Northland west coast Ripiro Beach is wild, mighty, unpredictable, beautiful. New Zealand's longest, Ripiro Beach— west of Dargaville, to give strangers a point of reference — runs for 100 kilometres between Pouto and Maunganui Bluff.

Low cliffs seamed with ancient lignite, remnants of prehistoric kauri forest, middens, clay, soft rock, coastal brush and grasses, rise from the ever changing beach. In places cliffs give way to high, deep dunes, guts, gullies and gaps, wide flat stream mouths.

Wildlife includes tuatua, toheroa, crabs, seals, birds, more. Surfers, fishers, shellfish gatherers, families, beachcombers, trekkers and tourists might also qualify as wildlife.

Ripiro is a graveyard of sea creatures — birds, fish, lost tropical water snakes, seals, whales. It's a bed of buried secrets, maritime mysteries, historic events, greatly important culturally and in living for local iwi.

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The beach can change rapidly: dunes swept away, dry sand below the cliffs gouged out, rocks hidden for 50 years uncovered, carwrecks, shipwrecks, relics and skeletons rise out of the sand. Then tide and time will again cover what lies beneath.

Lindy Laird looks at two rare dramas that occurred on this beach in recent months.

Double stranding

Early in August this year two humpback whales died on Ripiro Beach after becoming stranded between the Baylys Beach settlement and Mahuta Gap. One was a juvenile, the other mature.

The younger animal died the following morning, as the female — not its mother, DNA testing would later reveal — weakly called to it. For the next two days, while an attempt by experts to refloat the stricken, full grown, giant humpback was under way, she never made another sound. Immovable, unsaveable, it was euthanised on the third day.

The double stranding was in itself extraordinary, as were the events that followed.
Dozens of trained rescue personnel worked round the clock, assisted by Tutukaka orca specialist Dr Ingrid Visser and Department of Conservation staff, a seawater bucket chain never stilled, and a sombre, changing crowd of onlookers bore witness. It was almost as much a spectacle as a tragedy.

Te Roroa iwi trust chairman Sonny Nesbit said it was the first time in memory that two living humpbacks had stranded and a full-scale rescue attempt taken place. He was among people there from Te Roroa and Te Uri o Hau, the whales' beaching site being at the very point their coastal rohe, or territories, meet.

Another hapu from further afield also played a part, Ngatiwai from Whangārei's north east coast, whose experienced teachers who would lead the flensing process.

An old whaling term, flensing means butchering, stripping the carcass, cutting up blubber and flesh, removing the jawbone, teeth and bones. Some of the flesh would be eaten, as was tradition.

It is accepted practice and part of a Treaty of Waitangi partnership that DoC steps back if iwi want the remains of whales for cultural, training and research reasons.

The three iwi said karakia for the dead whales' spirits, stripped and buried the remains below the low cliffs.

Shark mauling

Two months later, another very rare event occurred near the same place. While he was out catching a wave, Whangārei surfer Nugget Brough was mauled by a great white shark.

Neither Brough nor his mate with him at the time saw it coming. ''It just came up and hit me on the side,'' Brough said. ''For a split second I thought 'is this another surfer?'"

Then immediately he knew — shark attack! As the great white thrashed around in the water, with Brough's surfboard and arm in its mouth, he thought "this is it".

Then the beast let go.

Brough paddled ashore quicker than he'd ever done before and raced to Baylys for help. Although Brough's 4mm thick wetsuit was holed, the suit's compression held his lower arm, torn to the bone, in one piece.

Surgeons removed three shark teeth from the wound, and a larger tooth was embedded in the damaged surf board.

They are souvenirs, along with lifelong scars from the still healing injuries which will keep the plumber off work for some time yet. But he can't wait to get back into the sea.

''One hundred per cent, I'm going back in. I love surfing, there's nothing else like it. What happened to me is very uncommon.''

Brough is philosophical about the attack by a creature which while still a juvenile was more than three metres long. The attack was not malicious, the beast not a manhunter, he said.

On the upside of the ordeal, ''I now belong to a fairly exclusive club of people who can say I walked away from an attack by a great white.''

Remains uncovered

Three months after the humpbacks were buried, rough seas and big tidal surges have uncovered the remains.

With gruesome leftover body parts lying alongside, parts of the skeletons reach out of the sand. They could be covered in sand again, decompose, fall apart in the tide, possibly even be illegally scavenged by people.

However, there are public safety issues and the bones and hanks of skin and sinew will be buried again by DoC and iwi.

But unfounded rumours can spread like wildfire in some places, and the authorities and iwi want to put out one of those fires.

Lumps of blubber and other matter from the flensing littered the beach and washed around in the area for a while.

But rumours have started circling again in the community following the great white attack on Brough last month - rumours that leachate from the burial site was seeping into the sea and attracting sharks.

The buried whales' remains having been exposed in recent weeks could add more grist to the rumour mill.

DoC, iwi, marine biologists and regular beach users say there are no grounds to link the whales and the shark.

Taoro Patuawa, a marine biologist and environmental policy manager for his iwi, Te Roroa, is a surfer. He also grew up on Australia's eastern seaboard where sharks in the water is beach reality.

''I don't think the rumours are malicious. Every surfer knows the risk. Personally, I don't believe there's any connection between the whale burial site and the shark being around.''

Te Roroa chairman Sonny Nesbit is appalled, even angry, at the notion the two incidents could be connected.

''White pointers have been out there since the beginning of time,'' he said. ''And seals. Has anyone mentioned how many seals there are on that beach at the moment? We have no concerns about the burial and how things were managed. Where were they meant to put it?''

A DoC spokesman said there has been a resurgence of fur seals on the coast, with data to back it up. Seals, dead or alive, are on the menu for great whites or any predators and scavengers.

''We, too, had no concerns about the flensing, burial and recent uncovering process. We worked with Te Roroa on this throughout, '' DoC said.

And Brough, his arm and hand still on the mend, who can't wait to get back into the water, says the misconception about the great white's presence is ridiculous.

''It's their place, they're always out there.''

''They're always out there'' is a phrase Clinton Duffy also uses.

''But let's get it into perspective - there have been 15 fatal attacks in New Zealand since records began in the 1850s.''

However, there are probably more great whites in Northland waters than elsewhere in New Zealand, apart from around Stewart Island and the Chathams, said Duffy, who is New Zealand's leading man on great whites, also called white pointers.

Despite the belief great whites are a cold water species, that is not so - and the water is getting warmer.

There have been 15 fatal attacks in New Zealand since records began in the 1850s.
There have been 15 fatal attacks in New Zealand since records began in the 1850s.

About 750 mature great whites - not counting juveniles - live on New Zealand's coast and Australia's eastern waters, according to a survey Duffy was involved with this year.

Māori consider white sharks (ururoa, mango-taniwha) as mythical creatures — variously taniwha, a tupuna (ancestor) or kaitiaki (guardian).

They probably brought these beliefs with them from the Pacific where large species like the tiger shark were widely regarded by Polynesians and Melanesians as ancestors or guardians, Duffy said.

The marine biologist's own interest in and subsequent admiration of great whites, ''was initially driven by a strong sense of self-preservation while in the deep".

For the ordinary Kiwi, anywhere people have been fishing could potentially be a place to where great whites are attracted, and anywhere carcasses are in the sea. Dead or alive, whale, dolphin and fish are dietary mainstays.

''They do eat dolphins, and they also swim with them. It's a myth that if you see dolphins, there are no sharks around.''

Great whites tend to hang out near large seal colonies and seal haul-outs, the coastal areas where groups come ashore to rest or moult, of which there are many in Northland.

''Seals are recolonising their former range as the population grows. The last commercial fur seal hunt was in 1964, so the population has recovered.''

No one is sure how often or where they breed although Kaipara and Manukau harbours have been called breeding grounds, without hard evidence.

''I wouldn't say they breed in the Kaipara but it is certainly a foraging harbour.''

Despite its tag as the sea's most deadly and dangerous shark, the great white is not as fast, furious and fearless as the mako or the tiger shark, neither of which are usually found near New Zealand.

''Great whites are more cautious. The unfortunate thing about a great white is even if they are just investigating something, a 'nip' can have dire consequences,'' Duffy said.

''What happened to Brough is very common behaviour for whites. They bite objects on the surface of the water to see what they are. They'll bite at anything, a log, a box.

''It does sound like the shark was investigating the board, not the surfer.''

There was a spate of sightings around the country at the time of Brough's attack but the number was no more than Duffy would expect at the time of year.

Little has been known about the magnificent beasts until the last 20 years or so, spurred in large part by fears the apex ocean predator was under attack itself, Duffy said. In parts of the world they were targeted by big game fishers - with rifles as often as lines.

Now the great white is a fully protected species in United States, NZ, Australia and South Africa, and listed on CITES and CMS, powerful international prohibition on the trade, illegal capture and export of endangered species.

Females, maturing when around 4 to 5 metres long, can reach more than 7 metres and males, maturing at around 3.5m, get up to 6m. The oldest, as far as anyone has been able to discover, has been about 70 years old.

DNA shows the trans-Tasman population is an extended family, whereas the great white population west of Bass Strait is a separate family group.

Like many Kiwis do, great whites take off for a tropical holiday in winter. Satellite tracking devices show the population from the lower South Island, individually voyages across the Tasman to New South Wales, cruises past Bondi and other beach hotspots, up the Queensland Coast and into the Coral Sea.

Their long holiday is spent visiting the waters off New Caledonia perhaps, or south east Asia, and then back to the western Pacific.

Great whites from the Chathams take a different route, heading north up the east coast, swinging by Norfolk Island then taking a right turn, heading east into Polynesia.

''They do up to 6000 kilometres every year.''

For the rest of the year - duh-duh-duh-duh - they're always out there.