In 1993 a Japanese film crew led by Nadaka Tetsuo succeeded in filming a large animal swimming in the waters of Lake Dakataua on New Britain (the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago, just north-east of New Guinea). Supposedly, the lake was the haunt of an aquatic creature called the migo or masali, and here – it was claimed – was proof of its existence. Was this, at last, one of cryptozoology’s holy grails: definitive footage of a definite monster?
While obscure and quite poorly known, Lake Dakataua and its alleged monster(s) have long been making appearances in the cryptozoological literature. However, a great deal of confusion has existed, as people have referred both to mysterious crocodiles of an unknown species, and to altogether different lake creatures of a rather more fantastic appearance. The presence of an unidentified crocodile species had been reported in New Britain’s lakes since the 1950s, and by the 1970s people had started to intimate that these ‘crocodiles’ were the same thing as the ‘migo’, a lake monster likened by some to a mosasaur (imagined, of course, as a Burian-esque, frilly-backed creature), yet said by others to have short black hair (Downes 1995, Shuker 1995a, b). Heuvelmans (1986) listed the migo as ‘an unknown species of crocodile (or is it, as has been suspected, a surviving mosasaur?)’.
The idea that mosasaurs might be alive and well and living in a lake on New Britain (incidentally, Lake Dakataua is highly alkaline and lacking in fish) lacks supporting evidence, needless to say, but other writers were to make equally bold (or daft) proposals. Young & Rosenblatt (1994) suggested that the migo might be Deinosuchus (though they used the junior synonym Phobosuchus): yes, Deinosuchus, the Upper Cretaceous alligatoroid known from the USA. Due to the ‘short black hair’, and to various details revealed in the Japanese video footage (we’ll look at these shortly), Karl Shuker (1995a, b) suggested that the migo might be a modern-day protocetid archaeocete. Roy Mackal, a University of Chicago biologist well known for his occasional cryptozoological research, also endorsed the archaeocete hypothesis.
All of this sudden interest in the identity of the migo was, of course, the direct result of the 1993 Japanese filming (screened on Japanese TV in 1994), and during 1994 and 1995 this became one of the most-discussed subjects within the world of cryptozoological research. While screened in Japan (and maybe elsewhere in the world), it was never televised here in the UK, leaving a lot of us tremendously frustrated. Just what did the footage show? Thanks to Japanese correspondent Tokuharu Takabayashi, Jon Downes of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (and editor of the CFZ publication, Animals and Men) was able to obtain a copy of the footage during 1995, and he kindly invited me to a private screening. At this time I was making a name for myself as a self-styled cryptocetologist and was particularly interested in the migo because of the ‘surviving archaeocete’ claims.
A Japanese documentary featuring the footage included some pretty heavy promotion of the idea that the migo might be a surviving mosasaur. Tetsuo took a copy of Dinosaurs: A Global View to New Britain and showed a reconstructed mosasaur from the book to the local people (who of course likened this creature to the animal they’d seen in the lake). The mosasaur idea may have been based on the fact that the migo was reported to have a serrated back, which is ironic because mosasaurs did not have a serrated frill running along the backbone as conventionally shown. The documentary also included some quite amusing footage of a puppet mosasaur which, as you can see from the composite above, wasn’t great (Jon said it looked like a clockwork newt). In one sequence [visible at top right in the composite] it was shown swimming through a hypothetical underwater tunnel that connected the sea to the lake (the Japanese team looked for evidence for such tunnels but failed to find them. The ‘underwater tunnel’ is, of course, a staple bit of modern lake monster lore).
More importantly, the documentary also included the ‘monster footage’ itself. It took a while for Jon and I to figure out what was going on. At one stage Jon suggested we might be watching a slow-swimming filter-feeding vertebrate of some sort, and we later wondered if it could be (as some people had suggested) a vaguely seal-shaped animal, its horizontal tail flukes propelling it through the water. Jon actually sketched this interpretation and I later redrew and modified it (shown in adjacent image) for inclusion in an article.
Karl’s articles on the migo (Shuker 1995a, b) had mentioned distinct views of cetacean dorsal fins and tail flukes, and he had used these glimpses to endorse his interpretation of the migo as a living archaeocete. With Karl’s help, Jon and I were able to locate the few relevant seconds of footage: they weren’t filmed in Lake Dakataua at all, but from a boat approaching the island, and at sea, and they didn’t show the migo, but instead several dolphins. Silhouetted and grouping closely together, their rolling backs and tails created the impression of a single large mass (Naish 1996, 1997). The sequence as shown in the video is depicted schematically in the picture below, with a photo of one of the best shots shown at the bottom (note the poor image quality).
What of the creature that had been filmed in Lake Dakataua? Unfortunately, the footage (which shows the animal moving right to left, some distance from the camera) isn’t great: it’s blurry, highly pixelated, and with the interface between the animal and the water surface often being amalgamated. Even so, a lot of information could be gleaned. The animal had a long, low snout region, a raised box-like region at the back of the head (bearing a large vertical dark marking), a low hump corresponding to the thorax and abdomen (sporting dark nodules on its dorsal surface), and a tail with (at minimum) eight vertical spines. A ‘neck gap’ separated the head from the hump in the middle, and two vertical spines projected here as well. This description is, quite clearly, that of a crocodile, with the two neck spines suggesting Saltwater or Indopacific crocodile Crocodylus porosus. Given that New Britain is well within the geographical range of the Saltwater croc*, this isn’t such a big deal: the presence of the species in the Bismarck Archipelago has been mentioned on occasion, and Bakk & Glucksman (1980), in a limnological survey of Lake Dakataua, had even stated that crocodiles were present in the lake. I was thererfore confident enough about this interpretation to title a 1997 article ‘The migo is (probably) a crocodile’ (Naish 1997). I actually traced the creature’s profile from a TV screen, and that’s what you can see here [photos from the actual footage are shown below].
* Extralimital records of the Saltwater crocodile include Hong Kong to the north, Pohnpei, Vanuatu and Fiji to the north-east, 48 km north of North Cape, New Zealand, to the east, and the Cocos Islands to the south.
Case closed? What about the vertical undulation?
So, case closed: the animal was no monster, just a Saltwater croc. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The strange thing about the footage is that the animal’s tail does not seem to scull from side to side as is normal for a crocodile; instead, it disappears and reappears in the vertical plane, as if the animal is undulating vertically. Indeed this vertical undulation is what, in part, had inspired the ‘archaeocete’ identification in the first place. Could this be evidence that the animal was, contra Naish, not a crocodile after all? Some researchers thought so (Molloy 1997).
I gave a talk on the migo at a meeting in 1997 and this issue was brought up in the question and answer session at the end. Could it be, suggested an audience member, that the vertical undulation was a result of the fact that the animal was dead, and being towed along by a boat? By this stage it had been intimated that several mysterious ‘wakes’ seen in the footage might have originated from a boat: perhaps the boat that was pulling the carcass. I gave a non-committal answer on this and didn’t mention the idea in my published articles, mostly because I didn’t want to accuse the Japanese film-making team of hoaxing.
Looking at the footage anew (as I did today), I conclude that both the vertical undulation and the wakes-caused-by-phantom-boats can be explained away. The vertical undulation is not real: due to the great distance present between the camera and the animal, and to low waves that travel across the lake between the crocodile and the camera, it just looks as if the tail disappears from view. One long sequence (long = 10 seconds or so) clearly shows the tail sculling from side to side after all. As for the ‘wakes’, they’re real, but can be seen to have been made by waterbirds that take off from the water surface just ahead of (or adjacent to) the crocodile. The sequence ends with the crocodile submerging slowly and in a thoroughly unspectacular way, though by this time the animal’s long axis is in line with the camera’s view, not perpendicular to it.
So far as I know, nobody ever really looked into the migo story in any more depth. My research should have been the start of things, not the end. At least a few post-1997 books and articles mentioning the migo cited my work and accepted my conclusions, but I saw indications from some cryptozoologists that they preferred a different interpretation, or that they were unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, my articles. Roy Mackal repeatedly claimed that the footage actually depicted two or three crocodiles engaged in some sort of mating ritual and, furthermore, that this was a big deal as it was the first time sexual behaviour in this species had been filmed or photographed. The latter is completely incorrect in fact. Furthermore, as should be obvious from the images shown above, the footage undoubtedly features just a single animal.
Whether people really saw a peculiar, black-haired aquatic creature in Lake Dakataua we will never know, but for the story of the creature filmed in 1993, it really is case closed.
Refs – –
Ball, E. & Glucksman, J. 1980. A limnological survey of Lake Dakataua, a large caldera lake on West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, with comparisons to Lake Wisdom, a younger nearby caldera lake. Freshwater Biology 10, 73-84.
Downes, J. 1995. Crocodile tears: what IS happening in THAT lake with THAT video? The editor aims to find out and fails miserably.. Animals and Men 4, 17-20.
Heuvelmans, B. 1986. Annotated checklist of apparently unknown animals with which cryptozoology is concerned. Cryptozoology 5, 1-26.
Molloy, N. 1997. The migo – not yet explained? Animals and Men 15, 31-34.
Naish, D. 1996. Analysing video footage purporting to show the “migo” – a lake monster from Lake Dakataua, New Britain. The Cryptozoology Review 1 (2), 18-21.
– . 1997. The migo is (probably) a crocodile. In Downes, J. (ed) The CFZ Yearbook 1997. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 51-67.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1995a. New Britain’s lake monster. Fortean Times 82, 38-39.
– . 1995b. The migo movie: a further muddying of murky waters. Animals and Men 5, 22-25.
Young, E. & Rosenblatt, R. 1994. What’s new in New Guinea? Fortean Times 78, 46-47.