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Willoughby Living

Shark Attacks in Middle Harbour

March 30, 2021

Two recent posts in the Willoughby Living Facebook Group gave the community a chilling reminder that Middle Harbour not only has a history of shark sightings, there have also been fatal attacks in the area. Lindy Batterham wrote this piece for The Crag a few years ago on the very subject…

In the last century, seven people have lost their lives to a shark in Middle Harbour. Two of them were locals. The first identified record was back in 1916. A Castlecrag man and his wife were swimming in shallow water off Sugarloaf Point at the bottom of Edinburgh road, when a shark attacked his arm. Despite his wife and a nearby neighbour (who responded to screams) dragging him to shore, he died almost immediately.

Two gruesome deaths occurred in 1942 around Bantry Bay. Two more fatal attacks occurred in 1955. Crag resident Bruno Rautenburg swam daily across Sugarloaf Bay until he was fatally bitten on the legs one early February afternoon by a tiger shark. Three weeks before Bruno’s death, 13 year old John Willis died after he had his left leg and right calf bitten at Balmoral, around the same time of day Bruno was taken. The sixth victim, William Murray, was also 13 when he died from having his right leg severed above the knee whilst skindiving with a family friend. That was in January 1960, near the old Roseville bridge. He survived initially, but died nine days after the attack in RNSH.

Middle Harbour is a drowned river valley and has some of the deepest holes in Sydney Harbour. Some reach a depth of 45 metres which provides an environment ideally suited to large fish and their predators. Footage of a three metre bull shark cruising around the mangroves and mudflats in the North Arm of Sugarloaf Bay was recorded in December 2009 from an inflatable kayak. It can be found on youtube. Ten years previously, a three and a half metre bull shark was netted off Castle Rock near Clontarf, documented and taken as a trophy to the Sydney Fish Markets.

Bull shark sightings are common in the area.

Old timers would recall the last fatal attack in the North Arm of Sugarloaf Bay back in 1963. Actress Marcia Hathaway was paddling in 75 centimetres of water and bitten twice on the leg before her fiancé, Fred Knight was able to fight off the shark. With the rest of their boating party, he tied tourniquets ripped from sheets to try to stop the bleeding, carried her back to their cruiser and motored towards Castlecrag boatshed.

Long term resident John Vaughan recalls being down on Sugarloaf Point with his family that day, “I saw the 28’ cabin cruiser, VALETTA pass our pontoon motoring around to Castlecrag Boatshed with the wounded Miss Hathaway on board. If only those aboard had indicated distress we could have telephoned an ambulance to be waiting at the Castlecrag Boatshed.”

The story goes that as they rounded Sugarloaf Point, Fred swam ashore to one of the houses on the Point, presumably around the corner from the Vaughans, frantically urging them to phone for an ambulance to be sent down to the boatshed. Upon arrival she was transferred, but tragically the ambulance could not make it back up the steep hill. The clutch burnt out – locals tried desperately to push the van up the hill but it was in vain. She was carried up in the stretcher by a team of locals to wait for a second ambulance, but it was too late for Marcia.

Images: Glen Denholm (from “a newspaper from back in the day”)

Fred was later awarded a medal of bravery for his efforts but his memory of the event could never leave him. “For weeks afterwards, large baited hooks were set on drumline floats in an unsuccessful attempt to catch the shark that attacked Miss Hathaway. Noted celebrity and deep sea game fisherman, Bod Dwyer (TV programme, BP PICK-ABOX) was one of many people who hunted the big shark,” John remembers.

The story has been retold many times around the peninsula since that time as a warning. It’s not usually the locals one finds swimming in the bay, nor throwing the stick to Spot so she can paddle out to fetch. These were gruesome deaths of people entering into the known habitat of the shark. However, given the number of paddleboarders & daytrippers jumping off boats into the bay over the summer months, and the dogs and folk who paddle about its shores, it is somewhat curious that it has been 56 years since the last fatal attack in Middle Harbour. Perhaps there are enough big fish in the sea to keep the sharks satisfied. Or maybe it’s only a matter of time…(Jaws music begin).

Written by Lindy Batterham. Republished with permission from The Crag #204 (https://castlecrag.org.au/the-crag/)

The most recent image of a bull shark in Sugarloaf Bay – taken March 2021. Image: Andrew Wilson

“I Was There The Day Marcia was Taken” 

Glen Denholm grew up in Castlecrag and recalls vividly the day poor Marcia met her fate at Sugarloaf Bay:

“I was just a kid then, about 16 years of age. I am 75 now. I fished all over Middle Harbour when I was a kid, caught sharks there in Sugarloaf. I remember there was a foreign fellow taken just as he was about to get out of the water. This would have been about 1961. He was warned not to swim there, but after work he would always swim across the Sugarloaf Bay to Willis’s Castle. He was warned many times about the sharks and disregarded the warnings and one day a big shark nailed him. I remember one time seeing a fin sticking out of the water about 14 inches, this was off the point at Northbridge on the top of Sailors Bay. We were told if we could see a fin sticking out of the water, then each inch we saw of the fin in height would equal about a foot in length of the shark. This fellow must have been about 14 foot long. None of us in the early 1950’s would ever swim in Middle Harbour and even in the area set aside with shark netting, you were always wary just in case there was a hole in the netting.”

 

Willoughby Living members have started a conversation in regards to signage warning of sharks in the local area. You can follow the most recent conversation by clicking here.

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