Recently I was approached by a company called Vice to make a film. No, not that sort of film. The company makes advertising films and uses the leftover cash to finance their own on-line documentaries. They wanted to make a film about a strange creature lurking in the River Lea. The river runs through parts of north London and runs close to the sight of the 2012 Olympic stadium.
There have been stories of some kind of large creature lurking in the river for years. Back in August 2005 boat trippers, including Mike Gallant of the River Lea Trust, saw a full-grown Canada goose, a bird which can weigh 16lbs, pulled violently and swiftly underwater by an unseen assailant. Soon after, a number of cygnets suffered the same fate. Rumours circulated of an escaped crocodile, a snapping turtle or a giant pike. Eventually the events were forgotten by most people.
Then, in December 2011, Mike Wells - who lives on a riverboat on the Lea - saw a similar attack. Mr Wells was having a coffee on the houseboat of a friend, close to the Olympic basketball training stadium that was being built at the time. He and his friend saw a full-grown Canada goose yanked vertically down in the water by some powerful predator. The bird did not re-surface.
Once again the old stories of escaped exotics did the circuit. My friends Shaun and Karen Histed-Todd, who lived in the area years ago, recall a snapping turtle being released from a butterfly farm into the River Lea. Apparently it dug holes in the riverbank.
I interviewed Mike Wells, who is a passionate naturalist. His houseboat is situated just beside the lovely Walthamstow Marsh nature reserve. Mike said that the goose was about 100 feet away when whatever attacked it pulled the bird under in the space of half a second. He went on to say that other people had seen attacks on birds, especially around Springfield Marina, in years past but he had never seen anything like this himself.
The story brought back memories of the ‘Monster of Martin Mere’, a case the CFZ investigated back in 2002. We were called in after a creature ‘the size of a car’ had been attacking overwintering swans and geese on a wildfowl reserve. We spoke to the head warden, Pat Wisniewski, who confirmed that he had seen a huge creature swimming in the lake, and pointed to his sofa as an indicator of the size of the thing he had seen. He also confirmed the attacks on swans, geese, moorhens and other water birds.
I was initially sceptical about the existence of a big predator in Martin Mere. Despite once having been one of the largest lakes in England, it had been extensively drained in the Middle Ages for farmland. Now the lake is no more than two acres, and about five feet deep.
I was mulling this over as I walked by the edge of the Mere. Then the ‘monster’ put in an appearance. It was a huge wels catfish, an oily green in colour with a texture like wet PVC, and the thrashing beast was some eight feet long. The creature resembled nothing so much as a huge draught excluder. It had surfaced only six feet away from me. It dived, surfaced again and then vanished. I was amazed that a creature of that size was living in the Mere. We later interviewed witnesses and tracked the monster from a dingy using a fish finder. The case generated more interest than any of our overseas expeditions. Jon and I conducted something like 300 interviews in the space of one week.
The wels catfish (Silurus glanis) can reach lengths of 16 feet. They are found in eastern Europe, southern Europe and Russia. They feed on a wide variety of prey including small mammals and waterbirds. There are records of large ones devouring dogs as big as Alsatians, and there have even been human remains found in the stomach of at least once specimen. It is thought that the Acclimatisation Society first introduced them into the UK in Victorian times. These were a group of people, including Frank Buckland, Queen Victoria’s Head of Fisheries, who sought to introduce foreign animals to the UK for sporting and estetic reasons. The wels catfish was amongst these.
The modus-operandi of both the Monster of Martin Mere and the Lea River Monster are the same; dragging the victim straight down in the twinkling of an eye. The wide mouth of a monster wels catfish could suck in even a full grown goose. Conversely a huge pike would bite at the legs and underside of the bird causing more of a commotion. A common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine) could cope with the British climate and a big one could conceivably take a goose, but not with the speed the birds on the Lea were taken. Crocodiles can take prey as formidable as tigers and sharks so a goose would be no more than a mouthful. Yet it hardly needs to be stated that, being tropical and sub-tropical, they would swiftly perish in a UK winter.
It seems the monster of the River Lea is indeed a huge wels catfish. The creatures have been in the UK since the 1850s and are now widely spread. To take a full-grown goose it would need to be a big fish in the region of seven or eight feet long. Indeed there may be several such creatures in the river.
My fellow investigator Neil Arnold says he has heard of a wels being released in the area and even has a picture of the beast. The story gets more interesting as it unfolds and seems far from having run its course yet.
It is traditional to give water monsters names such as Nessie, Champ, Morag, Ogopogo and Issie. Whilst filming in London I took the opportunity to officially name the Olympic Monster ‘Old Greg’. Long may he haunt the River Lea.