Massive Pacific bluefin tuna

By Darren Shields

Diving the Cumberland

‘I shot this giant tuna as it swam past. I held on for an hour while it did its best to drown me!’ …

… Commented Mike Smith when he and Gary Fisher came into Westport on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

We listened to their adventure, feeling their excitement of such a battle. I was aboard Barry and Lyn Bird’s, Seabird Charters vessel


with Hamish Todd and David Orange. We had just travelled down the west coast from Nelson in a 20-knot southerly. We had decided to shelter in Westport to give our bodies a break and time for the wind to abate before heading out to our destination, the Hokitika trench some 57 kilometres off Greymouth. Six large Russian trawlers were working the trench pulling tonnes of hoki off the ocean floor. This activity creates a huge berley trail that becomes a feeding ground for enormous pacific bluefin tuna, seals, sharks and sea birds. My mission was to film above and below as much of this action as I could for the ’Gone Fishin’ TV show.

Mark and Gary had arrived two days before us and had both shot and lost tuna. Mike described the power of the tuna as unbelievable, like nothing he could have imagined. Gary had landed one on a handline that tipped the scales at 193kgs gilled and gutted.

I was fizzing, listening to their stories of what they had experienced. I also had some reservations! I would be the only diver in the berley trail, armed only with a video camera, 57kms off shore in 500 metres of water, the brain demons were working over time.

At 3.30am we departed Westport on a flat sea and as daylight spread over the ocean I noticed the water colour was bluer and we started to see more birds, seals and the occasional pod of dolphins. We spotted one of the Russian trawlers. As we slowed down to trawl some lures the trawler was hauling in its net and the action at its stern was starting to heat up. Towing lures we did several runs until the net buoys showed on the surface. Nothing happened other than seals and birds going ballistic over the dead fish that were floating free or being pulled from the net by seals. We decided to get in close to another trawler as its net came up and this time I would jump in and see just what was following these nets to the surface.

When the net’s floats showed, Barry backed the boat up so I could intercept the net. As I sat on the back about to jump in, the old devils in my head started to work again as I tried to convince myself I was not going to lose life or limb in the next few minutes! Then something caught my eye at the back of the net. A splash and a fin of a large tuna breaking the surface. There were several enormous tuna attacking the net, grabbing at the hoki poking through the mesh. Excitement on board went through the roof! I jumped! Immediately I was surprised at how bad the visibility was due to the fish offal from ship’s processing plant plus whatever else was coming off the ropes and net. I was surrounded in chowder soup!

I swam towards the passing net with every nerve fibre screaming at me. This was one of the most outrageous dives I have ever done! I wanted to pull my arms and legs up into my imaginary protective shell when all of a sudden they were there, just like seven huge, lazy kingies. This helped to get my mind off my hanging appendages! Everything slowed right down (other than my heart rate) and they glided past me all around 250kgs. Then it materialised, the monster fish that I had read about guys losing after many hours of battling them on a line. It passed only five metres from me as it was eyeing me up and down. This fish was massive. I estimated it to be 350kgs-400kgs. But all too soon they were gone. I jumped back on board the boat and we caught up to the moving trawler. I jumped in again but this time I only had one tuna glide in briefly to check me out before disappearing.

I was absolutely astounded by the size of the fish I had seen. I have travelled all over the world in pursuit of large fish only to find some of the largest game fish you are ever likely to see up close in my own back yard.

Unfortunately the trawlers took exception to my camera thinking we may be politically motivated. A Nelson fishing company called us and requested we back off, Barry agreed.

That evening around eight o’clock Barry turned the boat off and we started to drift fish. We soon had a Mako on board and shortly after a fish fouled a line around the prop.

Barry borrowed my wetsuit and went over the side with my Ikelite torch which did a fantastic job of lighting up the underneath of the boat. In 15 minutes we were back in business. In no time at all we had another big mako alongside which was released. Hamish stayed on deck while the rest of us headed for the sack. Around midnight an awful noise disturbed my sleep; a reel was losing a huge amount of line with Hamish frantically trying to stop it. We all leapt out of bed, pulled in the other lines, started the engine and for the next two hours Hamish fought this huge fish.

His tuna tipped the scales at 220kgs gilled and gutted! In the morning he headed home. I was lucky enough to go again a week later on a boat out of Greymouth. A 252kgs tuna was caught but I did not have the opportunity to jump in the water. We got some great video footage on both trips but unfortunately the camera I was using for the underwater footage played up at – yes, you guessed it – right when the big tuna swam past me, but we hope to salvage a little for the ‘Gone Fishin’ show in February 2006.

© Copyright 2004

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