouette of a DoC officer off the back of my boat and burleyed up?"

A group of six salty old surfie mates lean on their cars at the end of Belt Rd, reminiscing about their 40 years in and around these waters. John "Horse" McLeod admits to taking a very close look at a patch of seaweed which floated by as he was waiting for a wave on Thursday. "You forget about it once you're in the wave," McLeod says. "The sharks are just part of the playground." The great white record * The world's largest predatory fish, they are found up to 7m long and weighing two tonnes.* Got a bad name after the 1975 movie Jaws.*

Their common prey includes fish, seals, sealions and dolphins.* They are not as common as other large sharks - such as hammerheads - off our coasts.* Their hunting strategy is to strike once, inflicting massive wounds and leaving victims in an incapacitated state, and then return later to finish the job.*

Last known attack: February 2003, on diver Alistair Ferr in Foveaux Strait He needed 60 stitches in his arm.* Last known fatal attacks: the 1960s, off the Otago coast, where several occurred on surfers and surf lifesavers. And one fatal attack at Oakura, Taranaki, when 14-year-old Rae Keightley was mauled by a great white in 1966.


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