Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

DALE DRINNON: Extractions from Heuvelmans, In The Wake of the Sea-Serpents, "Mistaken Observations" Category.

After I got my copy of Heuvelmans' In The Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968), I did a number of comparisons and statistical extractions as a test of Heuvelmans' "Computer-punchcard" suggestion in the conclusions. This was essentially done as a series of discriminant-functions analysis which I did throughout my High School Years (I can do discriminant functions analyses on paper manually by pencil and figuring, but I was helped in part by a very early edition pocket calculator for some of the proceedure.)

Eventually (by my graduation from High School in 1974), I was left with few of Heuvelmans' categories intact and a growing impression that the majority of the reports were not only much the same world-wide, for the most part they were erroneous assessments of phenomena which did not require the rection of new species to explain them. Essentially, I found that around 75% of the sightings were either vague or were not realistic impressions of the phenomena under observation, with the largest category of recognisable reports describing wave actions (whether or not an unknown animal was leaving the waves by its passage: and that description pretty much eliminated the categories "Many-Humped" and "Super-Otter" right off) out of the last quarter of reports, the majority did decribe something like Heuvelmans' category of Longneck, and the assumption had also been made by others that the Merhorse was the same category and so these categories I combined. I found reports that indicated to me that the type was tailed and Plesiosaur-shaped, primarily through Dinsdale. However in the minority of the remaining reports I also found good reason to continue with Heuvelmans' categories of Super-eel and Marine Saurian, and even to further subdivide them into discrete types. But among the other things I did was to go through the category marked as mistaken observations of known animals, and I did the same analysis of these reports as a control sample.

The exact number of reports in the category I used was at variance to Heuvelmans (and even my own other analyses run separately)because I allowed more "Possible" errors which made a much larger number of mistaken observations to work with. My intial report gave very precise percentages of the total number of reports for the subcategories, but here I am not committing to all of the identifications/misidentifications that I had done in the original study. Hence in this report I shall simplify the percentages to the nearest half-percentages.

The control sample was broen down to statistical assessments of the creatures described especially noting estimates of length and width, proportions, colouration and other characteristics. At the end of the sorting process, identikits were made for the misidentifications exactly as a parallel of the "Unknowns".

Out of this proceedure came the following categories of marine creatures misidentified as Sea-serpents (a parallel analysis was subsequently made for the freshwater reports):

1) Oarfish, between 5% and 5.5% of all the reports. Commonly cited as the inspiration for the Scandinavian "Merhorse" in the earlies, the distinctive gray/reflective or silvery sides, and the distinctive long red mane that Heuvelmans ascribes to the "Merhorse" in his conclusions seems to be inherited solely from confusions with Oarfish reports. Oarfish are reported as up to 70-80 feet long whereas most scientists do not allow they can grow to anywhere near that length. Those estimates are however consistent with the "Merhorse" reports in question.

2) Basking Sharks.

Besides being the source for nearly all "Sea-serpent" carcasses reported over the years, basking sharks are most certainly being reported as sea monsters, especially around the British Isles and in the North Sea. I regard the SS Hillary encounter as being one, and if you doubt me I can produce a photo of a basking shark with its nose up out of the water, with a white stripe down the middle of its snout, looking exactly like a cow's nose as described in that WWI incident.

3-5) Three categories of Baleen whales, toothed whales and smaller toothed whales swimming in close formation

[insets on Whale Scale drawing, above: human, humpback whale and manta ray to scale. Below ruled scale: elephant seal photograph reduced to same scale]

These rate at somewhere between 2 and 3% of the mistaken observations each, hence an average of 2.5% each is appropriate. The more obvious types of whales such as humpbacks, orcas (killer whales) and sperm whales each weigh in at about 1% of reports apiece and in each series the description of the size and proportions in a very good match. Heuvelmans often uses the generic term "Rorqual" for the larger baleen whales and so that category is not so clearly subdivided into known species. Often in all of these whale reports the whale is seen in an unfamiliar or confusing posture, such as a sperm whale with a large cylindrical head swimming with the head pointed vertically like a column, or a baleen whale lying on its back (possibly dead but not necessarily) I regard the better views of the Osbourne Sea-serpent to be a mistaken view of a humpback whale from the rear, and the row of fins either a school of sharks or else the whale's pod of comerades in "fin-up" position. The Osboune Sea-serpent had 15-foot long foreflippers, a head like an alligator and was about 15 feet broad and 60 feet long. All of that matches a humpback.

As to the "Many-finned" Sea-serpent's being often based on confused viewings of small schools of whales, Heuvelmans does admit that is the most likely explanation in the case of the Narcissus sighting. Most often the whales would appear to be pilot whales (blackfish) and the different sightings also vary quite a bit as to the spacing of the fins ("Width" of the animal, between the long and thin aspect of several animals in a row, up to the very wide aspect of animals scattered over enough space to make the apparent width half, two-thirds, or even three-quarters of the "Length")

There are also very large series of humps that might well be several large whales following each other in a line, such as in the case of a "Sea-serpent" reported by a British ship and subsequently presented in one of William Corliss' sourcebooks, as presenting the spectacle of three 60-foot-long humps with adequare spacing in between.

6) Manta rays are reported at about 2% of the cases or less, and they are described as about 20 feet wide, of square aspect with a long thin tail, and sometimes "Skimming the surface"

7) Elephant seals are included in the "Merhorse sightings at a fairly regular frequency especially in the Southern Hemisphere around South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The common description is about 20-30 feet long with a large squarish head, big snout, and shortish rather thick neck. It is because of the inclusion of such reports that Heuvelmans states the "Merhorse's" neck is not so long as the "Longneck". Such reports are also included off the Northwest coast area or "Cadborosaurus'" territory.

8) Ocean sunfish or Mola, about 1% of the reports. Not only are Ocean sunfish sometimes at the base of some "sea monster Captured!" headlines, the high rear fin sticking up out of the water looks like a "Periscope". I do not know if two or more of them are known to follow each other around displaying their fins above water, though.

9) Giant squids are dubious candidates. There is the mechanical problem that they are probably not even mechanically capable of heaving the long arms vertically out of the water, hence it is very unlikely that any "Periscope" sightings are mistaken views of giant squids waving their tentacles aloft. Several reports have also been explained as witnesses seeing battles between sperm whales and giant squids they have brought up out of great depths, but this has never been verified.

10) Other known pinnepeds, other sharks and other fishes, known eels of unusually large size, sea snakes, pythons swimming out at sea, seaweed, flights of birds, seaworms and all other possible cases of confusion are all less than 1% of the reports, and all put together are not as many as 2.5%

As a comparison to this, I also count the reports of my Giant eel categories as under 2% of all reports apiece, and the Marine Saurian subcategories as less than 1% of all reports apiece. The only type of Sea-serpent to be seen at any appreciable frequency would be the Longnecked and Plesiosaur-shaped type creature. It also seems to head inland on exceptional occasions. This part of its behavior has been blown way out of proportion. From a statistical analysis of all such reports world-wide, such creatures ordinarily only head inland at long intervals, never in mass numbers, only go into rivers or lakes with direct access to the sea, and only remain in freshwater temporarily. That description might well also hold for the Giant eel types, however.

In any event, the real "Sea-Serpent" is not even an animal but is a wave action. Calling even the Longnecked type a Sea-serpent is only a matter of convention, but probably the habit is so ingrained that the name will be very difficult to avoid forevermore.


Dale Drinnon said...

I did have a couple of questions sent to my personal email after this blog was posted. I shall attempt to answer those questions in this note.

Heuvelmans' number for "Certain or Probable Misatkes" was 52: my reclassified number was at least twice that (106) and possibly as many as 126 certain or possible misidentifications. I left some margin for error.

The "large-whales-in-indian-file" reports are typically three humps 50-60 feet long, separated by 50-60 feet in between, hence 250 to 300 feet from the beginning of one hump to the end of the last one. Such reports occur all the way from the 1700s up to the 20th century in New England and off Norway, but also in other places including the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Heuvelmans typically calls such cases hoaxes, but in Scandinavia he allows they could be exaggerations of "Super-otters". There has to be a distinction made between trains of "Super-otter" humps each 6-7 feet long and these trains of much larger humps at 20-30 feet long or more apiece.

On my checklist listing published in the CFZ yearbook I mentioned that there is some residual evidene for a truly gigantic baleen whale possibly 250 to 500 feet long: the most important modern sighting in the category would be the sighting of June 25 1966 reported by Henry Bown in the letter column of Science Digest magazine, as seen off the Azores. The other reports that could be used to support the idea are in this improbable-dimensions category of Sea-serpent sightings.

Brown's sighting was just possibly some sort of a wierd wave action. The report of this series mentioned in one of the Corliss Sourcebooks was in the Red Sea in 1876 as seen by the ship El Dorado.

Dale Drinnon said...

I see the percentage for basking shark mistaken observations was also left off inadvertantly. It was 4% in this report-the original paperwork said 3.9%