Our marine educator columnist Nathan Pettigrew spends a day with sharks off the Bay of Plenty coast.


Within Tauranga Harbour and all along our beautiful coastline is the most spectacular marine life. From eagle rays, to seals, to marauding orca, we’re fortunate to have opportunities to see what lies on Mauao’s doorstep.

But I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and embark on a day trip slightly further offshore, past the 10km mark that I often paddle out to in my kayak. For this trip, I wanted to view our local blue shark species and see exactly what’s lurking in the deep.

It’s a bit of a stretch to get out there in a kayak, so I needed a boat. If the weather turned nasty 30km offshore, it’d be a long way to paddle back to safety, so I borrowed a great vessel for the day and got my camera kit ready.

In the past, New Zealand has been one of the worst countries in the world for finning sharks, the practice that sees fins cut off for the Asian market – often to be added to bowls of soup. It’s hard to believe we provided a large amount of these shark fins, thoughtlessly throwing away the lives of one of the ocean’s most magnificent predators. Shark finning still happens today, but has been better regulated since laws were passed in 2014 and public awareness of the issue grew.

Heading straight for Tuhua (Mayor Island), I find myself in 70m of water with a large hammerhead shark (above), so I fire off some shots with my telephoto lens. Hammerheads have distinctive dorsal fins as they’re relatively big compared to other sharks of the same size. They’re a thrill to watch and people from around the world travel miles to see them. I think it’s fair to call this a bucket-list shark.

Three more adult hammerheads come into view, as well as a few newborns closer to shore, before they make their way further out – and then, a blue shark appears. With their huge pectoral fins and brilliant blue colour, blue sharks are unmistakable, with a slightly dopey but utterly beautiful appearance. I’m not fooled by this one’s good looks, however; I know that it has one of the speediest bites of any of the world’s 370-plus species of shark. Thanks to its brilliant colour, especially when the light catches its body, I feel like I’m staring at beauty in its purest form.

Next, I’m treated to an incredible encounter with around 100 common dolphins (above), and then, as I’m about to set off for home, something catches my eye (below). I slow down and turn back to find out what went under the boat. Suddenly, a dorsal fin breaks the surface and a large, dark shape cruises past. Initially thinking it’s a great white due to its size, I soon realise it’s a huge mako shark. One of the fastest fish in the ocean, it looks like a sleek torpedo that could take off at any minute, but it turns out it’s more intent on cruising than getting away. It seems to have a complete lack of fear and total confidence. After 10 minutes, I leave it be.

Sharks are an incredibly important link in the food chain because they keep our oceans clean and healthy by feeding on weak or already dead sea life, such as whales, and limit the numbers of prey below them in the food chain. Without sharks, the system falls apart, as do
our oceans.

If you want to enjoy some of the marine wildlife in the Bay of Plenty that you may not be lucky enough to spot from the shore, I suggest jumping on one of the area’s wildlife and dolphin tour boats. You never know what might catch your eye.   

Nathan Pettigrew holds a marine mammal permit from the Department of Conservation.