Witnesses recall Lady Julia Percy Island shark attack, 50 years on

 Bernie O’Keefe (left), Peter Coster and Robert Whitehead recall the fateful diving trip to Lady Julia Percy Island.141122DW76 Picture: DAMIAN WHITE
Bernie O’Keefe (left), Peter Coster and Robert Whitehead recall the fateful diving trip to Lady Julia Percy Island.141122DW76 Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

A FEW terrifying seconds was all it took for Henri Bource to lose his left leg when a shark attacked him off Lady Julia Percy Island 50 years ago.

It was a moment from November 29, 1964, that remains etched clearly in the memories of other scuba divers who had been enjoying an excursion to the island’s seal colony.

The bloodied attack was later re-enacted for a 1967 movie called Savage Shadows, in which Mr Bource had his leg covered with animal blood. 

He survived the ordeal, resumed diving, filming and playing the saxophone and went on to live another 34 years before succumbing to leukaemia. Doctors dubbed him “the miracle man”.

His encounter with the shark was recalled by some of those who had accompanied him on board Port Fairy fishing boat the Raemur K to the island.

Former Standard journalist and now Herald-Sun associate editor Peter Coster is credited as a hero for jumping in and helping get Mr Bource aboard before an agonising 90-minute trip back to Port Fairy wharf, where a local doctor injected life-saving plasma.

The Standard caught up him, along with Warrnambool electrician Bernie O’Keefe and Port Fairy former abalone diver Robert Whitehead, in a reunion at The Crags, with Lady Julia Percy Island in the background.

Retired fisherman Pat Matthey, who was radio operator on the day of the attack, also told his story but was unable to travel from Melbourne for health reasons.

It was a fine November day when a group from the Victorian Aqualung Club and members of the Port Fairy Manta Skin Diving Club left Moyne River wharf on board the vessel, which ironically was normally used as a commercial shark fishing boat.

Most were in their 20s. All had been aware sharks frequented the area and there was a legend of a huge white pointer called Big Ben. But as adventure-seeking divers they put those thoughts aside.

Mr Kelly’s son David recalled his father had volunteered his time and vessel for the group to explore the island and film seals.

About noon, when one group came up for lunch, Mr Bource and a few others dived.

Soon afterwards a large shark, believed to be a white pointer, rushed through a pack of seals and attacked Mr Bource from below.

What happened next is a little muddied in memories of the frantic moments, but it triggered a brave rescue mission and improvised first-aid which saved the victim’s life.

Mr Bource told The Standard from his hospital a few days after the attack that he felt as if he had been hit by an express train.

“The shark started to drag me down. As I struggled to the surface I could feel my leg go,” he said. 

“The thing that amazed me was that it apparently came through all the seals just to get me.”

Mr Coster recalled he could see Mr Bource and two or three others about 150 metres from the boat playing with seals. “Then there was screaming: ‘Shark! Shark!’,” he said.

“He (Henri) was lifted waist-high out of the water.

“Blood seemed to cover him — an incredible amount of blood. The skippered fired up the boat and we quickly got over to them.

“Geoff Birtles and I jumped in. I looked under the water and saw his leg was gone.

“Then Jill Ratcliffe jumped in also and we pushed him up the side of the boat, while Colin Watson hauled him from the deck.”

Mr Coster and several others were later awarded by the Royal Humane Society of Victoria for their bravery.

The mood on deck was tense as quick-thinking divers took a spear gun rubber strip, wound it around his severed leg and kept tension with a knife handle.

Mr Matthey had to quickly retrieve one diver then race back to the Raemur K.

Mr Matthey’s distress radio signals were picked up at Apollo Bay and relayed to Port Fairy, where a doctor was alerted.

“The doctor said if it had been two minutes later we could have lost him,” Mr Matthey said.

It was later estimated Mr Bource had lost 6.5 pints (three litres) of blood.

“Amazingly, he was sitting up in bed at Warrnambool Base Hospital the next day having a laugh,” Mr Coster said.

Mr Bource was back in the ocean less than two months after the attack. Years after the island attack he was in Warrnambool playing saxophone at a dance attended by Mr O’Keefe.

“He was an amazing musician and a very friendly person,” Mr O’Keefe recalled.


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