Creature from the black lagoon

A monster is reported to have been seen eating some of the local wildlife in a remote lagoon, and a search party arrives in an attempt to locate it. The stuff of a 1950s B-movie plot, these events actually took place on the North Coast in the spring of 1971.

One of the more curious news items in the September 25th issue of the Northern Star was a report that a farm worker witnessed an unidentified creature grab a swan from the surface of a freshwater lagoon, and drag it underwater. The creature was described as being about six feet long, and having the head of a dog, close-set ears, and dark fur. It was actually spotted by two different workers, on several occasions, with all sightings either in the early morning or late afternoon. Other birdlife was said to be ‘boycotting’ the area. A valuable cow went missing from the farm around the same time, and there was some question about whether it had been stolen or taken by what was known as the ‘monster.’

The farm owner and one of the workers then contacted Tweed Heads Porpoise Pool, a tourist attraction that ran from 1961 to 1973, speaking to the manager and trying to interest him in catching the monster. Presumably they thought that while the farm would be better off without it, for the Porpoise Pool a captured monster could be a unique tourist attraction. This query was fielded to Dr. Robert Endean, a zoologist at the University of Queensland, who was understandably sceptical about the existence of a monster, but conceded that a giant eel was a possibility.

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Worst nightmares come to life – abduction by a fish-human hybrid wearing an excessive amount of lipstick.

To prevent the property from being overrun by cryptozoologists and curiosity-seekers, its location was kept secret, but a few pieces of information were made available on September 25th, and in two subsequent news items, on October 5th and October 11th:

  • It is twenty-five miles (about forty kilometres) from Lismore.
  • The length is variously described as 500 yards and more than quarter of a mile long (both equate to very close to 450 metres.)
  • The width is variously described as 30 and 100 yards wide (27 and 91 metres.)
  • The depth is variously described as being 6 feet (1.8 metres) and up to 35 feet deep (10.7 metres.)

To follow up, on September 10th, a team of ten divers explored the lagoon by swimming abreast up its full length. They were from the University of Queensland Zoology Department, University of New England Zoology Department, the Porpoise Pool, and Queensland Department of Primary Industry. One of the searchers described encountering fish, yabbies, and a large eel, but nothing unusual was discovered. The search was made more challenging by overcast conditions and murky water, with the bottom being a layer of thick mud, and the Porpoise Pool left empty-handed.

I came across the barest outline of this intriguing story when reading an Australian cryptozoology book with a chapter about bunyip sightings. Generally considered to be mythical, these fearsome creatures from Aboriginal lore are widely associated with bodies of water including lagoons. Descriptions of them are very diverse.

Accounts of the lagoon sighting found online are short, and some are likely to be inaccurate. The lagoon is described as being north of Lismore, despite the fact that the territory in this direction is hilly and rolling. Other details are provided that are absent from the Northern Star coverage – that several ducks and swans had been killed, and that the monster was ‘as stout as an oil drum.’ While sceptical about the sighting being of an unknown creature, I was nevertheless curious about these events. It was time to do my own digging in the archives, namely the microfiche reels at Richmond Tweed Regional Library’s Genealogy Centre, in Goonellabah.

One burning question was the issue of which lagoon was involved. If I tracked it down, I would be happy to respect the owners by keeping its location to myself, even though the likelihood of their being overrun with monster-hunters so long after the event was negligible. However, I liked the idea of capturing a photo if possible.

When looking at a map of the region, the Bungawalbin Creek area stands out for its sheer number of lagoons, of many different bizarre shapes and sizes. Of those that met the length criteria, all possible options were located in the Bungawalbin district. Then there was the question of whether the twenty-five miles to Lismore is measured as the crow flies, or by road. A straight-line measurement seemed to be unlikely, given that it would rule out nearly all of the possible candidates.

I approached a network of older residents, property owners, and other knowledgeable locals. It was remarkable that nobody had ever heard of the incident, including those who had been living in the Bungawalbin area at the time. This suggested that those who claimed to witness the monster incident had kept gossip away from the local grapevine. I tracked down one of the ten people involved in the underwater hunt, who stated that he was convinced from the landowner’s manner that something unusual had been seen, and that a hoax was unlikely.

Then there was a visual clue in the form of photos from the October 11th coverage. One shows the lagoon itself with a three-barred fence jutting into the water and a forested far bank, while the other shows a similar fence close up, probably the same one viewed from the opposite direction.

lagoon-photo-cropped-neat

However, one detail did align perfectly. One local contact had told me about Aboriginals believing that Neiley’s Lagoon (pronounced ‘Niley’s’), on the far eastern margin of Bungawalbin National Park is haunted, and not visiting it after dark. The original news item had referred to Aboriginals describing the monster lagoon as a ‘devil’s hole’, and avoiding it for that reason. Interestingly, the word ‘bunyip’ is generally translated by Aboriginals as ‘devil’ or ‘evil spirit.’

However, there is a possibility that the bunyip was a bogeyman figure created by Aboriginals to discourage children from spending time near lagoons and waterholes, where they could drown, get stuck in mud, or even be attacked by wildlife such as kangaroos that arrive to drink at dusk and dawn. The same contact mentioned earlier had been warned by his father specifically against swimming in Neiley’s lagoon, the reason being a danger linked to the black water. Perhaps this was because the low visibility made it harder to spot and avoid hazards.

A few elements lined up: Neiley’s Lagoon is forested, relatively deep, and unlike other lagoons in the district it has black water. Despite being inside the Bungawalbin National Park, in 1971 there was no national park there, and it was privately owned. The only difficulty was a mismatch in lagoon lengths. Stretching nearly one kilometre on the map, Neiley’s Lagoon is close to being twice the described length, but this could be accounted for by somebody giving an inaccurate estimate in 1971.

Then I found the smoking gun I was looking for. A check of Neiley’s Lagoon on Google Earth, using data from 2013, 2011 and 2004, showed nothing interesting. However, another 2011 image features a white speck on the western bank, not far from the southern end, that with enough magnification resolves into a distinctive short white fence-like structure jutting a short distance into the water. If this fence is the same one in the newspaper photo, it looked as though the uprights had remained while the horizontals had largely collapsed. The distance between this feature and the southern end, measured on a map, is roughly a hundred metres, which closely matches the Northern Star image.

neileys-fence-google-earth

This structure lies no more than seventy metres from a track running near to the western bank, and as an added bonus Neiley’s was the only lagoon I had looked at that was not located on private land and therefore could be visited without obtaining permission. It was time to check things out on the ground.

One interesting thing about Neiley’s Lagoon is that there is no online material mentioning it specifically, and so putting something about it on the Internet has a pioneering quality. Some nuggets of information that I gleaned came from a couple of locals. The lagoon is replenished by an aquifer, and used to have on its banks a tea tree production still run by a character named Gus Pursey.

It’s a cloudy day, warm and breezy, and dry after earlier showers. Starting in the centre of Lismore for an odometer reading, the road distance works out to be 53 kilometres (33 miles), as opposed to a direct line of 33 kilometres (21 miles.) The idea is to head south to Coraki and then turn west along Myall Creek Road. Beyond the Haughwood Road junction, the trees begin. A short distance past the Coraki mini-tip, the Bungawalbin National Park is marked by the road turning to gravel. Gum trees arch overhead, and the car sends up a small cloud of dust on the dry road.

Some distance further on is Neiley’s Lagoon Road, narrower and rougher, with some potholes to navigate. The lagoon trail comes up, marked on the left, but is blocked to traffic by a lowered metal boom gate. This lack of road access throws out my original plan to measure 400-500 metres on the odometer, and then cut across east towards the target. Plan B is to walk and pace out the distance. Along the trail, I’m amazed to see my first rufous fantail in years, a beautiful small orange and black bird that I had always associated with rainforests but which is also found in swamp woodlands.

After about 350 metres, I head off into the bush, with a compass as a precaution against getting disoriented and going off in the wrong direction. Conditions are not very thick, with a mixture of paperbark trees, tree seedlings, bracken, creeper vines, and leaf litter. Emerging from this vegetation, a view of the southern end of the lagoon soon appears.

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Working from the original lagoon photo, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that its appearance will be similar today. Left to nature, the edge of Neiley’s Lagoon has grown wilder. A band of tall rushes fringes all around the edges, and a few large tree branches extend out into the water. Behind the rushes on all sides is forest.

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There are a few mosquitos around, but so long as you keep moving they stop being a problem. From time to time, the breeze causes nearby trees to produce unexpected loud creaking sounds. I make my way northwards roughly parallel to the bank. There is no obvious route to follow, and it is necessary to weave around obstacles, climb over and under fallen trees, and through the occasional brittle dead lantana plant. It’s a case of taking a middle path between boggy areas closer to lagoon and others that are further away and offer an inferior view of the lagoon edge. To get a better overview from a height, I walk up a few trees that have fallen over and lie at acute angles.

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Retracing my steps back to where I started, there is still no fence visible. I decide to make my way around the bottom end of the lagoon, and to attempt to spot it from the eastern bank. Around here, there are a few dozen metres of forest before the trees stop and a large tea tree farm begins. Nothing remotely like a fence comes into sight across the water, with the likely reason on the Google Earth image being a mass of vegetation blocking the line of sight. However, it’s good to have found an excuse to be exploring the woods, and spending time in a backwater that virtually nobody visits.

While the outcome of this trip was a disappointment, and neatly turned my expectations on their head, there are still strong links pointing to Neiley’s Lagoon being the monster lagoon from 45 years ago. I’m not a smartphone person, and had originally hoped to make the trip with an accomplice armed with a mobile GPS to pinpoint the fence location. Even if its posts have collapsed within the last five years, there would hopefully be a way to wade into the shallows searching for them, if we know exactly where to look. Otherwise, scouring the shoreline in an inflatable or using a surveillance drone are two other options.

If you are nerdy with GPS coordinates, the place to look is 29˚05’48.17”S, and 153˚09’45.27”E.

Another trip is being lined up, so watch this space for updates.

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3 thoughts on “Creature from the black lagoon

  1. Since writing this post, I’ve received feedback from someone with knowledge of the Bungawalbin district that overturns my conclusions. He sees my ‘fence’ as a fallen tree such as a paperbark, which would explain its forked structure, the absence of fence-like structure, its appearance in only one of four Google Earth images, and the fact that it no longer appears to be visible on the ground. There would have been no reason to go to the trouble of painting a fence white.

    If Neiley’s Lagoon is not the one in question, it would account for the disparity in length between it and the lagoon in the news item. The fence pictured in the Northern Star story is a cattle fence of a type usually located on property boundaries, so his thought is to focus on lagoons bisected by one of these. Helpfully, he has also put together a map featuring six possible candidates that I’ll be checking out soon.

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  2. I most enjoyed reading of your research into this natural history mystery & your expedition to try to find the location. In an article entitled ‘Seals observed Inland’ by Peter Ravenscroft there are reports from the north coast of NSW of seals swimming up rivers & moving overland. A few years before 1925 a seal-like creature was seen in the Tweed River (Gold Coast Bulletin, 7. 5. 1965). In 1985 an Australian fur seal swam 20 km up the Nambucca River to Macksville, and then walked 4 km inland where he was found sun baking in a horse paddock. (Coffs Harbour Advocate Opinion, 9. 1. 1985 & in the Australasian Post, 7. 3. 1985). In the Manning River, 1998, a leopard seal was reported 10 kilometres from the river mouth according to Andrew Marshall, a NSW National Parks and Wildlife ranger, who also said that another seal, probably the same animal, was reported to have been observed swimming upriver to Grafton around about the same time. So it is most likely that the Bungawalbin / Lismore Bunyip was also a seal and these animals prey on fish & water birds & it had probably moved back down river by the time the scientific search was conducted.

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