Diving into a career with teeth
A former Tararua man has played a major role in saving the life of a critically endangered grey nurse shark during a daring rescue mission to remove a large hook from its mouth.
With a Go Pro video camera strapped to his chest recording everything, Gavin Richards, 41, plunged into cloudy seas on Tuesday to find the shark off Byron Bay in Australia.
With two other divers, Mr Richards caught the shark and brought it to the surface where a "delicate" operation freed the hook.
"It feels fantastic," he told the Manawatu Standard. "It's just that feeling of knowing that it's one more animal we've been able to save.
"It's man that's hurting these animals, so being in a position where as a man I'm able to help them - that's a great feeling."
Mr Richards is the dive supervisor at Sea World's Shark Bay, but he grew up on a farm near Woodville.
He attended Woodville Primary School and Tararua College, before leaving for Australia with his parents as an 18-year-old.
Last Saturday he got the message from local divers there was a shark with a hook and trace close to a metre long in its mouth off Byron Bay.
In a co-ordinated search, Mr Richards and two other experienced divers found the 2.4 metre-long male shark in 15m deep water at popular dive spot Julian Rocks. They put a rope noose around it and tired it out before slowly bringing it to the surface.
The shark was placed onto Sea World's specially-designed rescue boat and into a 4000-litre tank, where it was turned on its back.
Mr Richards held the rope around the shark as a large PVC pipe was placed in its mouth. During a 25-minute operation a vet was able to dislodge the hook from the cartilage of the shark's jaw.
The shark's identifying features were recorded and it was released.
"It would have died a slow and painful death with that hook," he said.
Mr Richards has been working with sharks for 20 years, feeding and caring for them, and he now has no fear of them. Give them the right conditions and they are "puppies of the ocean", he said.
"We used to have a couple of bull sharks at Sea World and I was in the tank and they started circling around me.
"For a moment I was like, ‘woah, what's going on', but then I realised there was food underneath me and they just wanted me to move. They are misunderstood animals."
Mr Richard's time on the farm in Woodville gave him a love of animals, but the awe he experienced when he first saw sharks was enough to hook him into a career by their side.
"Being just a small country boy and looking at a shark tank for the first time it was just like ‘holy smoke, these things are beasts'.
"I was absolutely terrified, but the fear thing made me want to learn more about them."
To save a grey nurse shark, a species hunted to the point where there are only an estimated 1500 left, was extra special, he said.