A dreaded call perhaps, but sharks – regardless of how we feel about them – are an incredible species who do an important job as an apex predator, keeping ecosystems in balance.
What you may not know is that the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa, which is celebrating its 20th birthday, is an important shark/mangō nursery and feeding ground. Today is Shark Awareness Day, so we thought who better to ask than Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari (AWADS), also in their 20th year of operation, who are out scanning the ocean for all the species that make the Park so special. Skipper Andy Light of AWADS tells us in his own words about the sharks of the Gulf.
As head skipper for Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari, I’m lucky to explore one of the most abundant and diverse marine parks in the world as part of my job, the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. As well as dolphins, whales, seals and sea birds, we see many different species of shark in the Gulf.
Mainly we see bronze whalers, blues, mako, hammerheads and threshers. During the summer months we see them quite often as they come closer to shore. These months, when the water’s warmer, are breeding season. We see many baby hammerheads, as well as big mamas coming in to drop their pups. Our guests tend to think the baby hammerheads are really cute!
Hammerheads can be attracted to the electrical activity of the boat, so they’ll come right up between the hulls, which makes for great viewing. That’s how they hunt – they have sensors in their noses, which help them detect the electrical vibrations of their prey.
Some sharks are quite acrobatic. For example, makos love to leap out of the water, do big cartwheels and crash down again. Back when I was captaining game fishing boats in the Bay of Islands, we had a mako jump out, do a huge cartwheel and land on the lure.
There are 73 species of shark in New Zealand waters and some I’ve only seen once or twice, like the broadnose sevengill shark. I’ve not knowingly seen a great white shark in the Hauraki Gulf, but we know they’re out there. They’ve been seen right in as far as the Waitematā Harbour, and luckily, they’re now protected in our waters. There’s also been the occasional whale shark sighting in the outer Gulf – the largest species of shark in the world! As much as I like sharks, I’d have to say my favourites are the ones we see orca bring up to the side of the boat. We’ve seen orca with six-foot makos in their mouths! Orca will eat a great white shark for breakfast – so that’s the largest dolphin in the world, eating one of the world’s most feared predators.
When we spot a shark, the first thing I usually do is sing the theme from Jaws over the PA! Then I ask the passengers how many of them are scared of sharks – usually it’s all of them. The general perception from most of our guests is that sharks are our deadly enemy. Then I’ll remind them of the total number of shark fatalities in the Hauraki Gulf (a big fat zero) and the total worldwide (25-30 annually). In comparison, humans kill tens of thousands of sharks per year.
It’s important to understand that when we interact with sharks, we are in their environment and we should respect that. Sharks are fascinating animals and as predators they play a very important role keeping the balance of the food chain. You only need to look at the Sea of Cortez (in the Gulf of California, off the Pacific coast of Mexico) to understand the detrimental effect of removing sharks from the natural marine ecosystem. Overfishing since the 1950’s has depleted the shark population there, and, as a result, dramatically increased the population of the Humboldt squid to a reported 20 million. These huge squid are aggressive predators which have wiped out fisheries in the area and terrorised divers.
Sharks pose very little threat to humans. Up and down most of our New Zealand surf beaches there are bronze whalers all over the place, but we don’t let that stop us from going swimming. Annually, just 1-2 people are bitten by sharks in New Zealand.
There are other things you should be more scared of than sharks, like taking a selfie! More people are killed posing for selfies every year – or by drink vending machines falling on them – than by sharks.
On the other hand, humans have overfished sharks to the point that a quarter of shark (and rays – their close relatives) species are threatened with extinction and require action now. Sadly, many are killed for their fins, which is an absolute waste of these beautiful creatures.
That’s why I always tell our passengers, if you want to see the most dangerous animal in the world… look in the mirror.
Andy has been captaining whale and dolphin watching vessels for more than 20 years, around New Zealand and in the South Pacific. He has a life-long passion for preserving marine environments and protecting all the diverse species who have their homes there.
Shark Awareness Day
A recent review of the status of New Zealand sharks and their close relatives, rays, conducted by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group found that of New Zealand’s more than 103 species, only five – great white shark, basking shark, whale shark, oceanic whitetip shark, and school shark – are threatened, of which the whale shark and oceanic whitetip shark are not resident in New Zealand waters. While our populations are in much better shape than in many other parts of the world, populations of many deep-water sharks may have been reduced to low but stable levels.
Most sharks and rays are slow growing, long-lived animals that reach maturity late in life and produce relatively few young over their lifetimes. It suits species with few natural predators, but it also makes sharks and rays vulnerable to overfishing. The fact that many sharks and rays give birth in shallow coastal nursery areas that are used year after year by the same females also makes them vulnerable to pollution and habitat loss from coastal development.
DOC’s resident shark expert, Clinton Duffy, adds, ‘While some may think awareness of sharks, particularly in the media, probably doesn’t need to be raised any further, Shark Awareness Day is about drawing attention to the diversity of sharks and rays that are found world-wide, and the threats they face.” Find out more about the plight of sharks/mangō here, and how you can help them.
Love it, restore it, protect it.