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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Father of all the Turtles

No-one would deny that there are still mysterious animals living beneath the waters of the world`s oceans, which have not yet been described by science. In 1976 for example the world`s third largest species of shark was discovered. Known as the megamouth shark because of its enormous mouth this creature (which can reach a length of seventeen feet) seems to have a worldwide distribution.

Another enormous creature which has been reported from all the world`s oceans, but whose identity has not, as yet, been accepted by mainstream science is a gigantic chelonian, known to the natives of Sumatra as `The Father of All the Turtles`. Some religions even believe that the world itself is carried on the back of a gigantic turtle (a concept taken by Scienece Fantasy author Terry Pratchett) and images of these turtles can be found in temples across the region where they are often used to hold up pillars.

Accounts of these remarkable animals first reached Europe in the early nineteenth century when Dutch settlers in what is now Indonesia reported native legends of enormous turtles. These stories eventually filtered back to their homeland in western Europe. However sightings of such beasts are not confined to the tropical waters of the East Indies.

In June 1956 seamen of the cargo steamer Rhapsody, reported that they had seen a huge turtle about 45 feet long with an all-white shell south of Nova Scotia. The Canadian coastguards warned local boats about this gigantic reptile with flippers I 5 feet long and capable of raising its head 8 feet out of the water. Seventy three years earlier, not far away on the Newfoundland Banks, a turtle 60 feet long and 40 feet wide had been reported.

What is really exciting is that these creatures have even been reported in British waters. In 1959 a shark fisherman called Tex Geddes who had once been an associate of renowned naturalist and author Gavin Maxwell and James Gavin, a friend of his who was on holiday saw a giant turtle in the sea off the small island of Soay in the Inner Hebrides for an hour in September 1959.

They had been watching marine creatures including some killer-whales and a basking shark, when Gavin noticed a black shape on the water about two miles away in the direction of the Skye shore. Although this was where the killer-whales had last been seen, Geddes was convinced that this was something new. He later wrote:

“I am afraid we both stared in amazement as the object came towards us, for this beast steaming slowly in our direction was like some hellish monster of prehistoric times. The head was definitely reptilian, about two feet six high with large protruding eyes. There were no visible nasal organs, but a large red gash of a mouth which seemed to cut the head in half and which appeared to have distinct lips. There was at least two feet of clear water behind the neck, less than a foot of which we could see, and the creature's back which rose sharply to its highest point some three to four feet out of the water and fell away gradually towards the after end. I would say we saw 8 to 10 ft. of back on the water line.”

Slowly the creature swam nearer and the two men watched it until it was parallel to the dinghy only 20 yards away. It kept turning its head from side to side, as if looking all around it. Eventually it submerged and the two men headed gratefully for the shore.

One could hardly hope for two better witnesses. They were both experienced seasfarers and fishermen who were familiar with the local wildlife. However these are only a few of many sightings of giant turtles seen in the world`s oceans. What could they be?

Firstly, in the best traditions of fisherman`s tailes, I think that we can discount any suggestion that there really is a turtle with a shell measuring between forty and sixty feet in length. At sea with no frames of reference sizes are notoriously difficult to estimate and it seems certain that whatever it was that the crewmen of the Rhapsody reported seeing it was considerably smaller.

However there is a great deal of evidence for the existence of giant marine chelonians. In the cretaceous period (which ended 65 million years ago) there was a giant turtle called Archelon. It was found in the sea of Niobrara over what is now the state of Kansas in the USA. The carapace was twelve feet long and the skull was three feet long. Some zoologists have speculated that `The Father of all the Turtles` is a surviving population of Archelon.

However it is not even necessary to hypothesise such a Jurassic Park type scenario in order to explain these magnificent creatures because there is already an animal very well known to science which could explain all these sightings.

The leathery turtle or luth is found in all the world`s oceans and although it breeds in the tropics, particularly in Indonesia and coastal Central America it regularly visits temperate waters including Scandinavia, Nova Scotia and the north of Scotland. The largest specimen ever found was found in the 1980s near Harlech in Wales and was over nine feet in length. It is certainly not impossible that even larger specimens exist!

If one plots a graph showing the distribution curve of the size of animals one can extrapolate some interesting data. An average human male, for example is just under six foot tall. I am six foot six, and have known people who do not suffer from any genetic abnormality who are considerably taller than me! There are also perfectly normal blokes who are considerably shorter than the average. If one extrapolates this frequency curve for an animal like the leathery turtle then one discovers that if the average length is between seven and eight feet, an animal of nine feet is not uncommon, and that leviathans of twelve feet or even more in length are perfectly feasible.

The `Father of all the Turtles` may not carry the globe on its back but certainly exists! The irony is that these magnificent animals are in danger because of thoughtless behaviour by human beings. Like their ancestor Archelon these creatures`s main diet are jellyfish, and it is a sad fact that many of these giant turtles die each year after eating plastic bags or toy balloons which have drifted out to sea after mistaking them for their favourite food.

Remember this, next time that you see a charity or promotional event where balloons are released willy nilly into the air. Each one of these apparently harmless bags of rubber could be condemning `The Father of all the Turtles` to an agonising and ignominious death!

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