Blood in the Water: shark attacks in Australian history

There was yet another fatal shark attack off the West Australian coast last week, the 5th this year, making Western Australia ‘the world’s deadliest place for shark attacks’.  Statistically, the chance of dying in a shark attack is very low – just as the chance of dying in a plane crash is low – but statistics don’t really matter. We are creatures of the land.  In the ocean or the air we are literally out of our element and vulnerable.

Shark attacks provoke visceral, irrational fears when we venture into their territory, especially when they challenge our supremacy at the top of the food chain.  Inevitably, after an attack, there are calls to cull sharks generally, or to seek out and kill this particular shark (how will they recognise it?), yet people kill sharks more often than they are killed by them.  Most sharks, including the Great White that was probably responsible for this recent death, are now listed as vulnerable species.

A bull shark

A bull shark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many reasons: pollution, drift nets, loss of habitat.  But in particular, the rising wealth of China has meant a growing market for shark fin.  In Australia, we don’t hunt sharks for their fins any more, but it was once an important part of the China tea trade.  In 1804 the ex-convict trader Simeon Lord advertised in the Sydney Gazette:

WANTED a Quantity of SHARKS FINS properly dried and preserved.  Any Person willing to enter into a Contract for procuring the same for two years will meet with liberal Encouragement.

Sharks’ teeth were important, too.  Pacific Islanders took them in exchange for sandalwood, another commodity sold in China.

The Taronga Conservation Society keeps a record of shark attacks in Australia. During the first 100 years of European settlement, there were only about 30 recorded deaths from shark attack – though undoubtedly more went unrecorded, particularly amongst coastal Aboriginal people.  The earliest reference to a shark attack comes from Watkin Tench who in 1791 wrote about a ‘little native boy, named Bòn-del’ whose mother was ‘bitten in two by a shark’, presumably in Sydney Harbour.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that Australians began to develop a beach culture, and board riding came later still, in the 1950s.  Most shark attacks before this occurred in estuaries, when a boat capsized, or somebody went too far out into the water.  So for instance, in January 1837 a 12 year old boy, Alfred Australia Howe, was paddling in the Macleay River:

The unfortunate youth whilst washing his feet in shallow water, on the banks of the stream, in charge of a man servant, was suddenly seized by a large shark, near fifty miles from the harbour, and dragged into the current. The man rushed in and grasping the boy at the hazard of his life, pulled him out of the monster’s mouth and swam to land, just as the fish pursued them furiously to the shore.

The effusion of blood was instantly stopped, but symptoms of mortification exhibiting themselves, the surgeon in attendance peremptorily ordered a removal to Port Macquarie, for amputation of the limb, but death terminated his sufferings by locked jaw in a litter on the road.  Sydney Monitor, 1 February 1837

Poor Alfred might have survived, if only he had had better medical treatment – or none!

The species is seldom identified in these 19th century accounts, but this was clearly an estuarine shark, since it attacked 50 miles from the sea.  Deep-sea (pelagic) species such as the Great White are more of a problem now, with a growing population of surfboarders and divers swimming further out from the beach, particularly along the western and southern coastlines where most of these shark attacks take place.

Sharks are scavengers.  In 1858 2 boatmen in Sydney caught a bull-shark, Carcharhinus leucas, over 12 feet in length, which they sold to the Australian Museum for £80.  According to the naturalist George Bennett, Gatherings of a naturalist in Australia (1862), its stomach contents included:

Half a ham; several legs of mutton; hind quarter of a pig; head and fore-legs of a bull-dog, with a rope round its neck; a quantity of horse-flesh; a piece of sacking, and ship’s scraper!

Mark Twain visited Sydney in 1895.  According to him,

The people of Sydney ought to be afraid of the sharks, but for some reason they do not seem to be.  On Saturdays the young men go out in their boats, and sometimes the water is fairly covered with the little sails.  A boat upsets now and then…with sharks visibly waiting around for just such an occurrence…. Tragedies have happened more than once.  While I was in Sydney it was reported that a boy fell out of a boat in the mouth of the Paramatta [sic] river and screamed for help and a boy jumped overboard from another boat to save him from the assembling sharks; but the sharks made swift work with the lives of both.

The government pays a bounty of the shark; to get the bounty the fishermen bait the hook or the seine with agreeable mutton; the news spreads and the sharks come from all over the Pacific Ocean to get the free board.  In time the shark culture will be one of the most successful things in the colony.

Then as now, official efforts to control shark numbers seem doomed to failure, though today the problem is that sharks numbers are dropping world-wide.

I have a direct, if distant, link with shark attacks.  I live near the foreshore in Sandgate, in a house built in the 1920s.  One of its previous owners lost his leg to a shark while fishing in Bramble Bay, just at the end of my street.  I doubt if there are many sharks within wading distance any longer – but you never know with sharks.  It’s their territory after all.

Meanwhile, on a more cheerful environmental note, I wrote a few weeks ago that the black swans seemed to have disappeared from Moreton Bay.  It seems that at least one family is back again.

Black swans crossing Brighton Rd, Sandgate, heading for Einbunpin Lagoon. Photo by Linda Cowen, in Bayside and Northern Suburbs Star, 18 July 2012.

Michael Sturma, ‘The Great Australian Bite’, in The Great Circle, October 1986.

This time last year:
Case Histories, 17 July 2012
The Radical Effect of Holloway’s Pills, 22 July 2012

3 responses to “Blood in the Water: shark attacks in Australian history

  1. Pingback: Blood in the Water: shark attacks in Australian history | Australian Open History |

  2. Nice article, but I question your characterisation of the white shark as a “pelagic” shark, White sharks are frequently found in the littoral (coast) environment, where they feed on marine mammals. True pelagic sharks, such as the oceanic whitetip, never (or only extremely rarely) move into shallow coastal waters

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