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.


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.

Advance Australia Fair was launched here in 1878

A little more on the birthplace of the Australian national anthem Advance Australia Fair (expanding on my feature article published here). The Australian Workers Union Building is at 238-240 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, opposite the fire station between Bathurst and Liverpool Streets. It first opened its doors as the Protestant Hall on 9 November 1877 – not 1878 as the City of Sydney Council and the National Trust believe.

Just over a year later, on 30 November 1878, Advance Australia Fair enjoyed its first public airing at the Hall during a NSW Highland Society concert. The song was an immediate hit, but anthem status was a long time coming. Another early highlight came in September 1895, when American author Mark Twain did four shows, filling the venue to capacity with audiences of 2000-plus.

In April 1891 the nascent labour movement held meetings at the Hall to enrol members, so it has some claim as the (or a) birthplace of the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Workers Union had an office at or next door to the building from the same year. A radical bookshop, McNamara’s Book & News Depot, patronised by such luminaries as Henry Lawson, was also on the premises in the 1890s.

The building was renamed Empire House in 1924, following renovations. In 1938 it was taken over by the AWU as the headquarters for the New South Wales union movement. The Hellenic Club bought it in 1979 and the current plan is to turn it into a bar, although the facade will be preserved.

How about a name for this bar reflecting the building’s fascinating story? The possibilities are boundless but I vote for Girt, from AAF’s most distinctive line. At the very least the city council ought to stick a plaque on the front. What do you say, Clover?

Here’s a link to a travel feature I’ve just had published on shore diving in Sydney

Oak Park dive site, Cronulla (Sydney). Photo by Emma Eason.

Sydney Harbour sunset

Here’s a link to a travel feature I’ve just had published; it’s about Sydney coastal walks – sandstone cliffs, humpback whales, Aboriginal rock art, a million beaches, that kind of thing…