Dolphin at Tailem Bend

What of the legend that there was a sighting of a 'dolphin as far as Murray Bridge'? Is it fact or fiction?

We do know that dolphins used to visit Goolwa, at least before the barrages were constructed in 1940.

In an interview for Alexandrina Council Oral History Archive, the late Bert Lundstrom describes what Goolwa was like before the barrages and about the dolphins near the Goolwa wharf.

“Across from the ferry, there were dolphins there. Big old fisherman used to put nets out there and catch mulloway. A lot of the tidal waters, a lot of these places are now dry, especially down on South Lakes, and out there. “

Dolphins are known to follow big schools of mulloway into an estuary.  We know now that the barrages decimated the mulloway fishery.

In another oral history interview, this one from Jim Marsh, Barrage Superintendent, in 1999.

“You’ve got fresh water coming down - it pushes the sea water out and everything’s hunky dory, but if you get a dry year and the river doesn’t flow, then the tides push the sea water in, and , as in 1915 it was a bad drought year, the sea water penetrated up to Mannum - they were catching mullet at Mannum, and there was a sighting of a shark at Tailem Bend, and a dolphin at Murray Bridge...”.

Below is a historical photo of a porpoise at Tailem Bend in 1927. Could this be where the 'dolphin at Murray Bridge' legend comes from?

The earliest recorded siting of dolphins or porpoises is in this1902 article.  


November 18, 1902  The Advertiser


Great excitement was caused here this morning by the report that a shark had been seen in Lake Albert. A number of townspeople turned out with guns and rifles to dispatch the intruder. After a little chase two large creatures were captured, and proved to be dolphins, the largest being 10 ft. long. 

And another report in 1914:


Saturday, May 2, 1914  The Advertiser

A correspondent writes:-"Woolfitt Bros, of Milang, caught a large porpoise in the lake on Friday. It was 7 ft. long, and weighed 170 lb. It is the first porpoise caught in Lake Alexandrina."

Schoolboys standing around a large dead porpoise caught at Tailem Bend, 27th August 1927

The caption for the photo from the State Library of South Australia:

“In his reminiscences of growing up and working as a fisherman on the River Murray, Doug Hattam recalled how during a period of drought in 1926, the waters of the Murray became saline as far upstream as Murray Bridge. Before the barrages were built between 1935 and 1940, saltwater could reach as far upstream as 250 kilometres from the Murray Mouth, and river levels could fluctuate considerably. In 1926, two porpoises were found to be living in the salty water around the Tailem Bend area. The porpoises lived there for several months, until the freshwater returned. One of them died at Tailem Bend before it was able to return to the sea. It was common to refer to the creatures as 'porpoises', but it is now thought that they could have been a variety of pygmy whale.” 

Let’s hope the other porpoise got away. Unfortunately we know that the one in the photo did not make it back to sea.


Tuesday,  August 30, 1927    The Register

Writing on Saturday, our Tailem Bend correspondent said:— For the past week a porpoise had been attracting much attention by hovering around the vicinity of the ferry at Tailem Bend. It was the first time that such a visitor had been seen about these parts. This morning Mr. P. J. Tiller went out in a boat with Mr. A. E. Temby (ferryman), and harpooned the porpoise with a pitchfork. It was then towed in, and is now on view in front of the ferryman's residence. Mr. Temby,  who measured the porpoise, stated that is (sic) was exactly 8 ft. It is believed that the fresh water coming down made the mammal unable to see, and also confused it, as it appeared to be unable to dive, thus accounting for its easy capture, which was impossible several days ago, when, there was plenty of salt water here.

Perhaps this unfortunate porpoise was part of a group seen two weeks earlier near Wellington.


Tuesday, August 16, 1927  The Register

Speaking from Mr. G. MacFarlane's Brinkley Station on Monday night. Mr. P. Cudmore stated that an aboriginal fisherman observed a school of seven porpoises proceeding up the River Murray on Sunday morning. They presented a unique sight, sporting in the water. The strange visitors went upstream toward Wellington Lodge, and returned during the afternoon. Mr. A. MacFarlane of Wellington Lodge, said he had never previously seen porpoises enter Lake Alexandrina, nor had any of the natives seen them in the river before. Many hundreds of pelicans which were fishing in the river promptly left the water on the arrival of the porpoises.