Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Extraordinary Individual

The surprise occurrence of a Basking Shark at Portland in 1883 seems to have delighted McCoy, as he boasted of it being the first such specimen seen in southern waters.

The species was legendary in his native Ireland, where it regularly appeared in impressive schools off the rugged West Coast. Hunted by the Aran Islanders in their flimsy currachs - boats made of tarped canvas - the shark's liver produced valuable oil that sustained them in cold stone cottages over the long, dark winters.

The extraordinary circumstances of the individual I have here figured and described having come so far south gives special interest to this specimen, which was caught in November, 1883, at Portland, on the Western coast of Victoria.

It, as often happens in the northern hemisphere, to which, until this occurrence, it was supposed to be confined, was found entangled in the nets of the fisherman, and having wrapped the nets round itself by rolling and struggling, it became exhausted and was killed.

In other countries where fisherman have recorded their meetings with this monster, the accounts agree in showing it to be a quiet, sluggish creature quite destitute of the ferocity of the other Sharks, swimming along showing its back and dorsal fin above the water, and with its mouth open to catch its small, floating food, like a Whale, and when basking quietly on the surface being so indifferent to the approaching of a boat that the man may feel it without any alarm or movement or anger on the part of the Shark, unless harpooned, when it darts to the bottom with great force and velocity, and unlike a Whale, which must come up to breathe, it stays below, making it a dangerous captive for any ordinary fishing vessel.

Basking Shark, Cetorhinus maximus, by Arthur Bartholomew.
Lawrence Rocks, Portland Bay, 25 December 1865.
Basking Shark, Cetorhinus maximus, by Arthur Bartholomew.