Thursday, 26 September 2019


From the Zuiyo Maru carcass to The Stronsay Beast. Over the years, a number of dead and decomposing basking sharks have graduated from the ranks of plain old shark carcass to pseudo-plesiosaur! This surprising, yet common graduation, happens all over the world and with such alarming frequency that one might consider the living basking shark to be a type of prehistoric pupae, simply waiting to change upon the occasion of its death into a beautiful pseudo-plesiosaur carcass.

But, one has to wonder if decomposing basking sharks really can account for all pseudo-plesiosaur carcasses? And if not all, then what type of animal accounts for the mistaken identification in sightings of living plesiosaurs? Could these perhaps be the re-animated or zombified corpses of decaying basking sharks? Of course, we know the usual suspects, seal, eel, otter, ribbonfish, sturgeon, catfish. But, oddly, not the basking shark... why ever not? If the deceased proportions of this large shark are so similar to that of the plesiosaur in death then why aren't they mistaken for them in life. The answer that will be given to you is of course very simple, due to the rarely observed process of decomposition that the basking shark goes through after death, several fleshy underparts including the jaw and also other defining anatomical giveaways, like its dorsal fin and tail, rot away, leaving what can only be described as a plesiosaur, by those witnesses who haplessly come across the mutated carcasses of these monster impostors!

Basking sharks inhabit both warm and cool waters, preferring to swim near the surface and close to shore. These sharks are seen almost worldwide in the Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Although not unheard of, carcasses of basking sharks are not common as the shark usually sinks

Below we review a famous case of a  'pseudo-plesiosaur' carcass, and when it comes to identification, possibly one of the most partitioned in British History - The Stronsay Beast: 

The Stronsay Beast  (Halsydrus Pontoppidani)

In November 1808, on the island of Stronsay, which forms part of the Orkney archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, a strange carcass was spotted by 2 local fishermen, John Peace and John Sherar.  The animal which had washed up on some rocks was 55 ft in length, four feet in width, ten feet in circumference, with a  neck which was 10.3 ft long.  The unusual creature had a head similar to that of a sheep with eyes bigger than that of a seal, six limbs, resembling paws or wings and bristly long hair growing from its shoulders all the way along its back to its tail. Oddly, the bristles glowed a silvery colour in the dark when wet. The skin of the creature was grey in colour and smooth like velvet if stroked from head to tail but rough if stroked in reverse from tail to head, it was said to be covered in fatty tallow. As a part of the tail of the creature was missing, it is suspected that the overall length of the animal would have been somewhat longer than 55ft, but just how long is anyone's guess and as far as I am aware a total estimate of length based upon its reported dimensions has never been postulated. 

The Natural History Society of Edinburgh failed to identify the carcass as a known animal and thus proclaimed it a new species of the sea serpent 'genus'. Later, Scottish Anatomist John Barclay gave it the scientific name of Halsydrus Pontoppidani (Pontipiddans Sea Snake) in honour of  Erik Pontopiddan, Danish Bishop and Historian, who described Sea Serpents in his famous work, The Natural History of Norway, published in 1752.  

Eyewitness sketch of the Stronsay Beast, 1808. (copyright unknown)
Unsurprisingly, once the tale of this mysterious serpentine creature came to the ears of Anatomist, Sir Everard Home in London, the measurements were immediately dismissed out of hand and he declared, after a brief examination of the skull and one of the 'paws' of the animal, that it was more likely to have been around 36ft in length and concomitant with the decaying corpse of a basking shark; citing that decaying basking sharks can have a 'pseudo-plesiosaur' appearance, due to the nature of the physiological break down during the process of decay. This is all very well but should be considered by those with a scientific 'leaning' for objective observation as a very rash and blunt statement by an otherwise careful and scholarly scientist. The reason for his dismissal of this evidence pre-dates Charles Darwin's book of 'origins...' so the theory of evolution would not have had a direct bearing on his mindset or opinions regarding sea monsters at this point, but his subjective and throw away theory could have possibly been centered in a cultural background of 19th century rationalism, which at that time would have already considered 'dragons and sea serpents' as the faerie tale monsters of a bygone era. Already in 1785, towards the end of the 18th century, James Hutton's Theory of the Earth had been presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which was already enjoined by various other pre-cursors to materialism and the old earth theory was becoming acceptable dinner table conversation within academic circles. 

My personal objection to this substitutionary 'Cetorinhus' is entirely based upon the witness reports and the voracity of the professions and standing of the men who witnessed the 'creature'. It would be assumed that a carpenter as part and parcel of a successful career would be competent in taking accurate measurements, in addition to this, he was accompanied in his measurement of the carcass by 2 farmers. These men, based upon this small group of islands, would be very used to observing not only livestock but many different types of animals seen around the islands, including basking sharks, seals and cetaceans and would be unlikely to confuse this unusual carcass for one of them. There, of course, is one argument that is more compelling than all the others, and it is hidden in plain sight, out in the open, trounced upon and willingly ignored by debunkers but quite plain to see once you read the account without thought to what it is claimed to be.  The creature is quite clearly described as a 'creature' and not a rotting corpse, it sheep-like head with eyes larger than a seals, its long neck, serpentine body with 6 limbs and long tail ( albeit partially missing) and of course its bristly mane that emitted a silvery glow in the dark when wet, was never ever described in a full state of decomposition and therefore, even forgetting its length of 55ft, (There has never been a basking shark recorded over 40 ft) which precludes any specimen of basking shark ever observed or found before, completely demolishes the argument of its being one. One has to wonder now, in retrospect, if Sir Everard Home's offhand dismissal of the evidence collected by 3 local men was one of upper-class snobbery for the conclusions of individuals then perceived by a man of his stature as being of an unreliable, plebeian source. 

So it goes, life is often like that. The so-called scientific community so often is never called to account for their conclusions or asked to prove them, or maybe it might be better to say their exclusions or even just a word of doubt, is regularly enough when backed up by professional credentials to prove mistaken identity, just another monster of the imagination, a tabloid Chimera, sent from the depths to sell a few headlines to a greedy public.

The Stronsay Beast wasn't the only mysterious sea serpent to wash up in the Orkney Islands,  in 1942 two more carcasses were also found washed up along the mainland, 1 week apart from each other at Holm and Scapa.  The first carcass, discovered on Holme, was 24 ft long and the second discovered at Scapa, (later nicknamed Scapasaurus) was 28 ft long. Again, as with the Stronsay Beast, they were both dismissed as decomposing basking sharks by experts, although not every 'expert was so convinced. In fact, the Provost (President of the Education Board) James Marwick and one lecturer from Durham University were convinced by the reptilian features of these two carcasses. After viewing the body of the animal washed up at Scapa, Provost Marwick even exclaimed the find as evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster and other sea serpents!

The Ormr of Orkney:
As well as being something of a sea monsters graveyard, the Orkney islands also has had many stories of living sea serpents, around the same time period as The Stronsay Beast was found, interacting with and in some cases attempting to prey upon people. One of these predatory interactions was directed at a boy, Alec Groundwater, who was spending the day in Orphir with his family. As he was perched on some rocks, looking toward Scapa flow with his legs dangling out over the water, the sea beneath him began to boil and a creature with a broad flat head and tusk-like teeth lunged at his legs, narrowly missing the boy. As the creature left the scene he saw it rise above the surface and shake its head and mane, sending water cascading down its body.

Another predatory near miss, this time involving two children took place in 1900, when a brother and sister, were gathering whelks in the shallows, to sell at market. They heard a loud splashing in the water beside them and saw a huge animal, with a horse-like head on a long neck staring down at them with its large bulging eyes. Dashing aside they both fled in terror, knocking one another over in a blind panic and frantically scrambling over the seaweed beds until they made it to the safety of the rocks. Both ran straight for home leaving their pails and their whelks behind them. Neither sibling looked back to check whether the animal was in pursuit.

In August 1910, an eerily similar beast was seen on the hunt again by a father with his son and nephew. The family had decided to take their sail-boat over to the Skerries of Work in Orkney to shoot duck and plover, when halfway between the north point of the Head of Holland and the Skerries of Work they observed a school of whales leaping out of the water, heading seaward as if in a state of panic. The father then saw a large creature standing straight up out of the sea with a snake-like neck and horse or camel-like head about a hundred and fifty yards away from their boat. Its height out of the water was judged by the witnesses to be the height of their boat mast, which was 18 feet high. Although they had initially considered shooting the beast, they relented out of fear that the animal, if injured, could have easily sunk their boat or if still hungry, plucked them out of their vessel one by one! They turned the boat to port and hastily headed for land, with the creature abeam on their starboard side. Keeping a wary eye on the beast, which seemed unconcerned by their presence, they were afforded a good opportunity to observe the creature whilst making their retreat and noted it had a large horse or camel-like head on a serpentine neck which was dark brown with light brown stripes. After 5 minutes, it slowly submerged and they made the safety of the beach shortly afterwards and saw no more of it. They came to the conclusion that the 'creature' had been chasing the whales they had seen leaping in a state of panic. They later said that it was like seeing 'an enormous brown giraffe with only the neck and head above water'

Originally when the Stronsay Beast was discovered the 'Skull and a paw and some fibres from the 'mane' of the creature were sent to London. These were unfortunately destroyed during a German bombing raid in the second world war, but some remains still existed. These remains which at one time belonged to Lord Byron and now form part of the John Murray collection at the National Library of Scotland are of an unspecified composition, but are said to contain some bone fragments. In 2008, in an attempt to qualify the species of the mysterious beast of Stronsay, Orkney born geneticist, Dr Yvonne Simpson sought permission to test a sample of the animal but was rebuffed by the National Library of Scotland, who were unwilling to allow the specimen to be removed from their facility. Yvonne's request was reviewed again in 2012, but no further action has so far been taken. As far as is known, to this day, the specimen has still not been subjected to DNA analysis. 

Personally, I think that a DNA analysis of this specimen would show that it is very similar to that of sharks as this was indeed the conclusion of scientists who examined the alleged plesiosaur carcass that was dredged up by the Zuiyo Maru fishing trawler, off the coast of  New Zealand in 1977.

This similarly debunked basking shark carcass, masquerading as a pseudo-plesiosaur, was examined by the marine biologist onboard the vessel at the time, who later drew a sketch of the remains of the creature that was very reminiscent of a 'plesiosaur'. Both the crew of the Zuiyo Maru and prominent scientists in Tokyo, Japan were convinced of the plesiosaur identity of the carcass.  It is one of the greatest losses to cryptozoology to this day, that the corpse of this animal was not kept but thrown overboard. As it was a commercial fishing vessel the captain of the Zuiyo Maru had an obligation to protect the integrity of its catch and the carcass of this animal clearly posed a risk of contamination he decided to dispose of it and preserve his catch. Nonetheless, in a true example of Japanese 'Giri' samples of the 'beast' were preserved. When later examined, a gross amino acid analysis of the carcass produced results that closely (but not 100%)  matched Elastodin from a shark.

Although this 'conclusive' analysis may seem to prove its 'pseudo-plesiosaur credentials, we still have the reliable testimony of the crew members as to what they saw and an especially descriptive sketch of the carcass, including measurements and an intricate anatomical description, made by the vessels marine biologist, Michihiko Yano. Yet another nail in the coffin of the absolutism of the debunker. Other heavyweights entered the fray as well, one of whom was Professor Yoshinori Imaizumi, director of animal research at Tokyo National Science Museum, who said: "It's not a fish, whale, or any other mammal...  It's a reptile, and the sketch looks very much like a plesiosaur" 

Written By Andrew McGrath

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