Tetrapod Zoology

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On May 24th 2011, photographer Mark Harrison took a few photos of the large marine creature he saw off the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool (UK). Harrison initially thought that the animal might be a seal, but then decided to put the photos online as a sort of joke. Several newspapers then ran the photos as depicting a “sea monster” – dubbed the “Mersey monster” – that “baffles marine experts”. Most of the coverage has appeared in the Liverpool Echo. So – OMG! – a new sea monster photographed!! Can we ever solve this most mysterious monster mystery??!? Well, duh.

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The Liverpool Echo originally quoted a Paul Renolds of the Blue Planet Aquarium. Renolds said that the animal is “virtually impossible to actually identify”, but did note that Basking sharks Cetorhinus maximus can be seen around the Wirral coast at this time of year. The unfortunate implication from a quote like this is that Renolds favoured a Basking shark identification, whereas this isn’t what he was saying at all.

A couple of days later, the Liverpool Echo stated that Danielle Gibas of the Sea Watch Foundation had “solved the mystery”. Gibas, the paper says, said that the animal was actually a Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena. Sigh. The newspaper assumed that she was right. She isn’t, sorry (caveat: as explained below, this might not be what she said at all). ['Mersey monster' photos above and below by Mark Harrison.]

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The photos show that the animal lacked a dorsal fin or vertical tail fin, they show a large water-filled gap between the animal’s back and head, and they reveal a squared-off snout with a flattish dorsal surface. These features alone immediately rule out porpoise or shark. Indeed, as was obvious as soon as the photos first appeared (I first saw them at Weekly World News), the animal is almost certainly a Grey seal Halichoerus grypus.

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The first photo shows a large gap between the top of the animal’s head and the hump formed by its back. Cetaceans can’t produce such a gap: their profile is continuously convex across the top of the head and back. Seals can and do do this. The second photo shows that the animal had a blunt, sub-rectangular snout and jaws where the corner of the mouth is located quite far back. The shape of the head is immediately reminiscent of a male Grey seal, so much so that – on looking at the photo – you should immediately think “Oh, that looks like a male Grey seal” [adjacent Grey seal image from TWT's Seal Project page. Harbour porpoise shown below: compare and contrast with 'Mersey monster' photos. By Erik Christensen, from wikipedia].

In all fairness to Gibas, the quotes attributed to her don’t necessarily reflect what she said, and it’s very possible that what she really did say was taken out of context. When you hear that an ‘expert’ has declared an opinion on a given ‘mystery animal’ photo, you might imagine that said ‘expert’ has sat down with a blown-up version of the photo, a magnifying glass and a stack of reference books. In reality, said expert (who has no special interest or experience in identifying ‘mystery’ animals) typically receives a phonecall from a journalist, with the following sort of conversation ensuing.

Journalist: “I wonder if you’ve heard about this sea monster, photographed off the coast of Liverpool. We wondered if you could say what it is.”
Expert: “No, I haven’t heard of it.”
Journalist: “Well, it’s described as a sea monster. It was seen in the sea. Off the coast of Liverpool. Could it be a monster?”
Expert: “An animal seen off the coast of Liverpool at this time of year could be… well, a porpoise I suppose.”

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Nevertheless, I’m disappointed that the ‘experts’ quizzed by the journalists didn’t even mention Grey seal as a contender when it’s so transparently obvious that this is what the ‘monster’ really is. If said ‘experts’ really did suggest seal and suffered from selective quotation by the journalist involved, I apologise.

PS – I need more followers on twitter. Find me @TetZoo.

For previous articles on alleged sea (and lake) monster photos, and on pinnipeds and similar topics, see…

Comments

  1. #1 Phillip IV
    May 30, 2011

    Journalist: “Sorry to be calling you so late, I’m aware it’s in the middle of the night in Tokyo, but are you Professor Tanaka from the Oceanographic institute?”
    Prof. Tanaka: “Uh…what? Yeah, sure, I am…listen what’s so urgent that..”
    Journalist: “I’d really like to know what you think of the photo.”
    Prof. Tanaka: “Photo? What photo? What the hell are you talking about?”
    Journalist: “Thanks a lot, Professor, that’s what I wanted to hear.”
    Headline: “Mystery Photograph Baffles International Marine Experts”

  2. #2 Birger Johansson
    May 30, 2011

    Suggested headline: “Chtulhu Returns!!!”

    Seal? You mean like in “common marine mammal, swims around in water a lot”? Naah, that is too unlikely.

  3. #3 Howard
    May 30, 2011

    @Philip

    I vaguely remember some TV show about a tabloid newspaper that occasionally stumbled onto real paranormal mysteries. In one episode, they were trying to think up a new headline.

    “I’ve got it! ELVIS AN ALIEN!”
    “Who can we call for comment on this?”
    “Carl Sagan?”
    calls Sagan
    “Hello, Dr. Sagan, I’m XXXX with XXXX. We were wondering if you had any comment on the allegation that Elvis Presley was really a space alien…. Oh. I see. Well, thank you very much.”
    hangs up
    “What did he say?”
    “He said, ‘I’m absolutely astonished that you would have the audacity to call me with such an absurd question!’”
    Everyone looks downcast, then suddenly someone perks up.
    “I’ve got it! ELVIS AN ALIEN. CARL SAGAN SAYS ‘I’M ABSOLUTELY ASTONISHED!’”

  4. #4 Ben F
    May 30, 2011

    As a journalism student, I find myself constantly embarrassed by stuff like this. I’m thinking that some journos care about integrity, while others care about advancing their careers through hype. I’ll opt for the former.

  5. #5 Brad
    May 30, 2011

    Are you going to comment on the Spokane Bigfoot next?

  6. #6 Dick Raynor
    May 30, 2011

    I’d like some evidence that the two photos are of the same thing, and in the Mersey. Full-frame pics with EXIF data please!

  7. #7 GregH
    May 30, 2011

    “Transparently obvious.” Interesting choice of words.

  8. #8 Darren Naish
    May 30, 2011

    GregH: huh?

  9. #9 Anthony Docimo
    May 30, 2011

    Well, at least they didn’t play a wordgame and say it was a sea angel (Mersey – Mercy)

    Interesting porpoise photo – the head’s not what i expected…which is where these things start, I suppose.

    Howard – are you referring to _The Chronicle_ starring Rena Sofer?

  10. #10 DMA
    May 30, 2011

    Sorry but I’m not on Twitter. You’d think someone my age would have caught up with the times. By the way, since I’m in America, is the Liverpool Echo a tabloid, or a regular newspaper.

  11. #11 metridia
    May 30, 2011

    some photos that should ‘seal’ the deal:
    surfbirds.com/media/gallery_photos/20041219015230.jpg
    flickr.com/photos/gooseguy/3442631652/

  12. #12 metridia
    May 30, 2011

    BTW, any references on phocid phylogeny? Is the vague resemblance of the grey seal to elephant seals familial or convergent?

  13. #13 Allen Hazen
    May 30, 2011

    New York City has had its excitement over marine creatures in the past few weeks. A seal (probably a Harbor Seal, though the news stories I saw didn’t specify) hauled itself out of the hudson on upper Manhattan (north of the George Washington Bridge, something like ten miles up from the Battery at the seaward tip of the island). No mystery there: seals are usually recognizable when not partly submerged in water!

    And some excitement about a “sea monster” carcass — news report said 7 feet (roughly two meters) long that washed up by the Brookly Bridge. This one did get a bit of “mystery” buzz, including speculation that it might be related to the Montauk Monster! Apparently a sturgeon: the row of big diamond-shaped scales down the side is visible in one photo.

  14. #14 Cameron
    May 31, 2011

    metridia – I don’t see the similarity between Grey and Elephant seals besides enlarged noses in males. Grey seals have surprisingly placed within Phoca (or Pusa) in some recent phylogenies, and specifically as the sister group to Caspian Seals (Arnaso et al. 2006, Dasmahapatr et al.), however Fulton and Strobeck (2009) advocated keeping it in its own genus until more testing is done.

  15. #15 Cameron
    May 31, 2011

    Best line from the Brooklyn “sea monster” Allen mentioned:

    “It had the scales of a fish, body of a serpent, head of a pit bull and was the size of a large alligator”

    Opinion of eyewitness testimony… fading… fading… fading…

  16. #16 heteromeles
    May 31, 2011

    @15: Why does that sound like an oarfish to me?

    Actually, “it’s an oarfish” should be sound-bite #1 for any sea monster sighting, IMHO, followed closely by: “it’s just floating kelp” in appropriate environments and “it’s just floating plastic” elsewhere. (/Sarcasm)

  17. #17 Allen Hazen
    May 31, 2011

    Cameron (#15) — My opinion of eyewitness testimony faded long ago. I witnessed a street crime, and the “perp” was brought in while I was at the police station reporting it: I got to compare the details of my own eye-witness description to those of the described person, and… !!!

  18. #18 Cameron
    May 31, 2011

    heteromeles – the Oarfish that washed up on Hungary Bay, Bermuda in 1860 was described as having a “head not unlike that of a bull-dog” – similar to the “head of a pit bull” I suppose. Of course, one major difference is that Oarfish are scale-less.

    Allen Hazen – I am probably one of the few people to have underestimated a large snapping turtle’s size. Let’s just say when I saw it from shore I thought it was small enough to be decent handling practice without getting maimed, but up close I placed both my hands in a line over the carapace and they were still some distance from the mid-point. While this didn’t provide me with any hard figures, it makes me wonder if the numerous anecdotes about common snappers above the maximum size (about 50 cm in strait carapace length) have some basis in fact. Of course, the anecdotes are hardly proof on their own and at some point I’ll have to risk mangling and get some precise figures…

  19. #19 metridia
    May 31, 2011

    @15- I’d say the male’s flat skull also resembles elephant seals. Also, the females don’t look dissimilar, although as I said, it’s a superficial similarity.
    ih2.redbubble.net/work.324397.8.flat,550×550,075,f.northern-female-elephant-seal.jpg
    blather.net/abroad/_MG_8400_grey_seal_500.jpg
    Of course family/genus distinctions may not reflect phylogenetics in a consistent way, hence the question.

  20. #20 MIKE SHERIDAN
    June 1, 2011

    #15 Pics looked like a sturgeon.

  21. #21 Bob Michaels
    June 1, 2011

    The Montauk monster was the body of a Racoon.