A man is swept out to to sea while fishing for crayfish off the rocks along the rugged, and extremely treacherous, west coast of Tasmania. Despite a number of searches by experienced locals, the man’s body is never recovered. Just over 12 months later, two fishermen make a startling discovery after hauling to shore a giant octopus.
The sad news of the drowning of a well known and respected local was reported in the Zeehan and Dundas Herald on 5 February 1912.
“Yesterday afternoon the police were notified that Mr Richard Shaw Burke (better known as “Dicky” Burke) had been drowned off the Trumpeter Rocks, just north of Trial Harbor. It appears that Mr Burke, in company with Mr Alick Tengdahl, had gone to the Trumpeter Rooks, off the Cornwall Cliffs, on Saturday, on a fishing trip, and yesterday morning, the weather and sea had been very calm.
“Mr Burke had taken up a position which in ordinary weather, is known to be fraught with danger, but under the existing circumstances, appeared quite safe. The result was another exhibition of the treachery of the sea. Mr Burke had been fishing for some little time, when suddenly a big wave reared itself over the rocks and swept him off.
“Mr Tengdahl, who was some distance off, saw the occurrence, but was powerless to assist the drowning man, who was carried out by the receding wave and lost to view. There is little doubt that, becoming entangled amongst the kelp, which is thick in the vicinity, he would speedily be drowned.
“Both Mr Burke and Tengdahl knew that part of the coast perhaps as well as any man living, having very frequently fished there for many years. The drowned man was one of the best known residents of the Heemskerk district, and was very popular, his hospitality to prospectors and travellers being proverbial. He was about 58 years of age, and believed to be unmarried.
“A search party, under Constable Woodward, leaves this morning about 6 o’clock to endeavour to recover the body, although those who know the locality think there is very little hope of their success.”
That pessimism proved well founded with the local newspaper reporting on 7 February: “there is no news from the search party”.
Just five days later, on 12 February, Launceston’s Examiner reported: “The worldly effects of the late Richard Shaw Burke, who was recently drowned near Trial Harbour, were disposed of yesterday. These included his favourite dog Larry, who was purchased by a citizen named Madden.”
A further search was conducted just a few days after Larry was led away by his new master, but again,“the search was futile”.
More than a year later, however, two lads fishing the same stretch of Tasmania’s rugged west coast that had tragically taken the life of Richard Burke appeared to have serendipitously cleared up the case.
Monster octopus killed: Man’s shirt in stomach
Under the sensational headline: Monster Octopus Killed At Cornwall. Man’s Shirt In Stomach, the Zeehan and Dundas Herald stated on 22 April 1913 that:
“On Sunday last Messrs H. Goninon and A. Cooper, of Zeehan, went out to Cornwall Rooks, a favorite fishing spot on the coast beneath Mount Heemskerk, and north of the Pulpit Rock and Trial Harbor, an a fishing expedition, in pursuit of crayfish, and when they had the net baited and set it was noticed that something large was operating upon it.
“At first it was thought that a conger eel had entered the cray net, but when the latter was lifted it was found that the catch was a huge octopus. With great difficulty the net was dragged on to the rooks from which the fishermen were operating, and from thence to the shore, where the party had a fire lighted on which to boil the crays they might catch.
“The octopus was consigned to the flames, where he fought hard for life.
“When measured he was found to be 12ft 6in long, and 3ft wide across the back. The tentacles were of huge dimensions, and it is considered that the octopus was the largest ever caught or known of on the coast.”
“The octopus was afterwards opened, when to the surprise of the fishing party portions of a man’s shirt, about 1 1/2 yards [137 cm] in length and a yard [91 cm] wide, were found in its stomach. The shirt material was striped, and similar to that worn by Richard Shaw Burke, the old tin miner, who was lost in the vicinity over 12 months ago.”
The reporter added that: “It did not occur to Messrs Goninon and Cooper that the shirt material found in the stomach of the octopus might be the means of clearing up the fate of Burke, and they did not bring it to Zeehan with them.”
So, how did the giant octopus end up with such a sizeable piece of Burke’s striped shirt in its stomach?
Was it possible that the monster octopus attacked Burke as he struggled in the water and then dined on his body?
Or, did the hungry cephalopod later chance upon Burke’s body as it was carried by the ocean currents and feast upon the remains?
Reports of octopus attacks on humans do occur from time to time. One such octopus attack occurred in the southern waters off Melbourne back in 1875.
Diver in fight to death with giant octopus
In September of 1909, the Port Pirie Recorder and North Western Mail recounted an underwater battle to the death involving a government diver and octopus.
“In November, 1879, a Government diver at work in the tideway of the river Moyne at Melbourne was seized by an octopus … which fixed its horrible cup-like suckers on the back of his bare right hand and round his arm. For twenty minutes he hammered the loathsome brute with an iron bar which he managed to seize in his left hand; but it was not until he had almost cut the creature to pieces that it relaxed its grip,’ and he and it were pulled to the surface. together.
On 12 February 1923, The Advertiser reported on the passing of a Mr Isaac Smale. Mr Smale, just happened to be that same government diver who had many years earlier fought for his life in the waters of the Moyne.
“The death at Ballarat on Saturday, in his 91st year, of Mr. Isaac Smale recalls memories of his fight with an octopus in the Moyne River, Victoria, which falls into Port Fairy. The creature fastened its tentacles round Mr. Smale’s body, and it was only after a desperate fight that he was able to cut the suckers with his knife and escape.
“He was rescued from the sea after the air pipes of his diving outfit had given way … From the bed of the Moyne River Mr. Smale raised a sword, which is of Spanish origin, and is said to have been lost near the entrance to the river by early Spanish navigators. The sword is a treasured exhibit in the Melbourne Museum.”
Be careful the next time you are walking around the shallow rock pools or swimming in the murky depths of your local coastline.