Extreme Sea Monsters

Channel 5 did a documentary about the strange creatures of the deep, both mythical and factual.

The narration pointed out that underwater is “an alien environment”, and that it is also in fact “the majority of the Earth” rather than land. Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface but only 5% of our oceans have been explored. To use a sea-based metaphor, we are just at the tip of the iceberg. It’s little wonder thoughts of what might dwell underwater have inspired myth and legend in the past and present.

Giant squid were likely the basis of the Kracken myth, which has most often been described as a gigantic octopus or squid-like creature which attacked ships and grabbed sailors with its tentacles and took the whole ship down with it. What it is said to look like varies wildly, but reports of it go back to the time of the Vikings.

The programmed showed squid biologist Dr. Kat Bolstad leading an autopsy on a giant squid that was washed up on a New Zealand beach. She said that while it may have been the basis for the Kraken, it is and never has been able to bring down ships, as it would not be strong enough to do that outside of the water.

The giant squid they were examining was 25 feet 11 inches long. Dr. Bolstad explained that the squid kills its prey by eating into the back of the prey’s head and severing the spinal cord! It has a razor sharp beak that works a bit like a pair of scissors. Its brain suggests that, while it has limited intelligence, it has excellent vision, as well as enormous eyes, which will be needed to see in the pitch black of the deep ocean.

The examination of the squid at times brought to mind scenes in sci-fi films where there is an autopsy of an alien which has crash landed on Earth. Right down to all the squelchy noises! The squid has a form which is so different to us as humans because they have evolved for life in the deep ocean as opposed to life on land. Very often, aliens have been depicted as having squid-like tentacles. As well as being the likely inspiration for the Kraken, the giant squid and creatures like it continue to inspire modern mythical creatures.

Like with the classic cliche of fishermen claiming they caught a massive fish, but it got away, its possible that is where some of the reports came from. However, it may not always have been just made up. Sailors and mariners probably encountered such creatures and misinterpreted or exaggerated what they saw.

Leviathan is referenced in the Old Testament in the Bible among other places, and has been depicted in several ways, often demonic, sometimes even said to be an incarnation of Satan. But another popular image of it is as a giant whale.

Dr. Alistair Dove at Georgia Aquarium scuba dived in the aquarium and used a rig fitted with green laser beams to measure whale sharks and took photographs. He said that the limit whale sharks have ever grown is 40 feet long. He said that he believes that it is because their skeleton is made of cartilage rather than bones, so larger than 40 feet long wouldn’t be possible, as cartilage cannot support a body that size. In contrast, the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, does have bones.

Dr. Dove went on to say it isn’t just the skeleton that would need to be strong to support a huge body. The heart would have to be big too to pump all the blood around,and it takes time for the nervous system to get a signal to the brain, and the larger the body the longer that takes, which would prove difficult for survival.

Leviathan is something else that was, at best, greatly exaggerated and probably never existed at all. However, in prehistoric times, similar creatures to it did exist.

Livyatan melvilli was named after Herman Melville who wrote Moby Dick, a famous novel about a sea captain’s obsessive quest to find a legendary white whale. Livyatan wasn’t bigger than modern whales though, in fact it was smaller than the blue whale, and about the same size of a sperm whale.

Megalodon was around at the same time and lived in the same area as Livyatan. Megalodon was similar to today’s great white shark, but much bigger. Shark researcher Professor Dan  Huber stated that it is difficult to get an idea of what prehistoric sharks would have been like, even more difficult than it is to get an idea what dinosaurs would have been like. Dinosaurs had bones so left behind a full skeleton, Megalodon had cartilage, so left behind only its teeth. But we see a great white shark’s tooth compared to Megalodon, and it is the exact same shape, but is huge in comparison.

As with a lot of long extinct creatures, scientists have to make an educated guess a lot of the time, sometimes based on similar animals that exist today. As there is so little to go on with Megalodon, what it is thought to have looked like is mainly scaling up a great white shark.

The programme compared how when today great white sharks sometimes battle orcas, so they recreated a scene using CGI how that would look like if Megalodon and Livyatan encountered each other. But it could be wide off the mark, as we have no idea if Livyatan behaved remotely like the orca.

Possibly the most famous cryptoid in the world is the Loch Ness Monster, also known as Nessie. Described as either like a sea serpent or a plesiosaur it is said to swim in the lake of Loch Ness in Scotland. There have been many reported sightings of it, some now confirmed to be hoaxes such as the famous Surgeon’s Photograph from 1934. Loch Ness researcher Adrian Shine stated that he also doesn’t believe all reports of it are lies and hoaxes. However, he thinks many are mistaken. He suggested that it could just simply be a case of people seeing something quickly, and the image being confused in their mind as they try to make sense of it, especially if the idea of the legendary creature living there is already in their head. Explanations for it include water birds or even waves left behind by boats.

Marine ecologist Professor Ben Wilson used an underwater hydrophone to record sounds in Loch Ness. Most of them were nothing out of the ordinary, but there was a brief, low, growling, rumbling sound… however, that could just as easily have been a lorry going past!

In Canada and the USA, there is a similar legendary creature the Caddy. Cryptozoologist Paul LeBlond stated that reports of it all mention similar features. It is often described as having a horse-like head, a whip-like tail and a snake-like body with several humps. There have been several reported sightings of of them or remains of one being found, though, once again, they could just as easily be explained as being known animals such as shark, whales or even moose, which are known to go in the water with only their head visible.

In 2003, on New Zealand’s Pukehina Beach, Luana Lovell found the carcass of a creature that had been washed up on the shore. She was struck by how strange it looked. It was 30 foot long, had sharp teeth and a long, ropey tail. She took pictures and videos of it using her phone and posted it on social media, where it went viral. Some saw it as proof of aliens, some accused her of making a fake monster herself.

Scientists observed it, and concluded that it was in fact the remains of an orca. It didn’t look much like one, but in the programme marine biologist Annie MacAulay explained that what happens is that an animal decomposes and stops looking like the living creature. The parts of the body biodrgrade at different times and they get eaten away by other creatures and sometimes pick up other substances before being washed ashore. She said it wasn’t at all surprising people think they might be a sea monster, as they look so peculiar. It’s possible they too would have inspired stories of sea monsters in past centuries.

These deceased sea creatures that end up washed up on beaches in this state and are mistaken to be sea monsters are known as globsters.

Annie MacAulay herself was called in to identify what initially looked like a weird sea serpent on Cataline Island, California, in 2015. But it was actually an oarfish. They can grow up to 56 feet long, have large eyes, sometimes amputate their own tail ends and have red plumes on their heads. There are illustrations that look very like them on old maps, along with other sea monsters.

As often is the case with mythical creatures, the illustration would come from someone’s description, and certain things can get confused. An example is with medieval drawings of whales. They were likely described as looking like a giant fish, and illustrations showed them as having gills and scales like that of fish, when in fact whales have neither as they are mammals. As a result, the illustration looks bizarre and overworldly.

Extreme Sea Monsters was interesting, looking at scientific natural history and how it could offer and explanation for the origins of mythological creatures. It was a bit of a patchwork I suppose, with so many different things focused on; the modern natural world, extinct animals, and creatures which are just figments of people’s imagination. But it was all presented clearly, and again it was interesting.

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