Great white sharks are fearsome beasts.

Even so, paua divers at Stewart Island over several decades have learned to co-exist with them.

That was until the balance was altered with the arrival of shark cage diver operators, who actively encourage the great whites with berley and baits.

That is altering the sharks’ behaviour, according to locals, teaching them to associate boats and human activity with food.

That has meant prime pua diving territory near cage tourism has been deemed too dangerous.

And schoolchildren at Oban, the island’s sole township, now stay out of the water.

The shark cage venture has been highly contentious since it began operating in 2010.

The local paua diver industry group, PauaMAC5, took legal action and was delighted when the Court of Appeal last year ruled shark cage diving an offence under section 63A of the Wildlife Act.

That led to one of the two operators pulling out, but Mike Haines’ Bluff-based Shark Experience had continued to operate. 

That gave paying customers the thrill of entering a cage at the stern of a vessel and seeing the great whites up close – at $600 plus a pop.

But earlier this month the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal decision in a confusing judgement that led the competing parties to different interpretations.

In the best traditions of the legal system, where lawyers are the only consistent winners, the decision is not definitive, throwing more doubt on the protracted process.

Paua Industry Council chair Stormalong Stanley says it is not a victory for shark cage diving, as has been claimed.

“What the court said was that it could not make its own ruling on the legality or otherwise of caging.

“It stated that such a ruling could only be done by way of a prosecution.

“It also affirmed that the Department of Conservation, which administers the Act, cannot issue permits for shark caging.

“We are now looking to the Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, to instruct her department to do their job and launch proceedings against anyone undertaking shark cage diving as soon as they receive information that protected great white sharks are being disturbed.”

Stanley was a professional paua diver at Stewart Island for around 15 years.

In all that time in the water he never had a close encounter with a great white.

He saw several on the periphery of his vision but figured they were just curious and didn't see any evidence of aggression.

His fellow divers were similarly untroubled, although a couple had been circled by the big sharks, no attacks are recorded on paua divers there.

They took simple precautions, avoiding diving at the change of light, and were usually in clear water and avoided seal colonies at the wrong time of year.

Great whites are now protected and are common in the cold waters around Stewart Island.

DoC shark researcher Clinton Duffy has identified at least 120 different great whites in the Foveaux Strait area.

The Wildlife Act is designed to protect rare and wonderful creatures like the world’s most fearsome shark.

But who protects the humans in its habitat?

Shark Experience says it will be business as usual this summer. This means more winding up sharks with berley and bait again, without any consideration of others safety on and in the water nearby.

Meanwhile DoC’s website continues to warn: “Their (great whites) large size, habit of feeding on large grey such as marine mammals and their propensity to investigate objects floating at the surface by biting them makes shark attack a potential risk for anyone swimming, diving, surfing or operating a small vessel (such as a kayak) in areas frequented by white sharks.”

And that is without encouraging them.