Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Memories of Myspace past or the Cetacean Centipede Rides Again!

Dear Constant Readers,

During my short career of writing blogs on...ugh...Myspace, I'd say that there were only two remotely worth looking at. My last post got transformed into the first two actually posts (2nd one) on this blog. The other one I was thinking about putting in, but now I finally have an excuse. The tail end of my temnospondyl post began to touch on the subject of Cryptozoology, so I am using that as an excuse to talk about this mess.

And what a glorious mess of a subject Cryptozoology is! Just by mentioning the subject probably sends my credibility down the crapper, despite the fact I'm quite skeptical of it. For those of you who didn't know, Cryptozoology is the attempted scientific study of undescribed and possibly non-existent animals. Yes, this included bigfoot and the Loch Ness monsters, but also hundreds of more or (often) far far less credible "cryptids". Despite the social stigma, some brave people of scientific training will look into some "cryptids", but this seems quite uncommon. Cryptozoology is not a recognized branch of science, and anybody with a book on bigfoot can claim to be a "Cryptozoologist" studying Cryptozoology. The amount of quackery, both in books and on the Internet, relating to this subject is quite phenomenal. I have a lot of irks with Cryptozoology which can easily fill a future blog. I can probably also write one on skepticism vs. debunking/cynicism and varying degrees of doubt. But it is time to move towards the subject at hand.

In the field of Cryptozoology, one of the more impressive bodies of (anecdotal) evidence come from hundreds of "Sea Serpent" reports. Yes, I am aware of the popular image of a dragon-like creature, but the sightings are typically of much more mundane looking objects. And I have to say objects because it is quite probable that a good chunk of the sightings are due to wave phenomenon, atmospheric effects and mirages, hoaxes, low-flying birds, known large sea creatures, et cetera. At least for most cases, it all boils down to very rare and unusual but known phenomenon and/or conditions vs large and almost completely unknown sea creatures. While there are always a good deal of sightings than can be dismissed or excluded due to a reasonable doubt of them being a "cryptid", there are some which are quite difficult to explain. Probably the most often cited case of this was the sighting of a "Sea Serpent" by two naturalists aboard the ship Valhalla in 1905. Though few and far between, sightings like this are the reason I want to look into matters further. I don't want to prove genuine unknowns, I'm just curious as to how one could explain the otherwise unexplainable.

Despite a degrading environment and increased human presence in the oceans, they still aren't too terribly well known. It is actually not that unusual for decent sized air breathing creatures to still be discovered with some frequency. Mesoplodont beaked whales seem to be incredibly cryptid for some reason, and publications on them tend to mention the fact that more species will likely be discovered in the future. Perrin's Beaked Whale was discovered from a specimen in 1975, a few sightings in between, and four more specimens in 1997; it was finally described in 2002. The Spade Toothed Whale, first described in 1874, is so rare that even the external appearance is a mystery. These are extremes, but the group as a whole is quite poorly known. Could it be possible that if there are animals with remains but no sightings there could be animals with numerous sightings and no remains? Just because there is that slight chance for Sea Serpents, why not at least give them a look?

Unfortunately, the whole Sea Serpent story is far too large to even properly overview. For those of you with any interest in the subject, I would recommend Bernard Heuvelmans's In the Wake of the Sea Serpents, which should be in most decent-sized libraries. The book may be old, but it is entertaining and quite informative. Of course, it is also quite biased at times. Unbeknownst to the public, current "Cryptozoological thinking" on the subject of Sea Serpents proposes multiple unrelated species. Just what these are is still debated of course, but there is one "type" which is easily recognized. It is quite rare and could be viewed as a mystery within a mystery, and unknown among unknowns.

Enter the Cetacean Centipede

Quite surprisingly, the bizarre Cetacean Centipede appears to have some very early mentions. The first known mention was by the Roman writer Aelian in the second century, who referred to a creature called the "Great Sea Centipede". Several centuries later, French teacher Rondelet linked Aelian's descriptions with reports and apparent strandings, in a book on Ichthyology none the less! He is the one who coined Cetacean (i.e. whale) Centipede, which is my preferred label. Quite helpfully, the book provided an illustration of what the creature supposedly looked like. Of course this was still the era of drawing really stylized monsters, so this thing should be treated like a curiosity instead of evidence of any kind.

This is one incredibly strange looking drawing. It could very well be an "exquisite corpse" hybridizing a carp's head and body, the dorsal fins of a shark, the tail of a whale, and the lateral projections of a polychaete worm. Nothing resembling these drawings has ever been seen, but large sea creature with very peculiar lateral projections has been sighted.

The concept of the Cetacean Centipede went into dormancy again until the young Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans connected 19th and 20th century sightings with the old legends. Of his nine types of Sea Serpent, the one called the "Many Finned" corresponded to the Cetacean Centipede. Heuvelmans was quite bold in linking the creatures to dragon-like myths and giant centipede myths from Vietnam, and even with the Leviathan of the Bible! Actually as we'll see later, Heuvelmans was quite liberal with the "Many Finned" label, and the number of sightings showings his diagnostic traits is quite limited. How do you call something a "Many Finned" when the sighting specifies it has no limbs? Despite the problematic opinions of Heuvelmans, the Cetacean Centipede was re-named the "Great Sea Centipede" in the Coleman/Huyghe analysis and left virtually unchanged. The unpublished Champagne analysis accepts far fewer sightings (but included carcasses and a photograph?!?!) of the "Type 7/Multiple Limbed" Sea Serpent, but the design of the creature is still almost identical. I actually did illustrate some of Champagne's Sea Serpents, so here is the "modern" Cetacean Centipede:

The appearance of this animal isn't as fanciful as Rondelet's drawing, but it's not too far off. Coleman/Huyghe and Champagne admit that the appearance of the animal is problematic. Heuvelmans cited speculation by one "Howell" that an elongated primitive whale (Archeocete) called Basilosaurus may have had lateral fins to provide surface area for locomotion. While this does have a certain logic to it (compare the finlets and elongated fins of some fish, but rotated 90 degrees), no fossil evidence indicates this and every reconstruction does not have these structures. Heuvelmans also thought Archeocetes (and maybe the Many Finned) were armored, but this is also a dated subject. Most researchers, except for the eccentricity-prone Shuker, agree that it seems to be mammalian. Heuvelmans and Coleman/Huyghe plump for the Archeocete, but Champagne (perhaps wisely) doesn't specify. In the unlikely probablility that this animal is real, it seems to be too extremely derived to tell exactly what it could be. Since nothing in the fossil record looks too much like it, it would also create a monstrous ghost lineage. I can't recall any considerable ghost lineages for an animal in the 30-60 foot long range, and fossil records of aquatic creatures normally seems to be pretty good. At least the mesoplodont whales still have creatures looking quite similar to them in the fossil record.

The next question to ask is, how exactly did the researchers create a "type" of Sea Serpent? Is this all due to pre-conceived notions, or are there genuine underlying patterns? There are 26+ sightings, and I'll try to give them the best overview I can. The classification is from Heuvelmans, MF=Many finned, MF?=possibly Many Finned, and MH=Many Humped.

August 28, 1852. South of South Africa. Barham. MF
This sighting is recorded by Heuvelmans only, I see no mention by Coleman/Huyghe or Champagne, and probably for good reason. The creature had a head and neck sticking 16-20 feet out of the water, a curiosity since Heuvelmans specified the Many Finned had a short neck. It was about 50-60 feet long, spouted, and had a dorsal crest, all minor Many Finned characteristics. However, they could easily come from his "Long Necked" or "Merhorse" varieties too. And where are the...many fins? The sighting itself was 100 yards away at the closest and was surrounded by hundreds of birds, and Heuvelmans himself says if the alleged sketch of the creature turned up it would "prevent much dubious argument". It is an unlikely hoax since there are a large number of independent eyewitness accounts, I'd suggest it is more likely to be a mistake. What could have been seen, I'm not certain, but this can hardly be considered evidence for a Sea Serpent, let alone a "Many Finned".

July 8, 1856. South Africa. Latitude 34 56' S. Longitude 18 14' E. Princess. MF
Miraculously, the next sighting is much harder to explain. It is one of the definitive sightings for the Cetacean Centipede.
It has all of the characteristics, spouting, a short neck, multiple fins, and a dorsal crest. The fin angles are quite peculiar and non-functional looking, but they could arise from the difficulty of drawing lateral fins on an theory. The fins are also allegedly continuous in the Cetacean Centipede, but there's hardly any "evidence" for that. Like many other reports, this one was also reportedly shot at, but the effect was not mentioned. So what could this thing be? The distance was not mentioned (presumed short range due to them being able to shoot it), but could it have been a very creatively viewed school of fish, or even birds (the "fins" look wing-like to me)? But what about the spouting? Even though it looks rather different, could it possibly be a hoax inspired by the Cetacean Centipede drawing of Rondelet? Like every sighting, this one is irresolvable but still fascinating...

May 13, 1872. Gulf of Mexico. St. Olaf. MF
Note as how this animal is clearly drawn with dorsal fins. The researchers claim the animal can show a row of fins by having to roll on its side to turn. It would have to be horribly twisted to account for the given sketch. Or, as some might plead, it could be a drawing combining two different periods of observation. The description describes four dorsal fins and continuous thickness, but maybe there wasn't enough room. The increased thickness around the dorsal fins makes me seriously consider if this was nothing more than dolphins following one another. Sure the head and alleged diameter (6 feet) are problematic, but it seems much more likely than a Cetacean Centipede.

June 2, 1877. Cape Vito, Sicily. Osbourne. MF?
I'm not sure why Heuvelmans considers this only a possible "Many Finned", this is the only sighting demonstrating what could be his "banking turns". Perhaps it may be due to the geographical distance from all the other sightings, in which case Heuvelmans is much less open minded than what he claimed to be. The sighting is quite interesting, the top view could possibly be explained by a poorly seen pinniped, and the second view could be a school of animals (fish? dolphins?). Could it possibly be sightings of two different phenomenon in quick succession and creating confusion? Front flappers are not typically seen either in Cetacean Centipede sightings. This sighting isn't as inexplicable as the Princess, but it still is one of the better cases for the researchers' arguments.

December 1878. Suez or Aden, Red Sea. Poonah. MFThe witness in this case was aware of the Osbourne sighting, so that automatically makes me suspicious. In all likelihood, this was probably a school of animals made into something it wasn't by an active imagination. The backwards pointing fins are a peculiarity shared with the Princess report and are admittedly a problem. Of course, lateral fins of that orientation are completely unknown as well. I have no reason why this sighting is considered definitive.

March 30, 1879. Geographe Bay, Western Australia. Reverend H. W. Brown, et cetera. MF
A blunt head was not illustrated but mentioned in this sighting. Heuvelmans explained away this sighting as being his "Many Finned" with folded over fins. Uh-huh. Blunt heads sticking out of the water followed by series of projections definitely are a theme in these sightings. I wonder if there is some motorboating behavior occasionally undertaken by schooling animals. I think a very rare behavior is more likely than an abnormally square tipped "Many Finned".

1883. Coast of Amman, Vietnam. Tran Van Con. ?
While Heuvelmans oddly categorizes this stranding (not sighting) as being too vague, this is the publicly best known occurrence of the Cetacean Centipede, called "Con Rit" or "millipede" here. The headless 60 foot animals was segmented; each one measured 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, had 2'4" appendages, was brown on top and yellow below, and rang like sheet metal when struck. Now what isn't reported on the internet is that this was a 38 year old memory of a then 18 year old man. Memories can change quite a bit over time, and perhaps it was heavily influenced, if not outright fabricated by the local legend of the "Con Rit". Dr. A. Krempf, who collected the tale, also collected "confirmation" of the tale by a 30 year old man (!) from tales he heard from his father. Krempf noted that fishermen gave a similar image of a brown and yellow segmented animal when questioned as to what a "Con Rit" was. I think this whole tale should be taken with a pinch of salt though, it still is mostly based on an old man's memory and vague tales.

It is also noteworthy that this tale is the main reason Karl Shuker and a few others classify all "Cetacean Centipede" reports as being arthropods. That classification is impossibly vague, and no arthropod even remotely approached it in size. It was a fairly casual identification, and an extremely outrageous one, far more improbable than the mammalian Cetacean Centipede.

After June 1, 1893. Along Bay, Vietnam. La Mutine. MF
A long black animal seen swimming with vertical undulations. Completely unconvincing as evidence.

Mid-July, 1897. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche. MF
February 15, 1898. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche. MF
February 24, 1898. Fai-tsi-long, Vietnam. Avalanche and Bayard. MF
A genuine curiosity, the ship the Avalanche claims to have seen a mysterious animal on three separate occasions! And even more curiously, multiple animals were encountered in the 1st and 2nd sightings, and one of the animals was allegedly chased in the 2nd and 3rd sightings. They breathed loudly, moved in vertical undulations, around 65 feet long and 6-10 feet wide, and had spiny dorsal crests. Only once were "several fins" mentioned, but this hardly proves the Many Finned. I would suggest that a short necked, spiny-backed, "sea serpent" category without lateral fins should have been proposed by Heuvelmans...but what can you do. The whole "people too excited to take cameras" cliche is repeated here, and the whole tale is so fantastic, I can't help but wonder if it has been hoaxed or embellished. Given the sighting frequency, I can't help but wonder if mass hysteria played a role.

July 11, 1898. Along, Vietnam. Vauban. MF
A snake-like animal 35-40 feet long undulating laterally, bearing scales and high-set eyes. 5-6 feet below the surface and thus highly susceptible to refraction and poor visibility. It's clear to me that Heuvelmans accepted this on location alone.

May 21, 1898. Cape Falcon, Algeria. H.M.S. Narcissus. Whales? MF?
Another interesting sighting that Heuvelmans for some reason doesn't place much belief in, but Coleman and Huyghe do. This animal was reportedly 150 feet long (!), and had an "immense number" of fins at the sides (lateral?) going down all the way to the tail. The witnesses seemed to imply that the fins were used in propulsion (no other sighting does) and small "spouts" came from various parts of the body. That last detailed made Heuvelmans wonder if it could have been a pod of cetaceans, despite the witnesses noting they saw porpoises after. This seems to be one of the few sightings with lateral fins noted from above, but the pod of cetaceans hypothesis seems more reasonable. Why didn't Heuvelmans accept this, but accept even more dubious reports?

July 13, 1902. Ram Head, Victoria, Australia. Chillagoe. MF
The eyewitnesses were aware of the Princess sighting, making me dubious already. It was a "typical" sighting of a 30-35 foot animal with four fins 4-5 feet tall and 6 feet apart and with a seal-like head. When the ship got 100 yards away, the "creature" allegedly raised its head and dove. I think an active imagination is the most likely explanation for this.

December, 1903. Tourane, Vietnam. Charles-Hardouin. MF
End December, 1903. Along, Vietnam. Gueydon. MF
February 12, 1904. Along, Vietnam. Chateau-Renault. MF
February 25, 1904. Along, Vietnam. La Decidee. MF
March 1904. Along, Vietnam. Gueydon. MF
More sightings by the French in Vietnam. They all had elongated dark animals undulating vertically. The "La Decidee" report is notable for specifically mentioning no fins were seen! The second Gueydon sighting was allegedly seen by over a hundred people. Heuvelmans undoubtedly summarized these reports, but they only very vaguely match up with his category.

June, 1908. Along, Vietnam. Hanoi. MFA very peculiar turtle-like creature with the visible portions measuring about 30 feet. Unlike other sightings, very defined ridges were present, as long as an implied long neck. A long tail was not drawn, but mentioned in the sighting. It was only 30 yards away, but the witnesses admitted the conditions were bad and hindered viewing the creature. Heuvelmans blames the conditions for the differences between this and his other vague sightings, but why didn't he put this in his "Father-of-all-turtles" category instead? Note the location. Who knows what this sighting could have been of, but it does look rather boat-like.

July, 1920. Miami, Florida. Craigsmere. MF
Another sighting of an animal with multiple (apparent) dorsal fins.

February 11, 1923. Somalia. Mapia. MF?
An animal 6 feet thick, cylindrical, 8 feet out of the water, half-gray and half-brown. Blowing was reported. Very vague and probably a cetacean.

January 21, 1926. Tulear, Madagascar. Dr. Georges Petit. MF?
Heuvelmans connected his "Many Finned" with the "Tompondrano" of Madagascar legend. Petit saw something at a distance disturbing the water (and creating a phosphorescent glow by disturbing small organisms) which the natives described as a "Tompondrano". It could have been any moderate to large sized sea creature.

March 1934. Nassau, Bahamas. Mauretania. MF
One of three "monsters" seen by the ship (the first was a "long necked, the second was a ray) automatically creating suspicion. Their creature was 60 feet long and had 4 humps, each with a dorsal fin. This seems to be due to the active imagination of the crew, and the hump/dorsal fin combination sounds awfully like dolphins to me.

August 25?, 1934. Bowen, Queensland, Australia. Hurst, et cetera. MF?
A 30 foot creature that lifted a turtle-like head 8 feet out of the water. It was described like a "huge armoured hose".

After August 25, 1934. Townsville, Queensland, Australia. 3 Fishing Parties. MF?
A creature that swam around, making an odd noise with a turtle like head and three humps. This and the other sighting resembled another one by Oscar Swanson (he collected the other two sightings), which Heuvelmans did not consider as a Many Finned. His sighting was quite fantastic, and I can't help but think that these may be fabrications to support another tale. They are also quite vague and inconclusive.

1935. Norfolk, Virginia. Electra. MF
A 40-50 foot animal with 6 fins on the back 2' high and 2'6" wide. Fired at and made no attempt to escape.

1960s. Hong Kong. Students.
Mentioned by Coleman and Huyghe, there are no other details.

Yes I did heavily rely on Heuvelmans for my information, but Coleman/Huyghe followed it closely as well. There simply isn't that much more information out there. Champagne appears to have a few more sightings (including carcasses and a photograph?!?!) but I haven't heard much about them and thus can't comment on them.

I know that this is yet another extremely long blog post, but the reason is, this information doesn't appear to be anywhere else on the internet! The only place where it does exist without being heavily summarized is in Heuvelmans's book and lots of old newspapers. It became quite clear to me that this information needed to be scrutinized more, as Heuvelmans's classification system absolutely explodes when it is looked at more closely. That is probably why Cryptozoologists don't show their "work" very often, the patterns that they insist are there often aren't when things are looked at closely.

When the garbage reports are thrown away, there still are some interesting similarities between sightings. Could they be based on each other as well as the Cetacean Centipede of Aelian and Rondelet? My personal opinion is that the Cetacean Centipede almost certainly doesn't exist, all of the sightings being products of the imagination and known phenomenon. If Champagne's statements about other carcasses and even a photo have basis in reality or are of good quality, I may have to sit down and reconsider things. But now, the answer is a rather certain "no".

Heuvelmans and Coleman/Huyghe included reports that don't seem to be from the Cetacean Centipede, but could be from some other elongated vertical undulating creature with a spiny dorsal crest. Now, and here's where my credibility goes down the toilet for sure, I'm not so willing to dismiss the idea of there being something unknown in the oceans. Remember the Valhalla and mesoplodont whales from waaay back at the beginning of this post? So while the Cetacean Centipede is an almost-certain myth that stretched from the 2nd century all the way into the 60's or later, perhaps all hope is not lost. Of course, it could very well be extinct by now. But perhaps one day I can write about Sea Serpents that aren't nearly this far-fetched.

This post took a while to write and re-write, but I have quite a few planned to get out before my break ends. Coming up next, the return of the temnospondyls!



Caitling said...

Now these are some made-animals that I like! Just because things may or may not exist doesn't mean that they don't have feelings!

I would not ride on a ship called the Valhalla, I'd been too afraid that it would catch on fire...

My favorite monster is of course the Father-of-all-turles.

Behold the turtle of enormus girth
On his shell he hold the earth...

Albert Mond returns said...