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A coasty from Ruatoria, who started diving when he was nine has found himself in the spotlight starring in Spiky Gold Hunters, a new series about commercial kina diving now screening on Duke TV. He talks to Kim Parkinson about being on the series and his desire to educate school children about diving and water safety . . .

Dion Aupouri-Akuhata was hesitant when he first joined a team of commercial kina fishermen in the South Island but soon got used to a cameraman following him. He hopes to use his new found fame to help launch some projects around water safety.

Dion Aupouri-Akuhata loves the ocean and everything he can do in it — free-diving, spearfishing and surfing. He weighed up the idea of working as a commercial kina diver for many years before finally taking the plunge around the end of 2018.

He had always admired champion spearfisherman Dwane Herbert, who is the skipper and diver on the boat and encouraged Dion to give it a go.

What Dion didn’t expect was for there to be a film crew waiting to capture the diving activity and make it into the six part series, Spiky Gold Hunters.

Spiky Gold Hunters is a real-life action programme following a crew ready to risk it all gathering kina for a global industry worth half a billion dollars a year.

There are fortunes to be made chasing one of the world’s most sort after delicacies — the sea urchin, kina or spikey gold, says the programme’s introduction. It follows skipper and diver Dwane, Red Dog, Raymond, Storm, Tim and Dion as the two teams compete to bring in the most kina.

For huge pay-days they’re pushing the limits — diving up to 75 feet on one breath.

It’s one of the world’s most dangerous professions where mistakes can be deadly but this doesn’t seem to faze Dion.

“The water could be seven or eight degrees and you’re sweating in the wetsuit because you’re going so fast. You have to go fast because at the end of the day, that’s how you’re making money,” he says.

He first met Dwane through his love of spearfishing.

“Dwane is one of the top in the country. About six years ago when I started spearfishing he was the guy I looked up to.

The master of spearfishing - I wanted to be like him. The only way to be a good spearfisherman was to go down (to the South Island) and learn first hand from some of the best.”

Dion has competed in spear fishing competitions in the past but harvesting kina is where the money is.

“We want kina that are big and fat with a large proportion of roe.

“It wastes your quota if they don’t have a lot of roe — every time you get one that’s got nothing much in it, that is counted but has no value.”

Diving is in his blood — Dion’s father started commercial kina diving around the East Coast and eventually moved to Hawke’s Bay.

“Back in those days they were after a specific type of kina — a certain size, a certain colour — the market was mostly overseas back then. They had to fish for what the market demanded.”

'Diving is in his blood'

Dion said the depth they dive to can range from three metres to 18 metres and they have to be cautious to avoid blacking out.

“A black-out is just the body’s way of saying there’s not enough oxygen and it will shut down.

“This is a crucial moment to have a buddy diver or safety diver with you — there’s probably a three to four-minute period when you can be saved if someone comes down and quickly brings you to the surface when they can recover you from a black-out.”

“Every second counts when recovering a diver from blackout, as the longer the diver is without air the more damage can occur to the brain while the diver is underwater.”

He has come close to blacking out and said it can happen when you’re really pushing yourself.

“I have been to the point of dizziness and had pins and needles and discolouration of my lips — the tell-tale signs of a near black- out.

As a youngster he would go out with his brothers and hold onto their tyre tube while they put the seafood into the kina sack.

“I’d follow them around with a mask and a snorkle on — watching their every movement underwater.

“Being brought up on the coast this is generally where you start as a diver then you work your way up to the kaimoana gatherer. Starting this way generally helps build your confidence and helps you to relax more in the ocean.”

Nowadays you’ll find Dion racing against the clock to hook as many kina as he can on one breath using a kina tool or “dooka” to get them off the rocks and into the nets. There’s a competitive element to the diving where two teams try to get the most bins.

“Everything has to be done fast — by the divers and the dingy boys who have to bring in the kina and offload it onto the boat.

“You can be out for nine hours a day. Your body gets used to it — and it requires a high level of fitness.

“I’m not too sure if your brain or body likes it — you are starving your brain of oxygen over a eight to nine-hour period. This means you’re probably holding your breath for two of those hours.”

Because it’s something he loves doing, he worried about it just becoming a job, but thankfully that didn’t end up happening.

“You can make really good money — the more kina you get, the more you get paid. You don’t want to be coming back with less than $1500-$2000 for two days.”

The programme is made by Gisborne man Bailey Mackey from Pango Productions and filmed mostly around Fiordland and Stewart Island

“It was great working with a good film crew, most of them were pretty good blokes to be around especially the ones who ate kina.”

Kina thrive in Fiordland and around Stewart Island in the South Island where they grow large due to the cold water and rich nutrients, he says.

One moment when Dion might’ve had second thoughts about his job choice was when he and another diver were down getting kina near Stewart Island and a four-metre Great White Shark casually swam between them.

“I just froze and watched the shark swim away.

“I freaked out when we were back in the dingy but had to go back into the water because we needed to get more kina — I was looking over my shoulder a lot after that.”

Dion is back in Gisborne where he is running free-diving safety and basic fundamentals around being a kai gatherer at the Olympic Pools on Thursdays.

“I want to share my knowledge and teach people safer ways or techniques.

“We’ve got about 12 people — all keen divers. They range from beginners right up to guys who have been diving for many years.

“I just love being amongst a good bunch of people who are willing to learn.”

He is also developing an education programme called “Tamariki of the Tides” which will teach children the basics of diving in the pool. This is something Dion is extremely passionate about and hopes to bring to fruition in the not too distant future.

“When they are confident enough I’d like to take them to the Marine Reserve at Pouawa and start identifying marine species.”

He said learning to dive safely and being able to gather seafood is something all coastal kids should be able to do.

Spikey Gold Hunters is giving him a public profile — even if seeing himself on TV makes him feel slightly uncomfortable.

Every Wednesday night when a new episode screens he and his family meet at his place to watch the show.

“I’m seeing it for the first time too so I want to know what bits they have used.”

He’s doing it because of his love for the ocean, for the sport and to keep people safe and avoid further diving deaths in the region.

For an insight into Dion’s life and the antics he gets up to on a daily basis around the sea, his diving and adventures with whanau, follow his lifestyle blog on Facebook and Instagram — Coasty_Kidds.

PURE UNWAVERING BLISS: “It isn’t just about the kai we gather. I have always been in awe of the feeling I get when my face hits the water — A pure unwavering bliss,” says Dion on his Coasty_Kidds blog. His first crayfish encounter in Fiordland brings great results. “It was an amazing feeling to finally meet the dinosaurs of the sea.” Picture by Sam Wild: Sub Surface Media
COASTY KID: Dion Aupouri-Akuhata. Portrait by C.J. Photography
SAFE-DIVING EDUCATION: Dion teaches a diving class at the Olympic Pools to a group of keen free-divers on Thursdays from 6pm. He is also working to develop and bring a Diving in Schools programme to the East Coast. “I want to ensure our rangatahi have the skills to both return home safely and gather kai for their whanau for generations to come.” Picture by Paul Rickard
FOLLOW THE YELLOW MASK: Dion takes a selfie with kina near Stewart Island. You might know Dion as ‘The Maori Boy’ from Spiky Gold Hunters on Duke TV but long before that he was The Coasty Kidd. “Coasty_Kidds was born out of my love for the ocean and is a voice for me to share the adventures that our lifestyle entails,” he says.