Not all that comes out of the sea is just a blob of blubber

Monsters of the MInd

Share
Related Topics
In 1938 the curator of a small South African museum, Miss MC Latimer, was rooting around in a pile of fish brought ashore by a small Cape fishing vessel and found an unusually ugly and hitherto unknown one. In a somewhat tactless compliment, her colleague, a Professor Smith, named this hideous and by now smelly beast Latimeria chalumnae. Doubtless Miss Latimer, a scientist, was thrilled.

But the fish was not new. It was, on the contrary, very old. So old that, until Miss Latimer pulled it out from amongst the piscatorial plebeians on the deck of the Jolly Kaffir, it had been thought to have been extinct since the Cretaceous period. It was known to palaeontologists as a coelocanth.

True, the discovery of new dinosaurs is an everyday event. Landslips in the Rockies, or cliff-falls beside British beaches, continually reveal entirely new types of giant lizard. But they have one disappointing feature in common. They are all dead. Extinct. Not since Miss Latimer's time has something really ancient turned up alive. No mammoths, no sabre-toothed tigers, no aurochses, no plesiosaurs. And please don't write in and tell me about some insect or boring mini-trilobyte which has been found by a geologist from Rejkjavik Polytechnic clinging to the underside of a sulphurous rock in northern Iceland. They're not big enough to be interesting.

Then earlier this week there was sudden excitement in the Antipodes. A monster had been washed up on a Tasmanian beach. Five yards long and two yards wide, weighing an estimated four metric tons, it was described by local surfer Ricky Evans as "like a blubbery mass with a few very weird, more defined features, like flippery sort of fingery arms. It seemed to have a hairy sort of coating as well."

Theories abounded. It was a prehistoric giant squid, a previously unknown member of the walrus family, an alien from beyond the Milky Way, even drowned Sixties Australian premier Harold Holt. Ricky must have been hoping that the dense mass of putrid flesh would be named Evansia tasmaniae, and that his moniker would be forever linked with a landmark discovery. "Sea Monster 2: the mystery deepens", was how the Hobart Mercury newspaper headlined the story on Thursday morning.

Easy come, easy go. By Friday, a spokesperson for Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service, one Jamie Baylystark, said a similar fleshy lump found on another local beach had been identified as a bit of old whale blubber. This find was likely to be the same, possibly from the same whale. Spoilsport Baylystark explained: "As whale blubber dries, it begins to appear quite fibrous, and once it becomes covered in sand can appear hairy, which may have given some people the impression that the blubber was some kind of animal."

If Mr Baylystark is correct, then the story is, of course, much less interesting. For us newspaper folk, "Big lump of whale blubber found on beach," accompanied by a picture, is not much of a pitch. And although I have to say that photographs of what became known as the "Blobster" looked to me exactly like rotting whale blubber covered in sand, others had discerned in this unpleasant shape features so unique that they had become temporarily convinced that a real discovery had been made.

Now we begin to arrive at the point. It isn't surprising that bits of dead whales wash up on beaches. It's amazing that it happens so little. Whales are very large, there are still (despite the Japanese and the Norwegians) a lot of them, and they have not yet mastered the art of burial at sea, or of underwater cremation. So there is a whole lot of dead whale down there.

Almost everything that lives in the sea, dies in the sea. And quite a lot that didn't live there, dies there too. So, if you think about it, the oceans must be full of horrid rotting flesh and carcases just floating about, carried by unknown streams and eddies. It is one of the many reasons why I, for one, am extremely thankful that evolution impelled mankind's ancestors to move on to dry land, long before I had a chance to be born.

In that case, why is it that the most obvious explanation for the Blobster was specifically rejected by newspapers and others in favour of the monster theory? Well, because we desperately want there to be undiscovered creatures. That's why we have kept alive the myth of Nessie, why Conan Doyle invented the Lost World with its pterodactyls and stegosauruses, why Jurassic Park was such a hit.

With the world now fully explored, and with little sign yet of life on other planets, Blobsterology satisfies an almost primeval desire for there to be new dangers to discover, hidden here on earth. Suburbanisation leaves many citizens stripped of any excitement greater than that of crossing the road or listening to Richard Littlejohn on Radio 5. But what if there really is a colony of leopards on Bodmin Moor, or a sewer full of escaped crocodiles in Esher, or an overlooked family of Triceratops on Hampstead Heath?

So it's all foolishness then, to be lumped in with alien abduction, the influence of spacemen on ancient civilisation and aromatherapy? Perhaps. But suppose for a moment that 60 years ago a Miss MC Latimer had chucked an ugly old fish back into a South African dock, with the sentiment that it was probably just a rotten flounder. If you don't at least ask and speculate and theorise, then nothing new ever happens.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower