Fishermen looking to tag bronze whaler sharks near the tip of the North Island got more than they bargained for when a trio of great whites paid them a surprise visit.

Earlier this month, the group chartered a boat for a week-long fishing trip north of Cape Reinga, and decided to use their last berley bombs to lure bronze whalers so they could be tagged for research.

"We figured, being the last night and having lots of bait left, let's see if we can pop a couple of tags on to some bronzies," said Bryce Helms, a member of the party.

Instead, one of the first sharks they encountered was a juvenile great white, estimated at 2.5m to 3m in length.

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"For some of us, it was the first time we'd seen in 20-plus years of boating, so it was a bit of a shock, and not what we were expecting at all."

Assuming it was a freak occurrence, and with adrenaline running high, Helms and his mates reset the bait again, and stayed up through the night.

"We caught a few more school sharks, and then at about 5.10am, we hooked a second big shark that showed itself to be another great white."

Again, the shark was a juvenile, measuring around 2.5m.

"Then, just after 6.15am, came a third one, which was a bigger model, probably a bit over three metres."

One of the three great white sharks encountered by fisherman Bryce Helms and friends near Cape Reinga recently. Photo / Bryce Helms
One of the three great white sharks encountered by fisherman Bryce Helms and friends near Cape Reinga recently. Photo / Bryce Helms

Later in the morning while fishing for snapper, they spotted two more - including one that cruised by the boat and estimated at around four metres long.

"With the first one, it hadn't even crossed our minds that something like that might be kicking about; with the second and third, it was almost disbelief.

"I mean, with the amount of time we've all spent on the water, and to not even see one, then all of a sudden have three in a night, was pretty outrageous."

Asked how they'd managed releasing each of the sharks, Helms replied: "very carefully".

"All of us were very experienced fishermen, and we'd dealt with sharks before, but certainly, it was a bit different feeling coming face to face with a white."

One of the three great white sharks encountered by fisherman Bryce Helms and friends near Cape Reinga recently. Photo / Bryce Helms
One of the three great white sharks encountered by fisherman Bryce Helms and friends near Cape Reinga recently. Photo / Bryce Helms

Helms was pleased to have returned the protected animals back to the ocean unharmed; Department of Conservation shark scientist Clinton Duffy said the group had also handled the sharks "by the book".

Duffy wasn't surprised to have heard of the encounter; juvenile great whites were resident in Northland's coasts over summer, often travelling between Kaipara Harbour and Cape Reinga.

"The local fishermen up there seem to think that when they're big in numbers, they are chasing school sharks, which tend to come into Spirits Bay in large numbers," he said.

"At that size, less than three metres long, they are capable of doing big ocean migrations - we've tracked some as small as 2.4m go to Australia - but they spend the bulk of their time over the continental shelf, within relatively shallow depths, or 200m of water."

Fishers who accidentally caught or came upon great white sharks were asked to report them to sharks@doc.govt.nz.