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

Monsters of the MInd
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The Independent Online
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.