The shark in the mind of every ocean swimmer

About 6000 people had gathered at Coogee that day to watch a swimming carnival, which had attracted the city’s best swimmers including Australian Olympic champion Frank Beaurepaire.

Milton Coughlan went down on the rocks near the Coogee Surf Life Saving clubhouse, and did a spot of body surfing off the southern reef, just as I did last Sunday. According to reports at the time, a friend called out to him to watch out for sharks in the channel, and Coughlan laughed.


He was standing in the water when he saw the shark and shouted a warning to the other body-surfers. While he was swimming ashore, the shark struck him with “great violence”, it was said. As Coughlan signalled to his clubmates for help, the shark grabbed his right arm and dragged him beneath the waves. Moments later he reappeared above water, and spectators saw him pummelling the shark with his left arm, but then the shark took that arm in its jaws.

Two men came in an attempt to rescue him. One, Jack Chalmers, a member of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, rushed down the rocks near the clubhouse, where I walk daily, but as he “scrambled over the slippery green rocks he fell and his leg was badly injured”.

Beaurepaire jumped in and brought Coughlan to shore. By now, one of Coughlan’s arms had been severed entirely “except the humerus”. The attack took place at 3.30pm. He was rushed by ambulance to Sydney Hospital but declared dead 25 minutes later at 3.55pm.

Both Chalmers and Beaurepaire were awarded bravery medals from the Royal Shipwreck Relief & Humane Society of NSW and the NSW Surf Life Saving Association, and each given a £500 reward.


Beaurepaire used his money to start Beaurepaire’s Tyres, a company that became national. He went on to become Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Chalmers was awarded the Albert Medal, the highest decoration for bravery given to a civilian.

Soon after Coughlin’s death, on Saturday, March 3, 1922, a 21-year-old Coogee local called Mervyn Gannon was attacked in relatively shallow water on a crowded Coogee Beach. Gannon is reported to have worked in a motor repair shop, and lived in the Normandy flats in Vicar Street, which I walk past every morning on my way to swim at the beach.

The beach inspectors rushed to his rescue in knee-deep water, but having lost a hand and fingers his condition was critical. He was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital, where surgeons struggled to save him, but he died the next morning.


I have become slightly obsessed with these stories. I’ve made pilgrimages to both their graves in Randwick cemetery. Something about their stories resonates. Every time I remember them while swimming in the spot where they were attacked by sharks. There but for grace, go I.

Twice in a century I would say to myself, what are the odds of being taken by a shark today? Each morning I see the Department of Primary Industry boats check the nets, and it reassures me, I feel slightly comforted. There have been only around 440 deaths by shark internationally since 1958, according to data from the International Shark Attack File; I think my chances of dying from COVID-19 would be greater than being killed by a shark.

But Thursday morning I was tentative. As the helicopters hovered above the beach at the exact spot of these previous attacks, I swam in the safe confines of Wylie’s Baths rather than the ocean.

But by Friday I was back in beach swimming as it is a daily ritual I do. If I don’t, I don’t feel right. It is something hardwired in the DNA of ocean swimmers. I can’t explain it, but I believe the benefits far outweigh the risk of shark attack. I am not baying for the blood of this latest shark. I enter their territory, I take the risk. And will continue to do so now the beaches have reopened.

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