Surveying the mysterious basking shark

Lizzy Sutcliffe —  22/01/2010

This week I had the incredible privilege of witnessing a lone orca from a tiny plane and I’m still buzzing from the experience!

I dream about the ocean, both when I’m awake and asleep, so when I found out about the chance to help out on an aerial survey of the milky-turquoise waters off Banks Peninsula – primarily looking for basking sharks – I jumped at the chance.

Initiated by DOC’s scientific officer, Clinton Duffy, after securing funding from National Geographic, this survey was the second of ten planned over the next couple of months. Previous research carried out by Clinton on white sharks led to their gaining protected status in New Zealand. 

From left to right: Fraser, Euan and Wayne

From left to right: Fraser, Euan and Wayne

I joined biodiversity rangers, Wayne Beggs and Fraser Maddigan, and expert on marine birds, Euan Kennedy, on this week’s flight. Covering the coastline from Brighton, around Banks Peninsula and south to the Rakaia, these shark surveys will also pick up on other noteworthy species for the area such as seabirds and marine mammals.

Sharks have been receiving a global hammering over the years from (amongst other things) bycatch in deep-water trawl fisheries, coastal set nets, the shark-fin industry and human prejudice towards these awesome fish.

Little is known about the massive (up to 12 m) but harmless, plankton-feeding, basking shark, once hunted for its huge liver.

When a similar survey of the area was carried out in the 90s, up to 52 basking sharks were witnessed in a single day and the department is interested to see how the results from this survey will compare. Things weren’t looking so good today with just two possible sightings of unidentified shark species. 

We did, however, spot several Hector’s dolphins, seals and a bait-ball bombarded by sea birds, on the cloudy flight, plus some spectacular views of Banks Peninsula’s impressive topography. The highlight for me was the sighting of a stunning orca apparently feeding at the surface several kilometres out to sea.  

Banks Peninsula coastline

Banks Peninsula coastline

We’d love to hear from you if you have any information regarding shark sightings in the area. Just call or email Wayne at Mahaanui Area Office in Christchurch ph + 64 3 341 9100 or

Lizzy Sutcliffe


Originally from the UK, I have been lucky enough to discover this amazing country through my work as Media Advisor for DOC's National Media Team.