Had a birthday party last night and in a chat with a friend I mentioned that the previous weekend I had been in Bluff, the southernmost town in New Zealand.
“Why the hell would you go there?” they asked.
So I thought about it. Three reasons.
Oysters, sharks and geographical extremities.
Let’s deal with the extremities first.
Many travellers go to Bluff because Stirling Point, on the southern edge of the village, is often regarded as the southernmost point in the country.
It isn’t, of course, but that hasn’t stopped the signpost there being the most photographed road-sign in the country.
It’s an interesting debate about which is, in fact, the southernmost point, and that depends on which definition of “New Zealand” you choose. Stewart Island, further south across Foveaux Strait is most certainly part of “New Zealand” and therefore the island’s South Cape could, with some validity, claim the southernmost honour.
But by that reasoning sub-antarctic Macquarie Island could also make the same claim.
And let’s not even get into a constitutional debate about the status of the Ross Dependency in Antarctica.
Stirling Point isn’t even the southernmost tip of the South Island. Slope Point in the nearby Catlins region takes that prize. A drive through the Catlins to visit Slope Point is one of the great road trips in the country. Well worth the time.
So what about the oysters?
One of the things that surprised me was how woefully the town promotes this most famous of delicacies. It is hard, in fact, to get a feed of them. The two restaurants in the village naturally have them on the menu but no great feature is made of them.
Oyster Cove, the flashest of the pair, offered them “naturelle”, along with two or three other versions, but they came with coleslaw and chips. Chips?! With natural oysters? What are they thinking?
I asked the waitperson if I could have half a dozen without the chips and slaw.
She seemed a bit bemused by the idea.
“It won’t change the price,” she retorted.
“I’m not worried about the price. I just don’t want oysters mucked around with chips,” I said.
When they arrived they were perfectly fine. Served on a plate with a slice of lemon.
But how much more spectacular could that have been.
First, ditch the bloody chips. And the slaw.
Serve them on a platter of shaved ice.
Make a show of it. Turn it into a performance.
After all, this is one of only three reasons to even be here.
And, by the way, they were not cheap. $34 for half a dozen. That would exceed even Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd prices unless I am much mistook.
And so to the sharks.
There are only five places in the world where you can dive to see Great White sharks and right here from Bluff is one of them.
Thus it was on a chilly Saturday morning as the sun rose over the sea, I was on the good ship (boat?) Southern Isle bouncing our way across Foveaux Strait towards Stewart Island.
Anchored up in the lee of one of the small islets off-shore of the main island we were suited up in heavy wet-suits and coached in the use of air supply mouth-pieces.
Then came the wait. The skipper and Macca, his dive master, set out berley and chum – fish bits – to attract the attention of the sharks.
Mike Haines, the skipper and owner of The Shark Experience, explained that a colony of young males congregates here every year. Eventually the females arrive, but so do the big boys, the alpha males, looking for a bit of house-yer-father. When the mating season is over they disperse to points all over the Pacific, only to return again the following year.
It is this pack that we are hoping to lure to the boat side.
“The berley will attract them,” said Mike,”and being curious they will hang around for a while but they get bored quickly so we have to perk up their interest. The divers in the water do that – they are blowing bubbles, banging around in the cage and even giving of tiny electric signals that the sharks sense”.
So we wait. And wait. And wait.
Are we going to be the unlucky trip this season that doesn’t get to see them?
Suddenly there’s a yell. Shark! Shark!
Sure enough cruising about a metre down you can see the dark grey blur of a large fish. Showtime, and the entertainers are arriving.
Mike hustles the crowd of about 15 divers into position.
“Go down and get a quick look then come up again. That way everybody gets to see it”.
What he really means is that if this is it then we can all claim to at least have seen a great white. Contract satisfied.
He needn’t have worried. Within minutes a second animal shows up.
From there on we could hop in and out of the cage as we liked.
And we liked. Like, liked a lot.
Eventually there were four sharks ranging up to 4.8m long and weighing well over a tonne.
For the next three hours we clambered up and down into the cage to get seriously close up with these magnificent beasts. So close that I could have put my hand into the maw of one that came straight at me, stopping only when his pointed nose bumped the steel of the cage.
He looked almost as though he was grinning at me.
For a moment I could look into the black void of his eye and we carefully (in my case very carefully) sized each other up before he slipped sideways and glided away.
Back on deck, shivering a bit with the cold, I was asked if I wanted to go down again. Damn right I do, cold or no cold.
Eventually we had all had our fill of shark sightings so it was into the pies, sandwiches and hot soup for lunch as the crew upped the anchor and we bumped and thumped our way back to Bluff.
Summary: It was one of the most exciting nature encounters I have ever had. Was I scared, as many people seem to think should be the case? Not a bit.
Apart from the protection offered by a well-designed, well constructed steel cage, I got the impression that the animals were not really that interested in us as a meal.
Apparently most shark attacks are a mistake. The fish, possibly thinking that what they can sense is a seal, takes a bite, doesn’t like the taste and spits the victim out.
Unfortunately for the victim that may be sans an arm or leg.
No, I wasn’t scared. Fascinated, yes.. Exhilarated, definitely. Intrigued, absolutely. Ultimately a sense of supreme admiration for these beautiful animals. Dangerous, certainly. But finally, perfection in evolution.
Would I do it again?
Sign me up, Mike.
Find out more at https://www.sharkexperience.co.nz/