Meet the 84 year-old who boils up sharks

Last updated 05:00 03/03/2013

The old woman and the sea

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On her dining room table sits three litres of amber liquid in a juice bottle. It's not juice. Or beer.

"Shark liver oil," says Flora Thirkettle - the woman they call "The Queen of the Kaipara" - banging it down.

After living in the region northwest of Auckland for the past 54 years and being the first commercial fisherwoman in the area, she knows fish.

Fish of all types. Including sharks.

She boils down school sharks to make her amber medicinal, a fix-all health remedy she swears by. It not only fights infection but even rust, apparently.

The sharks she catches are about half the size of the 4-metre great white that attacked and killed Adam Strange on Wednesday, making global headlines.

Even after decades on the water she said she has never come across anything that big and, although she respects the creatures of the deep, she believes police were justified in firing at the killer shark.

"You have to shoot it or he'll think ‘oh yeah, this is easy food'," Thirkettle says.

She remembers plenty of people being bitten and said it was always only a matter of time before there was a fatal attack. If you're swimming more than 100 metres offshore "you're pushing your luck". Strange was 200m off Muriwai Beach practising for an ocean swim.

Thirkettle is quick to quash any ideas of her as a shark expert but the wide jaws adorning her wall, exposing two sets of jagged teeth, show her interest.

She came to the Kaipara Harbour, 25km north of Muriwai, in 1959 as a 30-year-old solo mother of seven.

"You either had to go farming or you went fishing, and it cost too much to get into a farm," Thirkettle said.

The kauri house she had built was one of only three in Helensville at the time and the only reason she snapped it up was because it came with the 26-foot boat, Olive.

The property backs on to the winding Kaipara River and Thirkettle weaves her way between piles of wood and twisted, rusty anchors in her backyard to show the Star-Times the vessel that allowed her to provide for her four sons and three daughters while they were growing up.

Olive looks a little faded nowadays, which is to be expected seeing as her heyday on the harbour was some time ago.

With a life of making her own nets, taking them out with the kids to snare as many flounder as they could haul in, surely Thirkettle would feel nostalgic about the old days.

"No, it was just a job," she says. "But it pays to work for yourself. I'd sooner do that than work for a boss."

As a 12-year-old, her parents decided to move from Waikato town Te Awamutu to Northland's Whangaroa Harbour, on foot, with her eight younger siblings - a 430km trek.

It took the family, accompanied by cattle and goats, 2 months.

Only Thirkettle's mother and father made the journey in shoes.

At 84 years old, you would expect the great-grandmother of "at least 30-odd" to be slowing down, maybe jetting off to a retirement with overseas family.

When asked if she would consider moving, she simply laughs.

Her kids may have flown the nest long ago but, with cats (with kittens), dogs (with puppies), ducks and chooks, she still has a family depending on her.

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"You've got to do something or you'll go rusty."

Little chance of that with a ready supply of shark liver oil.

- Sunday Star Times

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