A Day in the Life of a Chatham Island pāua diver

Catch bag recovery off Cape Young, Chathams

Located around 800kms east of New Zealand, with around 360kms of coastline, the Chatham Islands is a place of extremes—the weather is harsh, the seas fierce, freight logistics difficult and there are great white sharks in the water. Despite these challenges, around 30% of New Zealand’s wild harvest pāua comes from the Chatham Islands. This job requires a good level of fitness and strength but more than anything—motivation. Getting up early on a winters morning to check conditions before pulling on the wetsuit isn’t for everyone. I sat down with Nick Cameron to see what a day in his life as a pāua diver looks like.

Pāua diving is dependent on the weather for good conditions. “Good visibility is key. It gives us a good chance to see what’s out there and what’s going around you, and gives everything a good chance to see us as well and identify what we are”.

Wind, swell, visibility, and tides are important as well as the current harvest management plan: the Chatham and Pitt Islands are split into 57 different areas each with quota limits and size restrictions. The 57 areas can be as small as a stretch of reef with catch capped at only two tons each year and once an area reaches that quota, it is closed until the following season. This can be checked using any of five industry software, Nick’s preference is Pāua4.

Divers harvest product specifically for the current order and sizes may change for live, whole Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) or canned product. A skipper on the boat watches for the location of the divers, collects the harvest, remeasures and grades as they go. The minimum harvest sizes for pāua change with each area, meaning extra care is taken when measuring and grading.

The harvesting itself is not difficult if you are experienced. The best of the pāua beds are in relatively shallow water, normal working depth ranges from 2 to 5 metres, but can be a fair distance offshore in some places. Once an area of adult pāua is found, it’s a case of breathing up, relaxing and heading down.

Pāua up close and personal.

The first action is to judge sizes by eye, experience helps, before using a blunt, round edged stainless steel “ab iron” to carefully pry them off the reef. A good diver will only remove pāua at or larger than the minimum harvest size and the “ab iron” will have a measuring device to double check. Anything too small goes back on the reef. When the catch bag is full, the diver calls over the support vessel and swaps the full bag for an empty one. When the dive is complete and the pāua are graded, Nick contacts one of the factories on the island and delivers his product for further processing or to be packed and flown live off the island.

Traditionally pāua diving is done by freediving, the record is thought to be 60 in one breath. The best technique for this is many shorter breath dives throughout the day rather than fewer long ones. Although, the Chatham Islands commercial pāua divers are allowed to use scuba gear to harvest their catch, due to the risk from great white sharks. The ability to stay on the bottom longer minimises their time in the midwater where most shark encounters occur. Face to face encounters with Nick in the water number 14, but that number is over 20 with his crew.

“You never forget your shark encounters; you talk to other divers and certainly everyone remembers each of theirs.”

It’s not all work and no play though. After 15 seasons, Nick has many stories to share. Some of his most memorable dives include interactions with seals, dolphins and even whales.

Measuring the pāua

“Any of those experiences we don’t just charge on ahead to go and do a day’s work. We try and appreciate them and take it for what it is.”

Speaking to Nick about the pāua industry was fascinating. They are a long way from the mainland, which means the research and science behind quota management has sometimes been slow. Nick says the industry is moving in the right direction with the fisheries management plan they have in place. His goal over the last fifteen seasons, and moving forward, is to leave behind a resource and food source that future generations can appreciate. Pāua diving has been a bit of a hard sell for the younger guys in the last few years. The industry has been a bit depressed and of course the shark risk puts a few people off but, with the industry moving in the right direction, Nick hopes some younger divers will see it as a good career option.

Having spent a few days out on the water with Nick, I have a great appreciation for the work the guys do out here. If diving in some of the most extreme conditions in New Zealand sounds like fun, perhaps put the Chatham Islands on your radar.

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