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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

MARKUS HEMMLER: Cape May-Globster of 1921

Cape May-Globster 1921

The pseudo-plesiosaur-prozess shown simplifiedThere is "a lesson about tusked sea-serpent carcasses", as the Canadian (crypto-) zoologist Ben Speers-Roesch outlined on the basis of some example cases of reports of globsters. Because "eyewitnesses of strange sea animal carcasses are rarely adequately trained to identify them correctly and reports are often sparse in detail and emphasize features which remind the witness of other animals, rather than to specific anatomical features." Generally speaking cases like that of the carcass of Ataka for example, show certain descriptive trends or characteristics which can be helpful for identification. One of the better known of such descriptive tendencies is the assumed plesiosaur-like form of certain basking shark carcasses, which ultimately has led to the coining of the term "pseudo-plesiosaur." The mentioning of "tusks" is another feature of this kind, because usually the broken lower jaw bones of a baleen whale are responsible for such a description. One such case is that of the Cape May-carcass of 1921.

The Cape May-Globster

Cape May is a city and also a county in the U.S. state of New Jersey, located at the southern tip of Cape May, a peninsula between Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Two Globsters had washed ashore at Cape May in the past, both of which are mentioned in the literature. The first in October or November 1887 but although - according to the Boston Courier on the 6th November 1887 - a survey of scientists investigated the case so far had no concrete identification. The English author, traveller and adventurer Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges described the second corpse in his 1923 book "Battles with Giant Fish":

“[…] in November 1921, off Cape May, a great beast was washed ashore. This mammal, whose weight was estimated at over 15 tons, which – to give a comparison of size – is almost as large as five fully grown elephants, was visited by many scientists, who were unable to place it, and positively stated that nothing yet known to Science could in any way compare with it.

The photographs which were published in many newspapers showed that this modern leviathan somewhat resembled the elephant – in fact, it could best be described as a sea-elephant, but of huge proportions.

This case in addition to several others is used from Mitchell-Hedges as proof of his assertion that the "big beasts of the Mesozoic period" still exist. A letter to his book published in 1922 by a certain C H Fraser in The New York Times confirmed this opinion, that it was probably a recently still living, prehistoric creature. However both writers were wrong as the research of the American author and pioneer of unexplained phenomena research, Charles Hoy Fort, revealed. Fort wrote in his 1931 book "Lo!”:

Somebody in Cape May wrote to me that the thing was a highly undesirable carcass of a whale, which had been towed out to sea. Somebody else wrote to me that it was a monster with a tusk twelve feet long, which he had seen. He said that, if I’d like to have it, he’d send me a photograph of the monster. After writing of having seen something with a tusk twelve feet long, he sent me a photograph of something with two tusks, each six feet long. But only one of the seeming tusks is clear in the picture, and it could be, not a tusk, but part of the jaw bone of a whale, propped up tusk-wise.

Subsequent authors like Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans continued to follow this assessment. Recent research into this case from the author shows once again the correctness of the identification.

New but old information’s

The Warsaw Daily Times and the northern Indianan reported on November 26, 1921 about the carcass. In addition to the more concrete indication of a size of 23 meters, one finds that even not "the oldest sailor on the coast could say what manner of fish it was." They rather thought "it looked like a cross between a whale and a sea cow." The same newspaper article also includes a photo - albeit in very poor quality. The extremely friendly and competent help of the Reference Department at the Cape May County Library has succeeded in a qualitatively somewhat better photograph found in the Idaho Statesman on September 19, 1921. The library staff also found some other newspaper articles so not only a relatively good picture of the sea monster can be presented but also the given date of November 1921 must be questioned.

Cape May-Globster of 1921

Cape May-Globster of 1921

The tusks of the... "giant fish"

Most striking is certainly the left "tusk" of the severely decomposed and destroyed "sea elephant" found on the right side of the picture. On the left, just below the observing persons, probably his counterpart, the right "tusk", can be located (as Fort already noted this is very indistinctly). A corresponding skeleton makes clear that the tusks are nothing more than the mandibular arches of a baleen whale (Mysticeti).

As a counterpart to the upper jaw equipped with long horn plates (the so-called baleen), the lower jaw consists of two long, rounded and outwardly curved edentulous bony arches. In the symphyseal area (the anterior region made of a flexible pad of fibrous cartilage where the two bones meet) they are not firmly connected to each other. If a baleen whale for example suffers a serious accident in which this region is affected, the separated mandibular arches of a washed up carcass can leave the impression of protruding tusks.

Lower jawbones / „Tusked“ whale carcass

Lower jawbones / „Tusked“ whale carcass

After the “tusks” of the carcass indicating to the suborder of baleen whales the tapered shape of the head (and, consequently, of course, the below listed specific characteristics) suggests that it belongs to the rorquals (family Balaenoptiidae). Furthermore there is the typical central ridge running from the tip of the rostrum to the blowhole. And directly behind the left arch probably even the also characteristic skin furrows can be recognized. The eponymous longitudinal ridges are folds of skin extending from the tip of the lower jaw to nearly the mid-abdomen. This feature takes off the Balaenoptiidae from all other whales.

Head shape and furrows

Head shape and furrows

Two "tusked sea monsters” at Cape May?

While the identification of Fort can be viewed without a doubt as correct, it’s a bit differently with the month of the incident. As quoted a second resident of Cape May wrote to Fort that the carcass of a whale had been towed out to sea. Indeed there are at least two relevant reports from Cape May in the New York Times including such an incident.

According to the first article from September 4, 1921 a dead whale forty-five feet long washed ashore during the night at the beach upon the foot of Queen Street, Cape May. It was thought that the mammal was injured by an aircraft bomb during a manever of the Navy in Virginia Capes and later was killed by shark attacks. This was the first whale in 20 years to “visit” Cape May; so many spectators came from afar to look at the dead animal. Some have assumed that it was the same whale which beached earlier in the town of Lewes, Delaware, and was pulled back there to sea. It was the third whale washed ashore on the Jersey Shore this summer; the others were stranded in Wildwood and Sea girt.

The New York Times continued the fate of the animal's body on September 5, 1921. After three attempts had failed to lead the carcass to the water it was drawn to sea by ship from a Captain Howard Smith of the Schellenger Landing fishing fleet. A Captain Olsen, a north-sea whaler visiting Cape May, believes that the whale was probably attacked by a school of sharks which have eaten small pieces from its sides. Finally one of the larger sharks attacked the whale from below and disembowelling him. Particularly interesting in this report is the finding that the sharks "had eaten it down to the bone in some places, and the two long bones near the head were mistaken for tusks."

This raises the question, whether within a few months (September and November), two whale carcasses were found in Cape May – in both the lower jaw bones were mistaken as "tusks"? Or whether these reports belong to one and the same animal? And there are even more questions because do the different lengths of 76 and 45 feet speak for two individuals? Or are they comparable to other cases of Globsters, which also show comparable differences, and one length is simply wrong or inaccurate? And if there were really two whales washed ashore why there is no press report in November mentioning the sensational and identical event in September?

One “tusked sea monster” at Cape May!

As already mentioned the Reference Department of the Cape May County Library found a picture and an accompanying article in the Idaho Statesman, dating to September 19, 1921! Photo and elements of formulation of this text - like for example the length of 76 foot or the “uninformed” old sailors – showing up verbatim in later reports. Hence and in view of all other facts must be suggested that the date of the discovery of the “tusked” Cape May-Globster has to be predated from November to September.

Nevertheless to secure this point even more research is needed. Like other cases show, however, it is not uncommon to find reports published days or weeks later in other newspapers. This raises the possibility that Mitchell-Hedges and Fort only used such later published reports as source.


  • Anonymous (1921) 45-ft. whale at Cape May
    In: The New York Times, September 4, 1921

  • Anonymous (1921) Cape May banishes whale
    In: The New York Times, September 5, 1921

  • Anonymous (1921) –
    In: Idaho Statesman, September 19, 1921

  • Anonymous (1921) What is the strange sea monster?
    In: Warsaw Daily Times, November 26, 1921

  • Fort, Charles H. (1975) Lo!. New York: Garland

  • Fraser, C. H. (1922) Big fish
    In: The New York Times, March 12, 1922

  • Heuvelmans, B. (1968). In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill and Wang.

  • Mitchell-Hedges, Frederick A. (1928) Battles with giant fish. London: Duckworth

  • Nowak, R.M. (2003) Walker’s Marine Mammals of the World. Baltimore. The John Hopkins University Press.

  • Roesch, Ben (2007). A lesson about tusked sea-serpent carcasses
    URL: http://www.forteantimes.com/exclusive/roesch_01.shtml [Stand: 02.05.07]

  • Tinker, Spencer Wilkie (1988) Whales of the World. Bess Press Inc.


  • Basking shark and pseudo-plesiosaur-process: Markus Bühler/Markus Hemmler

  • Cape May carcass: Anonymous (1921)
    In: Idaho Statesman, September 19, 1921

  • Blue whale skeleton at Beaty Biodiversity Museum: Big Dave Diode
    (http://www.flickr.com/photos/big-dave-diode/4803211199/in/set-72157624400436175, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

  • Tusked whale carcass from California: ligthmatter
    (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lightmatter/, CC BY 2.0)

  • Dead bryde’s whale: npwsnorthernmarine

Many thanks to Claire Bear-Jaycock, Lawrence "npwsnorthernmarine" and above all others especially to the Reference Department of the Cape May County Library for their help!

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