Thursday, 19 July 2012

What Was That Big Fish?

      The megamouth shark is 14 to 18 feet long – a filter feeder not much shorter than the dreaded great white shark – but it remained undiscovered by science until 1976. Fish live in a different world to ours. They do not have to rise to the surface to breathe, and unlike whales and the giant squid, they are not in the habit of regularly getting themselves stranded on the beach. Thus, a large species which is nevertheless rare, might well remain unrecorded for a long time. This may have been the case of the thing which approached the beach in southeast Queensland in the mid-1990s.     On 4 December 1996, I was on talk back radio promoting my book, Bunyips and Bigfoots, when  phone call arrived from a listener, who wanted to report a sighting of a large fish off a local beach. I asked for the telephone number, and the upshot was that I was able to interview the witness by phone that evening.
     His name was Simon Moir, and he did not object to his name being cited. The event took place one or two winters before (ie 1994 or 1995), at about 2 pm, on the beach at Wurtulla, a seaside suburb of Caloundra. For those unfamiliar with the area, it is towards the south end of a tourist strip known as the Sunshine Coast, and the built up area comes right down to the beach. From the map, it is about 79 km or 49 miles almost due north of the Brisbane city centre, at approximately 26° 48' S, 153° 15' E.
     Narrative: The witness did a lot of diving, and was familiar with sharks and mantas.  He was sharing a house with four other men, with whom he was playing cricket on the beach at the time.  The breakers were about a foot or two high.  About 20 or 30 yards out to sea a large animal with a tall fin appeared, heading northwards at an angle.  It came close to shore, then turned back again and went southwards, also at an angle.  The beach drops off very steeply close to shore, and he suspects it turned back when it arrived in the shallows.  They moved a bit up the beach for a better look.  The last they saw of it, it was outside the breakers - say 40 or 50 yards offshore.
     Movement: It moved slowly, straight through the water - not up and down like a dolphin.  They could not see its head or tail, but at one point it rolled, and he saw a lot of the mid part of the body.
     Fin: The most salient feature, the dorsal fin was somewhere near the middle, or mid front, of the body.  It was 3 or 4 feet high (i.e. towered over the waves) and was not pointed like a shark's.  It was more like a fan, and I got the impression its length at the base was similar to its height.  It was brown, with a series of white rays. It was also leaning to the right - possibly due to the animal's roll.
     Body: At first he thought of a baby whale, for it was a similar size.  He likened it in size to a 16 foot grey nurse shark he had seen. (This, of course, only indicates the order of magnitude.)  The body was chocolate brown with white underneath (seen when it rolled).
     Comment: The largest fish are elasmobranchs ie sharks and rays, but this was obviously a teleost, or ray-finned fish.  However, the fin is not right for a sailfish or marlin.  Not being a specialist on fish, I telephoned Dr Jeff Johnson, the Queensland Museum ichthyologist, but he was perplexed. There are not, he confirmed, many non-elasmobranch fish that size in this area.  The only thing he could think of was Carcharinus longimanus, or whaler shark, which has large, irregular white blotches on a fin which is more rounded than other sharks'. However, I had mistakenly said the fin was only 2 feet high.

     Follow Up: Three days later I phoned Simon's home and spoke to his friend and fellow witness, John Gadenne.  His memory was not very good.  He saw it after Simon, and estimated that the distance was 100 metres, maybe less, and the water choppy, but not very rough.  The visibility was good.  The body was brownish, but he didn't get a good look.  The animal ploughed through the water like a submarine, without any undulations, either horizontal or vertical.
     The "fin", if that's what it was, was most unusual.  He wouldn't have called it a fin.  He described it as like an upside down cow's udder.  It was a couple of feet high, and a similar length, fleshy coloured with a small number of pale "spikes".  As on an udder, they were not completely in line.  It was almost like a wounded fish had its entrails hanging out.  When I pressed him, he said that it was two-dimensional, like a fin, rather than three dimensional, like a conning tower.
     I then spoke to Simon again.  He confirmed John's details of the "fin".  At first he thought it might have been harpooned, and some spikes were sticking into it, but then he realised the spikes were natural.  The body was long, like a dolphin's or shark.  He didn't see the head, but he did see it roll.  It was broad like a shark, not narrow and deep like a teleost fish.
     On 11 March 1997 I again phoned Dr Johnson on another matter, and raised the issue again. He said there was not much to add to what he's said before. There were a number of reasons to discount the whaler shark, whose fin is more rounded and not ray-like. There are very few teleost fishes that size, and none that he knows of, including those in other parts of the world, fit the bill. So it remains unidentified.

     And here is something else to consider: since this was reported only because the witness heard a particular radio program, how many other strange experiences are out there, which never see the light of day?

Correction: I originally submitted this account at the 2001 "Myths and Monsters" conference. At the same time, I also reported an unusually marked ray, which I believed to be a new species, or at least, a new colour phase. Since the proceedings of this conference can still be found on the web, I need to make a correction. I am now convinced there was nothing unusual about the ray.

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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.