Page 1: Biography
Fisherman, search and rescue organiser
This biography, written by Peter Boston, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Universally known as Johnny or John, Giovanni Cataldo was born at Island Bay, Wellington, on 18 November 1927. He was the fifth child and second son of Francesco Cataldo and his wife, Gelsomina Gargiulo, immigrants from Resino, Italy. Francesco, a fisherman, had worked at Eastbourne from 1914 until 1920, when he returned to Italy to marry. In 1921 he arrived back in New Zealand with Gelsomina and settled in Island Bay, a focal point for the local Italian fishing community. John Cataldo grew up speaking Italian fluently, and later in life he occasionally acted as an interpreter for Italian nationals arraigned before the courts. He was brought up a Catholic, and attended St Madeleine Sophie’s School before going to Marist Brothers’ School and St Patrick’s College.
Parental ill health (his father suffered from diabetes) and a desire to be a fisherman curtailed his studies. At 15 Cataldo started work for the well-known Italian fisherman Joe ‘Boom’ Greco. After learning his trade he joined the crew of Raffaele Persico’s boat, the Ika , eventually becoming its owner. Fishing involved long, irregular hours, often in harsh weather conditions. If the weather prevented him from going to sea, Cataldo spent his time ashore preparing lines and crayfish-pots. Seeking an easier life he abandoned the sea in 1949 to establish a fruit shop. However, after 10 months he returned to Cook Strait, skippering the Ika and then the Muollo brothers’ San Antonino II .
Through his work Cataldo developed an intimate knowledge of Cook Strait. This awareness led him to note the depletion of the fishing resource (he later donated several rare fish to the National Museum). It also led to his involvement with recreational and sporting activities. From the late 1960s he acted as a pilot for surf-boat races organised by the Island Bay Lifesaving and Surf Club. He also became well known for assisting swimmers attempting to cross Cook Strait, including Keith Hancox, Lynne Cox, Meda McKenzie and Philip Rush. Often Cataldo would row alongside for the duration of the attempt, offering encouragement, while keeping a rifle at hand to ward off sharks. Perry Cameron, who swam the strait in 1972, described him as a very humane person able to bring the best out of a swimmer. Cataldo also piloted crossings by kayakers, paraplegics using wheelchairs mounted on canoes, and surf-sailers. The National Film Unit produced the 1978 film Surf sail about one such attempt.
Cataldo’s concern for recreational users of Cook Strait extended to maritime rescue work. His first employer, ‘Boom’ Greco, along with other Island Bay fishermen, had often played a prominent part in rescues and Cataldo later took on this role. Once he rescued the crew of a yacht in trouble off Cape Palliser, sailing the San Antonino II for five hours into a gale-force southerly before towing the stricken craft back to Wellington. The formalisation of marine rescue services which occurred after the 1968 Wahine disaster saw Cataldo become part of the Wellington marine search and rescue committee organised by the police. After a national conference he became an official search adviser for the Cook Strait area. Police valued Cataldo’s calmness under pressure and his ability to evaluate dangerous situations. Rescue operations caused him considerable economic hardship, however, both in fuel costs and the loss of fishing time. In 1986 John Cataldo received the Queen’s Service Medal in recognition of his work.
When not involved with fishing or community service, Cataldo spent time with his family. After a long courtship he married Veree Mina Teesdale, a shop assistant, at St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington, on 25 July 1959. The couple had four children: two boys and two girls. Cataldo enjoyed playing bowls and owned several racehorses. Their names – Marebello, Marenostro, Mellay Strait and Cook Strait – reflected his Italian ancestry and love of the sea. A heavy smoker for many years, he died of lung cancer at his home in Island Bay on 8 January 1989, survived by his wife and children. His colleagues, friends and family remember him as a modest, easygoing individual who was unflappable in a crisis. Certainly many users of Cook Strait owe their lives to John Cataldo.