Tales From The Tower > Shark Attack 1946

Dave Mitchell in 1939

Dave Mitchell in 1939

On Sunday, 10 February 1946, a still, scorching day with only the faintest breath of an easterly, a large crowd was spread along the beach from the groyne to ‘the Sahara’, as the northern stretch of sand, later Floreat, was still known to City’s surf lifesavers. Just south of the groyne, Dave ‘Moo Cow’ Mitchell was training an R&R team, consisting of Alex Flecker, Bob Herd, Frank Marshall and Mark Posa, in preparation for the Victory Carnival, the first post-war State Championships, Dave Mitchell, 1939 which were to be held at Scarborough the following weekend. Suddenly, a breathless and distressed member of the public relayed the news that a shark attack had occurred at the northern beach, three quarters of a mile away. The victim, eighteen year old Ronald Sutherland, on leave while awaiting discharge from the Royal Australian Navy, was badly injured and bleeding profusely, and was being carried to the tearooms after being helped from the water by two onlookers, Les Cass and Jack Read.

While word was sent to other City members to hurry to the tearooms to assist with emergency first aid, Mitchell and the others took to the water in the surf boat, which had been lying at the water’s edge while they trained. When the crew sighted the shark, a blue whaler more than four metres long, it was heading menacingly toward them. As it drew near, Mark Posa shied at it with the hand harpoon, missing by only centimetres. Mitchell hauled the line in and, with the shark still circling the boat, took a shot himself. As the West Australian reported the next day, Mitchell’s throw ‘drove the harpoon into the back of the monster’. The shark thrashed around and then sped away on the line, which was two hundred yards long but which caught on a rowlock when only a quarter had been unwound. The shark leapt from the water and dived, causing the boat to list and almost capsize. Perhaps fortunately, the shark freed itself and the boat crew had a moment to steady themselves and haul the harpoon back into the boat.

cpsc0162Having rid itself of the harpoon, the shark charged at the boat, biting at its bow at the waterline. Mitchell had been working at straightening the bent harpoon by lodging it in a rowlock and when next the shark attacked the boat he again embedded it in the shark’s back. As it was struck, the shark reared from the water, landing partially in the boat and throwing Mitchell overboard. While Mitchell swam around to the other side of the boat, the shark ‘snapped at the hands and legs of the crew, three of the oars were knocked out of place and some of the crew were thrown to the bottom of the boat’. Finally, the shark, having again freed itself from the harpoon, slid off the gunwale and Mitchell was able to climb back on board. The shark then abandoned the assault and was last seen heading northward. When the boat was dragged ashore, two of the shark’s front teeth were extracted from the bow of the boat. Later, these were mounted and displayed in City’s clubhouse as curios. Ronald Sutherland, having received first aid at the beach, had been rushed to the Hollywood military hospital, where it was necessary to amputate his left leg below the knee.

In the aftermath of the attack, the men who had helped Sunderland from the water, risking attack themselves, were presented with Royal Humane Society medals by the Governor, Sir James Mitchell, and many tributes were paid to the City surf lifesavers who had attempted to capture the shark and had acted so quickly to treat Sunderland and minimise the risk to his life. An editorial in the Daily News urged the community to materially acknowledge the importance of their work:

News of the City Beach shark attack yesterday shocked people. Our long immunity from such horrible incidents had lulled us. That immunity has not been merely fortuitous. It has been due to the work of vigilant, conscientious lifesavers. Yesterday they were able, at great risk to themselves, to wound the shark twice and prevent its return for fresh prey. Lifesavers are hampered by lack of funds and modern equipment and, often, by people’s thoughtlessness or even vandalism. Yesterday’s reminder heightens our appreciation of their work. Possibly this may who itself in practical ways – money or, at the very least, full cooperation.

During the next week, the shark attack at North City Beach was incessantly talked about and reflected upon, and it was in this emotion-charged atmosphere that the Victory State Surf Life Saving Championshis were held the next weekend, attracting ‘an immense crowd which was claimed to be the biggest seen at any beach carnival.’