As illustrated in the above engraving of this incident, on 24 September 1877 a monstrous multi-limbed sea beast was washed up, still alive, onto Catalina beach in Newfoundland's Trinity Bay. Each of its two great eyes was 8 in across, its body was 9.5 ft in length, and a thrashing mass of tentacles, ten in total and measuring up to 11 ft long, sprouted from its head in dramatic duplication of the legendary hydra. Inevitably, it was dubbed a devil-fish, like many similar sea monsters washed ashore here and elsewhere during that same period, but today we can readily recognise it as a giant squid.
Down through the ages, the term 'devil-fish' has been applied to a wide selection of very different animals. These range from octopuses and whales to a diverse array of fishes, but also include certain examples, like the Trinity Bay sea monster, relevant to cryptozoology.
THE DO-IT-YOURSELF DEVIL-FISH
Devil-fish (Dr Karl Shuker)
Over the years, I have received a number of communications from puzzled correspondents who have encountered in various curio shops and sideshows around the world dried specimens of an exceedingly bizarre-looking monstrosity frequently referred to by its owner as a devil-fish. Almost invariably it resembles the specimen depicted above (from my own collection), with a tall pointed head, large eyes, leering mouth, a pair of long legs, showy wings, and a slender, curling tail. Faced with such a weird apparition, it is little wonder that they have wondered whether it might be some hitherto unknown species, dredged from the depths and still awaiting formal scientific recognition. Sadly, however, the truth is much more prosaic, albeit memorable.
This type of devil-fish is, in fact, a modern-day equivalent of a famous zoological hoax perpetuated down through history by generations of astute fishermen eager to coax money from gullible travellers and seekers of curios. Known as a jenny haniver, and sometimes even assuming the exotic guise of a small winged dragon or basilisk-like beast (depending upon the skill of its fisherman creator), it is actually a deftly-modified skate or ray. Dried in a manner that presents its undersurface to the observer, its broad pectoral fins have been cunningly sliced to resemble wings and legs, with its respiratory spiracles moulded into realistic 'eyes' (its genuine eyes are less conspicuous and sited dorsally, not ventrally). Indeed, keeping abreast of modern trends, some enterprising Mexican sellers are actually passing off dried devil-fish specimens to unsuspecting tourists as the remains of crashed extraterrestrials!
Another devil-fish with cryptozoological connections is the Atlantic giant manta ray Manta birostris, also known evocatively as the great devil-fish, devil ray, or vampire ray. Despite being the world's largest species of ray - indeed, one of the world's largest fishes of any kind - the manta's existence was not formally recognised by science until 1829. However, records of fishermen's tales describing this immense fish considerably precede that date.
Weighing up to 3500 lb (if not more) and measuring up to 20 ft long, the giant manta is instantly identifiable by virtue of its vast wing-like pectoral fins, black above and white below, and known to span up to at least 22 ft across. Equally noticeable is its lengthy tail, as well as its broad mouth - stretching across the front of its head and yielding at each corner a forward-projecting 'horn' comprising a portion of the pectoral fins. Coupled with its unnerving tendency to leap abruptly high out of the water like some demonic bat-monster released from the oceanic abyss, it is little wonder that the manta, in reality a harmless surface-swimming plankton feeder, has inspired many lurid but erroneous tales of horror.
Among the most popular, but entirely preposterous, of these is that the manta will wrap its massive pectoral fins around skin divers or other unfortunate human swimmers, and duly devour them. Notwithstanding such bizarre yarns, however, there are also some genuine cryptozoological mysteries concerning this huge fish still in need of a satisfactory solution.
First and foremost: just how large do mantas grow? As specimens are very rarely captured, and those that have been are seldom examined thoroughly due to their great size or because they have been accidentally discovered washed up on some remote beach lacking facilities for easy examination or transport elsewhere, ichthyologists are still unable to estimate with conviction the likely upper size limit of this spectacular species. Every so often, divers have reported encountering colossal mantas seemingly exceeding the known record, but there is little way of verifying such reports.
Perhaps the most incredible record, made by French skin diver Cornel Lumière, featured a gargantuan manta reputedly spanning 60 ft across and weighing 5000 lb. If true, this would dwarf even the mighty whale shark, currently deemed to be the world's largest fish.
Decidedly smaller but no less distinctive was the mystifying manta that was once spied off Tower Island in the Galapagos Islands by eminent American naturalist William Beebe, as later documented in his book Galapagos, World's End (1924). While aboard his yacht, Beebe was no doubt somewhat startled when a large manta measuring at least 10 ft across its pectoral fins collided with his vessel. When he spied the specimen responsible, however, he was even more startled, because it did not resemble any manta species known to science:
"[It was] of somewhat the usual manta or devil-fish shape, except that the wings were not noticeably concave behind, and the lateral angles were not acute. The cephalic horn-like structures were conspicuous and more straight than incurved. In general the back was dark brown, faintly mottled, while the most conspicuous character was a pair of broad, pure white bands extending halfway down the back from each side of the head. The wing tips also shaded abruptly into pure white."
More than 70 years later, Beebe's white-banded manta ray remains uncaptured and undescribed in the formal zoological literature, even though a number of similar, equally puzzling specimens have been reported widely in seas across the globe - confirming that even today the seas still harbour many extraordinary cryptozoological denizens eluding official recognition.
Beebe's white-banded manta ray, portrayed by William Rebsamen