December’s edition of Reader’s Digest – out now – includes my feature article on snorkelling with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef – click the link for an online version at the Reader’s Digest website.

Ningaloo Reef is not only one of the planet’s most spectacular coral reef systems, it’s one of the few places where these huge, highly unusual sharks can be reliably encountered.

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Whale shark filter feeling just below the surface, Ningaloo Reef, WA. Photo by David Levell.

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Mightily chuffed and honoured to have my supernatural/historical short story SHARK’S ISLAND swim into this year’s THE YELLOW BOOKE, the annual collection of “original horror, ghost stories and weird fiction” from US-based Oldstyle Press. Shark’s Island (pages 123-132) transports you to the wildest outer limits of Australia’s convict past. Follow the link to read The Yellow Booke (vol iv) free online, or buy a print copy from Amazon at an Amazingly good price.

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As well as putting out the annual Yellow Booke, Oldstyle Press publishes handsomely illustrated and annotated editions representing many of the great masters of classic weird and supernatural fiction – Poe, Shelley, Blackwood, Stoker, Bierce, Dickens, James, RLS and more. Well worth sinking your teeth into!

It was Botany Bay’s most surprising arrival since Cook dropped anchor in the Endeavour – on Tuesday, 16 February 1965, the famous Sydney inlet was graced with a thirty foot (9m) whale shark, which washed ashore on Bare Island in the bay’s northeast corner.

whale-shark

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?

whaleofasharkPS: 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).

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.

The Ningaloo Reef whale shark story was published a few weeks ago and is still afloat here. Here’s some extra snaps from the trip:
Not whale sharks, a dolphin pod

Whale shark fleet off Tantabiddi Boat Ramp

Talking to the spotter plane

Leopard shark and 'shark spotter'

Final briefing before whale-shark dive

Whale shark at the surface

juvenile male whale shark cruises by

Intrepid Ningaloo snorkeller

Tantabiddi Boat Ramp

Three Islands Whale Shark Dive

I have a story on swimming with whale sharks in this month’s Qantas inflight magazine. Apart from the skyways, it can also be found online at Travel Insider and the Qantas website. And below, my submarine snaps of two whale sharks we encountered.

Hello... (whale shark filter-feeding)

... and goodbye

 

Whale Shark at Ningaloo Reef

Just back from Ningaloo Reef off North West Cape, a remote and wondrous corner of Western Australia. Essentially a desert with a fringing coral reef, it is one of the world’s best places to encounter whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea. I’m publishing a feature article about the experience soon; meanwhile here’s a snap of a 4.5m specimen (one of three whale sharks I managed to snorkel with) taken on a disposable underwater camera. And yes, that’s my damn finger in the corner.