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Shark scare at Palliser

A diver off South Wairarapa’s coast has come face to face with the ocean’s largest predatory fish but the encounter fortunately only resulted in a fright rather than significant injuries.

Mid-afternoon on Thursday, Ngawi Sports Fishing Club sent out an alert that a commercial pāua diver had come across a great white shark while in the water in front of the seal colony at Kupe Sail east of Ngawi.

The club reported that the diver “is all good but has had a huge scare”.

Department of Conservation [DOC] technical marine advisor Clinton Duffy told the Times-Age the agency understood a diver was attacked by a great white shark in Palliser Bay and sustained only minor injuries.

“While the incident is unfortunate, we do know that attacks of this nature are very rare. Most encounters between humans and great white sharks do not result in bites.”

Marine biologist and shark conservationist Riley Elliot said it wasn’t a huge surprise to him to hear about a great white shark hanging out along Wairarapa’s coastline.

“It’s 100 per cent common because sharks live in the ocean,” Elliot said.

“It sounds tongue in cheek, but it’s a good statement to make because people tend to forget that.”

As Wairarapa’s coastline holds a “very healthy and productive marine environment”, Elliot said it is an attractive home for the large animals.

“There’s a lot of food like seals and other prey species in that area and relatively little human disturbance in the area,” Elliot said.

Believe it or not – animals tend to enjoy being away from humans.”

Elliot said it is normal for sharks to be curious, and that nudging with their noses is how they learn about their environment.

“A shark doesn’t have a hand, or a voice, so they nudge things to determine what they are,” Elliot said.

“It’s an inquisition, it’s a shark saying, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Can you get out of my supermarket because this is my spot’.”

In these situations, Elliot said the best practice is to remain calm and quietly exit the water.

“It’s understandable to get a fright if you’ve turned around and realise it’s not your dive buddy behind you, it’s a great white shark,” Elliot said.

“Don’t panic, because that’ll cause excitement.”

Duffy seconded that advice, adding that it’s advisable to “try to get the attention of anyone nearby, so they are aware of what is happening and can help if needed”.

“If you are diving, try to ascend under or as close to the boat as possible, or swim along the bottom to shore,” Duffy said.

Duffy said there have been regular sightings of great whites in Wairarapa waters, and DOC has not received recent reports in the area, the species is found throughout New Zealand waters from the Kermadec Islands to the Subantarctic Islands.

“Although the influence of climate on great whites is not well understood, they have a very broad temperature range and their presence at this site at this time of year is not surprising,” Duffy said.

“Adult and subadult great white sharks tend to congregate around New Zealand fur seal colonies to feed on seals, and offshore reefs and banks to feed on large fishes such as kingfish, trevally, and hapuku.

“There are several seal colonies in the area, and there were seals in the water with the divers prior to the attack.”

As species that sit near the top of marine food chains, Duffy said sharks are indicators of the marine environment’s health.

“A healthy ocean is one with lots of sharks,” Duffy said.

“As top predators, sharks maintain balance in ecosystems and keep things in order by stopping any single species from exploding in numbers and taking over.”

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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