On Tuesday, 16 February 1965, Sydney’s Botany Bay was graced with an extremely rare visitation – a thirty foot (9m) whale shark, which washed ashore on Bare Island in the bay’s northeast corner.
Little was known of whale sharks or their haunts back then. Hardly anyone had ever seen one; it would be over 20 years before the Ningaloo Reef population was discovered. The first documented sighting of a whale shark in Australian waters was by fishermen near Jervis Bay, NSW, in April 1938, sparking headlines nationwide. With only a handful of sightings since then, the arrival of one of these mysterious spotted sea beasts in the waters of Australia’s biggest city caused a sensation.
Sad to say, its stranding was no freak whim of Mother Nature. The poor creature was hounded ashore by an electrical repair vessel, the Warratah, which chased it around Botany Bay for about an hour. Numerous small fishing boats joined in; at one point the harassed shark surfaced under a dinghy containing two fishermen and almost capsized them. After heading towards the open sea, the whale shark turned for Bare Island, where it became stranded on rocks amidst heavy pounding waves.
About 50 onlookers approached for a closer look (a footbridge links the island to shore) but the wild waters forced them back. The Warratah crew tried to tow the five-ton animal back into the bay, but their efforts ended in a snapped line.
Skindiver Eric Buchanan then tied a two-inch nylon rope from the launch Temora around the tail. But again the line broke, and Buchanan had a narrow escape when a big surge almost rolled the shark on top of him. As he scurried to safety the shark washed another 20 feet, coming to rest on a flat rock platform above the tide line, where it spent the day slowly dying.
Over the day, an estimated 10,000 people jammed nearby roads, wanting to see the beached giant. Some brought hacksaws and other tools to carve out a souvenir. The whale shark’s mouth – five feet across – was forced open with an iron bar, and over the next day or so its eyes were gouged out and its dorsal fin and tail sawn off.
The Australian Museum announced it would either take the corpse or cast a replica, but it was already too late. Little or no attempt was made to secure the site and by the next day, with hundreds of people still visiting, it was reported that ‘only half the monster remains and knife-happy tourists and fishermen have cut off huge chunks of flesh’. Too mutilated to tow, the shark was left stinking in the sun, much to the displeasure of Mrs Moore, the wife of Bare Island’s caretaker, who called it ‘an overpowering and unwelcome visitor’.
Before the remains were finally disposed of, the Australian Museum took some skin and teeth samples (item IB.7314 in its collection). To this day, no-one has ever reported another whale shark in Botany Bay – and who can blame them for steering clear after such a savage reception?
PS: By pure coincidence, just five days after the Bare Island stranding, Ben Cropp and George Meyer obtained spectacular footage of two whale sharks near Montague Island off the NSW south coast. They had spent several days looking for a whale shark which Meyer had seen while diving there, and at first worried that the Bare Island shark was that animal. This was only the second time a whale shark had been filmed underwater, and the first time in colour. Hans Hass shot some black-and-white footage in 1950, which appears in his movie Under The Red Sea (aka Diving In The Red Sea).