Shark Week: Wellington 1852

It is a warm summer day and the young city of Wellington is celebrating its anniversary. A military band entertains crowds on the shore as waka and whaleboats compete in races out on the water. After the musical performance finishes a group of soldiers and band members from the 65th Regiment dive into the sea and race each other to the ships in the harbour. Their idyllic afternoon swim is about to take a tragic turn…

This week is Shark Week, well it is for North American audiences who are currently chomping through the popular television event, so to mark the occasion I thought I’d share the largely forgotten story of a tragic shark attack that occurred in 19th century New Zealand.

I work in the television production industry and one of my most recent projects will be premiering in the United States this evening as part of this year’s Shark Week line-up. I’ve been involved in a number of Shark Week shows and they frequently put me in contact with people who dedicate their lives to better understanding these fascinating animals. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with scientists that study them, filmmakers who swim with them and some incredibly brave people who have survived unfortunate encounters with them. You’d think that this might have put me off swimming in the sea but it hasn’t, as I know that attacks on humans are actually exceedingly rare. That and to be honest I never really enjoyed swimming in the first place.

Here in New Zealand we aren’t used to living alongside animals that are capable of killing us; we don’t have wolves, bears, cougars, snakes, crocodiles, lions, tigers or hippos. Our indigenous animals tend to be small, nocturnal and cuddly. We aren’t usually allowed to actually cuddle them but they do look cuddly. Our fauna are feathery, slow, friendly and fluffy – until we get into the ocean. New Zealand’s waters are home to a number of species of sharks that are capable of inflicting life-threatening injuries on humans. Included on this list is the infamous great white shark. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to come face to face with this incredible apex predator.

Great White Shark circling History Geek © Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark circling History Geek
© Lemuel Lyes

Fatal shark attacks on humans are uncommon, but they can and do happen. When they do occur the outcome can be tragic and the shock can resonate through whole communities. One such example occurred in Wellington on 22 January 1852.

Nineteen-year-old Johnny Balmer was a member of the 65th Regiment’s band, which had entertained the public earlier in the day. After racing each other to ships in the harbour his companions swam back to shore, but Johnny decided to stay in the water a little longer, about sixty metres from land. A lad in a boat passed close by and called out to see if he needed a ride back to shore but the young musician laughed and replied that he could easily continue swimming for another hour or so, and that he intended to swim back the way he came. Shortly after he uttered those words a shark rushed towards him and the unfortunate soldier shrieked in terror.

The lad in the boat turned and rushed to Johnny’s assistance as the shark bit into his thigh and calf and dragged him underwater. The captain of a nearby ship later estimated that the shark was fifteen feet in length. The water turned crimson red as Johnny struggled in the jaws of the shark. After freeing himself he desperately tried to reach the nearby boat. Incredibly he made it to safety but his injuries were severe and despite the best efforts of his rescuer he bled to death in the matter of minutes.

It was a tragic end to a day of celebration and festivities. The body was brought to shore and the next day an inquest was held at the Thistle Inn. Teeth marks were visible on the kneecap, chunks of the flesh were missing and the wounds were so severe that bone was visible. It was no surprise that the official finding was that “the deceased was killed by the bite of a shark while bathing”. Some nineteenth century accounts of shark attacks seem unreliable but this one was conclusive.

The response to the incident was predictable. Some people set out to hunt the shark with hooks and harpoons. They claimed to come close to catching it but ultimately were unsuccessful. Others blamed the presence of the shark on the arrival of two whaling ships, which were known to throw blubber and offal over the side. This isn’t necessarily entirely far-fetched, as sharks are certainly known to feed on the decomposing remains of whales.

Wellington isn’t known as a particularly dangerous place to swim. It’s better known for its wind than its sharks. The incident in 1852 is thought to be the only fatal shark attack in Wellington’s history. No part of New Zealand’s coastline is immune to the possibility of unfortunate encounters between sharks and swimmers but the odds are extraordinarily slim. There have been less than a dozen recorded fatal shark attacks in New Zealand’s history. You all know the statistic – you are much more likely to be hit by lightning.

If you want to learn more about the history of shark attacks in New Zealand then head on over to this great page at Te Ara. If you are in Wellington then it might be a nice idea to pay your respects at John Balmer’s grave in the Bolton Street cemetery and have a pint in his memory at the Thistle Inn (which was rebuilt after a fire in 1866 but stands on the same spot as the original). You can also read more about the story here or here in the original newspaper report, or check out this fantastic album dedicated to the incident.

© Lemuel Lyes

12 replies »

  1. I am disappointed History Geek, that you didn’t use this opportunity to post a photo that you found of a dwarf with a massive shark in Bluff?

  2. Great piece – I’ve not come across this story before, and it has certainly never occurred to me that there might be sharks in the harbour. I can’t imagine staying in the freezing cold water long enough to attract sharks in any case. Good that they failed to catch it.

    • Incidents like this are thankfully a rarity in Wellington. This story is very much an exception, but a reminder that sharks do live in our waters and that unfortunate incidents like this do occasionally occur. I’m glad they failed to catch it as well. Fortunately great white sharks are now a protected species here.

  3. He’s never disappointing. However I am disappointed in the western Australian shark cull, a hair-brained scheme, understatement. There they are swimming around in their natural habitat minding their own business. If you don’t like sharks, stay out of the water…they didn’t ask you to invade their domain, human.

    • Couldn’t agree more! The WA cull is truly appalling. Sharks can be dangerous but the number of injuries and fatalities they cause are absolutely minimal considering the amount of time that humans spend in their domain. They are an important part of the ecosystem and are beautiful animals. I’m hopeful that the answer in WA and elsewhere might be found in non-lethal protective measures such as the continued development of electronic shark tracking and surveillance drones.

      The unfortunate thing is that I can easily see the possibility of New Zealand experiencing the same sort of hysteria that resulted in the WA cull. There have been relatively few shark attacks in New Zealand records in recent decades – compared to say the 1960’s when there were four fatalities along the Otago coast. If a series of incidents like that occurred here again then I can easily see New Zealanders taking similar misguided measures. The apathy towards the plight of Maui’s dolphin demonstrates how little people here really care about the marine environment.

  4. Intriguing story! I’ve never seen a shark close-up while swimming. Though I was only about 300 metres from the bolt of lightning that zapped the cenotaph in central Wellington on Thursday. I walk past the Thistle Inn at least every few weeks, and never pass it by without thinking about its astonishingly long history. The use of such places as venues for coronial enquiries and other public meetings was very much par for the course in settler times – there really weren’t any other suitable large public buildings, in many cases. Speaks volumes about the nature of settler society that the first priority was the pub!

    I had an idea for a story about Wellington winds being so strong they lifted sharks and dropped them into the central city, but I think that’s been done somewhere else… 🙂

    • That bolt of lightning was impressive! Glad to hear that you weren’t any closer!

      It is a shame that the original Thistle Inn was lost to fire, but it looks like a beautiful building all the same and with an incredible history. I’ll have to make sure to visit next time I’m in Wellington. One of my ancestors was the owner of one of its competitors, the Crown and Anchor.

      Alas, I suspect that your idea is indeed too similar to a few other shark-related concepts that have already hit the small screen! I always reckoned that Sharkicane would be a more realistic concept – being that the storm surge from hurricanes/cyclones can occasionally result in sharks, especially bull sharks which can survive in fresh water, being found in areas where they wouldn’t usually be. There is a golf course in Australia that has a thriving population of bull sharks in their lake – they swam in during a flood and have been there ever since. There are signs up to warn any golfers who might be tempted to wade in to recover a wayward ball…

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