The 1918 “megalodon sighting”

1918

The 1918 newspaper article reporting an encounter with a giant shark, often claimed to be an Otodus megalodon.

In a previous post, I debunked claims of Pleistocene-Holocene Otodus megalodon teeth used by cryptozoologists to support modern survival. This time I will be examining an encounter that is frequently associated with O. megalodon in the cryptozoological literature (e.g. Shuker, 1995; Coleman & Clark, 1999; Eberhart, 2002). This particular story is often considered as the definitive “megalodon sighting”. It was notably recounted by ichthyologist David G. Stead in his posthumous 1963 book Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas. Since I do not have access to a copy of this book, I am using the excerpt below as quoted in Roesch (1998). [see addendum]

In the year 1918 I recorded the sensation that had been caused among the “outside” crayfish men at Port Stephens, when, for several days, they refused to go to sea to their regular fishing grounds in the vicinity of Broughton Island. The men had been at work on the fishing grounds – which lie in deep water – when an immense shark of almost unbelievable proportions put in an appearance, lifting pot after pot containing many crayfishes, and taking, as the men said, “pots, mooring lines and all”. These crayfish pots, it should be mentioned, were about 3 feet 6 inches [1.06 m] in diameter and frequently contained from two to three dozen good-sized crayfish each weighing several pounds. The men were all unanimous that this shark was something the like of which they had never dreamed of. In company with the local Fisheries Inspector I questioned many of the men very closely and they all agreed as to the gigantic stature of the beast. But the lengths they gave were, on the whole, absurd. I mention them, however, as a indication of the state of mind which this unusual giant had thrown them into. And bear in mind that these were men who were used to the sea and all sorts of weather, and all sorts of sharks as well. One of the crew said the shark was “three hundred feet [90 m] long at least”! Others said it was as long as the wharf on which we stood – about 115 feet [35 m]! They affirmed that the water “boiled” over a large space when the fish swam past. They were all familiar with whales, which they had often seen passing at sea, but this was a vast shark. They had seen its terrible head which was “at least as long as the roof on the wharf shed at Nelson’s Bay.” Impossible, of course! But these were prosaic and rather stolid men, not given to ‘fish stories’ nor even to talking about their catches. Further, they knew that the person they were talking to (myself) had heard all the fish stories years before! One of the things that impressed me was that they all agreed as to the ghostly whitish color of the vast fish. The local Fisheries Inspector of the time, Mr. Paton, agreed with me that it must have been something really gigantic to put these experienced men into such a state of fear and panic.

Since Stead’s account was recalled almost 40 years1 after it occurred, its reliability is questionable. What the cryptozoology books do not mention is that there is a contemporary newspaper report of this encounter (Anon., 1918). This article includes additional details left out of Stead’s retelling, some of which are important for assessing the story.

A shark story from Port Stephens is regarded by Mr. D.G. Stead, manager of the trawling industry, as having some solid foundation. It concerns a shark of extraordinary length and still more extraordinary habits. Mr. Stead says – “While standing on the Nelson’s Bay Wharf watching the packing of some lobsters (crayfish) for the Sydney market, the fishermen were asked, in view of a recent hard blow from the south-east, if they had lost many lobster pots. They were very excited at this, and spoke, not of the storm, but of what they termed, ‘Wan gr-r-reat beeg shar-r-rk.’ It was alleged by the fishermen that for several days a huge shark of hitherto unknown magnitude had put in an appearance, and was destroying the lobster pots, eating the pots ‘da feesh and all,’ as the Greek fishermen put it. The average crayfish or lobster pot is about 3ft 6in across, and frequently holds from two to three dozen fair-sized lobsters.” Mr. Stead questioned the men very closely, but they would not budge one bit, being very emphatic about the occurrence of the shark, and as to its size. “One of the fishermen when asked to give the dimensions of the shark, stated that it was about 115ft long. When the idea of this length was openly scouted he still persisted most excitedly about the immense length of the fish and said that it was as long as the wharf on which the party was standing. He further stated that the shark’s head was ‘as big as da r-roof’. ‘Da r-roof’ in this instance was a fairly large one, being the roof of the shed on the wharf. This was quite obviously a wild exaggeration. In addition to this great fish taking the lobster pots, the men reported that one of the launches had had a large place bitten out of it by the shark, so that the launch had to be beached for repairs.” Mr. Stead is of the opinion that the sincerity of the men cannot be doubted, although he thinks that they have greatly exaggerated the size of the shark. He thinks, however, that they have seen a shark much larger than any hitherto recorded on this coast, and makes the suggestion that what they saw was an extraordinary example of the great white shark, “White Death,” or “White Pointer”. This shark is known to occur on this coast. The largest seen by Mr. Stead is about 20 feet in length, but it is known to attain a length of about 40 feet. The United States exploring steamer Albatross obtained in the Pacific Ocean apparently recently-shed teeth of a huge shark allied to the White Pointer. Judging by the size of the teeth, the shark from which the teeth came could not have been less than 80 feet in length. It is quite possible that such sharks exist even in our seas, but that they remain usually in very deep water. Mr. Stead feels that many will be inclined to scout the whole story, and to think that either he has “allowed his leg to be pulled” or that he is trying to spring “a fish story” on the public, but he is willing to put up with that.

One new detail is that the fishermen were Greek immigrants2. This opens up the possibility of a language barrier and miscommunication of information. It also suggests an unfamiliarity with the local sealife, which includes whale sharks. Interestingly, the first recorded sighting of one in Australia happened in 19363 near the same Broughton Island (Whitley, 1965). While not reaching the 115-300 feet (35-91 m) claimed, whale sharks are still the largest shark at up to 18.8 m in length (McClain et al. 2015). Albino individuals have been photographed (Anon., 2007; Cheng, 2007) which could explain the coloration. A misidentified and exaggerated albino whale shark is certainly a more plausible identity than a living O. megalodon. That being said, the reported behavior does not match that of whale sharks.

Another new detail, that a storm swept through the area shortly before, raises another explanation. It is possible that the crayfish pots and boat were destroyed in the storm, but the fishermen wanted to cover their losses so invented the story of a monster shark. This is certainly an economical incentive for creating a hoax, especially for vulnerable immigrant workers. The use of the expression “very like a whale”, which originates from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the article title is telling. A contemporary dictionary defines it as “an expression of ironical assent to an assertion or a proposition regarded as preposterous” (Whitney & Smith, 1914). This indicates that even the newspaper editor did not take this encounter seriously, rare for the rampant yellow journalism of the time.

Whether a whale shark or a hoax (although I favor the latter), there is no evidence that the 1918 sighting was a living O. megalodon. Not only are some of the details obviously exaggerated, but none of the features or behaviors match the real animal. The context added by the newspaper article suggests that misidentification or fabrication are far more likely. With both this sighting and the “recent teeth” eliminated, cryptozoologists are left with nothing to base the survival of O. megalodon on.

Notes

1Although it was published in 1963, it was written before Stead’s death in 1957.
2Presumably what Stead meant when he referred to them as “outside” men in his account.
3In 1918 even the local Australians probably wouldn’t have been familiar with whale sharks, since no sightings had been recorded yet.

Addendum (10/7/2020)

Thanks to Robert Lippner, I now have a pdf of the account from Stead (1963). It’s available on my Cryptozoological Reference Library website.

References

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4 thoughts on “The 1918 “megalodon sighting”

  1. Another great meg article. Glad to see someone else pointing out the “outside” fishermen reference and the possibility of lacking knowledge in the local marine fauna. This popular and most prized “evidence” for megalodon by meg-possibly-lives-advocates is fraught with all sorts of problems.

    Firstly, we have no idea how many fishermen witnessed the alleged shark for themselves. Was it one “crew” or more? We don’t know how many fishermen were actually questioned and how well the investigation (if one can even call it that) was conducted during the visit. Stead does rather seem to flatter himself that no one would dare or be able tell him a fishy tale simply because of his reputation.

    Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable at the best of times. Sadly, Stead’s initial notes, if he even made any, are not available to us. His original manuscript for “Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas”, written shortly before his death, has the same short text with no noteworthy changes when compared to the posthumously published book. Yet it is interesting and important to see the similarities and differences in his account and the first newspaper report(s).

    Also noteworthy is that the initial newspaper report speaks of successive sightings if the men reported that “for several days a huge shark of hitherto unknown magnitude had put in an appearance”. Reading Stead’s later anecdotal report one gets the impression it was a single sighting and the men were terrified to return to the waters. Which is it? Were these men reliable experts or not, as Stead make them out to be, if they couldn’t even tell the difference between a 115ft and a 300ft long animal? Why did he not make mention of the damaged boat? For all we know, two crews may have been drunk, bumped into each other, damaged the one boat and lost their equipment in the process, concocting this fishy story in front of their boss. (<highly unlikely and doubtful but still a plausible possibility and certainly more plausible than a 115-300ft long shark for which we have no shred of evidence whatsoever) Even Max Hawthorne's theory 1) of a white albino whale shark seems far more plausible then some whitish colored super-megalodon.

    Stead, who believed meg-sized white shark roamed the depths, as did others at the time, based on teeth he thought fresh, might not have thought the story so plausible based on our current knowledge either.

    Only Stead mentions that one fisherman spoke of the shark being 300ft long. No newspaper report I've come across from the time of the alleged sighting (most of which are copied from your source anyway) mentions that. So we also have to question Stead's memory, especially ~40 years later on.

    One thing is for sure though – In light of teh fact that we still have no shred of evidence for 40ft long white shark, we should be even more skeptical of this story. Meg-possibly-lives advocates will have to come up with far better "evidence" than this story if they want to convince anyone of megalodon's survival to this very day.

    Looking forward to your next article (and will have to start my own before you beat me to it 😀 )

    1) https://www.kronosrising.com/max-hawthornes-marine-mysteries-1918-port-stephens-shark/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The “outside” reference always bothered me until I found the context in the newspaper article. Weird how all previous authors overlooked this detail, and it even turned out to be quite important.

      Stead’s declaration of “I’m an expert, you can’t fool me” reminds me a lot of Grover Krantz. Cryptozoologists like to use this argument from authority to dismiss problematic elements of stories.

      Do you have access to Stead’s book and/or the original manuscript? While I don’t doubt the excerpt in Roesch (1998), I always like to have a copy of the primary source.

      I think a hoax to cover up human error is the most likely explanation. However, to give the fishermen the benefit of the doubt I would say the damage was caused by the mentioned storm and not drunken antics.

      Stead’s belief in 40 ft great whites probably stems from an alleged 36 ft specimen from Australia reported in 1870 (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/36874#page/422/mode/1up). The jaws were measured in 1973 and actually came from a 17 ft individual (https://sci-hub.tw/https://science.sciencemag.org/content/181/4095/169).

      Liked by 1 person

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