Monday, 24 September 2012

The Whistling, Neck-Spouting Bunyip

     As every Australian knows, the bunyip is the bogey of the bush and billabongs: a mythical monster never seen except in the fertile minds of superstitious Aborigines. But what everybody doesn't know is that, every 20 or 30 years during the 19th century, bunyips were seen and reported by non-superstitious, non-Aboriginal settlers. To be sure, most commentators - and I concur - regard the sightings as consistent with seals which, having slipped into fresh water, have got lost, swum in the wrong direction, and ended up hundreds, even thousands of miles from the sea - even in lakes unconnected to any flowing water. Indeed, around 1850, a seal was actually shot at Conargo (35° 19'S, 145° 09'E), about 900 miles upstream from the sea, and its stuffed remains graced the local hotel for some years.
    But what turned up near Swan Hill in 1947 was certainly no seal. It was really, really weird. Nevertheless, it may have a simple, if unexpected, explanation.

The Argus (Melbourne) Fri. 19 September 1947, page 3
    A mysterious black creature that spouts, swims against a strong current, and whistles loudly, shrilly and nocturnally, is the foremost subject of discussion all through the Swan Hill district. Apparently the animal – if animal it be – has been in the neighbourhood for many weeks, but the only men who claim to have seen it – Messrs C. L. and J. S. Moser, of Swan Hill, and A. Rice, of Bendigo – have been reluctant to tell their story without further verification.
    Mr. C. L. Moser said yesterday that he and his brother and Mr Rice had twice seen the creature in the Little Murray River, almost four miles upstream from Swan Hill. The first time was on the night of August 1, when they saw it lying on the edge of the river. It seemed to be about 3ft to 3ft 6in in length, and black, but they paid little attention to it, thinking it might be a pig.
    Just a month later, on September 1, said Mr Moser, he and his companions heard heavy splashing at the same spot, and became curious. They saw the “object” swimming upstream against a powerful current at walking pace. Mr Moser said the creature’s head and neck were about 9 in thick. About 1ft of it was out of the water, and it was spouting about 5ft into the air from what appeared to be its neck.The party turned a powerful light on the strange animal, and followed it for about two chains [132 feet]. Then it swam to the opposite bank, where it “lay in shelter and emitted a loud shrill whistle that could be heard half a mile away.” The party had a rifle, and could have shot the creature, but “disliked the idea of destroying something they knew nothing about.” Once, when the creature turned, they saw that it “had two very bright eyes, but no visible ears, though its ears might have been lying close to its head.” They were disinclined to investigate further, but when they left the creature’s whistle had “reached staggering proportions.”
    Mr Moser said that Mr W. J. Maher, who owns the adjoining property, had told them that he had heard whistling in the vicinity for many weeks, and that children in the neighbourhood feared to venture out at night. Mr Moser is prepared to swear he has described correctly what he and his companions saw. He recalls that some years ago the late Mr W. Berry reported having seen what is thought to be a seal in the Murray. In 1933 a sea lion escaped from a sideshow at Wangaratta, and was heard in the Boorhaman swamp for weeks. Could this be the same animal?
     By way of explanation, Swan Hill lies at 35° 22'S, 116° 10'E, on the mighty Murray River, of which the Little Murray River is a smaller tributary. When I first read this story, my mind boggled. What could it possibly be? However, I now think an identification is possible.
     It was probably a species of dolphin, or perhaps a beaked whale (ziphiid), which had entered the Murray River at its mouth in South Australia and, like the lost seals, found itself hundreds of miles inland. Its size has probably been underestimated, based only on what was visible above water. As for colour, the average dolphin is grey, but the nighttime darkness and the presence of water may well  have made it appear darker. Nevertheless, most dolphins have a tall dorsal fin, which is usually the first thing noticed by a human viewer. However, most of the beaked whales known to frequent the southern seas of Australia tend to be dark, and their dorsal fins are shorter, and set much farther back, so are less likely to be noted. Also, many of them possess a swelling on the head which might well make it easier to differentiate the head from the neck. So this might be the better identification, even though beaked whales are quite rare, and little studied.
     The important point is that these small toothed whales, particularly the more gregarious species, are well known to whistle - as a sign of excitement, and especially distress. In fact, a captive bottle-nosed dolphin introduced to a pool is liable to whistle continually, so what would you expect of one which found itself lost in a strange river 800 or 900 miles from home?
     And the rest? Well, everyone has heard of the whaler's cry, "Thar she blows!" when the spout of a surfacing whale is sighted. Also, the blowhole is, with very few exceptions, set well back on the skull so that the animal can breathe without lifting its head out of water. The spout of these smaller whales is occasionally visible, and if conditions were right for it to be seen, would it not appear to be spouting from the neck? Case solved!
     Now, I just hope someone can identify the bunyips seen at Kyneton in 1949 and the Tuckerbill Swamp in 1929/30. The former used its ears to propel itself through the water, and the latter had a head at both ends!

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