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Diving with the sharks

Saturday June 09, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
An obligatory underwater selfi e for the Sharks Pacifi c team at Penrhyn – from left: Marino Evans, Jess Cramp, Terii Pittman and Kirby Morejohn. PHOTO: Kirby Morejohn. 18060807 An obligatory underwater selfi e for the Sharks Pacifi c team at Penrhyn – from left: Marino Evans, Jess Cramp, Terii Pittman and Kirby Morejohn. PHOTO: Kirby Morejohn. 18060807

Nikao local Terii Pittman has always been a bit of an adventurer, so when the opportunity arose to make her first visit to the northern group as part of a shark research team, she dived right in.

Joining a team from Sharks Pacific, a non-governmental organisation set up to advocate for the conservation and responsible management of sharks, Pittman made a six-day voyage to the northern island of Penrhyn, arriving for a five-week stay on April 16.

Sharks Pacific was first founded in 2012 (although only recently formalised as an organisation in 2015) by American marine biologist Jess Cramp, who has been based in Rarotonga for the past seven years.

Having been a part of establishing the world’s largest shark sanctuary in 2012, covering the Cook Islands’ 1.8 million square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Cramp has since continued her work as a marine conservationist and shark researcher through Sharks Pacific, which she says was formed to generate and share more accurate information about sharks.

Cramp and Pittman first met not long after Cramp’s initial arrival on Rarotonga, and recently reconnected through a mutual love of freediving.

“Terii expressed an interest in my plans (for the Penrhyn trip),” explains Cramp. “She’s really good in the water, really comfortable, and I was really keen to get her involved.”

For her very first trip to the northern group, Pittman says she “honestly had no expectations”, but in talking to her it’s plain to see she has been captured by the beauty of Penrhyn island.

“It’s an atoll like Aitutaki – there’s a huge lagoon in the middle, and these little islands on the side. It’s so beautiful – very pretty,” she says.

And while there might be a lot of things the people of Penrhyn lack when compared to Rarotonga, Pittman says there was nothing she really missed during her five weeks away.

“Not really, no. You know you’re going without those things for a certain amount of time, and you are in this beautiful environment, with these amazing sharks, and amazing sea life.”

Part of the work undertaken by Pittman and the rest of the Sharks Pacific team on Penrhyn involved dropping what they call BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Video System), which are used to observe the behaviour of sharks and other fish.

“They’re like these underwater camera things with Go Pros – a Go Pro camera sits in it, you weight it, and it just sinks to the bottom,” explains Pittman. “We stick bait in the front of it, so that attracts the fish and the sharks, just to see how many we can see, how they behave and things like that.”

It was while dropping a number of BRUVS from their boat off Penrhyn that Pittman says she experienced her most memorable moment of the trip.

“One evening we were out there quite late, the sun was setting, and it was just really beautiful across the sky, like a postcard – the sea was really flat, and the sky was really beautiful.

“Anyway, we were going back to pick up the BRUVS, and on one of the floats – because you’ve got to pull up the BRUV and then you bring the float back into the boat – there were these tiny little octopuses about the size of my thumb, that would have just hatched – just all sitting on the float.

“That was one of my favourite moments.”

During their five weeks on Penrhyn, the Sharks Pacific team – made up of Pittman, Cramp, Cook Islander Marino Evans and American marine scientist Kirby Morejohn, lived in a rented house, eating mostly just the food they’d brought with them for the trip.

“Rice mostly – frozen chicken, lots of canned corn,” says Pittman. “Not much fish, because you actually have to catch your own fish.

“If you don’t catch your own fish, you don’t eat fish. Unless your friends or your family catch it for you, but you can’t go buy fish.

“Even the locals were reluctant to sell their tuna to us, because a tuna catch was rare for them – they’ve noticed that it’s not as easy to catch tuna anymore. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”

Summing up her Penrhyn experience, Pittman says it has spurred her desire to visit the rest of the northern islands.

“The trip was really interesting,” she says. “It was just really exciting for me as a Cook Islander to be able to get up to the northern group, because it’s a part of the Cook Islands that you just never go to, because it’s just so far away and it’s so expensive and it’s so remote.

“So it was really exciting for me to be able to get to that part of the Cook Islands and see the different culture there and the different language.

“For me, personally, that was really exciting.”

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