by Tracie Griffith
Tales of a monster great white shark are legendary in Port Fairy. Big Ben, as the shark is known, hasn’t been sighted since the 1960s, but alive or most probably dead, he remains active in the town’s imagination. Port Fairy is situated only 22 km from Lady Julia Percy Island, the largest fur seal colony in Australia, so it is easy to understand why these waters could have attracted such a magnificent specimen and why ocean-goers worry about possible encounters with great whites.
Big Ben was always difficult to pin down and that certainly proved the case when I went in search of the known facts about this shark. Descriptions from local fishermen, many now deceased, were highly variable. Most witness accounts date from the 1950s and 60s, but one claimed to have first seen him back in the 1930s. Big Ben is described as anywhere from 6 metres (20 feet) – feasible – to 11 metres (36 feet) – unfeasible for the species. He was also said to have a 2 metre (6 foot) scar on his left or right side, depending on who was telling the story.
So what is the truth about Port Fairy’s legendary shark?
When discussing estimates of the size of Big Ben, it is impossible to avoid the confusion created by Port Fairy’s listing in the Guinness Book of Records for one of the largest great white sharks ever snared – a specimen measuring 11.1 metres (36 ½ feet) that was caught in 1870.
The jaws from this shark are held at the British Museum of Natural History in London and were examined separately by shark experts Dr Perry Gilbert (Cornell University, New York State) and Dr John Randall (Bishop Museum, Hawaii), both of whom published their assessments in 1973. After measuring the jaws and teeth, Gilbert estimated the shark was closer to 5 metres (16 ½ feet) and Randall estimated it was around 5.4 metres (17 ½ feet) – approximately half the length originally claimed.
Gilbert very politely put the discrepancy down to a typographical error and Randall agreed:
Although these jaws are impressive, they do not approach the size one would expect for a shark 36.5 feet long. It is possible that a mistake might have been made in recording the shark’s length. P. W. Gilbert independently examined the jaws, and he has suggested that there might have been a printer’s error; the length should perhaps have been 16.5 feet (5 m) (Randall, 1973, p. 169).
The current version of the Guinness Book of Records now offers a more conservative view of great white sharks, stating that adult specimens average 4.3-4.6 metres (14-15 feet) in length. No records are listed for the largest known captures and there is a guarded acknowledgement that circumstantial evidence suggests some great whites may grow up to 6 metres (20 feet).
Typographical errors aside, perhaps Port Fairy deserves a Guinness Book of Records Award for the biggest bullshit story ever told, given that this fisherman’s tale survived for over a century before it was debunked and is still being widely discussed on the internet.
It would definitely account for the mythology that has grown up around Big Ben, because hey, who could be blamed for not wanting to hear another monster great white story from a Port Fairy fisherman?
Well, this is where it gets interesting.
One of the most compelling stories about Big Ben was told by Reuben Kelly, a local fisherman now deceased. An article from The Standard dated 13th December 1977 (provided by Maureen Heard, Kelly’s daughter) recounts the tale in his own words. According to Kelly, his crew were fishing for snapper sharks off Lady Julia Percy Island in the mid-1950s, when Big Ben kept stealing their catch. One of the crew drove a gaff into the shark to try to get rid of him, but he turned ‘nasty’, grabbing the boat by the rudder and shaking it ‘like a match’. The rudder had to be replaced and was found to have shark’s teeth still embedded in it.
Kelly claims the shark that shook his boat was at least 7.6 metres (25 feet) in length (about the size of the shark that featured in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws). He could not say if it was Big Ben for sure, but said the encounter happened in his territory – the north-east corner of the island.
So what are the chances of a great white growing to around 7 metres (23 feet) – give or take a little exaggeration?
Surprisingly, there are a couple of cases that have been accepted by the scientific community. In 1987, two specimens were captured within weeks of each other – ‘KANGA’ on 1st April off Kangaroo Island in South Australia and ‘MALTA’ on 17th April off Fifla Farallon in Malta. Both sharks were estimated to be around 7 metres (23 feet) in length by the fishermen involved and a study conducted by a group of scientists agreed with those assessments, with KANGA believed to be the larger of the two specimens (Mollet et al., 1996).
This study acknowledged large variations in jaw and tooth sizes in great white sharks over 4 metres (13 feet) in length, which indicated that Randall’s method of using jaw and tooth data to determine total length was unsuitable. When Randall’s methods were applied to the KANGA and MALTA cases, the specimens were found to be 1-1.5 metres (3-5 feet) smaller than the photographic evidence and available measurements indicated.
The study’s findings were ultimately drawn from observations of the upper jaw perimeter, tooth height and fin size, and comparisons with existing data on mass from specimens with a known total length. The scientists behind the study also proposed the introduction of a standard protocol for the measurement of great white sharks to ensure more consistent results in the future.
Notwithstanding any ongoing disagreements about how a great white should be measured, the capture of KANGA in southern Australian waters certainly suggests that Kelly’s estimates about Big Ben may not have been too far off. And if the above study’s conclusions about (Gilbert and) Randall’s methods are correct, it would be fair to assume that the Port Fairy Guinness Book of Records shark could have been at least 6-7 metres (20-23 feet) in length. Do you agree? Why not get amongst this argument?
Another recent study used carbon dating techniques to establish the lifespan of great white sharks to be 70 years or more (Hamady et al., 2014). It also looked at sexual dimorphism in growth rates, with the female proving significantly larger than the male from an early age. The largest male and female in the study were similar in size at around 5 metres (16 ½ feet), but the male was 73 years old and the female was only 40. This data has been extrapolated to suggest that the female of the species has the potential to grow to around 7-7.5 metres (23-24 ½ feet) – if she manages to reach 70 years of age. Can a female great white live that long? Who knows. But yes, both the KANGA and MALTA specimens were female.
With long lifespans, late maturity and small litters, great whites have been particularly vulnerable to fishing pressures. Given the species was over-fished for many decades and has only been on the protected list since 1999, it’s fair to say the growth potential of great white sharks may not have been scientifically determined yet. The irony of this is, if we don’t adequately protect the species, we may never know just how big and scary a great white can be – as scientific fact, rather than just a fisherman’s tale from a bygone era.
So what was the most remarkable upshot of my excursion into Big Ben mythology?
Russell Williams, a former shark fisherman in Port Fairy, questioned whether Big Ben was actually a female, given the size of the shark and the fact that the female of the species is typically larger than the male. I referred Williamses’ theory to great white expert Andrew Fox (son of the famous shark attack survivor, Rodney Fox) and he said it was possible given that around 90% of the largest great whites are female (according to data obtained from tagging programs).
So perhaps Big Ben should have been named Benita, Bertha, Bessie or Brenda after all. It’s just another facet of this story that we will never know for sure.
Sightings of sharks 10 metres (33 feet) or more in length are not disputed by scientific experts, but the most likely explanation is that they were basking or whale sharks. Basking sharks grow to 6-8 metres (20-26 feet) on average and are capable of reaching 10 metres (33 feet) or more in length. Basking sharks have been found near Port Fairy and can be mistaken for great whites due to the similarities between the species (refer to the Victorian Museum reference below on the capture of a basking shark off Portland in 2015).
Big Ben’s no myth. (1977, December 13). The Standard, p. 15.
Ellis, R. & McCosker, J. (1991). Great White Shark. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Gilbert, P. & Gilbert, C. (1973). Sharks and Shark Deterrents. Underwater Journal, 5(2), 69-79.
Guinness Book of Records. (2017). http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/
Hamady, L., Natanson, L., Skomal, G. & Thorrold, S. (2014). Vertebral Bomb Radiocarbon Suggests Extreme Longevity in White Sharks. PLoS ONE, 9(1), Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0084006
Mollet, H., Cailliet, G., Klimley, A., Ebert, D., Testi, A. & Compagno, L. (1996). Review of Length Validation Methods and Protocols to Measure Large White Sharks. In A. Klimley & D. Ainley (Eds.), Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias, (pp. 91-108). San Diego, USA: Academic Press.
Museums Victoria. (2015). Rare giant Basking Shark caught off Portland. https://museumvictoria.com.au/about/media-centre/media-releases/basking-shark-caught-off-portland/
Randall, J. E. (1973). Size of the Great White Shark (Carcharodon). Science, 181(4095), 169-170.