Over an extraordinary four week period in late 1882, four rare giant sunfish were captured in Sydney waters.
Three sunfish were captured in Sydney Harbour and another at Manly. The Evening News reported that landing one of the monster fish at Chadwick’s Wharf (Darling Harbour), still alive and flapping, presented ‘very considerable difficulty’. However, 'the work was so judiciously performed that the creature was hoisted up without a scratch being inflicted upon it.' [Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1882]. Normally found out to sea, three of the enormous specimens were presented to the Australian Museum for its collection.
By the following year they had been carefully prepared for display by the Museum’s taxidermists. To do this, the gutted fish was filled with coconut fibre and strengthened with a large plank of wood. The skin was then plastered over and painted to match the original skin colour. Unfortunately the main door of the Museum was neither wide nor tall enough for the sunfish, which was almost two and a half metres wide. The Museum’s resourceful team rigged up a pulley system and the fish was pulled in through an upstairs window.
On display in our galleries for many years, one of our sunfish was recently restored. The fragile painted surface of the fish was consolidated by our conservators and damage carefully repaired with tissue paper and starch paste and painted to match its original skin colour.
Now we have traced the fate of the fourth sunfish. Taken to London in 1883 by curator Edward Ramsay, it was stuffed and mounted at the British Museum for the International Fisheries Exhibition (for which the Australian Museum won numerous awards). Rather than bring the fish back to Australia, after the Exhibition finished Ramsay donated it to the British Museum.
Brought out of storage, conservators at the Natural History Museum in London have recently been working on their 3 metre-long dried sunfish. They report that it was 'stuffed with the equivalent of 25 large refuse sacks of wheat straw, along with some unusual items such as a broken chair and a scrap of [Sydney Morning Herald] newspaper from the year it was caught.' Unstuffed, repaired and remounted, the fish will return to storage to await further research.