Sunday, December 28, 2014

Loss of two coelacanth conservationists

Every year, American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman posts a list of the most significant deaths related to cryptozoology.  This year, he also published an update (link here) which included two deaths I wasn't aware of. 
Leading South African diver and conservationist Peter Timm, who discovered the South African population of the coelacanth in 2000, died 18 June 2014 along with his dive partner, Adele Steegen,  in an accident while trying to recover lost scientific equipment in 58m of water. Both divers had done important work in filming and protecting coelacanths in the years since Timm's discovery.  
The coelacanth was an enormous scientific find in 1938 and, in essence, the founding fish of cryptozoology, since it's been used ever since as an example of an animal of significant size that dropped out of the fossil record 60M years ago and reappeared in the modern era. (There are two claims now of post-Mesozoic coelacanth fossils.)  The coelacanth has actually been cited too much, in my opinion, by cryptozoologists - as important and startling as it was, no other large fish has been discovered after such a long absence. Nor has any other type of marine or terrestrial vertebrate. Still, the Javan and South African populations of the coelacanth (the Javan being classed as a separate species) both rank as very important discoveries and welcome news to conservationists who feared the modern coelacanth was confined to one population.
Farewell, Mr. Timms and Ms. Steegen.  You did your part for the future of planet Earth. 

Coelacanth (

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Inquiring Minds Book Awards


The Matt Bille Inquiring Minds Awards cover my special interests and are limited to the books I’ve read personally. Since this is the first year I’m presenting these, I’ve allowed in a couple of pre-2014 books that were new to me. 

Nonfiction: Science Book of the Year / Zoology/Paleontology / Natural History / Cryptozoology / Space History / General History.
Fiction: Scientific Thriller / Cryptozoology Thriller / Horror.


Science Book of the Year: J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen, The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years (U of California).

Zoology/Paleontology: S.R. and A.R. Palumbi, The Extreme Life of the Sea (Princeton).   Runner-up: Helen M. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean; The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (Belknap: Foreword by Sylvia Earle).

Natural History: I mean “natural history” in the old-fashioned sense of a naturalist’s personal observations, and I made this category up specifically for Julia Whitty’s magical Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean (2011, Mariner).  Runner-up: Diane Ackerman’s marvelous collection of mostly nature-themed poems, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter.  

Cryptozoology: John Conway, John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish, Cryptozoologicon Volume I (Lulu). Runner-up: Karl Shuker, The Menagerie of Marvels.
(Comment: this category was stuffed with sasquatch books, but most focused on reinterpretations of previously documented events: When Roger Met Patty (William Munns, CreateSpace) is the most interesting of these. Personal-experience books, like Lori Simmons’ Tracking Bigfoot, add to the rich folklore of the subject, but there have been so many sasquatch books that I want bones or DNA to recommend a new one as must-reading.)

Space History: Chris Impey and Holly Henry, Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration (Princeton). Runner-Up: John Young and James Hansen, Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space (U of Florida).

General History: Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin).


Scientific Thriller: Preston and Childs, The Lost Island. Runner-up: Steve Alten, Sharkman. 

Cryptozoology Thriller: Joseph Wallace, Invasive Species (Berkley). Runner-up: Matt Willis, Daedalus and the Deep (Cortero)
(This was a very busy category this year: Readers who like novels about new/rediscovered species will also enjoy  Ryan Lockwood’s Below, Max Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, J.M. Bailey’s Eve and its sequels, Greig Beck’s The First Bird, and Briar Lee Mitchell’s Big Ass Shark (which gets a special Truth in Advertising Award for the title.))

Horror novel: A double win for Invasive Species. I haven’t shuddered so much reading a novel since Rosemary’s Baby.  Honorable mention, because these are my awards and it’s my book: The Dolmen (Wolfsinger).

Friday, December 19, 2014

A thought for this time of year

Two thoughts, actually.

"Can miles really separate us from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?"
"Don't be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends."
- Richard Bach
 author, Illusions; Stranger to the Ground; Jonathan Livingston Seagull

OK, one more:
“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting to space is hard, Chapter 356

Robert Heinlein once observed that space is only an hour away if you could drive your car straight up.  Well, that might be easier than the way humanity accesses space now.  The news is flying thick and fast, and about half of it is making access to space easier. A recap:

Another Atlas V success for United Launch Alliance.  Good for them: it's a superb record, even if it costs (by some published estimates) about $400M (total program costs divided by launches) to get to orbit.

A daring plan by SpaceX: Elon Musk and company are going to launch their Falcon 9v1.1 next week, bring the first stage back, and land it on a barge. Nothing like this has been done: it hasn't even been tried. Musk thinks the reusability will enable steep cost cuts: we'll have to see if that works out, technically and financially.  Anyway, the grid-like fins on the first stage look really cool.

The NASA Space Launch System is in more trouble: technical challenges have pushed the first launch back to 2018.  The GAO isn't at all sure NASA can make that, even though NASA funding in the just-passed omnibus bill got a plus-up.

RD-180: Congress has ordered DoD to phase out the Russian RD-180 (which the Atlas V depends on - Delta uses the US-made RS68, and SpaceX builds it own engines).  Congress also appropriated funding to start building an American-made replacement.  Earlier this year, a DoD panel said a new engine could be ready in 2022.  I'm at a loss to understand why it would take longer to build a new engine than it took to not only build the F1 engine, but build the Saturn V and fly the whole thing to the Moon.

So... we have two positives (Atlas success and SpaceX test: it may or may not work, but they get major props for being willing to try something radical), and two negatives.  We can get to space: we can't get there quickly or cheaply. There's a lot more work to do. 

NASA SLS. The agency is being disingenuous by showing it with the Saturn V paint scheme: it will not be painted. (NASA)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The most puzzling "sea serpent"

109 years ago today, the most intriguing "sea serpent" sighting of all time was made. The circumstances were perfect, the witnesses well-qualified, and the animal very strange-looking. So  what really happened?

Here's the relevant chapter from my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best single piece of evidence to date on this question came from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.

The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.

On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 

The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 

As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."

Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 

In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent,  Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... "  Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”

What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.

The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.

Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  

Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 

There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.

Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct,  fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's  conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.

Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel"  with a visible length estimated at sixty feet.

There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was… “a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”

The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.

Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”

While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was only discovered when caught by accident in 1976.  A unique feature of the megamouth case is that this species - a slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder which became the sole inhabitant of a new family - was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared.  Finally, in recent times, at least one type of whale was generally accepted by cetologists well before there was any physical evidence.

We are left with this simple fact: on December 7th, 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no satisfactory explanation has been presented.  Their report strongly indicates the oceans hold (or held at that time) at least one spectacular creature still evading the probes of science.

Ellis, Richard.  2003.  Sea Dragons. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Ellis, Richard.  1998.  The Search for the Giant Squid.  New York: Lyons Press.
Ellis, Richard.  1994.  Monsters of the Sea.  New York: Knopf.
Gould, Rupert T.  1930.  The Case for the Sea Serpent.  London: Philip Allan.
Harrison, Paul.  2001.  Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles.  London: Robert Hale.
Heuvelmans, Bernard.  1968.  In the Wake of the Sea Serpents.  New York: Hill and Wang.
Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906.  "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Nicoll, Michael J.  1908.  Three Voyages of a Naturalist.  London: Witherby and Co.
Molloy, R.  1915.  “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28.  Available at