Survival at Sea

Pet Travel Thursday

Destination: Queensland, Australia

Book: Sophie: The Incredible True Story of the Castaway Dog (New – January 2012) by Emma Pearse

By Pamela Douglas Webster

BULLETIN: Note from Vera: You can win a copy of Sophie’s story. Just go to Something Wagging This Way Comes to find out how. Readers of A Traveler’s Library have a leg up (or don’t I dare say that in relationship to a doggie book?)

Clear, temperate water and unspoiled islands make the Coral Sea off the Queensland, Australia coast a lovely boating destination. But for the Griffith family, a dream day on their boat became a nightmare with the disappearance of beloved Australian cattle dog, Sophie.

Author Emma Pearse builds the story’s drama by telling how the Griffiths—always a “dogs are dogs and they belong outdoors” kind of family—let Sophie become a member of the household in a way they never had with previous dogs. The calm and intelligent puppy came into the Griffiths’ lives just as they were sending their youngest child off to college. Facing the void of an empty nest, the Griffiths allowed Sophie first into the house, then onto the furniture, and finally onto the boat.

It appears they couldn’t bear to leave her behind. Sophie became a boat dog.

Mackay – Queensland, Australia

It’s hard to imagine anyone living along the beautiful Mackay coastline, only a few nautical miles from the Great Barrier Reef,and  not exploring the area by boat if they had the means. After years spent building his business, Dave Griffith bought the cabin cruiser, Honey May. On weekends, the family would anchor off the shore of the nearby South Cumberland islands.

But relaxing weekends on the boat watching whales came to an end on October 25, 2008. On their way to anchor off Scawfell Island, the wind picked up. Jan Griffith, who was on the helm, asked for her husband’s help. After telling Sophie to stay below, Dave joined Jan on the flybridge.

When he came below ten minutes later, Sophie was gone. After circling and calling her name for several hours, the Griffiths assumed the dog was lost forever.

The beauty of the sea held many dangers. If Sophie managed to escape the jaws of a shark or sting of a ray, she would have had to swim three nautical miles to the nearest island of Aspatria. And that assumes she even made it into the water without hitting her head, losing consciousness, and drowning.

The Griffiths’ story is one of sorrow, guilt, and regret. But Sophie’s story becomes one of cunning, determination, and  stamina. Because against all odds, Sophie found her way to dry land. And she managed to survive on her own for nearly six months.

Sophie, of course, is silent about her adventure. But by interviewing residents on the nearby islands, Emma Pearse pieces together a likely path.

[map:,+Queensland,+Australia&aq=&sll=-20.974 640 480]

Because it’s the nearest land to where Sophie disappeared, Pearse believes Sophie made landfall on the rocky Aspatria Island to rest. No one is known to have spotted her there, however. And if that was indeed Sophie’s first stop, she must have realized her chances of survival on the rocky, inhospitable place were poor.

Keswick Island, on the opposite side of St. Bees Island from Aspatria, is a wildlife refuge on which non-native animals are strictly prohibited, so its human residents were greatly surprised one day to spot a dog.

Keswick had no natural water source except for rain water, it was unlikely the rangy dog would have lasted long. Her reluctance to approach the human settlement appeared to seal her fate.

But after several sightings on Keswick Island, Sophie was spotted on St. Bees, across the treacherous Egremont Passage.

St. Bees had even fewer human inhabitants than Keswick Island–a total of only three houses. But it had fresh water. And hundreds of non-native goats being actively culled by the Park Service. Pearse speculates that Sophie smelled both water and meat across the narrow passage and was drawn to confront the dangerous currents in search of sustenance.

The lack of predators on St. Bees made it an important spot for scientists studying koalas. The appearance of a potentially feral dog was worrisome. Park Service staff hoped to trap it and, if she wasn’t too wild, find her a good home on the mainland. They all sympathized with this scrappy animal who must have been abandoned on the beach by cruel boaters. After all, how else would the dog have gotten there?

By a series of unlikely coincidences, the Griffith family had cause to contact the Park Service on the very day they attempted to trap Sophie. And a regular work day became hours of worry and anticipation while the Griffiths waited to hear if Sophie was caught, if she was healthy, and if she was still the sweet pet they remembered.

Sophie’s tale would not have become the international viral sensation of 2009 if it had ended badly. After her ordeal, Sophie happily returned home to her family and new canine sister, Ruby.

Emma Pearse had a tough job. Recreating the adventures of Sophie the swimming wonder dog without use of film footage or interviews with the subject seems an impossible task. But the journalist pieced together a likely story based on interviews with everyone who caught sight of Sophie or her pawprints on the beach.

Recreating Sophie’s story on the islands is the best part of the book. And Pearse provides lots of detail about the settings to help the reader place herself on the beach catching sight of the skittish dog. Although I don’t generally find a place without dogs terribly appealing, the depiction of St. Bees with its amazing butterflies and larger creatures unused to predators sounded like paradise.

Sophie’s condition upon arriving home suggests St. Bees was good to her. As her vet, Katie Nash was quoted in the book, “Sophie hasn’t been a castaway. She’s been on an island vacation.” It’s one I’d be glad to duplicate–except, perhaps, for the multi-hour swims through shark-filled waters.

The photo of Mackay is from Flickr and used with Creative Commons license. Please click on the picture to learn more about the photographer.  The publishers provided a review copy.  The links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy through those links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.



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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “Survival at Sea

  1. Australis has always seemed to me like such a terrifying and yet fascinating place. I’ve always been intimidated at the thought of traveling there due to the large number of poisonous creatures. Is there anything in Australia that won’t kill a person? But even if this fear keeps me away, I do love to read about a country that is unlike any other. We may never know all the details of Sophie’s journey or how she avoided certain death, but I think the mystery only adds to the drama of her incredible tale.

    1. Australia certainly seems like a weird and wonderful place. It appears even the birds are feisty according to my friends down under.

      I know that when we finally sail to the continent, I’ll be thinking of Sophie as we approach the Queensland coast.

  2. This is an absolutely amazing story. The dog’s odyssey would be note worthy even if on land–but on sea!! And equally amazing is the author’s ability to piece together the story about a hero who cannot tell (bark) his tale. Thanks for bringing us this incredible book, Pam.

    1. Thanks. I suspect the real story is even more amazing than what Ms. Pearse suspected. I wonder if someday we’ll find footage of an Australian cattle dog riding on the back of a giant sea turtle courtesy of some passing boaters.

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