In July 2011, a saltwater crocodile was found wandering a main street in the tourist city of Cairns in Far North Queensland. A ranger and several police wrestled the wayward croc with broom handles and a towel before loading it into a car and whisking it away. Australia certainly has its fair share of fearsome aquatic creatures, from the tiny but deadly irakandji jellyfish to the saltwater croc and Great White Shark.
And there appear to be other … unknown creatures also lurking beneath our waters, like the human-devouring bunyips, Australia’s own Loch Ness monster and whale-hating sea serpents.
The Bunyip … a chameleon cryptid?
In 1847, the Australian Museum in Sydney displayed what was claimed to be the skull of a bunyip. The supposed skull was on display for just two days, before being quietly removed. An article appearing in The Sydney Morning Herald about the skull prompted many witnesses to speak of their own encounters with the elusive creature. Before long, the bunyip had become a subject of fascination with the Australian public.
The bunyip has long been feared by the first inhabitants of Australia. It is said to devour humans, sneaking up on unsuspecting victims in silence. Descriptions of the creature varied. It was often described as having a huge body, sometimes covered in fur, sometimes in feathers. Instead of legs, it had flippers.
In a drawing of the bunyip by a Murray River Aboriginal in 1848, the creature was depicted as having a body resembling that of a hippopotamus and a horse-like head. A depiction by a Victorian Aboriginal, however, showed it having the neck and head of an emu. There seemed to be as many differing descriptions of the bunyip as there were sightings.
W. Westgarth, in Australia Felix, published in 1848, described the bunyip as “a huge animal of extraordinary appearance. It had a round head, an elongated neck with a body and tail resembling an ox”.
G. C Mundy writing in Our Antipodes in 1855 depicted the bunyip as “a sort of half horse, half alligator haunting the wide, reedy swamps and lagoons of the interior”.
In The Bulla Bulla Bunyip, published in December 1885, a specimen that had taken up residence outside the town was described as being “bigger than an elephant, in shape like a bullock, with eyes like live coals and tusks like a walrus”.
And the following account was published in The Bunylp at Last! in Brisbane’s Worker on 19 January 1907:
“A strange creature which has a cry like a seal, and very much resembles this well-known amphibious specimen about the head, has been seen in a lagoon at Tumut NSW. The tail is described as being like that of a kangaroo, running from a fair thickness at the root to a taper at the point. The ‘Bunyip,’ as the residents call it, swims rapidly and as it glides along keeping its head above water. Its length, from the tip of the nose to the extremity of the tail, has been set down at about 4 feet, and the colour of the creature is reputed to be black. The animal does not appear to have ears, but if it has they are very small.”
Then, in Hobart’s Mercury on 11 February 1935 an eyewitness described the creature as “neither dog, seal, hyena, nor Tasmanian devil, about the size of a cocker spaniel dog, brindle in colour, with hair so fine that at first it looked as though it had none. The face resembled that of a ferocious dog, but there were two prominent tusks protruding from the bottom jaw.”
So, the bunyip was anywhere from the size of a small dog, to that of an elephant! Perhaps the only common trait of the bunyip was its fierce reputation.
The Register News-Pictorial on 19 September 1929, included the following account of an attack on a dog at Coopers Creek some forty years earlier:
“We rode over to a large waterhole, and the two dogs went in for a swim. Almost immediately one of the dogs was seized by something in the water and dragged under. A violent struggle took place, under the water, which soon become stained with blood. Presently the dog and the ‘thing’ came to the surface, with the dog on top. We grabbed the dog and hauled him out. He was badly cut in the neck and behind the shoulder. All we saw of the ‘thing,’ which disappeared quickly was what appeared to be part of its body, a light brown, smooth surface, much like a saddle-flap in appearance.”
And according to the the Windsor and Richmond Gazette of January 1927, a bunyip living in a swamp near Roberston in the Southern Highlands of NSW may have been responsible for the unexplained disappearance of a stranger.
“A party of men who lived by means of their skill at shooting went out … They returned terrified and related that they came upon the thing basking in the sun, on the side of a hole supposed to be bottomless, situated about the centre of the swamp; and at their approach, the creature, which they stated to approximate the size of a two-year-old steer, and which appeared to possess two short, broad fins or flippers, and in colour was a dirty white or very light grey, took fright and plunged into the hole.”
The article continued: “A stranger to the district called at the rectory and asked to be directed to Kangaloon. While complying with his request he was warned not to attempt to cross the swamp, which looked very easy going from the rectory garden … a bare four miles by that route. Going by the road meant a nine-mile journey. Whether he did so attempt is not known. He was never seen again, and this much is known, he never reached Kangaloon.”
So what exactly is this chameleon-like cryptid? Descriptions vary wildly and it’s interesting to note that not even indigenous accounts of the creature share much in common. Perhaps, the creature is more cultural memory than flesh and blood animal. Maybe stories of long extinct mega fauna have been passed down over thousands of years through the oral traditions and it’s these stories that spawned the rash of sightings by European settlers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Or perhaps, there are any number of fearsome flippered creatures hiding in the swamps, billabongs, creeks and rivers of the outback.
Australia’s Nessie in the Hawkesbury River?
Far from the outback, the Hawkesbury River winds its way to the sea from the north west of Sydney. The deep blue headwaters of the river, surrounded by National Parks, provide some of the most spectacular views on Australia’s east coast and the vast waterways are a popular destination for recreational fishers, water skiers, boaties and holidaymakers enjoying the scenery from the comfort of luxury houseboats.
And this picturesque waterway may also be home to Australia’s very own Loch Ness monster.
Australian researcher of all things unexplained, Rex Gilroy, is one who does believe that a Nessie-like monster inhabits the waters of the Hawkesbury having collected a number of eyewitness accounts over the years.
One such encounter occurred shortly after World War II in Broken Bay. According to Gilroy, “A Mr Doug Bradbury and another man were fishing in a small rowboat. Suddenly a giant snake-like head on the end of a long neck, rose six metres above the water. The men dropped their fishing equipment and rowed quickly for the nearby shore. From the shore they were able to get a good look at the creature. It displayed, apart from the long neck and serpent-like head, a large body, with two sets of long flippers which were partly obscured by the water, and a long thick eel-like tail.”
Reports of a Nessie-like creature go back as far as 1924 when the Windsor and Richmond Gazette on 5 September published the following, somewhat sceptical report: “The man who supplied the following sensational story to the Sydney Sun 28/8/1924 must have been suffering from ‘the morning after the night before’ complaint. We would seriously advise him to ‘put more water in it…”
That man, suspected of having imbibed the night before making his amazing claim was Mr. W.J. Riley, who with his brother Mr. R. Riley, worked on an orchard at The Terrace by the Upper Hawkesbury River.
“’While walking along The Terrace at midday, we were attracted by something in the water beneath, in a deep hole – I should say about 20 feet deep,’ said Mr. Riley. ‘We looked down and saw a big ugly thing, 2ft. 6in. to 3ft. in depth, with a length of from 5ft. to 6ft., and a yellowish or sandy colour. As to whether its skin was scale-covered or not we could not see, the top of The Terrace being probably 200 yards from the water. It was moving around continuously, and, though we watched for over 15 minutes, we could not get a good look at its head. It had a square-looking fish-tail.’
“’Anyhow, it is not a pleasant looking animal’, he concluded, ‘and I certainly should not care to be in the water and have it after me.’”
Is the Hawkesbury Nessie, as Rex Gilroy believes, a plesiosaur surviving from prehistoric times? Or, is it perhaps a lost sea serpent making its way up river?
Sea serpent sightings
For as long as man has been sailing the open waters, the sea serpent has captured the imaginations of seafarers. While regarded as a mythical creature, reports of encounters continue to surface.
The Cairns Post on 17 August 1934 included the following account of one such sea serpent encounter: “The party claim that they sighted what was a specimen of sea serpent and in the light following the dawn they had a good view of this weird marine visitor.
“The sea at the time was very calm, when without warning the monster suddenly appeared some little distance from their launch. It had a weird head, whilst its neck resembled a snake in its sinuous twistings.
“The head waved backwards and forwards above the surface for some little time, and it was estimated that the full length of this marine visitor was about 50 feet. The rest of the body from the head down could be seen on the surface of the sea. After viewing the fishermen the ‘apparition’ began to slowly swim and a few seconds later it was submerged, only to reappear a few minutes later. On this occasion, it was in considerably closer proximity to the boat. The repulsive appearance of this denizen of the deep coming nearer to the party caused them some little apprehension. The sea serpent did not come right up to them but started swimming around in circles during which it made some peculiar sounds which were distinctly heard. Then the strange thing stopped swimming and lay almost motionless on the surface of the sea, giving those on board the boat a very excellent view of it. A little later, the. sea serpent started swimming out to sea and continued in that direction till it was lost to view.”
Less than 12 months later, two boys at Narooma on the south coast of NSW discovered the carcass of an unknown creature washed up on the beach. The Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton reported the sensational claim on 16 April 1935:
“On the beach, near Narooma today two lads discovered and were later assisted to recover from the water the carcass of what all local experts agree can be nothing but a sea serpent … ”
“… The postmaster has given the following description of it: Long, tapering bead, high cranium, eyes level with the mouth … two fins at the back of the head, a dorsal fin and a two-bladed propeller tail; 24 teeth in each side in the top row and most likely more than 48 in the bottom row (many teeth having fallen out); smooth and leathery hide; approximately 12 feet long when extended on the beach.”
Perhaps the most stunning of these accounts was retold by the captain of the Perth, Mr. Angus Campbell, in 1900 in which he, his crew and passengers witnessed a possible battle between a sea serpent and a whale while en route from Geraldton to Fremantle in Western Australia.
“ … about 12 miles off land and 35 miles north of Rottnest Island, the chief officer who was on the bridge, saw the giraffe-like object upreared vertically from the surface of the ocean, and immediately he rushed to me and reported that there was some ‘unseemly monster about 100 yards away from the vessel. Eager to see what the creature was, I at once ran up to the bridge, and after waiting a couple of minutes saw the uncanny creature raise its head and body 20ft. out of the water. It would remain in that position for about a ‘minute, and then disappear.
“This pastime it indulged in most regularly for a long time. A small whale, too, occasionally made its appearance,- and appeared to be at war with the other monster. I noticed that the whale never appeared above water during the time the sea serpent was visible. They seemed to take turn about in coming above and going under the water.
“I watched their manoeuvres for fully quarter of an hour, and then went down to breakfast … As far as I could judge with the aid of my binoculars, the monster appeared to be 6ft. in breadth, with a flattish body, and the head and scales seemed to be similar to those of a snake. The head was black and small, and like that of the ordinary reptile falling away at the neck and widening at the body, which was white.
“During the time the monster’s head and body were visible it lashed the water into foam. With the temporary disappearance of the serpent the whale would come up smiling again, as it were, and ‘blow’ in rare form.”
The captain reassured the interviewer when recounting his extraordinary sighting that, “I am a total abstainer, and in regard to the others who witnessed the remarkable sight, it may be as well to add that there is no bar on board this vessel.”
Why is it that whenever somebody is witness to an anomalous event, that the overzealous consumption of alcohol is automatically suspected of playing a leading role?