I had had five stellar days, one after the next, since Qantas flight 26 had touched down in Auckland on Monday. But Saturday took the whole cake…and by whole, I mean icing, filling, plate and fork.
Saturday, Oliver, Ulla, Bill and Ngawai took me out for a day of hapuka fishing and scallop trawling. And while I was thrilled at the prospect of catching another amazingly delicious dinner, it was more where we were going that had my heart pounding in my ears.
The Chetwode Islands.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Pelorus Jack, both legend and historical fact tell that Jack lived in a cave located just off the Chetwode Islands. It was also there that the dolphin picked up steamers coming from Wellington in the East leading them across the bright blue bay up to French Pass and vice versa for ships coming through the Pass from Nelson, headed toward Wellington.
So what did that mean for this particular fishing trip??
No other than that we were tracing the path Pelorus Jack had followed for twenty years!
My imagination got the better of me as we neared the Chetwodes, and I began – against all rationale and adult I-know-better-than-this perspective – to keep a steady watch for Pelorus Jack. According to Maori legend, Jack was no regular dolphin. He is a taniwha, a god of the sea. Although he had left the area in 1912, legend has it that he will return when he is needed. I can’t say I needed him that day, but boy did I want to see him.
I was going to have to wait, however. We were going hapuka fishing. Hapuka are grouper. I didn’t know my grouper from my flounder before I’d gotten on board that day, but I dutifully dropped my line. And dropped it. And dropped it…
And dropped it.
There were huge weights on the line and hooks the size of my fists. I was having a hard time telling if something was biting on my hook – which felt like it was about a thousand feet below the boat – or if it was just the water pulling across the weight.
Ulla – born in Sweden and an expert fisherwoman – had no troubles. She hooked a hapuka within minutes.
Now the problem with hooking a hapuka isn’t losing it from the hook – that can happen – or having a barricuda come along and nibble on your catch until you get it up to the boat – that can happen too. Those are child’s play in comparison to the BIG problem – hauling the line back in.
Remember, it had dropped to what felt somewhere close to the other side of the world – think, Cincinnati – and Ulla had to haul it up. I slowly began reeling mine line in so that I could get a better glimpse of the fish she was pulling up. Honestly, I have no idea how she managed to pull hers up. Mine had nothing on it and by the time I’d gotten the end of the line back to the surface of the ocean, empty hooks and weight in tow. My arms, however, felt as though I’d hauled up a boulder the size of the ship itself.
Ulla had all of that to pull up, plus a mighty fish who was fighting the line. It had pointy fins, a huge mouth, and was at least three feet long (Note: There are no pictures for obvious reasons – they endanger the obligatory and wild exaggeration that goes along with fish tale telling).
By the time she got her mighty fish on board, we had to change positions. The current kept pulling us away from the secret fishing hole we were hovering over. With all of my intense watching as Bill positioned us back over the mysterious hole some million feet below us in the dark depths of the Pacific, I seriously doubt I could have ever found it, even with a compass and a GPS. Bill, however, was a pro. He’d check the coast, the depth finder, the position of the islands, gun the engines little, pull us around, cut her, and then we’d all quickly drop lines. And it worked. Ulla and Oliver both hooked a hapuka. I hooked a ginormous blue cod and a red and white striped fish that would have proudly been a “keeper” back in any lake I’d fished in Michigan. Here, it became bait.
I am a Texan by birth, and Texans swear everything is bigger in that glorious state, but, in all honesty, they haven’t been to New Zealand. In New Zealand, it’s not just the “hills” or the green – anything green and growing – it’s everything teeming below the surface of the water as well. Even the bait.
And the hunger. I’d dropped my line maybe half a dozen times, maybe, but I was already starving. Fortunately, my hosts took pity on me and stopped for lunch.
What did we have?
The leg of lamb I’d managed to prepare the night before – without burning or drying it out to tinder shavings – while Bill and Ngawai had gone to town to pick up a few north island rams that had come in. Maybe it was my enormous appetite, but that mutton was the most delicious meal I’d ever had. So was the wine.
After this culinary delight, it was back to business – scallop trawling. As we picked up speed and made our way to the scallop grounds, I began to search the waters for Jack, but he was an elusive dolphin that day.
And I had work to do. Bill and Oliver were in charge of the cage and the trawling, but Ulla, Ngawai and I were the scallop inspectors. As soon as the catch was dumped onto
the deck of the boat, we went through the scallops, carefully measuring them, throwing back the tiny ones and keeping the honkers whose shells had grown to the specified length. New Zealanders are amazing conservationists. Not only do they have but they also follow follow fishing rules to the letter, carefully measuring fish, scallops, mussels, you name it, to preserve their oceans, as well as their land life.
The day was almost over and we were getting ready to head back. There was a tugging at my heart. I hadn’t seen Jack. I mean, okay, maybe I’d expected too much, a sea god rising up from the depths to come and greet me an American city-slicker.
It was just when my faith was beginning to falter that Jack took pity on me, in his own way. The most amazing pod of dolphins burst out of the ocean just behind us. They were likely hectors dolphins with black, grey and white markings on their bodies. And while it wasn’t King Jack – as he was nicknamed in the late 19th century – it was definitely a full team of dignitaries. They soared upwards and out, turning flips, plunging for fish we’d likely scared up with our trawling, racing under the boat and up to the bow, and sending me back to age seven. I screeched with delight racing around the ship with my camera, trying to capture them on film. While I did get a few jumps, they pale in comparison to the electrifying feel of the air, the spray of the water, and the pounding of my heart that accompanied each one. They stayed with us for at least five minutes, racing and soaring inches from the boat. My heart was overfilling to bursting with excitement at it all.
The fresh fish dinner that followed, the last castings of the lines a few more times, and the warm journey back to Anaru farm listening to New Zealand election results – they’d had their elections that very day – were amazing, but the dolphins…the dolphins had been mystical. They’d frolicked, played, and mesmerized me with their grace and beauty just like Pelorus Jack had done more than a century before. My story, I knew with absolute certainty, would be all the richer because of them. I had tasted the glorious thrill of what had pulled people from all over the world to this lonely stretch of water over one hundred years ago to watch with eager anticipation for Jack. Seeing dolphins play in the wild and follow me with their own curiosity is an experience I won’t ever forget.
As we lugged our heavy arms, heavy legs, and even heavier catch from the boat to the house that night, I sighed as I stared up a sky awash with luminous stars.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” I said out loud.
Four other heads nodded. They knew. They'd known it for a long time. It was I who'd finally understood. This was the real New Zealand - raw, pure, and unbelievably incredible.
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