Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Sharks of Port Philip Bay

In 1875 most colonists had experienced the sea whilst travelling by ship to Victoria. Few could swim, however, and even for those that could, the ocean was a threatening source of ever-present danger.

Sharks were particularly feared as man-eaters, so the idea of bathing in well-fenced sea baths such as those constructed at Brighton, was new and revolutionary.

McCoy's florid descriptions of sharks captured in Port Phillip Bay began to put names and pictures to these denizens of the deep. But for most Victorians they occupied a zone of darkness and fear, far from the colonial opportunities presented by sheep, wheat and commerce.

The sharks described in the Prodromus as large, abundant, diverse and omnipresent within the Bay signified a wildness that is all but gone. A single sighting of a Bronze Whaler off a suburban beach in summer now has radio stations abuzz with exaggerated chatter.

With the Bay virtually emptied of these magnificent creatures, McCoy's stories of abundant Grey Nurse Sharks in Hobson's Bay and White Pointers harassing lady bathers at the Brighton Beach Sea Baths now have an almost mythological quality.

'Fight with a shark in Geelong Bay.' Engraving by Julian Rossi Ashton (1851-1942), published in The Australasian Sketcher.