Dictionary of Sydney

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Living with sharks on the Georges River

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Living with sharks on the Georges River

[media]In pre-European times, a rich variety of fish – or shark prey – was seasonally available in estuaries like Port Jackson, Botany Bay and the lower Georges River. Early colonial diarists recorded the diversity of fish as including jewfish, schnapper, mullet, sole, mackerel, whiting, dory, leather jackets, bass, bream, flathead – everything from gudgeon to whale, in fact. [1] In 1788, a special mention was made of 'monstrous' sharks, after one caught by those on board the ship, Sirius, was reportedly six and a half feet (approximately 2 metres) in circumference at its 'shoulders'. [2]

Watkin Tench remarked on the reactions of the local Aboriginal people to sharks:

…probably from having felt the effects of their voracious fury, [they] testify the utmost horror on seeing these terrible fish [3]

The shark menace would have been real to Aboriginal men when standing and spearing fish in the shallows with multi pronged spears called fizz-gigs [4], and particularly when diving for shellfish. Women could be terrified too when using fishing lines from their flimsy bark canoes. [5] The shark must have been an integral part of their lives with archeological records of shark teeth being used as barbs on a war spear and shark motifs being included in the rich artwork mosaic that patterned many rock engravings and shelters around Sydney river banks and the coast. [6] Some hint of the impact of sharks on the lives of Aboriginal children is the story of Bundle, aged about 11, who was taken under the wing of Captain Hill in 1788 when his mother was taken by a shark. [7]

When Mark Twain visited Sydney in 1895, he observed:

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". [8]

Beyond the boating accidents Twain observed, river swimming became part of an evolving recreational culture in and around Sydney, even when they were shark infested.

Georges River shark attacks

The statistical record of shark attacks in NSW from 1791–2009 reveals that before 1974 people were far more likely to be the fatal victim of a shark attack than since, but realistically the danger has never been great. Furthermore, in the period before 1974, estuaries (tidal rivers and their mouths) like the lower Georges River and Botany Bay were much more likely to be scenes of horrendous events than ocean beaches.

While shark attacks were recorded in Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River from 1791 onwards, the first attack for the Botany Bay–Georges River system was recorded in January 1906. This does not mean sharks were not present in earlier days: far fewer swimmers were widespread in the Georges River, confined instead to areas like the celebrated Brighton Baths in Botany Bay, established in the 1880s.

Subsequent to the first fatal Georges River attack, there was a non-fatal attack in January 1934, a fatal attack and an injury on New Year's Eve 1934, a non-fatal attack in December 1939, a fatal attack in March 1942 and a fatal attack in January 1946. [9] This pattern of attack shows a distinctly dangerous summer period and, with closer examination of other factors, shows a correlation with what appears to be the golden period of Georges River swimming in the 1930–40s and the sometimes apparent bravado of swimmers who swam outside safety enclosures even when they were present.

Innocent swimmers, marauding monsters and brave rescuers

In January 1934, a 15 year old youth by the name of Wallace McCutcheon was attacked by a 10 foot (3 metre) shark while trying to retrieve a tennis ball outside a netted enclosure at Lambeth Reserve, more than 20 miles (32 kilometres) upstream from the mouth of the Georges River. An eyewitness claimed that the youth was lifted out of the water by the shark as it grabbed him by the chest. His rescue was attributed to his friend, Frank Spruce, who dived in and dragged him back to shore away from the shark. [10]

Reporting on the attack, The Sydney Morning Herald stated that it was not uncommon to see swimmers in deep water outside the wire of the enclosures, even when provided. It also noted that further upstream at Deepwater, Hollywood and Kentucky, hundreds of people swam regularly where enclosures were not available and where sharks were particularly prevalent in summer and despite the fact that several dogs had being taken around that time. [11]

As is often the case in media reports of shark attacks, there is an implied suggestion of swimmer innocence or even recklessness, coinciding with the hidden presence of a ferocious, lurking predator and the selfless and impetuous bravery of a rescuer – themes that are echoed in other shark attack stories.

The Sydney Morning Herald of 1934 report [media]seems almost ominously prophetic when the next case is considered. Less than a year later on New Years Eve of 1934, Richard Foden, while holidaying away from his Canberra home, decided to race his half-brother and a friend across the Georges River near Milperra, more than 20 miles (32 kilometres) upriver. He was almost there when he was horribly mauled by a shark and died quickly 'in the arms' of a fisherman who waded in to save him. The media reports graphically state that Richard's flesh was torn from his right knee and up his thigh. To this is added the bizarre detail, as if it adds to the tragedy, that he was leading in the race at the time.

[media]In a nightmarish subsequent event, at 8pm on the same day at Kentucky, three miles (4.8 kilometres) further up the river, Beryl Morrin, 13 years of age, was swimming with her four siblings in shallow water when a shark grabbed her. The Canberra Times surmised that she was 'attacked, apparently by the same monster'. [12] Imagine the horror – she called out to her mother that a shark had got her and held up the remaining stumps of her suddenly handless arms. [13] Beryl was rushed to hospital and survived, even though this was not expected. She went on to become a local legend, showing pluck and resilience after such a serious setback, riding bikes and swimming on regardless. [14]

In January 1946, a 14 year old girl, Valma Tegel of Oatley, [media]died as a result of having her left leg ripped off in a shark attack while swimming in about 3 feet (1 metre) of water with her cousin and father at a small sandy beach in Oatley Bay near her home. It was reported that during the attack her father fought valiantly to save her by straddling the shark and punching it with his bare fists. She was mauled horribly and died in his arms as he took her from the water. [15]

Again the familiar images and themes are reiterated: a horrible mauling attack and dying in the arms of valiant rescuer. What is not mentioned this time is that Valma was swimming in a bay that had a netted enclosure and yet, with her father and cousin, had not chosen this safe swimming option. She was just a flimsy net away from shark safety, just as the swimmer, Wallace McCutcheon, who was attacked at Lambeth Reserve in 1934 had been.

'It's only a matter of time'

Sharks live on in the river and in our collective imagination. There have been no recent fatal human shark attacks in the Georges River, [16] yet studies confirm that sharks still move up as far as Liverpool Weir, 45 kilometres from the sea. Stories today are shared in online chat forums by kayakers, wake-boarders and people who fish the river. One fisherman in 2009 boasted of catching a bull shark in shallow water at a popular prawning spot on the Georges River. [17] Characteristically, catching prawns requires standing in the in shallows with hand nets, on nights in the dark period of the moon cycle, so the fisherman issued this sinister warning: 'It's only a matter of time'.


Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010

Tim Flannery (ed), Watkin Tench's 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009


[1] The diarists included Watkin Tench and George Worgan, reported in Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, second edition, p 63

[2] This description perhaps suggests the anatomically distinctive shape of a bull shark, or river whaler, which is known to live in estuaries for some of the year. An Aboriginal name recorded for shark was Wallomill. See Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, second edition, p 65

[3] Tim Flannery (ed), Watkin Tench's 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, p 76

[4] Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, second edition, 2010 p 82

[5] They would have belonged to one of the 30 or so clans that lived in the Sydney region. Most of these Aboriginal people would have been either the Cameragal, if they happened to be north of Botany Bay, or Gweagal, if they were to the south. See Grace Karskens, The Colony, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2009, pp 37–40 and Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, second edition, pp 81–82

[6] Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, second edition, p 108, pp 146–147

[7] Macquarie University, 'BUNDLE (c 1781 –c 1844), Journeys in Time 1809-1822: The Journals of Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie website, http://www.lib.mq.edu.au/all/journeys/menu.html, viewed 18 December 2013

[8] Elizabeth Diamond, 'Blood in the water: Shark attacks in Australian history', Historians are past caring website,http://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/blood-in-the-water-shark-attacks-in-australian-history, viewed 18 December 2013

[9] NSW Department of Primary Industries, Report into the NSW Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program public consultation document, March 2009, http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/276029/Report-into-the-NSW-Shark-Meshing-Program.pdf, viewed 18 December 2013

[10] 'Shark attack on Boy in Georges River', The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 January1934, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/17043693, viewed 18 December 2013

[11] 'Shark attack on Boy in Georges River' The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 January1934, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/17043693, viewed 18 December 2013

[12] 'Shark Tragedy', The Canberra Times, 1 January 1935, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2382378, viewed 18 December 2013

[13] 'Shark Tragedy', The Canberra Times, 1 January 1935, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2382378, viewed 18 December 2013

[14] Rupert Kathner (director), 'Australia today – Man-eater', Enterprise Film Company, 1939, Australian Screen website, National Film and Sound Archive, http://aso.gov.au/titles/newsreels/australia-today-man-eater/clip2/, viewed 18 December 2013

[15] 'Girl Killed by Shark in Georges River', The Canberra Times, 7 January 1946, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2658667, http://www.goshark.co.za/incident.php?id=1325, viewed 3 December 2013

[16] A variety of hypothetical explanations are offered. Possibilities are: a decline in shark numbers as a result of pollution or overfishing which affects availability of prey, and thus shark presence, and a decline in the popularity of river swimming with the emergence of bathing enclosures, chlorinated and clear municipal baths and the sea beaches.

[17] 'Shark body not human pulled from Georges River', The St Georges Sutherland Leader website, 3 December13, http://www.theleader.com.au/story/1947371/shark-body-not-human-pulled-from-georges-river, retrieved 3 December 2013; 'By George we caught a monster shark', The Daily Telegraph website, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/by-george-we-caught-a-monster-shark/story-e6freuy9-1225816374117, viewed 3 December 2013; In December 2009 a 1.5 metre bull shark was caught in the Georges in about 1 metre of water, Fishraider: Get Hooked Online website, http://www.fishraider.com.au/Invision/index.php?showtopic=45342, viewed 5 December 2013; A bull shark reputedly overturns a kayaker, 'Bull shark', NSW Sea Kayaker website, http://nswskc.wordpress.com/2002/10/24/the-bull-shark-50/, viewed 3 December, 2013; Gary Brown, fisherman, reports that Bald Face Point in the Georges River is a place where sharks are often caught, 'Georges River hotspots', Fishing Monthly website, http://www.fishingmonthly.com.au/Articles/Display/13100-Georges-River-hot-spots, viewed 3 December 2013; 'Big fish in a small canal', The Sydney Morning Herald website, http://www.smh.com.au/environment/big-fish-in-a-small-canal-20090916-frq5.html, viewed 3 December 2013