Sam Kereopa was a penny diver at Whakarewarewa as a child and is now a lead commercial diver and deck foreman in the Persian Gulf oil fields, spending seven weeks away and five in Auckland. He survived a boiling mud pool fall when he was 7.
1. That’s a very shiny Harley- Davidson: do you spend all your spare time polishing it?
Well I’m a bit of a clean freak. I like things clean and tidy. I tidy up everywhere – on the boats, at home. It’s just the way I am. My spare time is when I’m away from the Gulf and my partner and I go on the rampage. We’ll meet somewhere in the world that she wants to go to and go nuts – Champagne, prawns, shopping. I love shopping. I’ve got a shoe thing and I like Harleys, muscle cars, all that stuff.
2. What’s life like when you’re on the boats?
Completely different. There’s no alcohol, no women – about 110 people on my boat including 30 divers from all over the world. All guys, though there are females who do it, just not in Saudi Arabia. We do 12 hour shifts and when I’m not on I work out and sleep. We have galley boys who do your laundry, all the cooking, hot meals every six hours and treats like doughnuts and fresh scones that get handed around. It’s like a cruise ship. The Gulf’s an amazing place – you look out and there’s structures everywhere, methane burning, big chimneys but the water is so clean and the fish life is incredible because of the ecosystem.
You see dolphins and whale sharks – it’s actually very good diving. Our dives are up to 170ft [52m] but you don’t stay down there very long. We’re looking at valves and pipes, doing general maintenance. There are robots that do that stuff too – remote-operated vehicles – but you can never beat the man. Man make. Man break. And when the robots get stuck we’re the ones that go down to get them.
3. How did you get into diving?
My iwi is Te Roroa from the Waipoua forest and Patuwai from Motiti Island. My dad was born on the island. His aunty taught him to free dive as a kid. The women did the diving for the crayfish and scallops and the men did the fishing. Patuwai means to fight on the water. When anyone would come to the island they would row out and knew they would win. Swimming and being in the ocean is what we are about. [Patuwai] are part of the ocean. I got my [diving] ticket when I was 15.
4. Did you grow up there too?
We lived in Whakatane, then before I started school we moved to Rotorua. We lived just outside Whakarewarewa but our whakapapa was all over there so we could dive for coins off the bridge with the other kids. We’d ask the tourists to pay us 20c to dive off the highest pole, then when they said yes, we’d ask lots of others so you’d get $2 for one dive. We were the waka-blondes – our hair would bleach from the water and sulphur and being outside all the time. It was bloody cold in that river, and the current could be strong. But it kept us out of trouble. No one had to steal or anything because we were making $5 to $10 a week which was heaps in the 70s.
5. Did your family have much money?
No. Five kids. Dad worked in the bush. All our food was hunting and gathering and we had a huge vege garden. On payday you might get KFC – there were lines around the block when it first opened – but we didn’t have it often. We ate everything we gathered – I still love pig’s head. I make a brawn out of it. I was always wagging school – going fishing places I shouldn’t, or hunting. When I was 15 I took my brother’s interview for a forestry job and pretended I was him. I knew he’d never get up in time for it.
6. When did you leave Rotorua?
When I was 25. I’d got out of forestry and become a personal trainer. I’d been a skinny kid but got into the gym, did a couple of body-building competitions and I loved it. Personal training was pretty new then. I’d bring the girls up to Auckland once a week for jazzercise classes. Then I moved into security, moved to Auckland. I don’t go back to Rotorua – Dad died in 2004 of cancer and Mum’s in Waipoua forest settlement with my brother. They have an amazing life – they have nothing but have everything, you know? No power. All their food is gathered. A very simple life.
7. When have you been at your lowest?
Probably after my divorce. I’d been married 16 years. We’d always thought we’d have children then we didn’t and just drifted apart. I didn’t mind being on my own but it’s a big life change. I’ve always had a lot of love in my life. From my family too. My father was a good man. He never drank. Never hit us. He was a hard worker. And my Mum is great. People say I look a lot like her.
8. Did you ever give them any strife?
My grandfather had to take me to court when I was 15. My brother had given me a drink of rum and Coke – I hate that stuff. Can still smell it. And later I got into my Dad’s car, did burnouts on the road and the cops were right there, watching. I took off and they all chased me – seemed like every cop in Rotorua was after me – I pulled up a driveway and turned off the lights. Waited for a couple of hours then tried to drive home and they saw me. I floored it – 160km/h or something – and wrote off the car. Split it in half. My mate was in the seat next to me and he was in a coma for three days. I got a $750 fine and couldn’t get a licence for two years. We came out of court and my grandfather paid the fine in cash.
9. Didn’t he want you to learn a lesson?
I did. They didn’t have to say anything. I had to save up and buy my father a new car but they knew I had learned my lesson.
10. Is that the closest you’ve gone to dying?
When I was 7 I fell into a boiling mud pool. I’d gone to jump over it and slid back into the mud. Spent a year in hospital but all you can see now is this scar on my wrist and this big one on my back.
11. What about diving? Isn’t that a dangerous job?
When you’re under the water, you’re part of the food chain. I don’t care what people say, you can’t reason with a shark. I had one come up and grab my bag once and I stuck my hand into his gills. Bugger this knock them on the nose shit. That’s the end you want to avoid. I’m a very careful diver and always look after those who are with me. I always bring them home.
12. Will you have to give it up one day?
I am doing some other tickets and stuff – surveying, that kind of thing – but diving’s not that hard on your body. I’m probably the oldest on the boat but I’m also the fittest. Those young guys don’t go to the gym. When they’re not working they’ll sit around watching movies. I enjoy that time to work out, sleep, and plan what I’ll do when I’m back home.