Bunyips, serpents & other creatures lurking beneath our waters

In July 2011, a saltwater crocodile was found wandering a main street in the tourist city of Cairns in Far North Queensland. A ranger and several police wrestled the wayward croc with broom handles and a towel before loading it into a car and whisking it away. Australia certainly has its fair share of fearsome aquatic creatures, from the tiny but deadly irakandji jellyfish to the saltwater croc and Great White Shark.
And there appear to be other … unknown creatures also lurking beneath our waters, like the human-devouring bunyips, Australia’s own Loch Ness monster and whale-hating sea serpents.
The Bunyip … a chameleon cryptid?
In 1847, the Australian Museum in Sydney displayed what was claimed to be the skull of a bunyip. The supposed skull was on display for just two days, before being quietly removed. An article appearing in The Sydney Morning Herald about the skull prompted many witnesses to speak of their own encounters with the elusive creature. Before long, the bunyip had become a subject of fascination with the Australian public.
The bunyip has long been feared by the first inhabitants of Australia. It is said to devour humans, sneaking up on unsuspecting victims in silence. Descriptions of the creature varied. It was often described as having a huge body, sometimes covered in fur, sometimes in feathers. Instead of legs, it had flippers.
In a drawing of the bunyip by a Murray River Aboriginal in 1848, the creature was depicted as having a body resembling that of a hippopotamus and a horse-like head. A depiction by a Victorian Aboriginal, however, showed it having the neck and head of an emu. There seemed to be as many differing descriptions of the bunyip as there were sightings.
W. Westgarth, in Australia Felix, published in 1848, described the bunyip as “a huge animal of extraordinary appearance. It had a round head, an elongated neck with a body and tail resembling an ox”.
G. C Mundy writing in Our Antipodes in 1855 depicted the bunyip as “a sort of half horse, half alligator haunting the wide, reedy swamps and lagoons of the interior”.
In The Bulla Bulla Bunyip, published in December 1885, a specimen that had taken up residence outside the town was described as being “bigger than an elephant, in shape like a bullock, with eyes like live coals and tusks like a walrus”.
And the following account was published in The Bunylp at Last! in Brisbane’s Worker on 19 January 1907:
“A strange creature which has a cry like a seal, and very much resembles this well-known amphibious specimen about the head, has been seen in a lagoon at Tumut NSW. The tail is described as being like that of a kangaroo, running from a fair thickness at the root to a taper at the point. The ‘Bunyip,’ as the residents call it, swims rapidly and as it glides along keeping its head above water. Its length, from the tip of the nose to the extremity of the tail, has been set down at about 4 feet, and the colour of the creature is reputed to be black. The animal does not appear to have ears, but if it has they are very small.”
Then, in Hobart’s Mercury on 11 February 1935 an eyewitness described the creature as “neither dog, seal, hyena, nor Tasmanian devil, about the size of a cocker spaniel dog, brindle in colour, with hair so fine that at first it looked as though it had none. The face resembled that of a ferocious dog, but there were two prominent tusks protruding from the bottom jaw.”
So, the bunyip was anywhere from the size of a small dog, to that of an elephant! Perhaps the only common trait of the bunyip was its fierce reputation.
The Register News-Pictorial on 19 September 1929, included the following account of an attack on a dog at Coopers Creek some forty years earlier:
“We rode over to a large waterhole, and the two dogs went in for a swim. Almost immediately one of the dogs was seized by something in the water and dragged under. A violent struggle took place, under the water, which soon become stained with blood. Presently the dog and the ‘thing’ came to the surface, with the dog on top. We grabbed the dog and hauled him out. He was badly cut in the neck and behind the shoulder. All we saw of the ‘thing,’ which disappeared quickly was what appeared to be part of its body, a light brown, smooth surface, much like a saddle-flap in appearance.”
And according to the the Windsor and Richmond Gazette of January 1927, a bunyip living in a swamp near Roberston in the Southern Highlands of NSW may have been responsible for the unexplained disappearance of a stranger.
“A party of men who lived by means of their skill at shooting went out … They returned terrified and related that they came upon the thing basking in the sun, on the side of a hole supposed to be bottomless, situated about the centre of the swamp; and at their approach, the creature, which they stated to approximate the size of a two-year-old steer, and which appeared to possess two short, broad fins or flippers, and in colour was a dirty white or very light grey, took fright and plunged into the hole.”
The article continued: “A stranger to the district called at the rectory and asked to be directed to Kangaloon. While complying with his request he was warned not to attempt to cross the swamp, which looked very easy going from the rectory garden … a bare four miles by that route. Going by the road meant a nine-mile journey. Whether he did so attempt is not known. He was never seen again, and this much is known, he never reached Kangaloon.”
So what exactly is this chameleon-like cryptid? Descriptions vary wildly and it’s interesting to note that not even indigenous accounts of the creature share much in common. Perhaps, the creature is more cultural memory than flesh and blood animal. Maybe stories of long extinct mega fauna have been passed down over thousands of years through the oral traditions and it’s these stories that spawned the rash of sightings by European settlers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Or perhaps, there are any number of fearsome flippered creatures hiding in the swamps, billabongs, creeks and rivers of the outback.
Australia’s Nessie in the Hawkesbury River?
Far from the outback, the Hawkesbury River winds its way to the sea from the north west of Sydney. The deep blue headwaters of the river, surrounded by National Parks, provide some of the most spectacular views on Australia’s east coast and the vast waterways are a popular destination for recreational fishers, water skiers, boaties and holidaymakers enjoying the scenery from the comfort of luxury houseboats.
And this picturesque waterway may also be home to Australia’s very own Loch Ness monster.
Australian researcher of all things unexplained, Rex Gilroy, is one who does believe that a Nessie-like monster inhabits the waters of the Hawkesbury having collected a number of eyewitness accounts over the years.
One such encounter occurred shortly after World War II in Broken Bay. According to Gilroy, “A Mr Doug Bradbury and another man were fishing in a small rowboat. Suddenly a giant snake-like head on the end of a long neck, rose six metres above the water. The men dropped their fishing equipment and rowed quickly for the nearby shore. From the shore they were able to get a good look at the creature. It displayed, apart from the long neck and serpent-like head, a large body, with two sets of long flippers which were partly obscured by the water, and a long thick eel-like tail.”
Reports of a Nessie-like creature go back as far as 1924 when the Windsor and Richmond Gazette on 5 September published the following, somewhat sceptical report: “The man who supplied the following sensational story to the Sydney Sun 28/8/1924 must have been suffering from ‘the morning after the night before’ complaint. We would seriously advise him to ‘put more water in it…”
That man, suspected of having imbibed the night before making his amazing claim was Mr. W.J. Riley, who with his brother Mr. R. Riley, worked on an orchard at The Terrace by the Upper Hawkesbury River.
“’While walking along The Terrace at midday, we were attracted by something in the water beneath, in a deep hole – I should say about 20 feet deep,’ said Mr. Riley. ‘We looked down and saw a big ugly thing, 2ft. 6in. to 3ft. in depth, with a length of from 5ft. to 6ft., and a yellowish or sandy colour. As to whether its skin was scale-covered or not we could not see, the top of The Terrace being probably 200 yards from the water. It was moving around continuously, and, though we watched for over 15 minutes, we could not get a good look at its head. It had a square-looking fish-tail.’
“’Anyhow, it is not a pleasant looking animal’, he concluded, ‘and I certainly should not care to be in the water and have it after me.’”
Is the Hawkesbury Nessie, as Rex Gilroy believes, a plesiosaur surviving from prehistoric times? Or, is it perhaps a lost sea serpent making its way up river?
Sea serpent sightings
For as long as man has been sailing the open waters, the sea serpent has captured the imaginations of seafarers. While regarded as a mythical creature, reports of encounters continue to surface.
The Cairns Post on 17 August 1934 included the following account of one such sea serpent encounter: “The party claim that they sighted what was a specimen of sea serpent and in the light following the dawn they had a good view of this weird marine visitor.
“The sea at the time was very calm, when without warning the monster suddenly appeared some little distance from their launch. It had a weird head, whilst its neck resembled a snake in its sinuous twistings.
“The head waved backwards and forwards above the surface for some little time, and it was estimated that the full length of this marine visitor was about 50 feet. The rest of the body from the head down could be seen on the surface of the sea. After viewing the fishermen the ‘apparition’ began to slowly swim and a few seconds later it was submerged, only to reappear a few minutes later. On this occasion, it was in considerably closer proximity to the boat. The repulsive appearance of this denizen of the deep coming nearer to the party caused them some little apprehension. The sea serpent did not come right up to them but started swimming around in circles during which it made some peculiar sounds which were distinctly heard. Then the strange thing stopped swimming and lay almost motionless on the surface of the sea, giving those on board the boat a very excellent view of it. A little later, the. sea serpent started swimming out to sea and continued in that direction till it was lost to view.”
Less than 12 months later, two boys at Narooma on the south coast of NSW discovered the carcass of an unknown creature washed up on the beach. The Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton reported the sensational claim on 16 April 1935:
“On the beach, near Narooma today two lads discovered and were later assisted to recover from the water the carcass of what all local experts agree can be nothing but a sea serpent … “
“… The postmaster has given the following description of it: Long, tapering bead, high cranium, eyes level with the mouth … two fins at the back of the head, a dorsal fin and a two-bladed propeller tail; 24 teeth in each side in the top row and most likely more than 48 in the bottom row (many teeth having fallen out); smooth and leathery hide; approximately 12 feet long when extended on the beach.”
Perhaps the most stunning of these accounts was retold by the captain of the Perth, Mr. Angus Campbell, in 1900 in which he, his crew and passengers witnessed a possible battle between a sea serpent and a whale while en route from Geraldton to Fremantle in Western Australia.
“ … about 12 miles off land and 35 miles north of Rottnest Island, the chief officer who was on the bridge, saw the giraffe-like object upreared vertically from the surface of the ocean, and immediately he rushed to me and reported that there was some ‘unseemly monster about 100 yards away from the vessel. Eager to see what the creature was, I at once ran up to the bridge, and after waiting a couple of minutes saw the uncanny creature raise its head and body 20ft. out of the water. It would remain in that position for about a ‘minute, and then disappear.
“This pastime it indulged in most regularly for a long time. A small whale, too, occasionally made its appearance,- and appeared to be at war with the other monster. I noticed that the whale never appeared above water during the time the sea serpent was visible. They seemed to take turn about in coming above and going under the water.
“I watched their manoeuvres for fully quarter of an hour, and then went down to breakfast … As far as I could judge with the aid of my binoculars, the monster appeared to be 6ft. in breadth, with a flattish body, and the head and scales seemed to be similar to those of a snake. The head was black and small, and like that of the ordinary reptile falling away at the neck and widening at the body, which was white.
“During the time the monster’s head and body were visible it lashed the water into foam. With the temporary disappearance of the serpent the whale would come up smiling again, as it were, and ‘blow’ in rare form.”
The captain reassured the interviewer when recounting his extraordinary sighting that, “I am a total abstainer, and in regard to the others who witnessed the remarkable sight, it may be as well to add that there is no bar on board this vessel.”
Why is it that whenever somebody is witness to an anomalous event, that the overzealous consumption of alcohol is automatically suspected of playing a leading role?
Plesiosaur Art by Alain Beneteau
Rearranged by Dale D
About weirdaustralia Andrew Nicholson brings you all that's weird in Oz. UFOs, yowies, ghosts and hauntings, strange disappearances, out of place artefacts & everything paranormal in Australia. Email your stories to weirdaustralia@bigpond.com Follow on twitter @weirdaustralia      
4 Responses to Bunyips, serpents & other creatures lurking beneath our waters
truthmonger says:
I’m just thankful that I never saw “Dot and the Kangaroo” as a child. If I start singing the Bunyip song around some of my friends they give me the stink eye. Thx for that particular export, AU :)

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At one point, anything wierd in Australia was called a “Bunyip” including the Yowie. So there is some confusion especially since descriptions mix giant monitors and stray crocs, long-necked animals and seals of all sizes. And I have always been fascinated with the variety that has walrus tusks, there are supposed to be no walruses in the Southern Hemisphere (although the New Zealand Maori also have legends of a walrus-like creature)
Although the corpse from 1935 sounds promising, I would not get my hopes up, it is more than likely a shark. the fact that it has pectoral fins near the head, a dorsal fin and a two-lobed fish tail sound suspiciously sharklike.
I see you have some more good sightings of the longnecked animal at sea, and Angus Campbell’s description of the one dodging the whale sounds much like the reports of the Manopouri and Rotomahansa near New Zealand (famous cases so I did not check the spellings, they are ships named after New Zealand place names, Sea Serpent sightings in the 1890s)
Best wishes, Dale D.
--This follows on an earlier posting made about Australian sea monsters:

Sea serpents explore Australia’s scenic southern coastline

In the winter of 1935, sightings of sea serpents were reported right along the scenic coastline of western Victoria in Australia’s chilly southern waters.
Following a sighting by two boys in June, two fishermen in a boat 300 kilometres away were terrorised by a sea serpent a month later. They resorted to shooting at it to make good their escape. Nearby, road builders clambered down to the shoreline and attempted to capture the serpent using heavy ropes and a draught horse before deciding it was probably far more sensible to leave the creature be and “not curtail its liberty”.
Sea serpent finds its way into Portland Bay
The Portland Guardian on 24 June 1935, reported, somewhat reluctantly, of a sighting of a sea serpent by two lads at Blacknose Point in Portland, Victoria.
“In Saturday’s Star appears the startling announcement … that a sea serpent has found its way into Portland Bay. We have heard of its appearance, but will give the credit to the Star of vouching for the authenticity.”
“A report from Portland states that while strolling along the beach beyond Blacknose Point one day this week two lads saw what they thought was a school of porpoises. When the object came closer they were so startled they climbed to the higher ground, where they had a better view, and were also further away, because, as they said, ‘They did not know if it had legs.’ The body, it is reported, was a slaty blue colour, from 80 feet to 100 feet long, with a neck between 15 feet and 20 feet long, the head being something the shape of a giraffe’s.
“The head was high in the air, the body had a dorsal fin and a wide tail, something like that of a whale, with serrations on the end, and slaty grey and white stripes along it. The object was travelling parallel with the shore. It then turned and went out to sea. The head and neck were visible high in the air for several miles out. As the tail thumped the water in travelling along, great masses of spray arose.
“Now, one can only wonder where the old gentleman [the serpent] will turn up next,” the article concluded sarcastically. But the sceptical writer of that article would not have to wait long for an answer.
Just over a month later on 31 July, the Morning Bulletin reported on the “well-authenticated” appearance of a sea serpent in the waters off Barwon Heads in Victoria, around 300 kilometres away from the Portland sighting.
The creature was described as combining the characteristics of “a snake, a whale, a sea lion, and a seal, with other features unknown to science”.
“Two Queenscliff fishermen have reported that as they were sailing three miles off Point Lonsdale, yesterday evening, their boat was threatened by an aggressively poised creature 20 feet long and eight feet thick, with a head four times the size of a diver’s helmet, eyes like saucers, a neck three feet long and like a snake’s, and a coat of short, black fur.”
Strange enough for a museum … ugly enough for a nightmare
“One of the fishermen said that they first noticed the monster about three yards from the boat with its head poised in an attitude suggesting an imminent swoop upon them.
“After the first shock of amazement had passed, he picked up a gun and fired, whereupon the creature disappeared, only to return more belligerent than ever.“
The fisherman then took aim at the angry sea serpent once again, but his gun misfired. He then fired a third shot, and the serpent dived into the water.
Happily for the frightened fishermen, they did not see it again.
“I thought we were gone,” the fisherman said. “I do not know what it was, but it was strange enough for a museum and ugly enough for a nightmare.”
Road workers attempt to lasso the monster
The two fishermen were not the only ones to have witnessed the sea serpent off Barwon Heads, according to the same article.
“Road workers about a mile from Barwon Heads attempted early yesterday to capture a creature which they described as about 18 feet long, of a grey colour, with a head and neck like a serpent’s, an enormous mouth, a fur-coated body, and a white-striped chin. It slid from the rocks as they tried to lasso it.”
The Northern Standard, on 2 August 1935, elaborated on the road workers’ foolhardy attempt to capture the unknown animal. “Working on a new road between Barwon Heads and Torquay, workmen looking from the outer cliff saw an extraordinary sea monster. The foreman sent a gang of men to the beach equipped with ropes and a draught horse to capture it. After trying to lasso the monster from a distance they decided not to curtail its liberty. It then waddled into the sea and disappeared. It was about 15 feet long, greyish in colour, snakelike head, enormous mouth, white stripes under the chin, eyes like motor car lamps, and possessed other characteristics unknown to science.”
Probably just as well that their attempt to lasso the creature failed. Perhaps they should’ve settled for a smaller specimen.
Smaller serpent also spotted nearby
A smaller sea serpent was also sighted according to the Central Queensland Herald on 8 August. Could this have been the offspring of the serpent sighted earlier?
“Hard on the heels of the news of the reappearance of the Barwon Heads sea serpent near Queenscliff comes a report from Airey’s Inlet of the appearance of a sea monster, which appears to be a younger and smaller relative of the creature seen at Queenscliff.
“J. Davis, of Airley’s Hotel, who saw it lying on the fringe of the surf, said the body was about 10 or 12 feet long … The head was a light grey in colour, and it had a sparse coat of darker coloured hair. It had big eyes like those of the Queenscliff monster, but there were no stripes on the body. The head was round.”
Following this sighting, it appears these sea monsters headed back out to sea as sightings along the rugged coastline of western Victoria soon dwindled and these unknown creatures were soon forgotten.
Such sea serpent sightings are not unique to the southern waters of Australia, however.
Similar creatures have been sighted off the coasts of Western Australia and Queensland. The carcass of an unknown sea creature was reported to have washed up on the shore at Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales. Interestingly, this was in April of 1935, just two months before the sightings in Victoria.
Read more sea serpent reports, including the Narooma carcass in Bunyips, serpents & other creatures lurking beneath our waters.

2 Responses to Sea serpents explore Australia’s scenic southern coastline

  1. I notice that most of the reports cited here had the characteristics of elephant seals-big black eyes, body 15-20 feet long and 5-8 feet thick, medium-short neck, big head with a big open mouth and a tail divided into two fins. The first one reported with a giraffe-like neck was however a good sighting of the Longnecked type and I don’t doubt that you have more sightings of that type also in the area. Somebody was wrong when they said it was up to a hundred feet long: with the neck that long, half that length would be more like the usual proportion. No doubt some witnesses were actually measuring the wake. But there was no reason to get surly or sarcastic about it: that is the single most-often observed category of Sea-serpent worldwide.
    Best Wishes, Dale D.
    • Hi Dale,
      Thanks for your excellent feedback … and apologies for taking so long to reply.
      The report of the creature being around 100 feet long was from the two boys so there may have been some youthful exuberance evident in their reporting. I’ve since come across several more reports of creatures estimated at up to 90 feet, but as you said, this could mistakenly include the wake. In regards to the reporting, thankfully, most newspaper reports were fairly evenly balanced compared with more modern times.
      If you’re interested, I posted some other reports of sea serpent sightings, and in one case a carcass washing up on a beach, in Bunyips, sea serpents and other creatures luring beneath our waters.
      Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge.
  2. Dale Drinnon says:
    I’m going to take the liberty of posting the two articles on my Frontiers of Zoology blog. If I get anything useful by wany of a reply, I shall surely let you know.
    Best Wishes, Dale D.
BTW, I think that the cartoon of a Bunyip I added at the top is illustrating one of the Diprotodont types.