Coogee’s Shark Attacks of the Early 1900s Remembered After Sydney Harbour Incident

Sydney harbour
Coogee Shark Tower (Photo credit: randwick.nsw.gov.au)

The shark attack that left a woman with serious injuries in Sydney Harbour last month served as a sobering reminder that dangers lurk beneath the surface of the city’s iconic beaches, including Coogee Beach.


Read: Swimmers Rush Out of Water After Coogee Beach Shark Sighting


Coogee has a long history of shark encounters. Over a century ago, in February 1922, an 18-year-old named Milton Singleton Coughlan was fatally attacked by a shark whilst swimming just 30 metres offshore during the Coogee Surf Club’s annual carnival. 

Coughlan was bitten on both arms and his shoulder, dying within 30 minutes despite being rescued.

Milton Coughlan (Photo credit: www.findagrave.com)

Just a month later, Mervyn Gannon, 21, was viciously attacked whilst surfing at Coogee. A spectator who spotted the shark fin heading toward the surfers sounded the alarm, prompting others to flee the water immediately. But Gannon turned to face the shark instead. Lifeguard Jack Brown rushed to pull a barely alive Gannon from the bloody surf.

Gannon died on 4 March 1922 and was buried at the Randwick General Cemetery in South Coogee.

Mervyn Gannon’s memorial (Photo credit: Bel P/findagrave.com)

Responding rapidly to the 1922 Coogee shark attacks that killed Coughlan and Gannon, the NSW government deployed trawlers that slaughtered 25 sharks. Authorities also offered bounties for more dead sharks, igniting a brutal hunting spree. This aggressive risk mitigation strategy is unimaginable today. 

Likewise, Randwick Municipal Council’s move to quickly erect two Shark Towers as lookouts on Coogee Beach reflected the era’s fear-driven attitudes toward shark threats. 

Sydney harbour
Coogee Beach, 1920s (Photo credit: Hall & Co/State Library of New South Wales)

These attacks were just two among many during Australia’s so-called “shark era” of the early 1900s. And although over a century has passed, sharks still lurk off Coogee’s shores. 

After a deadly attack at nearby Little Bay in February 2022, Coogee Beach lifeguards ordered some 40 people out of the water. Just last month, a shark sighting forced another temporary closure.

To protect beachgoers in Coogee Beach, Sydney Harbour, and other bodies of water within the state, the NSW government has implemented a shark management strategy using technologies like tagged shark listening stations, SMART drumlines that minimise bycatch, and drone patrols. 

Sydney harbour
Coogee Beach circa 1900-1939 (Photo credit: Hall & Co/State Library of New South Wales)

There’s also ongoing research into bite-proof wetsuits. Whilst shark nets installed in 1937 have helped limit fatalities at netted beaches, sharks remain an ever-present risk.

When sharks are spotted, response teams now use tags to track and relocate the animals farther offshore, reducing risk to swimmers. But these magnificent creatures have prowled Sydney’s waters for millennia, long before humans lined the shores. 


Read: Discover Gordons Bay, Home to Sydney’s Only Underwater Nature Trail


So as we enjoy the ocean’s beauty this summer, we must do so with caution and respect for its potential perils. For where sharks cruise, risk inevitably follows.

Published 21-February-2024