Whilst there is still no news from Sumatra, Oll is hard at work looking at the forteana of that strange island...
According to some cryptozoologists, off the coast of Sumatra and in other oceans there lurk turtles of immense size. These creatures, the ones reputed to exist in the waters off Sumatra and in Indonesia in particular, are often known in the Western world by the grandiose name ‘The Father Of All Turtles’(TFOAT). Like most cryptids TFOAT started off as something that featured in local folklore, myths and artistic depictions but became attached to contempory sightings of unusual things at sea as a possible explanation.
Often when this happens, chroniclers of such events will become overtaken by the romance of a tale where the existence of a creature previously known only through myth could exist in the modern day. When writing the first edition of his book “In The Wake Of Sea Serpents” Bernard Heuvelmans included in his sea monster categories. It was considered to be one of the weakest of his categories, being based on only one or two contempory sightings and was dropped from future revisions. One mention of a beast that could be classed as the same category of sea monster as TFOAT comes from the Physiologus, a beastery published in the 2nd century AD:
““This time I will with poetic art rehearse, by means of words and wit, a poem about a kind of fish, the great sea-monster which is often unwillingly met, terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers, yea, to every man; this swimmer of the ocean-streams is known as the asp-turtle.
“His appearance is like that of a rough boulder, as if there were tossing by the shore a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes, so that seamen imagine they are gazing upon an island, and moor their high-prowed ships with cables to that false land, make fast the ocean-coursers at the sea's end, and, bold of heart, climb up on that island; the vessels stand by the beach, enringed by the flood.
“The weary-hearted sailors then encamp, dreaming not of peril.
“On the island they start a fire, kindle a mounting flame.
“The dispirited heroes, eager for repose, are flushed with joy.
“Now when the cunning plotter feels that the seamen are firmly established upon him, and have settled down to enjoy the weather, the guest of ocean sinks without warning into the salt wave with his prey, and makes for the bottom, thus whelming ships and men in that abode of death.”
The Asp Turtle is almost certainly a mythical creation, given it’s gargantuan size, but it takes its inspiration from both Kraken (the submerging island) and from turtles with long necks (hence the ‘asp’ part of the name), like softshell turtles.
Some species of softshell turtles can grow quite large for a turtle. The most famous large turtles the giant Asian softshell turtles of Hoan Kiem lake in Vietnam, one of which that died in the 1980s measured 1.9 meters in length (the length if the head and long neck accounted for just under half of the total length). By turtle standards this is massive but not the gargantuan proportions one would need to classify something as a living version of TFOAT. The largest extant turtle ever found was a leatherback turtle which was washed up on Harlech Beach in Wales in 1988. The turtle measured just under 3 meters in length and its bones and preserved body are on display in the National Museum of Wales Cardiff (I recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in South Wales as it is one of the few museums in the world that are as good as the British Museum). However, even the Harlech turtle, which is so outside the normal size range of the leatherback to envisage any leatherback being much larger than this would be folly, would not be quite large enough to be TFOAT. A larger turtle was around in the late cretaceous period, Archelon ischyros which is known from fossils to have grown to sizes of 4 meters but there is no evidence that this species survived into the Cenozoic.
No living species of turtle, which we know of, is large enough to be classed as The Father Of All Turtles, which makes you wonder where the folklore in Sumatra about this beast comes from. One possibility is that it was in relation to a species of large Asian soft shell turtle that may have lived, or still lives on the island, deep in the rainforest, very occasionally one may have made it to the sea (Soft shell turtles can survive in brackish and polluted water) and have been spotted by locals who had never seen such a turtle before and it’s size could have been somewhat exaggerated by Chinese whispers. A scenario like that could be one way of explaining the scarcity of sightings of the cryptid, however without any evidence to back it up it remains just an assumption so don’t quote me on that.