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‘The water was stained with his blood’: the 1920s shark fatalities that shook Sydney | Sharks

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Authorities conduct a search of Little Bay and surrounding coastline after a shark attack claimed the life of a swimmer.

A “catastrophic” shark attack that claimed the life of a Sydney swimmer on Wednesday was the city’s first fatality in 60 years – but it was far from unprecedented.

A century ago, Sydney experienced a spate of deadly encounters that continued for a decade and left authorities scrambling for answers.

On 12 March 1922, an estimated 80,000 anxious Sydneysiders lined Coogee beach and its surrounding clifftops, hoping to catch a glimpse of bloody battle.

Transfixed with anticipation, they looked on as a small group of New Caledonian sailors gripping sheath knives and marlinspikes between their teeth swam beyond the breakers.

The Loyalty Islanders, crewmen from a visiting steamer, were seeking the reward on offer for catching and killing the shark, or sharks, responsible for two deadly maulings in the previous weeks. Both had occurred at Coogee before crowds of horrified onlookers.

In the wake of the deaths, Sydney’s newspapers were consumed by shark debate, its beaches left deserted from north to south, and its residents obsessed with how to end the fatal attacks.

Bounties were posted for any sharks caught off Coogee and bonuses were promised for ones shown to have claimed the lives of the two young men. Would-be slayers armed themselves and patrolled the beach in boats.

Sightseers repeatedly flocked to witness the potential hunts and several sharks were captured and their carcasses displayed. None though were thought to be those involved in the fatal attacks.

One drastic suggestion to eliminate the predators was to bomb the bay with explosives – but this was quickly rejected by authorities.

One hundred years on, Sydney is again focused on shark news following Wednesday’s death of a 35-year-old swimmer, Simon Nellist, at Little Bay south of Coogee. Authorities believe a great white shark at least 3 metres in length was responsible.

But Macquarie University marine scientist Dr Vanessa Pirotta told the ABC it was unlikely the shark would be found.

“These animals are capable of large geographical movements and it is not likely that they would be sticking around in the area,” she said.

Authorities conduct a search of Little Bay and surrounding coastline after a shark attack claimed the life of a swimmer.
Authorities conduct a search of Little Bay and surrounding coastline after a shark attack claimed the life of a swimmer on Wednesday. Photograph: James Alcock/The Guardian

The attacks of the 1920s along the same stretch of coastline are the subject of a two-part podcast called Shark Attack of the Century in the Forgotten Australia series created by Sydney-based writer Michael Adams.

Coogee Surf Life Saving Club has also commemorated one of the tragedies. Two of its members had attempted to rescue the victim and the club is now funding the restoration of his long-ago vandalised headstone in nearby Randwick cemetery.

The current club president, Todd Mison, earlier this month told local magazine the Beast the extraordinary February 1922 incident was undoubtedly “a big part of the history of our club”.

Teenager Milton Coughlan was a popular and by all accounts exceptional local athlete. He was a lifesaver at North Bondi and had helped prevent a drowning at Maroubra the week before his death.

With about 6,000 spectators gathered to watch the club’s annual carnival on an overcast 4 February, the 18-year-old decided to go for a body surf before the afternoon’s events.

Plunging into the roiling ocean from the rocks beside the clubhouse, he swam out, caught a wave into the beach and twice more repeated the feat. However, Coughlan’s fourth outing would prove fateful.

Encountering the shark while again stroking towards the break, he reportedly had the presence of mind to shout to other swimmers to get out of the water but there was little he could do to protect himself. The assault was swift and brutal.

In the days after, newspapers would carry graphic reports of the attack nationwide and beyond.

“The horrified crowd next saw for some minutes a shark and the swimmer thrashing around in a welter of blood-stained water and scarlet flecked foam,” according to the Cairns Post.

“With one snap of its jaws the brute tore off Coughlan’s arm but the plucky boy … tried to beat off his savage assailant.”

Meanwhile, Coogee clubman Jack Chalmers had set off from the beach, 35 metres away. He arrived and grabbed Coughlan as several sharks began to circle but struggled to bring him back to shore.

Thankfully, a second lifesaver, Frank Beaurepaire, soon reached the pair and helped guide them back to safety.

It was a valiant but ultimately fruitless effort. Coughlan had lost one arm and the other dangled by a thread. Despite being tended to by a doctor at the scene, he died of blood loss within 25 minutes.

Both Chalmers and Beaurepaire, an Olympian and multiple Australian swimming champion, were hailed heroes and awarded the Albert medal for bravery, considered a civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Beaurepaire would later go on to be elected Melbourne lord mayor and was said to have used an amount of reward money to found the Beaurepaire tyre company.

While wishing to downplay his own role, Chalmers praised young Coughlan.

“The way he fought the shark right to the end was, to say the least of it, game considering the frightful injuries he received,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“When I reached him, the shark was still tugging at one of his arms and the water was stained with his blood, yet he managed to turn his back to me … and say ‘Hang on to me tightly’. Then he collapsed and the shark released its hold.”

Thousands of mourners, including hundreds of lifesavers, attended Coughlan’s funeral on 6 February.

His death was the best-known of Australia’s so-called “shark era” of the 1920s and 1930s when 15 people were attacked off Sydney’s beaches – 10 of them fatally.

shark swims in blue ocean above white sand
More than 50 shark nets are in place between Newcastle north of Sydney to Wollongong south of the NSW capital. Photograph: WhitcombeRD/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the four decades after the first world war, there were more than 100 attacks in Australian waters in total.

The same month Coughlan was killed, a man disappeared at Bilgola, on Sydney’s northern peninsula. It was presumed he’d been taken by a shark.

Then, on 2 March 1922, drama erupted anew at Coogee.

Mervyn Gannon, a 21-year-old local repair shop worker, was surfing about 20 metres off the beach when attacked by what was thought to be a 3-metre mako or blue pointer.

Witnesses would tell of him striking at the shark as it lunged at him but when he withdrew his right fist from the waist-high water, all that remained was a bloody stump.

Beach inspector John Brown and bystander Ernie Carr charged into the shallows and began pulling Gannon towards the sand but the shark wasn’t finished.

“It came at me again,” Gannon would recall from his hospital bed.

“I tried my left this time but it was no good – it got me again. Then Brownie and the other chap reached me. We were getting along nicely when the shark tore at my back. I thought my heart would stop beating but we managed to get in.”

Gannon told his distressed aunt that although he would probably lose both arms, he thought himself lucky because he at least wasn’t going to die.

Despite his incredible courage, though, he would succumb to gangrene.

In the days after, neither the New Caledonian divers nor local mercenaries managed to sight the killer shark or sharks.

There would be six further fatal attacks in NSW over the next two years.

In 1924, a woman would also have her left leg and right foot bitten off at neighbouring Bronte beach, while Coogee Surf Life Saving Club member Jack Dagworthy, 16, would lose his leg in an attack in 1925.

Coogee was also the scene of one of Australia’s most infamous shark-related stories in April 1935 when a tiger shark caught off the suburb disgorged a human arm.

Fingerprints lifted from the limb established that it belonged to missing petty criminal James Smith, while further examination revealed the arm had actually been removed with a knife.

There are now 51 shark nets running from Newcastle north of Sydney to Wollongong south of the NSW capital.

The nets do not stretch from one end of a beach to the other and are not designed to create a total barrier – rather they are meant to deter sharks from establishing territories, the NSW Department of Primary Industries states on its website.

Critics, however, say the nets are old technology that catch too many non-target animals.

NSW also has smart drumlines fixed with monitors that alert fisheries contractors when a shark is hooked – in theory allowing them to arrive and release the sharks.

Surf Life Saving NSW on Thursday said “massive” technological changes had played a key role in keeping people safer at beaches.

“We have smartphone devices … so people know where things are happening,” a spokesperson told ABC TV. “We also have shark detection buoys for [tagged] sharks to be tracked. We have improved aviation services, drones and radio communication. We have seen so many advancements.”

Pirotta, the scientist, said the shock in Syndey this week was understandable but it was important to remember sharks played an important ecological role in the marine environment.

There has been a significant decline in coastal predators in the past 50 years. A 2018 study conducted on the east coast found the number of great white sharks had fallen by 92%.

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