A decade ago (March 2002) there was a brief media frenzy when a boatful of people saw a large shark breaching four times near Taronga Zoo Wharf. One said, “It turned on its side and you could see its jaws and it looked to me like a white pointer”. The same day a yachtie reported an 8-ft shark near the Harbour Bridge, which rose from the water “shaking its head from side to side”.

A bull shark, most people reckoned, and with good cause – it’s the only large species frequently seen in the harbour. Nino Kinnunen (Manly Oceanworld aquarist) was quoted as saying that great whites had never been ‘officially recorded’ in Sydney Harbour.

AND YET…. on 22 May 1927, fisherman Charlie Messenger caught a 5m great white shark in the harbour’s Watsons Bay. The Sydney Morning Herald covered the story on May 26, stating Messenger ‘caught the monster just after a French mail steamer had passed, and he presumes that it followed the vessel through the heads and into the harbour’.

The specimen was identified as a great white by David G Stead, Fisheries Department naturalist, father of the writer Christina Stead and later the author of Sharks & Rays Of Australian Seas (1963). 

Two days later (May 24) Messenger caught nine bull sharks in the harbour; some are shown in this PHOTO.

Stead declared this catch ‘mullet sharks or whalers’ – bull sharks by another name, even though their usual maximum length is 3.5m and Messenger’s ‘mullet sharks’ apparently ranged from 2.3m to 4.4m. Before Stead saw them, the newspapers misnamed these sharks ‘deadly grey-nurse’.

Stead didn’t identify the great white until May 25th – the day after the bull sharks were caught – so he may have examined all Messenger’s sharks together. The Herald reporter listed the common names of the 5m shark as  ‘great white death’, ‘terror of the sea’, ‘white pointer’, ‘grey death’ and ‘sea tiger’, and noted that it ‘was on this coast a very rare variety’. Stead later confirmed in his Sharks & Rays Of Australian Seas that it was a great white, and speculated that it had followed the French steamer a great distance, as sharks were often observed doing in that era. Over 80 years later it still seems to be the only great white ever seen inside Sydney Harbour.