Nathan Pettigrew is just one man in a plastic kayak with a paddle and a camera strapped to a stick. Armed with his love for the ocean and strong arms, he captures so much.


“I often paddle out to Motiti, cook a curry on the beach for lunch and paddle back. It’s about a 37 km round trip. I’m always looking at the water; what many might discard as being a rock or weed, I take the time to look at: its shape, colour and relationship to its environment. Often, it will suddenly move. I’m lucky now that my eyes have been trained to see these things, there’s not much gets past me.”

Nathan bounces into Tay St Café in Mt Maunganui for our interview with skipping, joyous energy. He exudes health and fun. He has a puppy like excitement at the prospect of being interviewed for UNO. ‘Sorry, I keep talking non-stop.’

I assure him that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He doesn’t stop smiling the whole time we are chatting. Mat, our publisher, has come along too to meet Nathan, such is his appeal. We end up spending a few hours all together, eventually joined by my mother too, having lunch and a few beers in the sunshine. Nathan is excellent company.

Have a look on Facebook. Nathan posts masses of videos shot from the pole on the back of his kayak with the kind of footage which makes you want to get out and see what he sees, particularly when it’s obvious just how close he is to the coastline. Many of the videos have the familiar shapes of the Mount and Matakana island close in the background.

“One day I went for dinner at a friend’s house. We had fish. It was absolutely delicious so I asked him where he had got it. He told me he had caught it that day whilst fishing from his kayak. The next day I went out and bought one. I started to see lots of marine life on my kayak trips so I bought a waterproof camera. My first photo of an orca was pretty blurry, but I was hooked.

“Around that time, there was lots of negativity on Facebook surrounding sharks and our relationship with them. I started to post short video-clips and photos of my interactions with the animals in an attempt to change the tide. I’m certainly no cinematographer – my camera is attached to a pole, held in place with four pieces of string.”

“I generally see bronze whalers, hammerheads, makos, orcas, stingrays, all sorts. In Tonga recently, we saw zebra sharks, surely the most beautiful animal in the ocean. I rarely get nervous out there, even though it’s just me in a plastic shape on a huge ocean filled with magnificent creatures. If a bronze whaler comes close, I tap the water with my paddle and they swim off. Recently a mako came up for a nosy around. I tapped the water and he opened his jaws. I paddled off rather smartly, until I remembered I was trying to get away from the second fastest animal in the ocean.

“Sharks don’t make me too wary, they are fairly predictable. Seals are a different story, they have bared their teeth at me in the past, enough to make me nervous.

“The orcas all have their own personalities and markings which make it easy to identify them.

“It’s important to know when you should and when you shouldn’t be around marine animals. It has taken me years of observation and research to be at the stage where I can just paddle out and look for life.

“Although I go out lots on my own, enthusiasts often ask to come out and join me. There can be a naivety about the ocean though. I have been told before, ‘I’m taking Monday off, so let’s go out at 11am – I want to see a bronze whaler and an orca. I’m not too bothered about seals though’.”

Nathan’s favourite person to out kayaking with is his better half, Karina. I ask him to talk about her.

“She’s amazing,” he says, the smile widening. “I met Karina in the Kathmandu shop in Tauranga. She was two weeks into a three month locum contract at Tauranga hospital, over here from upstate New York. I had two and a half months to persuade her to stay. That was eight years ago.”

Kayaking isn’t his day job. Carving is. “Lots of my carvings are inspired by what I see. Everything goes into the pieces. There’s much mana in each one. I sell every single one through Facebook giving 24 hours notice. As soon as I put photographs of the piece up, they are sold in under five minutes.”

With certain carvings, Nathan donates all proceeds to organisations that put time and effort into making the ocean a better place for his favourite ocean inhabitants. Recently, Nathan donated a carving to Project Jonah to help the organisation when whale strandings occur. He has also donated to organisations that bring awareness to the atrocity of shark finning.

“One year I walked up Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano which is considered sacred in Hawaii. At the top there was a man protesting about the use of this sacred land for profit.

“We talked about his cause and the message he was trying to convey. He said Hawaiians were losing Hawaii. The observatories and telescopes from eleven different countries on top of Mauna Kea were wrong, he felt. It would be like NASA sticking a telescope on top of Mount Maunganui. I gave him a carving I had been wearing and he gave me a bamboo flute.

“People often ask me to do commissions, but I only take a select few. Everything I make has so many connections and meaning and comes from the heart. I drew the line on commissions when I was asked to carve a wolf with an eagle’s head.”

“Although I did a bone-carving course when I was 16 years old, I only started making pieces to sell eight years ago. I have had a fair few jobs in my time; Bang & Olufsen salesman, doorman, dance teacher – I won a Michael Jackson body-popping competition back in the day.”

Kayaking in the surf and out in the open water is what really gets Nathan’s mega-watt smile beaming.

“I’m often offered sponsorship for filming on the kayak but I never take it. I want to be able to go exactly where I want to go, and when I want to go. It’s so beautiful and enjoyable, I don’t want to be dictated to by any other motivation than my own.”