Welcome to sea monster week. Yes, a whole week devoted to the discussion and evaluation of photos purportedly showing marine cryptids, or carcasses of them. Why do this? I’m not entirely sure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We begin with a fantastic image that – hopefully – you’ve seen here and there yet may know little about (again, to those who know the cryptozoological literature, I apologise for insulting your intelligence). Judging from comments I’ve seen on the internet, people nowadays assume that this image is a photoshop job unique to the digital age, whereas in fact it’s a classic, much-reproduced image, widely discussed in the cryptozoological literature, and first appearing in print in March 1965 (together with others). It’s Robert Le Serrec’s photo of a huge, tadpole-like creature encountered in Stonehaven Bay, Hook Island, Queensland…
Let’s note to begin with that, if the object depicted here really is a large unknown marine animal, then it perhaps shouldn’t be on a website called Tetrapod Zoology as the most popular proposed identifications of the creature are that it’s some sort of weird giant fish. We’ll come to the subject of identifications in a minute. The story starts in March 1965 when Breton photographer Robert Le Serrec claimed, in Australia’s Everyone magazine, that he had obtained excellent, genuine photos of a real sea serpent: a creature discovered by chance while resting in a lagoon. A very detailed account of the case was written up by Heuvelmans (1968) and what I’ve written here is mostly based on that account. Shuker (1991) and Newton (2005) provided further information.
Wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef with his family and Australian friend Henk de Jong, Le Serrec and family had bought a motor boat and had decided to spend three months on Hook Island (one of the Whitsunday Islands). They were all crossing Stonehaven Bay on December 12th 1964, when Le Serrec’s wife spotted a strange object on the lagoon floor. It proved to be a gigantic tadpole-like creature, estimated at about 30 ft long. They took several still photos, gradually moving closer [the image shown here is a mockup I found on the web]. Eventually Le Serrec and de Jong plucked up the courage to approach it underwater in order to film it. It proved larger than first thought, with its estimated length increasing to 75-80 ft. It didn’t move and they suspected it might be dead, but just as Le Serrec began the filming it opened its mouth and made movements toward them. They returned to the boat, and by this time the creature had moved off.
A large pale wound was visible on the right side of the tail, and it was suggested that this wound (perhaps caused by a ship’s propeller) had caused the animal to take rest and refuge in the shallow bay. The eyes, located on the top of the head and well away from the front of the snout, were pale and possessed slit-shaped pupils. Mostly black in colour, the animal had brown transverse stripes and its skin was smooth in texture. It possessed no fins nor spines of any kind and they didn’t see teeth inside the white mouth.
On learning of the case, Heuvelmans (1968) reported that he had done some checking on Le Serrec and found that ‘he had left unpaid creditors in France and did not seem very trustworthy’ (p. 533). Coleman & Huyghe (2003) state that he was wanted by Interpol. Ivan Sanderson had been contacted about the story in February 1965 (Le Serrec had initially approached the American media in order to get the best price for the images) and had concluded that the object might be either a plastic bag used by the US Navy ‘for experiments in towing petrol’, a deflated skyhook balloon which had become covered in weed, or a roll of cloth which had been tied together in places (Heuvelmans 1968). These don’t seem like the most sensible possibilities to me: what about the more obvious idea that (if not a real animal) it was a custom-shaped expanse of plastic sheeting, weighted down with sand?
Sanderson later suggested that the creature might be a giant synbranchid, or swamp eel*. Synbranchids are long-bodied acanthomorph fishes, mostly freshwater or estuarine in habitat, well known for their ability to breathe air and undertake terrestrial excursions [one is shown above, from wikipedia]. However, they’re small (generally less than 60 cm long) and are eel-shaped, not tadpole-shaped, so this doesn’t look like a sensible idea either. Pressed to propose a ‘real animal identity’ for the creature, Heuvelmans noted in a magazine article that it could be ‘some kind of gigantic eel-like selachian’, which would be a huge deal if correct.
* I haven’t seen Sanderson’s article – published in True Magazine – and am going from Shuker (1991).
However, Heuvelmans (1968) actually favoured the idea of plastic sheeting weighed down with sand. He noted that the position of the eyes was highly suspicious given that most vertebrates either have their eyes on the sides of the head, or nearer the snout. Arguments like that don’t really count for much though, as unknown animals are allowed to have their eyes wherever they like, and – anyway – there are vertebrates that do have eyes positioned similarly to those of the Hook Island monster (like mastodonsauroid temnospondyls [the skull of one is shown above].. yeah, maybe it’s a late-surviving, limbless mastodonsauroid).
While the still photo shown at the very top of this article has been reproduced a lot, some other images haven’t been. One (shown here on the left) shows the creature at closer range, and from a different angle. Another (here on the right) shows the head as seen directly from the front, at much closer range. It shows clearly that the white eyes you can see on the top of the head really are meant to be the eyes, but its wavy, broken outline provides further support for the idea that the creature is hoaxed, as the wavy outline shows clearly that the edge of the ‘creature’ is partly overlapped by sand. Ok, you might say that the creature had partially buried itself in the sand, and indeed Le Serrec reported that this was indeed the case. But in at least four spots it looks like someone has placed handfuls of sand on top of the edge of the creature: exactly what you would do if trying to weight down a monster-shaped sheet of plastic.
The final piece of evidence demonstrating that the whole episode was a hoax comes from the fact that, in 1959, Le Serrec had tried to get a group together on an expedition that would prove ‘financially fruitful’, and that he had ‘another thing in reserve which will bring in a lot of money… it’s to do with the sea-serpent’ (Heuvelmans 1968, p. 534). Incidentally, the film supposedly taken of the creature revealed nothing.
One last thing: when most people think of sea serpents, they generally imagine immense, snake-like creatures. Where did Le Serrec get the idea of a giant tadpole monster from? As a kid I always thought that Le Serrec was inspired by ‘yellow belly’, a marine cryptid hypothesised to exist by Heuvelmans (1968) and described as shaped like a tadpole, 60-100 ft long, marked with black transverse bands on its sides, and restricted to the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans [my own, c. 1988, effort to reconstruct yellow belly shown in adjacent image]. Given that Heuvelmans first published his ideas on ‘yellow belly’ in 1965 (when the French edition of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer, appeared), while Le Serrec took the photos in December 1964, this can’t be possible – can it?
I wonder if Heuvelmans had published a description of ‘yellow belly’ prior to 1965, and that this description had been used by Le Serrec in making the hoax. So far as I can tell however, Heuvelmans did no such thing. But could Le Serrec have seen Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer in early 1965, and just lied about the date of the encounter? That would require some detailed investigation (you’d have to show, for example, that Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer was available prior to March 1965, and that Le Serrec had gotten hold of a copy). What about the opposite idea: that Heuvelmans had been inspired by the Hook Island creature when coming up with the idea of ‘yellow belly’? This would assume that Heuvelmans had initially regarded the Hook Island creature as genuine, and there’s no indication of that (it’s not impossible however). Furthermore, he seems to have based ‘yellow belly’ on several other, clearly identified cases (dubious and ambiguous cases (see Magin 1996), but clearly identified nonetheless).
It was recently reported that Le Serrec has been found alive and well and living in Asia, and – as of 2003 – there were apparently plans to interview him about the case. That might be interesting but, regardless, the Hook Island case is undoubtedly a hoax, albeit a pretty good one I think.
Refs – -
Coleman, L. & Huyghe, P. 2003. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.
Heuvelmans, B 1969. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York.
Magin, U. 1996. St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent. In Moore, S. (ed) Fortean Studies Volume 3. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 223-234.
Newton, M. 2005. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. McFarland & Company, Jefferson (N. Carolina) and London.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1991. Extraordinary Animals Worldwide. Robert Hale, London.