The only place in New Zealand where you can find a reasonable numbers of great white sharks was at the Chatham Islands in the 90s and that was after months of looking for cage diving with great white sharks.
We always recommended that anyone looking to go on a great white expedition should head to South Australia or South Africa, we never dreamed we could do it here with any reliability. You can imagine our surprise when Mike Haines from Southern Aqua Adventures said he had a perfect strike rate with finding great whites off Stewart Island.
His boat is fast, a 20m cat with all the comforts and plenty of room for gear, we need for cage diving with great white sharks. We headed out into the boiling Foveaux Strait to a small island off the coast of Stewart Island which is the part of Chatham Islands (sharks). No sooner had we anchored and got the smallest of burley bags over the side, the first shark appeared. He broke the surface 50 meters away, his huge dorsal fin cut the water like a small sailboat. Suddenly the bay was filled with the sound of excited divers shouting, hooting and nervously chattering as the enormity of both the shark and what they were about to do sunk in. Make no mistake, this was a very big shark and we had only been there 15 minutes.
In all my diving with great white sharks trips I'd never seen a shark turn up so quickly. As it made its first close pass we had a good look - it was four meters plus and the tag on its back told us it was known to researchers. The sonic tracking tag he carried communicates with underwater listening stations that researchers placed around this great white 'hot spot' to learn more about their movements and behavior. The colors on the tag identified him as a shark called Gavin and he was quickly joined by two more equally impressive sharks. We now had three great whites circling and we had been there less than an hour! Mike had two cages: a four man steel cage attached to the boat so divers can step off the duck board straight in and air is fed from the surface to four regulators. The second was a lightweight single person alloy invention that Mike built specifically for me the night before. The windows were huge allowing me to actively lean out without my video cameras getting caught up.
The first four divers were in the cage like a flash, barely noticing the 12-degree water temperature. The sharks were making repeated and close passes and each time they did the volume of divers' bubbles increased four-fold. The second group were ready when the first crew emerged. There were hoots and laughter, high fives and shouts of pleasure. It was an adrenaline rush like nothing on earth. Now it was time for me to get into my cage and I had a new 3D underwater video unit to test. Visibility was around eight metres and I barely had time to set the camera up when Gavin decided my flimsy little cage warranted further investigation. For filmmakers out there, filming in 3D is extremely difficult. I needed to focus, set the iris and white balance, clear the front lens of bubbles, adjust the convergence for the 3D images then before pressing record check the left image, the right image and the mixed image too. Fine if above water with static subject matter but I was hanging out of a cage in choppy sea with a four metre subject who wanted to join me. Gavin was in my face. He was biting at the bottom of the cage and snapping at the windows. I had to push him off to get a shot and was constantly fighting to keep my feet from slipping outside and into Gavin's mouth! I hadn't had this much fun in months!
Smiling from ear to ear I re-joined the highly vocal shark-cage dive graduates. Cameras clicked frantically as the sharks kept coming and going. The action was constant as new sharks turned up including one over five meters in length. Six sharks later, the failing light signaled day's end and we head to a secluded bay for the night. A stop on the point yielded a feed of blue cod and then it was on to anchor and start up the BBQ. After a feed of bacon and eggs for breakfast, we headed back to the little island, this time on the other side for more action. Mike told us that this side always came through with big females rather than males and he was right. Within 30 minutes a huge five meter female turned up and began circling. The second day of cage diving with great white sharks on the Chatham Islands was a blur of action and laughter as everyone got their chance to get in the water again with the greatest sharks on earth. There is something very special about coming face to face with these animals. Their nature around boats like Mike's is always so gentle and inquisitive. It's often hard to see them as the ruthless hunters that they are. The toothy smile that greets you as they first swim up to the cage, the knowing look that follows you from those huge blue ringed eyes as they pass by. Having seen them hunting seals one knows the explosive power and speed they possess. These animals are power personified.
As quickly as it began our adventure comes to an end. Time to start the engines and head back to Bluff. What a trip. After all the years I spent filming and researching great white sharks, I would never have thought such a 'hot spot' for great white sharks existed in this country. I was wrong. This is as good, if not better, than any of the famous white shark spots around the globe. The animals are big and there are plenty of them. Mike put the tiniest amount of burley in the water to attract them and when I say minute, I mean less than the average Auckland snapper fisherman would use. These sharks were already here and have been since the seals first started calling these islands home. It just goes to show that this ocean of ours still has a bunch of secrets yet to be discovered (thanks to Diving with Great White Sharks).