Wednesday, March 9, 2016


A really big dogfish
 Every time I do any length of a Southland Beach there is something to remind me that there are sharks not too far away.  Each whale carcase cast ashore has shark bites – often White-pointer damage where large chunks of flesh are torn away.  They also have scars from cookie-cutter sharks which take out small nips of flesh – ouch.  There are often skulls, lengths of vertebrae and whole sharks usually dogfish.  Some of these will have been hooked or netted and cast aside, and a few of the larger examples have been filleted.  There are several species of small dogfish which live in shallow water feeding on shellfish, starfish and other small critters.  These have tiny teeth.  A few times I’ve found a bigger shark – Seven-gilled shark, Mako and Porbeagle.

The Mako had a decent set of choppers on him and the group of kids I was with were keen to extract them.  He was cast up on a remote, rocky beach and had been dead a week or two – leaking, a mass of flies, bloated and altogether unfit for human consumption.  The first kid tried to wiggle a fang out but got his hand badly slashed on the vicious rows of teeth.  Found bandages.  Second kid got slashed as well.  Found more bandages.  My turn.  The only weapon was a blunt pocketknife but I dived in and got badly slashed.  Found the last of the bandages.  After that, we gave him up as a bad job.  I’ve picked up the occasional stingray and I’ve got five spines.  Vicious things, and you will remember that Steve Irwin was done in with one.  I guess if you annoy the wildlife enough you have to expect a reaction.   I haven’t found a White-pointer yet but I have one White-pointer tooth.  It came from the Tory Channel Whaling station where they harpooned the odd large shark and got a few Killer whales as well but found that the latter had no blubber worth processing.  Sharks of course have no blubber either;  being cold blooded they don’t need the insulation, and their large oily liver helps with buoyancy the way blubber does on a marine mammal.

Rays are related to sharks.  Neither has bones but instead, a skeleton of cartilage. About half the shark species and ray produce live young and half lay eggs.  Three sorts of eggs wash ashore once the baby has hatched.  Skate eggs are rectangular, Carpet shark eggs have long tendrils and Elephant fish eggs are massive, flattened, black oddities, sometimes cast up in large numbers.

An elephant fish egg case with a baby

Some of the local species are edible.  Lemon fish is skate and Elephant fish or Ghost shark goes into fish and chips.  Some are inedible and we had an encounter with one of these once.  On one scout camp we had, for some misguided reason, decided to have fish as our main, and only, source of meat.  Visiting the wharf, Phil spotted a large shark about five feet long lying on the deck of a fishing boat.  “How much?” he asked.  I think it cost $5.

We bore to camp, tail waving out the back window.

It was surprisingly hard but eventually slices were carved off the tail end and cooked in the camp oven where they solidified.  We tried boiling some of it but it had so much ammonia in it that we couldn’t stomach it.  The emergency food supply was a large tin of St George baked beans.  You may remember St George, a Dunedin firm that disappeared decades ago.  The tin had been around for many years and it had put in a fair mileage but it had always seemed a shame to open it.  We had got quite fond of it.  Also, because of the shabby nature of the tin, if had almost certainly rusted and become suffused with botulism.

The ceremonial opening proved that they made tins to last in them days and that the beans had survived their years of incarceration in good health.  We slowly ate our way through them over the next day.  They had a rich flavour I haven’t encountered since.  It was possibly the St George recipe, but perhaps they had matured like old cheese

We stopped at Waihola on the way home and pooling their funds, the scouts bought some proper food - $10 worth of fish and chips.  Mind you this was 1978.  It took two scouts to carry the package which was about the size of a fertiliser sack.  Back in those days 50c fish and chips was about all you could handle.  “We’re never eating shark again ever,” they announced.  I wonder if they knew what the fish part of fish and chips is?

We left the shark in Lake Waihola, carefully arranged to show that it had washed ashore after having been bitten in half by an even larger shark.  No point in wasting it.

Finally, some advice on what to do in a shark attack…

  •     Don't swim in the sea.  99% of all shark attacks take place in the sea.
  •     In the event that you are foolish enough to swim in the sea listen carefully for the music.  All shark attacks are preceded by `daah-da, daah-da'  which gradually becomes more rapid as the shark gets closer.
  •     Swim with slow people.  This way you don’t have to swim faster than the shark, you only have to swim faster than your friends.
  •     Play dead.  This won’t work as sharks eat dead stuff as well but you have nothing to lose.  When the shark continues to show interest you might as well fight back.  Try to get in a few well-aimed punches before you die.  This doesn’t apply to White-pointers as they are a protected species.
  •     Don't panic.  This won't help you to survive but people on the beach will appreciate you not yelling as this is quite unsettling.