What have we here? a man or a fish?
Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish;
A very ancient and fish-like smell…
I shall laugh myself to death at this Puppy-headed monster.
A most scurvy monster!
A most ridiculous monster,
To make a wonder of a poor drunkard!
A howling monster: a drunken monster!
—William Shakespeare, Trinculo’s speech, The Tempest, 2:2
Bunyip (Monsters of the Mind flash card #23; http://cryptidz.wikia.com/wiki/Bunyip)
The most famous of Australia’s Mystery Monsters is undoubtedly the Bunyip (“evil spirit” in the Aboriginal language). Also called Moolgewanke, Tuntabah, Tunatpan, and Wee-Waa, this fierce, bellowing Water-Monster is said to dwell at the bottom of still swamps, lakes, rivers, creeks, water holes, and billabongs (stagnant oxbow pools attached to waterways) of the Australian Outback. Their blood-curdling cries may be heard at night as they attack and devour any poor creatures that venture near their watery abodes. Generally described as being about the size of a calf, and resembling a dark, hairy seal or hippo—sometimes with long arms and enormous claws—the Bunyip has also been depicted with walrus-like tusks, fins, scales, flippers, wings, a long, horselike tail, and/or feathers. In Tasmania, it is called the Universal Eye, and is portrayed as a snake. Natives fear it greatly as a man-eater.
Fig. 1. Bunyip by J. MacFarland in 1890 Illustrated Australian News
During the early European settlement of Australia, when its unique creatures were still being discovered, it was generally assumed that the Bunyip was just another unknown but ordinary animal. Unfamiliar and unidentifiable nocturnal cries were attributed to the Bunyip. In 1846, the discovery of a bizarre skull on the banks of Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales—an area associated with such Bunyip calls—seemed to provide tangible evidence of the Bunyip’s existence. Several experts rashly concluded that it was something unknown to science, and in 1847, the alleged “Bunyip skull” was exhibited in the Australian Museum in Sydney. Unfortunately, the mysterious skull was later identified as that of a deformed horse or calf.1
Fig. 2. “The Bunyip of Aboriginal Legend,” Australian postage stamp by Toogarr Morrison
Today, however, the word “Bunyip” is used much as “Bogey” is—to refer to some weird and spooky unknown critter that is slightly silly and probably imaginary. Depictions of these critters have become increasingly bizarre and preposterous over the years. The Rev. George Taplin described the Bunyip of Lake Alexandra as being half man and half fish, with hair resembling a wig of water weeds. It roared like a cannon and gave people rheumatism.2
Fig. 3. “The Nature Spirit Bunyip,” Australian postage stamp by David Lancashire
Unfortunately, these associations have made the legendary creature a perfect subject of hoaxes, practical jokes, and bogus reports. It has entered the category of “Fearsome Critters (Chapter 17). Anyone claiming to have seen a Bunyip is assumed to be lying or drunk, and gets treated about as seriously as if he or she had claimed to have seen a Purple People-Eater. The expression, “Why search for the Bunyip?” (meaning that a proposed course of action is futile) arose from repeated but fruitless attempts to spot or capture the elusive creature.
Fig. 4. “Bunyip” (1935), artist unknown, from the National Library of Australia digital collections.
By Anna Fox
The earliest report in the strange history of the Bunyip is not of a sighting, but of a sound. In June of 1801, French explorers in the crew of the Géographie made their way inland along the Swan River from the bay on the southwestern tip of the Australian continent, which they had named after their vessel. Suddenly a terrible roar, louder than a bull’s bellow, rang out from the reeds along the riverside. The terrified explorers beat a hasty retreat, convinced that they had been threatened by some horrible Water-Monster.3
The first white person to sight the Bunyip was an escaped convict named William Buckley, who lived with the Aborigines in Victoria from 1803 to 1835. He reported seeing a Bunyip from the back more than once, and even tried to kill it with a spear. According to Buckley, the Bunyip was covered in grey feathers and was about the size of a full-grown calf.4
Fig. 5. “The Bunyip of Natural History,” Australian postage stamp by Marg Towt.
English explorer Hamilton Hume reported seeing an animal like a manatee or hippopotamus in Lake Bathurst, on the opposite side of the continent. Members of the Philosophical Society of Australasia immediately offered to pay all his expenses if he could obtain a specimen or the remains of this creature. Hume claimed to have found large bones in 1818 which could have belonged to a Bunyip, but he was never able to produce the bones for scientific study. Nevertheless, throughout the 19th century, it was common for the Australian newspapers to report Bunyip sightings, and many tales were invented by parents to discourage children from wandering off into the bush.5
In 1848, a creature identified as a Bunyip was sighted in Victoria’s Eumeralla River. It was described as a large brown animal with a long neck, a hairy mane, and a head like a kangaroo’s. Witnesses claimed it had an enormous mouth.6 The long neck and kangaroo-like head sounds much like a typical Lake-Monster, which is described in other lands as having a head like that of either a horse, a bull, a deer, a camel, or a giraffe. The heads and necks of all these creatures are remarkably similar in profile, suggesting that a real animal is involved.
Fig. 6. Merhorse (after Heuvelmans)
A similarly-described Lake-Monster seen in the Port Phillip area was called the Tunatpan: “It was as big as a bullock, with an emu’s head and neck, a horse’s mane, and seal’s flippers, which laid turtle’s eggs in a platypus’ nest, and ate blackfellows when it was tired of a crayfish diet.”7 Reports of such long-necked Bunyips have come only from New South Wales
The Greta Bunyip was said to dwell in the swamps of the Greta area, in Victoria. Locals often heard a loud booming sound coming from the swamps, yet no search parties were able to locate its source. When the swamps were drained, the night noises ceased. Some thought that the Bunyip had moved on, but others believed it had died when its habitat was destroyed.8
By Anna Fox
According to Aboriginal legend, Bunyip was originally a man who disobeyed the Rainbow Serpent by eating one of his own totem animals. He was banished from his tribe, and so decided to take on a spirit form and terrorize his people. He became the evil spirit known as the Bunyip.
Fig. 7. Aboriginal drawing of a Bunyip, Murray River area, 1848. It has a coat either of scales or feathers.
The Aboriginal people feared the Bunyip, and their folklore is full of legends of the Bunyip stealing tribe members near waterways at night. They rarely drew the Bunyip, possibly fearing that the image would attract the beast. But sometime during the Dreaming, a strange creature thought to be the Bunyip died by a creek in Victoria, so they stuck spears around the outline of the creature and later removed the turf within. This became a sacred site. The outline was maintained for many years, and was still there in 1840 when white settlers arrived to the area. By this time, the outline was about 30 feet long and had a shape that resembled a large seal (or the Loch Ness Monster). Eventually the outline faded.9
Identifying the Bunyip
In 1872, a possible Bunyip appeared and was described as a “puppy-headed monster.” The animal, which was also likened to “a big retriever dog, with a round head and hardly any ears,” came so close to a boater in Lake Corangamite that the terrified man capsized his boat.10 This sounds exactly like a seal, as do many of the sightings reported since.
Fig. 8. Indo-Pacific Dugong (Dugong dugong)
A creature sighted in a lagoon near Narrandera in 1872 or ‘73 was also compared to a retriever. This one was half the size, however, and covered in long, shiny, black hair. Another seal-headed beast was seen emerging from the water near Dalby in Queensland. This one had an asymmetrical double tail fin, which could be accounted for by an injury to a rear flipper.11
Similar aquatic creatures have also been sighted quite often in several Tasmanian lakes from the mid-19th century into the 20th century, with the most recent report in 1932 near a large hydroelectric dam. Their length is always between 3 and 4 feet, and they have a rounded head similar to that of a bulldog. They have two little flippers in front resembling small wings, and they move at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Frequently they splash water up to 10 feet into the air.12
Fig. 9. A sketch of the dog-faced Bunyip, by Giorgio Tarditi
Other than those that bear a striking similarity to long-necked Lake-Monsters, sightings of dog-faced Bunyips are described with remarkable consensus. Inhabiting waterways in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory, it is commonly said to be a shaggy animal the size of a sheepdog or retriever, with a doglike head, very tiny or nonexistent ears, two front flippers, and a fluked tail. Its long hair is usually said to be jet-black, but one sighted in 1886 in a river near Canberra had a white coat.
This description and the animal’s modest size suggest that the legendary Bunyip is nothing more than a seal. The two families of pinnipeds often exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism (with the males usually being twice the size of females) and sometimes even resemble entirely different species, especially in the case of elephant seals. Eleven known species of seals frequent Australian and Tasmanian waters—more than in any other area on Earth.
Fig. 10. Australian fur seal
Fig. 11. Elephant seal
Readers might question the presence of seals in freshwater lakes and rivers far from the sea. However, this is not unusual. Many seals are known to travel far inland up tributaries, and one species, the Baikal Seal (Phoca siberica), lives only in the fresh waters of Siberia’s huge Lake Baikal (also, interestingly, the home of the legendary Baikal Lake-Monster). Australian fur seals have been known to swim up rivers during times of flood and become trapped within the river system once the flooding recedes. Dozens of these seals have been killed or captured as far north as Canberra—coincidentally, in areas where alleged Bunyips have been sighted. Other seals and sea lions have been seen in the great drainage basin of the Murray and Darling rivers.14
Fig. 12. Leopard seal
Dr. Charles Fenner mentions a seal killed at Conargo, 900 miles from the mouth of the Murrumbidgee. A sea leopard [leopard seal] was killed in the Shoalhaven River in 1870. When it was cut open an adult platypus was found in its stomach. As [Gilbert Whitely of the Australian Museum] remarked, “Surely a bunyip within a bunyip!”15
Personally, I’ll never forget my own eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with an adult male leopard seal at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. With a massive toothy head like a mammalian T-Rex, it glared back at me with uncanny predatory intelligence. Even now, more than 30 years later, the recollection still raises the hair on the back of my neck. Encountering such a beast in a river or billabong in the wild Outback would definitely be an unnerving experience!
Some cryptozoologists, however, have postulated that the Bunyip may have originally been Diprotodon australis, a gigantic Pleistocene wombat the size of a rhinoceros. It was depicted in rock paintings by the early Aborigines, who evidently hunted it to extinction about 10,000 years ago. These petrographs accurately include the characteristic large incisors that give the animal its scientific name, which means “two teeth in front.”
Fig. 13. Aboriginal petrograph of Diprotodon (Alien Animals p. 41)
Says Dr. Karl Skuker: “As far back as 1924, Dr C.W. Anderson of the Australian Museum had suggested that stories of the Bunyip could derive from aboriginal legends of the extinct diprodonts—a view repeated much more recently in Kadimakara (1985) by Australian zoologists Drs. Tim Flannery and Michael Archer, who nominated the palorchestids as plausible candidates.”
Fig. 14. Diprotodon, an ancient Australian marsupial
The problem with this popular identification of Diprotodon with the legendary Bunyip is that there is no indication that the giant herbivore was amphibious and every reason to believe that it was not, because, as all indigenous Australian mammals are, it was a marsupial. There are no known amphibious or aquatic marsupials, extant or extinct, for the very good reason that they carry their babies in an open pouch on their bellies. Were such creatures to submerge, their babies would drown, effectively terminating their evolutionary lineage.
Other Contributors to the Legend
Children of the night—shut up!
The raucous night cries of possums and koalas could understandably be mistaken for those of the Bunyip, as most people cannot imagine that these small, timid creatures are capable of making such loud racket. The Barking Owl (Ninox connivens), a nocturnal bird that lives around swamps and billabongs, may also be credited for making Bunyip noises. Its call can easily be taken for the cries of a woman or child. The booming call of the Brown Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) has earned it the nickname of the “Murray Bull.” And Bush-Stone Curlews (Burhinus grallarius) emit blood-curdling shrieks that have often been attributed to Bunyips.16
Fig. 15. Brown Bittern
It has even been proposed that many sightings of supposed Bunyips from the 1890s through the 1930s were of nothing more than fugitives hiding from the law in the inhospitable swamps and billabongs. Along with transient workers, these outlaws were called swagmen or “swaggies,” for their canvas bedroll of belongings, or “swag.” Whenever they heard someone coming, they would take cover by ducking under the water—as in the song “Waltzing Matilda.” When they thought the coast was clear, they would emerge covered in muck and weeds. Any passerby would certainly have been frightened by this apparition and run off.17
Fig. 16. Swagman
Bunyips in Popular Culture
Bunyip on the stage
By the middle of the 19th century, the Bunyip had become an obvious element to add local color to a play or pantomime. For Christmas of 1916, one of the most popular pantomimes ever presented in Australia was The Bunyip, by Ella Airlie. An elaborate and expensive production, the plot involved a Fairy Princess being turned into a Bunyip by an evil Gnome. In Sydney alone, The Bunyip was seen by 150,000 people. Among its more memorable scenes was one in which real Aborigines threw boomerangs out over the heads of the audience.18
Fig. 17. “The Bunyip” playbill (1916)
In 1994, the Australian Postal Service issued a series of four highly popular stamps featuring different concepts of the Bunyip. Aboriginal artist Toogarr Morrison depicted his Bunyip as the traditional guardian of the waterholes in his homeland of Western Australia. It has a flat, beaver-like tail, which it uses to slap the water and lure victims to their doom. Marg Towt’s depiction is based on the reports of 19th-century settlers whose strange encounters in the Australian Outback convinced many that Bunyips were real animals. David Lancashire drew his Bunyip as a grotesque, winged creature similar to the medieval European Gargoyle. And Ron Brooks’s illustration from his 1973 children’s book, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, is an image beloved by generations of Australian children. Peering into a mirror, an endearing Bunyip asks, “What am I?”19
Fig. 18. “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek” Australian postage stamp by Ron Brooks
Monster Movies: The Bunyip
During the 1950s and ‘60s, a children's show called Bertie the Bunyip, created by Australian Lee Dexter, was aired in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dot and the Kangaroo (1977), an animated musical short from Australia, showed an aboriginal painting of the dreaded Bunyip during a song about the creature, and 10 years later, in the movie Dot and the Smugglers (1987), Dot tries to rescue the Bunyip along with other native animals. During the 1980s, Australian children’s books and TV featured Michael Salmon’s friendly “Alexander Bunyip.” On the Australian children’s show, Hi-5, Kellie Hoggart took a journey to “Bunyip Island.” In the children’s show Mona the Vampire, a Bunyip appears as a large, brown, rabbit-like creature. In the 1986 Australian film Frog Dreaming, a Bunyip known as “Donkegin” is reputed to haunt a quarry. And on the TV series Charmed, the Bunyip is one of many demonic creatures the charmed ones must battle. In the show’s Book of Shadows, its depiction resembles a Tauntaun from the second Star Wars movie.20
Fig. 19. Bunyip from The Book of Shadows on Charmed
1. “Bunyip,” Wikipedia
2. Heuvelmans, Bernard, On the Track of Unknown Animals, Librairie Plon, 1955
3. Gareth Long’s Encyclopedia of Monsters
4. Morgan, John, Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852
6. Heuvelmans, Op cit.
8. Ellis, S.E., A History of Greta, Lowden Publishing, 1972
9. Noonuccal, Ooderoo, Stradbroke Dreamtime, Pymble, Angus & Robertson, 1993
10. Heuvelmans, Op cit.
13. All the World’s Animals: Sea Mammals, Torstar Books, 1984
14. Ellis, Op cit.
15. Heuvelmans, Op cit.
16. Wikipedia Op cit.
17. Eaton, Matthew J., “The Bunyip: Mythical Beast, Modern-day Monster” 2007
18. Wikipedia, Op cit.
20. Wikipedia, Op cit.