Monday, July 07, 2014

Basking Sharks and Sea Monters

Cryptozoologists love to discuss the "sea serpent." It's a topic that never gets old, thanks to the romance of it, the spectacular nature of the creatures or creatures (still reported occasionally today) and the fact that the oceans are still a very big hiding place. After all, we're still identifying dolphins, sharks, and so on. It's not unreasonable to wonder (as I do myself) where there is still some kind of singular creature hiding amid the tales of puzzled sailors and beach-goers.

If there are unidentified species involved, one would expect a carcass to drift ashore occasionally. The reclusive, deep-diving beaked whales, after all, are known primarily from carcasses.

Those carcasses that do engender excitement as possible "sea serpents" tend to be identified either as decaying cetaceans or, most commonly, as one of Nature's little jokes, the basking shark.

This harmless shark reaches at least (13m (40 feet) in length, and it's amazing in it's own right. It is a filter feeder, once widely fished for meat and oil, now protected in most areas but under brutal assault for the shark fin trade. A huge basking shark dorsal fin can fetch at least $20,000 U.S. (one source says $50,000). This billion-dollar business continues worldwide despite increasingly tight regulations, and there's no guarantee the basking shark and its even larger cousin, the whale shark, will survive it. The single species, Cetorhinus maximus, is found in temperate to boreal zones worldwide and thus is apt to turn up almost anywhere a "sea monster" might be found. Some very good basking shark specimens have been retrieved from such carcasses.

When a basking shark dies a natural or unnatural death and drifts ashore (finners cut the fins off and drop the shark, still living, back in the water), it decomposes in a most peculiar fashion. The lower jaw and the gill section drop off, the lower lobe of the tail disappears, and what you have when such a partially decayed carcass reaches shore is something that looks very much like a creature with a small head on a long neck. As the skin erodes, it can even look “furry.”

These imitation plesiosaurs have caused a great deal of consternation. They have also made good tourist attractions, as in the case of a Massachusetts carcass found in 1970 that was actually served up in a local restaurant as sea monster stew. Health codes seem to have been a little looser in those days.

The basking shark has been fingered in several of the most famous sea monster carcass episodes in history, including the Stronsay beast of 1808, the Zuiyo Maru "catch" of 1977, and (somewhat controversially) the mangled Naden Harbor carcass, about 3.6m (12 feet) long, found in a sperm whale in 1937. Concerning the first two, I think there's no doubt: the appearance of the Naden Harbor carcass still bothers me, although Richard Ellis writes in his book The Great Sperm Whale that there is a record of a sperm whale swallowing a 4.3m (14-foot) basking shark. (The Stronsay beast was paced out at over 16m (50 feet – some estimates were up to 18m) and might, even allowing for damage, have been one of the largest basking sharks ever.)

This unique take on the stranded monster vs. basking shark business was published in 1942 by a writer known only as Lucio. I first saw it in one of Tim Dinsdale's books: I wrote to the newspaper it appeared in, the Manchester Guardian Weekly, and was told there was no copyright objection to my including it in my 1996 Rumors of Existence. So here it is again.


Yet again the doubting Thomas
Takes our precious monster from us
And proceeds once more to bomb us
With disclosures stern and stark,
Lo! our portent meteoric
Doped with dismal paregoric
Sinks from monster prehistoric
To a common Basking Shark.

When we thought we had before us
An undoubted something-saurus
From the days when all was porous
In the world's well-watered dish
These confounded men of science
Setting fancy at defiance
Go and put their cold reliance
On an unembellished fish.

But the monster fan, unbeaten
Calls for something more to sweeten
Yarns so moldy and moth-eaten
And he takes a stouter stand
For some long-delayed survival
From days distant and archival
When the lizards had no rival
In their lordship of the land.

We need something more terrific
Than these learned lads specific
I defy their scientific
And uncompromising quiz
Their pretensions need unmasking
Here's a question for the asking-
How could any shark go basking
With the weather what it is?

Picture at top: a stranded basking shark as depicted in Harper's Weekly in 1868 (out of copyright)


Stuart Jones said...

Your version of the poem leaves out a 3rd verse (after "Lo, Our Portent Meteoric..." and before "When we thought..."), which - if I recall - was very akin to this:

Lo, our portent Oceanic,
It was ever thus, in panic,
Came the Learned Ones tyrannic,
With their Formular of Doubt,
And as fast as they are able,
They dismiss the People's Fable,
And with "Basking Shark" as label
Leave The Monster down and out.

Stuart Jones said...

(Missing 2nd verse, not 3rd - sorry.)

Matt Bille said...

Yes, I cut it down a bit for length. Thanks!

Stuart Jones said...

Yeah, it IS a little thick. Still fun, though. Glad you posted.