The lure of black gold

Photo supplied.
Photo supplied.
It is worth a fortune and just waiting to be picked off rocks. All you have to do is survive the sharks, the conditions and the crime syndicates. Nigel Benson previews Abalone Wars.

There's gold in them there shark-infested waters.

Black gold.

Abalone. A fancy name for good old Kiwi paua.

But this gold is so valuable people will risk their lives for it.

Literally.

The Australian documentary Abalone Wars has barely started when the water turns bloody.

Episode one is just starting to plumb the depths with 49-year-old abalone diver Peter Clarkson, when it is revealed he was killed by two great white pointers while surfacing at Coffin Bay, off South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, last year.

South Australia is home to more sharks per square km than almost anywhere else in the world and most divers have lost friends and family to great white sharks.

Clarkson had already pulled in a big haul, when he decided to test another stretch of ocean.

It was the last dive he ever made.

Veteran diver Howard Robb was skippering the dive boat and frantically tried to pull Clarkson aboard when two great whites attacked as the diver surfaced.

Diver David Buckland, who lost his brother to a great white, was so shocked by Clarkson's death he refused go near the water for six weeks.

All of the abalone hunters have lost at least one family member, friend or crewmate to great white sharks and accept they could be next on the menu.

But sharks are not the only danger and divers also have to contend with treacherous waves, currents and poachers, who often work for foreign crime syndicates.

Dunedin-based Natural History New Zealand director-cameraman Max Quinn spent four weeks filming the three-part series in July.

"Every crew has a different story to tell. But, all the divers told us in very vivid details about some of their encounters with great white sharks. It was pretty scary stuff. It's a real concern to them and they don't let their guard down at all. Peter was so well liked and respected in the industry that it was a huge shock to them all when he was killed.

He's still very missed there and it was nice to be able to include footage of him in the first episode and dedicate it to him," Quinn said.

"Some of them use shark cages and some don't. It seems to be a personal thing. The shark cages slow them down a bit, but if you are confronted by a great white then it gives you somewhere to go."

The divers work in tandem, with the boatmen topside, while the divers prise abalone from the rocks, with warm water circulating through their wetsuits to protect against the cold.

The most vulnerable time for divers is while descending or returning to the surface, so the safest place to be is on the ocean floor.

Their lifeline is a thin yellow oxygen tube, which allows them to remain underwater for up to eight hours at a time.

In Port Lincoln this season, there are 32 quotas, each licensed to catch seven and a-half tonnes of green and black lip abalone, worth more than $1 million.

Green lip abalone is targeted at depths of up to 40m and black lip abalone in shallow waters.

It takes the divers about 70 or 80 days of diving to get their quotas.

"The weather was very changeable. One bag of abalone is worth about $2000 and they can do five bags in a day. It's possible to make $20,000 on a good day," Quinn said.

"But it's quite a volatile region. It's southwest of Adelaide. and similar to parts of southern New Zealand."

Abalone sells for between $30 per kg and $50 per kg on the domestic market, but can cost more than $100 each at overseas restaurants.

China is the biggest importer of Australian abalone, paying about $150,000 per tonne.

"Abalone tastes just like New Zealand paua, only paua is blacker.

Paua is just the Maori name for abalone."

The series is narrated by Deadliest Catch host Mike Rowe.

Abalone Wars premieres tomorrow at 8pm on Discovery Channel.