Here at Ghost Fishing NZ, our focus has been primarily inshore marine debris - shopping trolleys, street cones, bottles, and piles of tyres and plastics.
However, as a GF team we are constantly practising our skills, focusing on the big offshore nets that we know are there.
In fact we were given an image of a fairly big net in February of 2017. The net looked to be of a commercial size and in 20 m of water. So Rob Edward, Serena Cox, and I set out on our Dive Xtras scooters to investigate - sadly after traversing pretty much the entire bay along the 15-20m contour we came up with nothing.
Such is the nature of exploration - not always do the planets align.
Anyway - let's fast forward to December 27th 2018, Serena and I decided to do a bit of a deeper dive (not looking for anything in particular) along the harbour entrance - we started in Kau Bay and then headed into 15-18m of water and scootered South.
On our way, we discovered a whole heap of large bent and twisted metal objects on the sea floor, a lot of which had lines caught on them and two of them were chains with anchors.
So, after a brief altercation with the biggest Conger Eel the two of us had EVER seen, we were now scootering into shore with these two anchors...
We were scootering from the deeper water up now into about 9m of water and heading in to 6m for our first decompression stop.
As we scootered, I noticed something in the gloom..... this was literally in seconds as we blasted over the top on the scooters..
but something in my head told me.. there was an adventure here....
I tried to memorise visually on the surface where exactly we were as I was very keen to investigate what these floats were, so far offshore.
The net that we had been described previously had been in the bay north of us, and it kinda fitted a fragment of what I had seen - basically described by another diver as: "Two subsurface buoys suspending a net beneath". Now all I had here was what I thought was two buoys of some description - who knows what's on the end of it.... right...!!
In the back of my mind I had a fairly strong feeling this was a net... but, considering how many other items we had found in this bay with floats it was highly unlikely and even finding it again would be extremely difficult due to the visibility and distance from shore.. literally a needle in a haystack..
So again fast forward to June 2019 and we have been told by the Ghost Fishing boss, Pascal Van Erp, that we have a Nat Geo team inbound and they want to video us recovering a net.
We have only one location that we have been told where there is a net, but it's in a fairly exposed offshore area (and we have never actually seen or surveyed it).
The dates were literally a few weeks out and the weather patterns were all over the place in our full Winter and fell within a period of big tidal currents as well.
So we soon realised that the offshore recovery was impossible.
WE NEEDED A NET!
We started diving to try to locate something as quickly as possible and in a location we could recover in pretty much any conditions.. surely impossible... surely..
We did six dives in various locations where we suspected we might find nets - we found fragments but nothing big.
Eventually I said, right let's find those floats and see what's on the end of them.... So we sat down on Google maps and tried to work out where we both thought the floats were - cross referencing my surface transect and depth profile on our dive computers.
D-day 24th of June 2019 - scooters are charged, it's perfect conditions - let's go.
Sand and big lumps of metal, but no floats or even anything remotely similar.
(Sophie Hamilton - Josh Bird - Chris Phelps - Shelley Gurney - Anna Hobman.)
The first image that greeted me as I lifted my dive kit into the car was this... (Above image.)
Now that's about as close as you could get to the Ghost Fishing emblem.. I was feeling pretty good about finding whatever it was - even though I knew it was literally a needle in a haystack that we find the floats.. and even if we did who's to say it's actually a net anyway... regardless.. we push onwards..
This day, however, the weather was not pleasant, gusting 20-25 knots maybe more.
You can see in the image above the area south where our search stopped, so I said to the guys let's start outside that area on scooter and head due East and see what we can find.
So the Free team power off and the Dive Xtras scooter team fire up the props and head to the middle of the bay.
Compass is set - in water dive kit checks done.... LET'S GO...!!
The dive PC clicks over the depth as we fly like fighter pilots across the sandy desert sands 8-9-10m slowly getting deeper and the visibility gets worse and worse... then out of the gloom.. I see a column of shape in front of us start to form...
I could feel it building inside me.. the anticipation then, as I closed my eyes focused, I saw the shape of this tornado of wound net and floats - just as I had imagined it...!!!! ( I was absolutely astonished.. speechless.)
Excitement hit me like a wave... we had actually found a net...!!
The previous run with Serena we had only just missed it be a few metres... this time we swam right into it.
So out came the famous Halcyon hot pink SMB and we fired it off to the surface 14m above to mark our find for the Free Team, and then to come back and log it with the GPS on the now famous WETTIE float boat (AKA "The Tow Fish".)
"They can't have found it so quickly." - Shelley mused.
But, within minutes, the GF scuba team surfaced like the crew that had just blew up the Death Star - I was ecstatic..!
So we grabbed the Wettie "Tow Fish" GPS and headed out into the now stronger northerly wind.
Surface scootering to the net drop zone was like the ride of the Valkyries -However, on arrival at the site,
I suddenly wondered how we could actually pinpoint exactly where the net was beneath us as the GPS tracker simply draws a line....
Now here's where the beauty of team diving comes in. I can't remember who used the - "Spare brain analogy" - I think it was Gareth Lock on his Human factors course - but this was it at its best.
Big waves, towing a float boat in one hand (with my cell phone in it..!) trying to think.. "How...?"
So I turn to the team.. "Guys how can we do this..?"
Rob Edward calmy responds between waves in the face - "Just do a couple of circles round and round it" - HOLY CRAP that's genius..!
I drop the P2 into 4th then 5th gear and start punching the nose of the scooter through the waves as I circle round the marker, round and round.. (Free team are looking at me like I am completely mad.)
And so it was done.
I messaged a couple of very close friends and I was so excited, I could hardly speak.
I got the most lovely message back saying - "Look at you go - I am so proud of you." - I was ecstatic!
That night myself and GFNZ 2IC Serena Cox sat down and overlaid NAVIONICs (marine nautical charts) and Google Earth to attempt to get an exact GPS point to dive the next day to check if we had it right.
After a good few hours of attempts, we got everything from the Bering Sea, to off the coast of new Plymouth.. we finally managed to crack the exact site where we were thinking it was.
First thing the next day, we are on the beach and gearing up - it's an absolutely perfect day - flat, calm, and great conditions.
So we lock the GPS coordinates into the tracker, drop it into the Wettie tow fish, and start to surface scooter out.
Depth drops - 5 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13m and we are on the sea bed.
Its gloomy as always, but the visibility has been way worse - in fact it's actually pretty good.
Literally right in front of us is the familiar tornado of mangled net - INCREDIBLE..
We took into account so many factors to get the GPS location including even the surface wind as the SMB on the day was not straight up and down more like a low 45° angle, and we had worked it out perfectly.
I absolutely "Yahoooooo'd" through my Halcyon dive regs - big high five.
We are all very excited but the weather forecast is for gale force conditions.
So it's time to put a team together to join Serena and I. One that will be prepared for any conditions.
One of the first people who came to mind was GUE (Global Underwater Explorers) diver James Croker "JC" - JC has pretty much every GUE cert you can get and his dive skills are simply mind bending.
JC is a mentor - friend and a brother.
Ebi is a GUE Tech 1 level diver and runs the highly successful Project Baseline Lake Pupuke.
www.facebook.com/SavePupuke/ <--- check it out.
So Ebi is well versed in operating in extremely low visibility environments.
Rob has GUE training and is trained on multiple CCR (Rebreather) platforms Rob is also a mentor to me and an uncanny navigator, and utterly unflappable in the water.
Rob is also a trained service tech for all of the gear we dive from Drysuits - to Mk25 regs.
Both of these guys are great divers and I regard them both as family.
(Matt Fabish and the Underwater Solutions team have been a constant support to us at Ghost Fishing NZ.)
www.underwatersolutions.co.nz/ <---- check them out
It's been driving rain and we have had a big nasty weather bomb dropped on us for the past few days thus the inner harbour visibility is some of the worst we have seen.
Faced with 40+ knot winds on both days of filming and we are now without a support vessel literally a day out from the National Geographic teams arrival - not ideal.
Thankfully Lee one of the NZ organisers for the Nat Geo team managed to source a vessel from Cook Strait Charters.
The Seafarer II is a deep hulled 15m (50ft) ex commercial lobster fishing boat - it's a beast and not afraid of anything the inner harbour can throw at it.
Its skipper, Jono Delich, is a well seasoned veteran of the southern ocean and on the day his skills and abilities were nothing short of amazing - he could turn that big ship on a 20c piece.
We are all pretty excited about working with Kina - Kina, being a veteran diver himself, saw the conditions we were looking at and also knew it was going to be a challenge.
The Nat Geo crew were focused and professional, Johnny and Andrea were amazing people. I knew working with them was going to be easy.
All good and what Kina managed to shoot in the 1/2-1m visibility was astounding.
A testament to the professional he is..
The Seafarer is swift through the high winds and ocean chop produced by the wind.
The visibility looks really bad... even for Wellington.
But spirits were high and I chose the team for taking this removal head on in any conditions.
All of us on 32% Nitrox for these dives and we were ready...
The skipper expertly maneuvered the Seafarer II into position and via his own sea scan directed the free team to the net which was showing up on the sounder as the familiar tornado shape standing off the seafloor.
Chris swiftly powered his Ruku blades to the drop zone and dropped the 4kg drop weight onto the target.
I ask Chris to check on the seabed if the net is there - Chris drops in... surfaces after a minute or two with a grim look and clearly states: "The net isn't there...!" - (Now the sounder clearly showed us it is there, but in visibility lower than 2m, finding anything can be extremely challenging and with a net involved... dangerous..)
"This is when I turn to cave diver J.C for his skills" - James Croker
The visibility is so poor on the surface that we can't even see our feet/fins as we float in the waves.
I had hand picked this team for some very particular reasons and J.C's underwater, under duress, line skills, and search ability are second to none - "J.C drop down.. run the search and let's find this net.."
J.C and Ebi disappear into the olive murk following the down line to the seafloor to run a line out to search.
Serena and I bob helplessly on the surface...
"Serena and I bob helplessly on the surface.."
I have never been one for much patience and it's slowly eating away at me.
There is lot riding on finding this net and Nat Geo team are waiting.
I turn to Serena and say: "Ok let's just head down and see if we can help."
(In low visibility less is often best - but the clock was ticking.)
Serena and I slide down under the waves and into the gloom. The vis is so bad that we have even lost the down line.
I flag Serena down and signal "Follow my navigation". She acknowledges and I swing the compass round and start heading north... a few kick cycles forward and I see a white line running on an angle in front of me left to right.
(I know on the right hand end of that line is J.C and Ebi swinging round in a circular search pattern.)
I signal Serena to jump on my side as we take up the search on the line mid way.
Within a few seconds, I see the familiar vertical pillar of the net. I grab J.Cs line and give it a couple of sharp pulls to let J.C know we are on it. Seconds later I see two lights in the gloom as J.C winds the line in.
But, as with all things, there are always variables and unknowns that can rear up on the day.
On this day, and in these conditions I was taking no chances.
We set the lift bags like a special forces team laying charges on a bridge. We target specific weak points and areas where we can best pressure the net off the seabed.
Starting with heavy duty plasma rope, Serena and I back kick and maneuver around in the gloom to avoid the visibility dropping to complete zero. We wind the rope around the tower of net.
The famous "Messersmith Manta" 185lb custom Halcyon lift bag was the first to attach.
(Named after Halcyon's Mark Messersmith as he sponsored this one for us and also as its shaped like a Manta ray.)
Then the 80lb ones were next... (The pound rating refers to the amount of lift the bags create when inflated.)
We worked away - effortlessly - this is what we do.
"We worked away - effortlessly - this... is what we do... "
I slid up beside her and unclipped the bags from her side as she worked.
I then went in closer to show her I had swapped the 80s for the lighter ones and that less lift was required on the top, as these nets have heavy weights on the base and the top already had two buoys attached.
An "OK" hand signal was lit up by her 21w Halcyon canister light.
Meanwhile, J.C and Ebi silently monitored our progress from the edges, supplying light, and watching for any entanglement.
J.C, in the gloom, was not only managing his own trim and buoyancy, scooter, and supplying light for us, but he also had all of our scooters clipped off as well..his.. mine and Serena's as we worked to avoid the possibility of our own entanglement.
Serena secured the last bag to the upper section and added a fraction of gas to to keep them up and vertical ready to lift.
Then we dropped down and signalled to both Kina, and J.C and Ebi that we were about to lift the net, or attempt to.
A few good blasts of gas from my tanks, 30% in the 185lb unit and about 15-20% in the 80s and I felt the net shift..!!!!
I give the embedded base a slight pull then push and the familiar sensation of the net rise begins. Many, many years of damage from this net is about to end as the net's shameful face will meet the sun after decades of darkness.
"Many, many years of damage from this net is about to end as the net's shameful face will meet the sun after decades of darkness."
The team rises and forms in the typical GUE* ascent circle. (*Global Underwater Explorers.)
High fives and fist bumps all around as we ascend to our 6m stop to allow the nitrogen in our system clear.
"However on the surface all is not right...."
The thumbs up goes up as the Shearwater dive PC's clear us for surface landing.
The dive profile is text book for the work we did.
All done in an incredible 37 mins - search pattern and discovery - then recovery.
But on the surface all is not well. There is no net hanging on the lift bags.. NOTHING..!
Panic washes over me as another wave breaks over my head. I shout to Chris from the Free Team...
"Chris where's the net... where is it...???" - ( I had visions of it not quite reaching the surface and drifting off mid water never to be seen again.)
Chris looks at me quizzically - "What net....?" - my heart falls right out of me and back down to 13.1m below me...
Chris Phelps - "What net....??"
"Ohhh the net... yeah that's already on the boat." My heart came racing straight back up from 13.1m and slammed into my chest bringing with it pride and astonishment at these two guys and what we had achieved.
Chris and Josh were machines as they powered back and forth in the very strong surface current and 30 knot winds.
I can't remember exactly what I said then but I am sure it involved some colourful metaphors.
The Dive Xtras units are always integral for us as a dive team.
We were caught in the wind and starting to get pushed well away from the vessel, but the job was done and now it was the victory lap as I turned the P2 scooter into the fairly big waves and started to punch into the wave's face as it broke over me.
The sensation was truly magical. I heard the "Ride of the Valkyries" as we powered home to the mighty Seafarer II.
The skipper, Jono Delich, greeted is with a broad smile - "Well done guys, you did us proud.." a comment like that from an experienced sea captain and fellow Wellingtonian was just icing on an already wonderful mission.
Against everything that was thrown at us, we had fought and won the day for ocean conservation.
Some warm food was most welcome as we cruised back to Chaffers Marina, triumphant.
I had mentally drifted away - I was thousands of miles away celebrating and recounting the journey that we had all undertaken to get to this point - the people - the effort.. the support and the love.
And that's why we do what we do, for love. For the love of our oceans and to attempt to preserve what remains for our future generations.
We will not go quietly into that good night.