Monday, 2 September 2013

Bunyips, Sea Serpents, and Port Phillip

     Last Thursday, 29 August 2013 the National Wool Museum at Geelong had three guest speakers give talks on cryptozoology to a public audience. The first two were Simon Townsend and David Waldron, whose recent book has been reviewed on this blog, and they both gave enthusiastic and informative presentations on their respective subjects. The third speaker was me. I consider it a great honour that they should be prepared to bring me all the way from Brisbane, a distance of more than 900 miles [1450 km] for the purpose, and I hope they found it worthwhile. So here, for the benefit of the other seven-odd billion people who missed out, is the text of the speech.
     For readers outside Australia, I should explain that Port Phillip is the very big, triangular inlet in the centre of the Victorian coastline, with the state capital, Melbourne at the northern apex, and Geelong at the southwest apex. Corio Bay is a sub-bay next to Geelong. All the other sites mentioned are within striking distance of Port Phillip.
        Where to start? What about Corio Bay? In March 1871, some men were collecting ballast on the beach for the ships, when some boys pointed out a strange animal coming out of the water. The men caught it when it was heading for its nest in the cliff – a nest furnished with stockings, seaweed, sticks, and somebody's leather purse. The creature was said to be a foot and a quarter – that's 38 cm – from nose to tail tip, and looked something like a ferret. It had webbed feet, a tail as thick as one's second finger, and fur as glossy as a beaver's. Its head was rather flattened, its nose was like a ferret's or rat's, and its teeth protruded like a rabbit's. They couldn't work out what on earth it was, but they threw it aside, not thinking it would be of any interest to a naturalist. (1)
What on earth was it? Actually, it's identity is perfectly obvious: Hydromys chrysogaster, the water rat. It's a not uncommon native rodent trying to occupy a similar niche to the platypus, and it can be found in the waterways all along the east coast as far as the “Top End” of the Northern Territory.
I mention this to point out that often something which sounds really weird to the onlooker has a quite mundane explanation.

Like, in the 1920s, people started reporting hearing “bunyips” in the aptly named Haunted Hills of Gippsland: loud gurgling, belching, snoring sounds issing from the forest at night. A naturalist called Charles Barrett went out to investigate, and guess what he found? They were the mating calls of male koalas! (2) Not many city slickers know those little teddy bears carry on like that.

So, you just heard the word, “bunyip”. What's a bunyip? No-one knows where the word came from. There is supposed to have been a pamphlet written by James Ives in 1812 which describes the bahnyip as “a large black animal like a seal, with a terrible voice which creates terror among the blacks”(3) – but I have been unable to confirm it.
Apart from that, the word does not appear to have been used before about 1845, nor do we know from what language it originated. On other occasions, the mysterious monster dwelling in the rivers and billabongs of New South Wales and Victoria was recorded under a variety of strange names – like waa wee, kinepratia, katenpai, and tanatbah, to mention just a few. You might be interested in the description of the tunatpan of Port Phillip, given by a Mr Ronald C. Gunn in 1847 (4):
“The aborigines, on the other hand, said that it was of the size of a bullock with a head and neck like an emu's, and a mane and tail like a horse's – not a pretty creature, it would seem, but perhaps likeable in its way.In their rude drawings of it, said Mr Gunn, they gave it two tusks or front teeth curved downwards; and feet like those of a seal. They also said that it laid eggs in a cavity which was entered by a tunnel beginning below water level.The eggs were as large as a bucket.The aborigines also stated – so Mr. Gunn said – that the bunyip ate blackfellows, but that its usual food was lobsters and roots.” [Is this a tunatpan?]
Now, I would like you to stop and think for a minute: suppose an Aborigine were to wander into a white settlement and start asking stupid questions. Isn't it likely that someone would take the view, “Let's tell the ignorant savage anything”? Well, when a white man comes into an Aboriginal camp and starts asking stupid questions, what do you think is going to be the result?
Nevertheless, before we get onto some more mundane details, I would like you to hold part of that wild description in your mind: a head and neck like an emu's, and a mane like a horse's.

In the rest of Australia, the image of the “bunyip” is a bit more prosaic. It usually involves something nondescript in appearance, but with a bellow or roar which the blacks found terrifying. One suggestion is that the white settlers' cattle had strayed and got lost in the swamps, and so added to the legend. In fact, when one Murray River Aborigine was asked to draw a bunyip in 1848, he produced something which bore more than a passing resemblance to a bullock. (5)
But there is more to it than that. Bunyips had been sighted by white settlers every twenty or thirty years during the nineteenth century, and it is a reasonable assumption that they had been seen by the original inhabitants before that.
          For instance, in January 1896, the Geelong Naturalist published an article (6) by an ex-schoolmaster whose named was recorded simply as Mr. D'Arcy, who described what happened to him almost 24 years before at Lake Corangamite. He had shot a number of ducks at the mouth of the creek, and the current swept them into the lake. A man then turned up with a punt, and D'Arcy told him he could have the ducks if he could get them. But while he was trying, the punt overturned, and he had to swim to shore. He told Mr D'Arcy that he had capsized it in fright because, while he was collecting the last duck, “an animal like a big retriever dog, with a round head and hardly any ears, had come up close to the boat”.
What was it? And why hadn't it been seen since? Admittedly, it all happened 24 years before, but just the same, there isn't supposed to be anything remotely resembling such an animal in any Australian lake. So what was it?
Most authorities believe that sightings such as there were of seals, which had somehow got themselves lost in inland waters. Certainly, the description matches a seal. Also, back in the 1850s, a seal was definitely shot at Conargo, in New South Wales, about 1,000 miles from the sea, and its stuffed remains mounted in the Conargo pub.
Of course, you might have noticed a problem. Lake Corangamite has no outlet to the sea. So how did it get there? I don't know. However, during the nineteenth century, creatures similar to this were reported all through the inland waterways, even as far north as the Darling Downs in Queensland, and in isolated lakes high up in the centre of Tasmania, so something was obviously able to move around.

Let's move closer to home, but to something more peculiar. You've all heard of William Buckley, haven't you? In 1803 a convict settlement was attempted in Port Phillip Bay, and some of the convicts, including William Buckley absconded. Bad mistake! Before he came to his senses, the settlement had been abandoned, and he was stuck there. He had Buckley's chance! For the next 32 years he lived among the Aborigines.
Well, he eventually received a pardon, and a small pension, and in 1852 his life story was ghost written by a journalist called John Morgan. It makes interesting reading, particularly what was not said. The interests of the nineteenth century were not the same as ours, and the complex social and ritual life of the Aborigines is hardly touched upon. Although a lot of Aboriginal place names are provided, not a single Aboriginal person is named.
However, the important point for our purposes is what was written towards the end of chapter 3, where he describes hunting eels in Lake Modewarre. He then adds (7):
“In this lake, as well as in most of the others inland, and in the deep water rivers, is a very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip, of which I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf, and sometimes larger; the creatures only appear when the weather is very calm, and the water smooth. I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail, so that I could not form a correct idea of their size; or what they were like.”
He came back to the subject in chapter 7, to a lake named Jerringot, which we call Waurn Ponds, and which supplied the Barwon River (8). This was supposed to be the haunt of the bunyip, which inspired the natives with terror. They believed it brought sickness and death in its wake, and that the abundance of eels in some of the lagoons were supposed to have been ordered for its provision. If any of them happened to see a bunyip, they would throw themselves onto the ground, or flee into the bush. They also told him how one woman was pulling the eels out as fast as her husband could carry them back to camp, but when he came back, his wife was gone, and was never seen again. The bunyip had got her.
Buckley also claimed to have tried to spear a bunyip several times, but he suspects that if he had succeeded, the tribesmen would have killed him.
What are we to make of all this? If he were telling the truth, then it means the word, “bunyip” comes from the Wathaurung language of southwest Port Phillip – and perhaps it does. It is germane to note, however, that by the time the book was written, the term had become a household word among white Australians. On the other hand, if Buckley had made it all up, I think he would have done a better job. It is likely that he did see something strange, and he did hear strange stories, but I suspect it all got a bit embellished in transmission. What I find extremely difficult to accept is that any amphibious animal would be covered with feathers.

Let's move farther east, to Western Port. The bunyip over there was called a too-roo-don, and an
Aborigine called Kurruk was asked to draw a picture of one. Now, I'm guessing that Kurruk hadn't seen too many too-roo-dons in his life, but he decided to humour the whitefellows, and consulted a tribal elder, and the result was ... a picture of an emu (9). Well, I suppose he knew what the topside looked like, and drew the feet to match. The local natives described the too-roo-don as having the head and neck of an emu.

So, if the bunyips of Lake Corangamite and other inland waters were probably seals, what gives with these legends of emu-like heads and necks in the inlets of the sea? Well, this brings us to Part II: sea serpents. What's a sea serpent? It's a large unidentified sea creature which happens to be elongated. They have been reported approximately once every year for the past three or four centuries. And there appear to be more than one type. One type at least presents as a long row of humps moving vertically in the water. Another has a a small head and long neck – dare I say, like an emu's – sticking out of the water like a periscope. Some are reported as having a mane like a horse's – or like the tunatpan of Port Phillip. Sometimes a humpy body is seen behind it. Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, who wrote a book entitled, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, recorded 194 of these long-necked sea serpents, appearing all over the world.
And one of them turned up at Airey's Inlet, only about 40 km south-west of here as the crow flies. It was about half past three in the afternoon of Sunday 3 June 1973. 25-year-old Neil Blyth and his then father-in-law, Norman Robertson were fishing in a boat about half a mile off shore. It was a dull winter's day, with no rain, and just a long, high, rolling swell. Just before a swell breaks, a distinct hissing sound is audible, but they were a long way from where the swells were breaking, when they heard a similar hiss.
Neil Blyth's original sketch
Suddenly, out of the water, about 50 or 60 metres away, rose a long, black, serpentine head and neck. It rose out at an angle, so it could not have been a submarine's periscope. According to Mr Blyth, it was 9 inches wide and towered 6 feet above the surface of the water, but his father-in-law, who thought it was a bit farther off, considered it to be a foot thick and nine feet high. In the wan light they could see neither eyes, nor scales, nor fur. There was disagreement about whether the head was blunt, or tapered like a dog's. But it was certain that there was no separation between head and neck; they just merged into one another.
The strange shape stood upright for about three seconds, then simply sank back into the water without any splash. It did not dive.
They waited about a quarter of an hour, then rowed to shore and immediately called the press (10). The experience obviously made an impression on the witnesses, because they were independently able to provide me with more information when I contacted them 14 years later (11). It is also worth noting that a woman at the Aireys Inlet store, 400 metres inland, happened to see a dark shape moving below the surface, parallel to the shore.

Now, lest you imagine this was a one-off, I should like to add that, when the news hit the press, the journalists made veiled references to something similar off Gabo Island, just off the land junction of New South Wales and Victoria. I have never been able to find the original reference, but it appears the lighthouse keeper saw something which was either a sea serpent or a submarine, so I presume it was something similar to this.
In addition: (12)
  • Exactly the same thing rose out of the water off Green Island, near Cairns, in 1924. It was about 15 inches wide and 9 feet high, and only a couple of oars' length away from the witnesses.
  • The same thing turned up near Burrum Heads, in southeast Queensland, in 1995. In both of these cases, the witnesses were so scared of ridicule, they remained anonymous. And,
  • In 1916 another long-necked sea-serpent appeared off Melville Island in the Northern Territory – this time with a row of humps visible behind it. The witnesses hit it with an oar, and ended up with a few teeth embedded in the timber.
  • In 1925 the crew of a ship saw a long-necked, swan-like sea-serpent with a long body and tall fin off the coast of Port Stephens.
  • In 1939, a sea serpent was seen from a warship off Western Australia. It was about 90 feet long, and its long neck bore a pattern like a giraffe's.
  • In the late 1940s, a long-necked sea serpent with a visible body turned up near Darwin.
  • Finally, in 1962 a witness saw, off the coast of Bribie Island, near Brisbane, an animal described as “whitish-grey in colour, about 12 feet long, and [I] seemed to have a swan's neck, a whale's body, and a fish's tail and fins.”
     So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. I hope next time you wander down by the seaside or along an inland waterway, you will appreciate that the world is a stranger place than you first imagined.
Addendum: The video of the speech is now available, and Dr Waldron has kindly uploaded it to Youtube. You can find it here. Unfortunately, it takes a while to upload. Also, if you click the button under the video to subscribe to Dr Waldron, you will be able to access his speech and that of Simon Townsend as well.
References (These footnotes may not work on every browser, but if they do, you can return to the original position by clicking on the return button at the top left of your screen.)
(1) 'A strange animal', Sydney Morning Herald 14 March 1871, p 4
(2) Gilbert Whitley, 'Mystery animals of Australia', The Australian Museum Magazine, issue no. 7 (1 March 1940), pp 132 -9 at p 135
(3) Tony Healy and Paul Cropper (1994), Out of the Shadows, mystery animals of Australia, Ironbark Press, p 161. Peter Ravenscroft, reported that he was unable to find it in the Mitchell Library.
(4) Ronald C. Gunn (1847), 'On the bunyip of Australia Felix' in the Tasmanian Journal of Science, quoted by Clive Turnbull, 'I am on the side of the bunyips', Courier-Mail, Sat 3 July 1937.
The original appears to be here.
(5) R. Brough Smyth (1878), The Aborigines of Victoria: with notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania. Vict. Govt. Printer, pp 436-7
(6) Mr. D'Arcy (1896), 'Is there a bunyip?' Geelong Naturalist, p 17, reprinted in Bank Notes, Dec. 1958
(7) John Morgan (1852), The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, Archibald Macdougall, Hobart, p 48 (p 56 of the 1996 reprint by Ares Books)
(8) Morgan, op. cit. pp 115 – 16 (pp 110 – 111 of the 1996 reprint).
(9) R. Brough Smyth, op. cit. Pp 436-7
(10) 'Has Aireys its own Loch Ness?' Geelong Advertiser, 4 June 1973. Jeff Wells, 'What was the thing that rose from the ocean?' Melbourne Truth, 16 June 1973.
(11) Paul Cropper and Malcolm Smith (1992), 'Some unpublicized Australasian “sea serpent” reports' Cryptozoology11: pp 51-69 at pp 61-63
(12) The accounts can all be found in my book, Bunyips and Bigfoots.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.