It was a calm day on the Parengarenga Bar in the early 1980s, except for the huge swells rolling in from a storm 500km off East Cape.
Jim Dollimore was on board the 55-foot Busy Bee that was about to sink and claim the lives of two men.
“I was working as a diver keeping the teiche nets clean off Whitianga,” Jim said.
“Sealord and Nissui brought the nets out from Japan and trained us up, and every morning at dawn, we’d go out and repair the net and pick out any gilled fish.
“The following year, they set up nets at East Cape and North Cape and it was my job to teach the local people how to dive them.”
It was his first job in the seafood industry and part of a 40-year career that has seen him become one of the largest and most respected oyster farmers in the country.
“On my first trip out to see the new nets, we went out in three boats,” he said.
“The boat in front of us capsized first.”
The Busy Bee’s skipper immediately ordered everyone to the stern of the vessel. Just he and Jim remained in the wheelhouse. But Jim could tell from the look on his face, that they were going down too.
“The breaking face of the wave was about six metres,” Jim said.
“I thought ‘shit’. And I looked at the skipper and he didn’t look confident, so I sat down on the deck with my hands on my head, expecting to be crushed.”
The wave swamped and rolled the Busy Bee and the passengers at the stern were washed into the sea.
“The boat was immediately underwater. And then it rolled,” Jim said. “Water was pouring in through the windows and door. There was stuff everywhere. The boat was upside down and we had to swim out, and fight our way through ropes and pallets and all sorts.”
When the Busy Bee resurfaced, three of the other passengers swam in and clung to the back of the upturned hull. Two were missing and another was floating face down about 20 metres away.
“I swam out and got him,” Jim said.
“I lived in the water in those days, and spent all my time swimming and diving, so I knew I could swim for miles if I had to.”
“He was lifeless and I thought he was dead, but it turned out he was in a diabetic coma and when we got him back on the shore a nurse recognised him and put a barley sugar under his tongue and after a time, he sat up, and yawned and came right.”
Jim was part of the search crews that found the bodies of the other two men in the following days. And while the incident has stayed with him over the years, it has never affected his love of the sea. Born and raised in Nelson, Jim moved to Dunedin to study microbiology at Otago University.
“That was where I first got interested in scuba diving and we started the New Zealand Underwater Association.” he said. It all started by chance, after Jim saw an ad in the local trading post.
“I’d been doing a bit of snorkelling and I really wanted a spear gun like I’d seen in a James Bond movie. Then I saw a second hand one advertised in the local trading post newspaper and when I went out to see it, the guy had all sorts of diving gear too.
“He gave us a free trial of his gear and we just went down to about 20 feet in the kelp and watched all the fish and thought ‘this is fantastic’.
“At that time, we were using wetsuits that we’d made by sewing industrial rubber packaging, which wasn’t actually much good.
“So he tried to sell us his wetsuits too, including a half suit, which turned out to belong to a man who died after a great white shark ripped his leg off while diving at St Clair the year before.”
While he passed on the wetsuit, Jim did buy the scuba gear and with his Underwater Association mates, taught themselves to dive.
“We used to go and dive around the seal colonies and swim through caves but the water was freezing and there was poor visibility and in hindsight it was actually quite dangerous as there were a few shark attacks around that time.”
It quickly became a passion for Jim, and after a weekend trip to Poor Knights Island, Jim packed his bags and moved North.
“Once we’d been to Poor Knights Island, there was no going back. The water was warm and crystal clear and that was enough to make us move.
“I went to teachers’ college for a year and just looked around for work that would allow us to do more diving.”
That led Jim to Waihi and the teiche nets before he decided to head back to study marine biology at the University of Auckland.
“While I was a student there I built a yacht in my spare time,” he said.
“I was a bit of a hippie back then and wanted to live on the land and I found a block of 200 acres of pine forest that would be perfect. But when I went home and explained it to dad and asked him to fund it, he wasn’t keen. So forlorn, I went walking along the shore of Nelson and I met a guy who was living in a yacht. I took him home to dinner and he told us how he’d built it up at the Ev Sayers boat yard.
“That sounded good to me, so I went up to that boat yard and started work on my own 37-foot yacht during the summer holidays. It took me nine months of weekends and I launched it in September.”
Jim and his young family lived on it that summer. His son, Dan, was born on November 17 and they left on December 1 to go cruising for three months, before returning to take a job managing two oyster farms in the Mahurangi.
“It was my first taste of oyster farming. We did everything from seeding to selling.”
And then when the opportunity came up to buy farms of his own, Jim sold the yacht for $20,000 and bought the first of the farms which now make up Biomarine. From there, Jim bought other farms when possible, and applied for licenses for new farms and gradually expanded around the Mahurangi region, before recognising the potential for farming off Kaipara.
“Being a microbiologist, I was always concerned about water quality. We are producing a raw product and the majority of farms in New Zealand are surrounded by houses and boats. I wanted to go somewhere more remote from human activity,” he said.
“The idea of having a farm with really good, really clean water to harvest from was the driving factor – so no matter what happened in other harbours, you could always transport your oysters there, and leave them for a month, and then they’d be safe to eat.
“I looked around a lot. Kaipara was ideal in a lot of ways because it was a big harbour with a big tidal flow and it wasn’t somewhere that people went – it was rough and stormy and had no access. But I thought it was a harbour with moving sandbanks and wouldn’t be suitable. But then I started studying aerial photos going back as far as World War II and that showed us it was pretty stable and would be possible to build there.”
Jim pioneered a style of farming new to the country with baskets suspended from wires between poles – it gave him access to quality deep waters while also allowing the oysters to spend time out of the water when the tide dropped.
“It’s a farm that’s 1.6km long and 500m wide. At the moment we’ve got about 60 lines on it, but there’s room for about 150 lines when fully developed,” he said.
“It’s a good way of hardening oysters for live travel and live sale. Farming in rough, windswept and turbulent waters is good for that. It cleans and polishes up the shells and makes them visually appealing but leaving them dry for half the time is what makes them resilient to travel.”
The combination of the Kaipara and farms in Mahurangi, today sees Jim produce about 600,000 dozen oysters, which he processes in his own purpose-built plant, before exporting to Australia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, USA and Canada.
“About a quarter of our oysters go out live, which has grown significantly in the last five-to-six years and I think it’s going to be a significant part of the future,” he said.
“New Zealand oysters in general are well respected and our prices are up there among the most premium of all. We used to be among the cheapest, but the scarcity that followed the OShV-1 virus, better communication across the industry and moves into higher-value product formats have changed that.
“We’re selling premium, branded products – and the world can’t get enough of them.”