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My arms sigh in relief as I lay the paddle on my lap.  It has been a long hard slog as we worked desperately to catch up with the gill net vessel that now lies just 200 metres off on our port side.  We’ve been trying to catch this vessel for ten days now, but each time we saw her she slipped away before we could get close enough to film her.  Not helped by our maximum kayak speed being somewhat slower than the Cummins-diesel powered speed of our quarry.

I pull the night vision goggles down over my eyes.  The vessel shape looks familiar to me.  I’ve seen her up close in port on several occasions, not to mention photographing her from the air and from a couple of Observation Points on land.  Experienced hands work away on the floodlit deck, slinging fish in various directions as the catch is sorted.  There is the whine of her hydraulic motor as another section of giant net is winched in.

I wonder if we’re going to see any dolphin caught tonight.  Unlikely I guess.  But actually catching one of these blokes with a dead dolphin and fishing illegally would see them nailed to the wall.  We know dolphin get caught on a regular basis here, but actually proving it is almost impossible.  As one of the researchers commented, it is like trying to see a car accident.  We know they happen, but it is not so easy to go out and actually film one.

Gill nets are the number one killer of dolphin in New Zealand.  Well according to Commercial fishermen at least.  My brother told me once how the vessel he was working on caught an amazing 5 hectors dolphin in one night.  In the end they were just thrown overboard dead and never reported.  Which is what still happens today.  If you inadvertently kill an endangered animal, well you’re hardly going to go home and tell ya missus about it, let alone tell fisheries Officers.  So, the industry continues to hide their dolphin by-catch to ensure their fishing areas remain open to them.

“What do we do now Pete”, Nick says in a whisper, bringing me back to reality.  I look across at the fishing vessel.

“Well I reckon we just sit tight about this distance away. The boat is gradually moving north, so I think we’ll just run a parallel course.  If we get any closer he’ll spot us and run.  We need to complete this mission without him knowing we’ve been filming him.”

“Roger that.”

I’m about to pull out our GPS when a wave comes rolling in.  I can hear it rushing over the wind. I look around just as it spills over our spray skirts and rolls over the top of us.  Nick rotates his hips and the wave passes harmlessly by.  But it does put us on edge.  You tip in a kayak 4 miles offshore in the dark and with building seas and you have some challenges on your hands.  I look where the wind is coming from.  Probably North-North-East.  Roughly what the forecast was – Although the forecast strength was for just 10 knots.

“Wind is getting up”, I say slowly.  “Be a good 15 knots now, and the odd gust to 20.”   Nick remains silent.  “If it gets any stronger I think we’ll have to call it a night.”  I can tell Nick is nervous – As well he should be.  I’m asking a lot of him.  In fact I originally had my doubts about his fitness for this, but thus far he’s been fantastic.

“Nick if you can swing our bow into the wind, and I’ll see about getting some footage and GPS data.”

We rotate a little and I manage to dig out the GPS without any water sneaking under the spray skirt.  I hold the GPS down in the dry bag and turn on the screen.  It shows our trail over the last hour or so, and a distance back to land.  “Well Nick, according to my calculations, we are now 3.5 nautical miles offshore, which places that guy inside the area where gill nets are banned.”

There is suddenly a great deal of light flooding around our kayak. It feels like a spotlight.  We freeze where we are, barely moving a muscle.  We’d be hard to spot in our hybrid digital-camo wetsuits specifically designed for this type of mission.  But the bright yellow kayak we’re in will be sticking out like a set of dog’s balls.  I look over at the boat where the light is coming from.  She has rotated her stern towards us and her giant floodlights have us in their intimidating glare.  A full minute passes by as we sit there wondering if we’ve been detected.  Her hydraulic winch starts up again and we hear her groaning as more net is pulled in.  Further time passes and then we’re back in the dark as her stern rotates again.

“Man that was close”, Nick says as he breathes a sigh of relief.

“Yeah it was.  Maybe we should slide a little further away.”

We follow the vessel for a further forty five minutes.  She reaches the end of her net and is suddenly all packed up and heading back offshore at about 15 knots.  The ocean we’re sitting on goes quiet – just the whistle of wind, and waves slapping against the hull of our kayak.

We sit there in silence waiting to see what else turns up.  The moon sneaks out from behind a cloud, and our ocean is bathed in soft light.  I remove my night vision and sit back.  I really love working at night.  You see the world in a different way.  In recent years I’ve done a lot of work and training after dark, and it never ceases to amaze me how different the world becomes.  I remember doing some reconnaissance from a beach in West Africa, and during the day, it was devoid of wildlife.  Yet at night it was a regular playground and battlefield for all manner of animals and birds.

A dolphin surfaces right beside us.  There’s a little pfffft as it takes a lazy breath of air.  Its movements are slow and deliberate as she checks us out.  Five others turn up, wondering perhaps what we’re doing out here in the middle of the night. These are the lucky ones I imagine. For a long time this area has been unlucky for hectors.  Numbers plummeted in the 80s and nineties due to increased gill netting and trawling in areas such as this.  Some measures have since been put in place to try and address the slide, but from what we’ve seen tonight, and in talking to Researchers, certainly not enough.

Two trawlers well offshore start heading in towards the sanctuary.  We’ve seen this on several other nights – Pairs of trawlers coming in to about 1nm of shore then heading back out.  We’re not sure if they’re pair trawling (illegal in these waters) or just working together in some way.  Thus far we just haven’t gotten close enough to find out.  Nick and I grab the paddles and our arms dig in for another long slog to try and catch them.  Kayaks might be good for covert surveillance, but they sure aren’t the best chase boats.

It is 6:30 am and the sun has greeted us on the horizon as we finally clamber back aboard the Black Pearl – a vessel Blackcat Cruises in Akaroa have donated to us for the night.  My legs can barely function as I stumble onto her stern.  It’s been a long and difficult night here.  But worth it I reckon.  Our GPS data, images and video will be handed over to Fisheries Officials and hopefully it’ll lead to some prosecutions.

From what we’ve seen over the last 2 weeks here, vessels fish legally during the day, but at night, a couple of them sneak into areas where they are banned.  Secondly, and this has only just become apparent, is the pathetic nature of the sanctuary here, even if the regulations are adhered to.  Protection supposedly goes all the way out to 12nm, but they then allow gill nets in to 4nm from shore, trawlers to 2nm from shore, and amazingly, small trawls (1.5m head height) are allowed all the way in to land, and right through the heart of where these dolphin live.

This isn’t a sanctuary, but rather a killing field.  It’s also a scab on New Zealand’s conservation record that needs to be addressed.

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