Shark-Diving in Gisborne, New Zealand

By Judy

As we sat on the boat, waiting more than an hour for mako sharks to show themselves, we started to despair. This is all our fault, J.D. and I said under our breath to each other. We pretty much wasted a day of vacation with a last-minute drive from Wellington, New Zealand  up to Gisborne just to dive with sharks, and now here we were, without a fin in site.

We had met up with one of our oldest friends, Jim, while he was on leave from Afghanistan, along with his fiancée, also on leave from Afghanistan, and some other people from her unit. So while we felt bad about wasting a day of our vacation, we felt bad for wasting a day of their leave. Not to mention the $300 (NZ) that we’d spent. Of course, we were welcome to come back again any time within the next year if we didn’t see any sharks that day, but what were the odds any of us would be back in New Zealand in the next year?

Dean, the owner of Dive Tatapouri, decided to take the boat over to a different spot and try our luck there. Indeed, our luck started to change before we even got there. Speeding along in the boat, we spotted a giant pod of dolphins. Dolphins usually swim in pods of about 20 individuals, but there must’ve been about 50 of them, happily keeping pace with our boat, slowing down, speeding ahead, jumping our of the water for a better look. I sat on the bow of the boat, the biggest grin on my face. As a kid, I had been obsessed with whales. This was perhaps one of the happiest moments of my life, and I felt as if I was nine years old again. A mother and baby swam beside me, perfectly attuned to each other, zigging and zagging like they had rehearsed it. 

I almost asked if we could forget the sharks and just swim with the dolphins, but eventually we parted ways with the pod.

When we  got to the new site didn’t see sharks right away but started fishing instead, Dean explaining that the struggling fish might actually draw sharks better than chum. The wriggling fish did the trick, and J.D. and I hopped into the diving cage in a hurry. Everyone else had already taken a turn in the cage, practicing for the shark encounter. Everyone, but me. I was too busy worrying I’d failed everyone. Sharks are attracted to heartbeats, and mine raced, not just with the six-foot mako so close, but getting the hang of my snorkel, and gripping the cage to stay down below. Close to me, the torso of a skipjack wafted, attached to a rope. When the mako gripped it in its jaw, struggling to free it from its teather, three rows of shark teeth showed themselves to me, six inches from my face. Never does one realize just how many teeth a shark has until confronted with them.

After about ten minutes, J.D. and I got out of the cage and back in the boat to let someone else have a turn. Since we were already fishing to attract the sharks, Dean let us reel in the catches. Not wanting to waste anything, they kept the skipjacks for bait and the very similar-looking tuna for people food.

One of our friends reeled in a goofy-looking goblin shark. It didn’t look nearly as menacing as the mako, with its bulbous nose writhing out of the water. J.D.’s first fish also put up quite a fight, and when it was finally visible just below the surface, I thought he’d landed a piece of detritus. As he lifted it out of the water, a basketball-sized octopus emerged.


Dean tossed the octopus in the cage, where Jim and  another one of our travel companions, John, were diving. Busy as they were watching the mako, neither had any idea what was going on above the surface. As John tells it, the octopus slipped through the middle opening of the cage, right in front of the mako, with the chum in between them. Rather than tentacle versus fin, beak versus jaws, it was more of a stare down than a fight. The octopus swelled out, frantically waving its limbs. In John’s words, it did its “I’m a big scary octopus dance.” And the shark was the first to back off.

The whole way back, we fished. Dean also made a detour to check out a coral reef, and would have taken us diving there, had the boat been equipped with the proper anchor.

When we returned to shore, Dean invited us to lounge at his place for as long as we wanted. Dean told us all about the local fishing and farming industries, the balance of nature in Maori beliefs, and introduced us to his family.

Near the shop, was a hut. I’d been eying. I wanted to go in, but I was a bit shy in asking, so when he offered to let us take a look, the anthropologist in me leapt for joy. Inside, it was filled with relics from Dean’s family. Carvings and weavings hung on the walls and on benches. Leaning against the wall of one bench was a framed family tree.

We all split a bottle of champagne John had bought, and the guys at Dive Tatapouri presented us with sashimi from a couple of the tunas we had just reeled in, served simply with a bit of soy sauce. It was ill-cut, with chewy connective tissue, tendon and silverskin crosscutting many pieces. A sushi chef may have cringed, but it was the best sushi I had ever had, or possibly ever will have.

If you’re going to New Zealnd, do whatever you can get to Gisborne and to Dive Tatapouri. Drive all day if you have to.

For more information on Dive Tatapouri, visit:

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