An encounter with a great white shark in waters off a popular Tauranga playground is the latest in a series of sightings of the predator, sparking renewed concern that “someone’s going to get munched” unless the Department of Conservation take action.
Game fisherman Dustin Ward, from Mount Maunganui, had a “face-to-face” encounter with a great white last weekend when it leapt out of the water beside his boat.
“I did bugger all,” says Ward. “I just looked at it as it had my fish in its mouth. It surprised me when it jumped up out of the water, but it didn’t shock me – it probably came in looking for a bite to eat.”
Ward was reeling in a fish caught on his bait when he noticed a swell in the water.
“I was pulling it in smoothly then there was a swell in the water, which is normally calm. It rocked the boat a bit and there was tension like the line was caught on something, or something was pulling it.
“I was focusing on that, but next minute this shark leaps up with the fish in its mouth.”
The 28-year-old was fishing in Tauranga Harbour’s Otūmoetai channel, a body of water off the residential suburbs of Otūmoetai and Matua.
The channel flows onto two popular parks and beaches: Kulim Park at Otūmoetai and Fergusson Park in Matua. Both are popular areas with families and children and have playgrounds on the waterfront.
While not a regular haunt for fishing boats, Ward says the channel is popular with fly fishers who wade into the water on foot, while children, families and dogs often swim in the estuary.
Ward, who has been fishing for many years, says he is “100 per cent sure” it was a great white.
“I know my fish. I know how to tell. It wasn’t a bronze whaler – I can say 100 per cent it was a great white and it was around three metres.”
He also claims the number of sharks in Bay of Plenty waters has increased this year.
“There’s more fish in the channel, which is why they are coming in. This would have been the biggest one I’ve seen in this area, but I’ve seen a juvenile too – about two metres.”
Ward says he fully supports a DOC study.
“These great whites need to be monitored. Let's not wait until someone gets munched. If these sharks hang around until they are full-sized, it’s not a case of if it is going to happen, it’s a case of when.”
The last fatal shark attack in the Bay of Plenty was in January 2021, when Hamilton woman Kaelah Marlow died at the Bowentown end of Waihī Beach.
This was the first fatal shark attack in the region since 1976, when a spear fisherman was killed by a bronze whaler shark at Te Kaha – a small beach town near Ōpōtiki in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
Since the attack at Waihī Beach there have been a number of great white shark sightings over the past year, with videos posted online of sharks circling fishing boats and chasing fish.
In December 2021, two great white sharks washed up on Bowentown beach, near the scene of the fatal attack.
James Jacobs, president of Bay Boardriders in Mount Maunganui, says there has been an increase in great white sharks all summer, with sightings from both fishers and surfers.
He says there is a need for proper monitoring of the increased shark population in the Bay of Plenty to avoid a “Jaws situation”, and agrees with Ward that someone could be attacked, bitten or worse.
“The attack at Bowentown highlighted the issue, but it’s not just there, it’s throughout the coast,” says Jacobs.
“People need to know that when you go in the water, you need to be aware. It’s not like we need to panic, it doesn’t stop the surfers chasing the waves or people enjoying the beach.”
Fellow Mount surfer Vaughan Wilson, 52, also warned the community after a terrifying encounter and a near miss with a “3.5 metre monster” just off Matakana Island.
Wilson told Stuff that the shark was in hunting mode and “out to kill” as it leapt out of the water “jaws wide open”, narrowly missing a 14-year-old boy who was surfing with his father and Wilson nearby.
Jacobs is not surprised by Ward’s recent sighting.
“Before this year, if someone had told me there was a great white off Fergusson Park, I would have thought ‘no way’, because years ago, although there were sightings of great whites, there was not many and they were out in the ocean.
“This summer it’s clear that there are not only more of them, but they are coming closer to the beaches and harbours.”
World-renowned shark expert Dr Riley Elliott has also raised fears in the past that a lack of research could lead to more fatal attacks.
Elliott says he had applied for a permit before the fatal attack on Kaelah Marlow in January 2021, and before sharks were found dead in the Bowentown area later that year.
DOC marine technical advisor Clinton Duffy monitors shark sightings each month, and told Stuff that sightings of great whites have been reported all over the Bay of Plenty.
“Recent records have been from the Bowentown end of the harbour,” he says, “and I have a number of reliable and unconfirmed reports of great white sharks from the Western Channel and as far as Ōmokoroa.”
Duffy says it's not unusual to see great white sharks in Tauranga Harbour at this time of year, and the department’s advice is to exit the water quickly and calmly and report any sighting to DOC.
“Great white sharks of all sizes, particularly juveniles, feed in all the large harbours around the upper North Island, from Manukau Harbour on the west coast to Tauranga Harbour on the east.
“Harbours represent a normal part of their foraging habitat, and the stomach contents of white sharks caught in harbours that I have examined contain mainly fish such as snapper, small sharks and rays.”
Duffy says although it's unusual for sharks to attack humans, locals and visitors to the area should remain vigilant.
Following the increase in sightings in the region this summer, the DOC issued a warning to beach-goers.
“When we’re visiting the ocean, we need to be vigilant and aware of what’s happening around us,” he says.
“Sharks can come close to the shoreline, and if you are heading out on or into the water, you need to exercise caution.”
This could include swimming where there are surf lifesaving patrols and avoiding swimming in the main harbour channels and more than 50 metres from the shore.
DOC also recommends people not to swim or dive alone or throw berley from kayaks and jet skis when fishing.
Duffy says it is common for great whites to develop preferences for certain sites and return regularly.
Previous estimates of the great white population was around 750 adults, shared between New Zealand and Eastern Australia.
This population estimate is being reviewed, with DOC currently working on an update.
The department will also make a decision soon regarding a permit to conduct research into sharks in the Bay of Plenty, says DOC marine science advisor Karen Middlemiss.
“DOC has been consulting with iwi and a decision on the permit application will be made soon.”
Phil Ross, marine ecologist at the University of Waikato’s Tauranga campus, says he is working with local iwi and hapū around Tauranga Harbour, alongside DOC shark experts, scientists and other interested parties, to co-develop a collaborative approach to researching sharks.
“Talking to our Māori collaborators, there are stories from older people about white sharks in Tauranga Harbour being kaitiaki for their hapū ,” says Ross.
“There’s a history of white sharks prior to scientific analysis of them, and we are keen to look into this to see if we can learn from this ancient knowledge.”
Ross says sightings in the harbour have increased over the last couple of years, and research is being developed that will help address uncertainties in the community.
“Understandably people want to know what is going on,” he says. “People who live here regularly use the ocean and estuaries, as do visitors to the region, so there’s obviously concern around an increase in great white shark populations within the harbour.
“They have this terrifying reputation and no one wants to come face-to-face with a big set of teeth.
“We need to have a better understanding so people can feel informed, and to determine if there is a need to implement any type of management of the environment, or human activity within that environment. This can only be done from a foundation of good information.”
Also involved in discussions is Chris Battershill, who holds the inaugural position of Bay of Plenty Regional Council chair in coastal science, Toihuarewa – Takutai, based in Tauranga.
Battershill oversees coastal science for the University of Waikato, and has been the New Zealand lead to create a major centre of marine research excellence in the Bay of Plenty.
Marine biologist Melissa Kellett has been studying sharks in Tauranga for five years.
She has just completed a thesis on the topic, supervised by Ross and Battershill and two other supervisors.
She used satellite tagging and temperature to monitor the movements of bronze whaler sharks in the region.
Kellett says there has been increased, year-round sightings of great whites in Bay of Plenty harbours along the coastline from Bowentown to Pāpāmoa since the second half of 2020, with size estimates between 1.5m and 3.5m in length.
She indicates they are "primarily juveniles and sub-adults".
Kellett says that estuaries and harbours are attractive to sharks due to their proximity to food sources.
“Juveniles and sub-adult great whites primarily feed on fish,” she said, “but at the upper end of that scale, their diet is beginning to change to include mammals.”
In the Bay of Plenty there is a diversity of shark species throughout the year, says Kellett, from coastal species such as the bronze whaler, smooth hammerhead, broadnose sevengill, school and rig sharks, to more wide-ranging pelagic species such as mako, blue, and white sharks.
Deep-water species such as the bluntnose sixgill have also been reported, as well as tropical species such as tiger and whale sharks during the summer months when sub-tropical waters influence the region.
People can report details of sightings, captures or strandings to DOC via: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling: 0800 362 468.