Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 6 September 2010

BEHOLD, TRUNKO!!


Photograph of Trunko's beached remains (copyright A.C. Jones)



One of the most bizarre cryptids ever reported was the huge white-furred trunked sea monster that was allegedly observed from the shores of Margate, South Africa, by several eyewitnesses one day during the early 1920s (the precise date differs between accounts - see below) as it battled two whales out to sea for several hours before its lifeless 47-ft-long carcase was later washed up onto the beach, where it lay for several days before the sea took it back out, never to be seen again. During those several days, however, not a single scientist bothered to venture forth to examine or even observe this extraordinary creature's remains. Nor had its remains ever been photographed...or so I had always assumed - until now!

Yesterday, German correspondent Markus Hemmler emailed me with some remarkable news. He had discovered a website containing an allegedly genuine photograph of Trunko - a monicker, incidentally, that I had somewhat lightheartedly given to Margate's mystery sea monster in my book The Unexplained (1996) but which, to my great surprise, has since become its accepted name. Moreover, the photograph had been snapped by none other than Mr A.C. Jones of Johannesburg - the correspondent and photographer for an article on this entity that had been published in the Rand Daily Mail and also in Wide World Magazine way back in July 1925, thus providing a promising air of authenticity to the image.

Consequently, for the very first time in any cryptozoological publication and utilising the Fair Dealing/Fair Use convention, I now have pleasure in presenting in the context of review and on an entirely non-commercial basis a photograph of the tantalising Trunko's beached remains, snapped by A.C. Jones (the photo's copyright owner), and currently included by the Margate Business Association's website in a page devoted to the creature's history, which can accessed at the following url:

http://www.margatebusiness.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=64:the-legend-of-trunco&catid=1:mba-news&Itemid=2

The appearance of Trunko's remains in this photograph reaffirms my opinion - first presented in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007), and now reproduced below - that it was a globster, not a bona fide cryptid. Here is what I wrote about Trunko in my above-noted book:

In his mighty tome, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans defined and delineated the truly protean ‘great sea serpent’ to yield no less than nine morphologically-discrete taxa of sea serpent, which included various currently-unrecognised species of pinniped, cetacean, fish, reptile, and possibly an amphibian. However, at least one marine mystery beast included in his book appeared so bizarre that even Heuvelmans – “the Father of Cryptozoology” - was at a loss as how best to categorise it, and so, after briefly describing it, he simply omitted it entirely from his great scheme of sea serpent classification.

Known officially as the Margate sea serpent or more colloquially, in recognition of one of its most distinctive characteristics, as Trunko, this truly anomalous animal made its debut on the morning of 1 November 1922 [also variously claimed in some sources to be 25 October 1924 or 2 November 1924]. That was when, according to subsequent local newspaper reports, South African farmer Hugh Ballance looked far out to sea from the beach at Margate, Natal, and saw an amazing spectacle. With the aid of glasses, he could perceive what seemed to be two whales fighting with a huge sea monster, resembling a gigantic polar bear on account of the fact that it appeared to sport a dense snow-white pelage. According to Ballance, who was joined by an ever-increasing crowd of observers as the formidable battle continued, the creature reared fully 20 ft out of the water and struck repeatedly at the whales with what Ballance assumed was its tail - but to no effect, because after 3 hours the whales moved away and their furry attacker floated lifelessly at the surface.

Later that evening its dead carcase was found washed ashore, and was seen to be of colossal size, roughly 5 ft high and measuring 47 ft in total length, which included a 10-ft tail at one end (said in some later reports to be lobster-like), and, incongruously, an elephantine trunk at the other – in place of a head! This extraordinary structure was approximately 5 ft long and 14 in across, and its tip resembled the snout of a pig. Even more noticeable, however, was its luxuriant covering of fur or hair, 8 inches long, and, at least in Ballance’s view, exactly like a polar bear’s, yet with no sign of blood anywhere, despite the ferocity of the earlier sea-battle.

Incredibly, however, despite the huge number of onlookers that it attracted (some of whom brought in a team of 32 oxen to move it seaward, which they failed to do on account of its immense weight), and despite the fact that its corpse remained beached for 10 days, becoming ever more odiferous as decomposition set in, no scientist came to observe or to take samples from it for study. On the evening of the tenth day, the tide took it back out to sea, and the chance to investigate one of the most astonishing zoological secrets of the sea was lost forever.

All that we can do today, therefore, is speculate on what Trunko might (or might not) have been (always assuming, of course, that it was not a newspaper hoax). Certainly, based upon its description taken at face value, this supremely strange ‘marine elephant’ does not correspond with any known species of animal alive today or known from fossil remains. But perhaps there is more to its description than initially meets the eye, harbouring cryptic clues that may shed light on this otherwise decidedly shadowy mystery – a mystery, moreover, that is generally passed over or totally ignored even in the majority of cryptozoological publications.

However, one detailed and highly intelligent assessment of Trunko that does exist is by cryptid chronicler Lance Bradshaw, and it can be accessed on his Kryptid’s Keep website (http://www.angelfire.com/sc2/Trunko/trunko.html). In his discussion, Lance raises several valid, important points worthy of consideration here. Take, for instance, Trunko’s unique pelage. It has already been noted in this chapter that dead sharks can acquire, via the pseudo-plesiosaur effect, a covering of ‘hair’, which in reality is nothing more than connective tissue fibres that become exposed during decomposition of the carcase. However, if Ballance’s testimony is to be believed, Trunko bore its snowy fur while it was still very much alive, battling the whales. If this is true, then clearly its fur cannot be explained away as exposed connective fibres. Moreover, it also suggests that Trunko was mammalian, albeit wholly unlike any mammal previously recorded by science.

Yet this is not the only mystery associated with its fur. As Lance has pointed out, exclusively marine mammals, such as cetaceans, are not furry, because this would hinder their mobility. Conversely, marine creatures such as pinnipeds and polar bears, which are furry, do not spend their entire lives in the water. Consequently, if Trunko’s fur were a genuine feature of its morphology, this suggests that it must venture ashore sometimes. Yet as it was apparently limbless, but stupendous in size, how could it accomplish such a feat without becoming fatally beached, probably suffocating under its own weight, as beached whales so often do, even species much smaller than Trunko?

Then there is the equally odd matter of its trunk and supposed headlessness? Unless the head were so small that it imperceptibly graded into the trunk, how can Trunko’s acephalous condition be explained? The most reasonable solution is that the trunk was actually a neck, from which the head had become detached following the creature’s death. Yet as with its fur, Trunko was seen to possess a trunk with no head at its distal end while still alive.

Or was it? Trunko’s anomalous features are anomalous primarily because they were exhibited by Trunko while still alive, not just when it was dead. But was Trunko ever truly seen alive? The great battle with the whales took place some distance out to sea, not at the shore. Could it be, therefore, as postulated by Lance, that Trunko was not alive at all – that what was actually being seen by Ballance and the other observers on the beach was two whales tossing an already-dead carcase back and forth, playing with it just like killer whales, for instance, which are known for frolicking boisterously with their food, often throwing seal victims up and out of the water? During such exuberant activity, Trunko’s head may have been ripped off and eaten or lost, and possibly some heavy chafing of its skin might conceivably have yielded a shredded surface of exposed connective tissue fibres.

Perhaps the carcase was that of a decomposed shark, with the pseudo-plesiosaur effect creating its neck-like trunk and fur. Alternatively, it may even have been a globster - a quasi-octopus complete with hairy surface and a false tentacle resembling a trunk, engendered from the remains of some long-dead ‘globsterised’ whale. This, incidentally, as Lance has noted, would also explain the otherwise-anomalous lack of blood present when the carcase was washed up. A recently-dead mammal that had battled two whales, in contrast, would have been covered in wounds pouring with blood, or at least stained with it. Instead, Trunko’s snowy pelage was apparently immaculate, with (to quote Mack the Knife!) never a trace of red.

Having said that, I am not wholly convinced that even the above-described activity could yield the exceptionally distinctive snow-white pelage described for Trunko both while at sea and while beached, but at least the enigma of this creature’s hitherto unclassifiable morphology is now beginning to look a little less impossible than before. Nevertheless, with no physical remains to examine, the only hope of ever resolving this longstanding cryptozoological case satisfactorily is for another Trunko specimen to turn up one day, and for it this time to be treated with the scientific interest and rigour that it deserves. Interestingly, the prospect of a second Trunko appearing may not be as remote as it may seem. In fact, it may already have happened.

As I noted in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), which also contains coverage of Trunko, in November 1936 the carcase of an elephant-headed, white-furred, long-tailed sea serpent measuring 24 ft in total length was discovered on Alaska’s desolate Glacier Island. This time, moreover, its remains were examined, by a team led by Chugach National Forest supervisor W.J. McDonald, but no news of their findings has ever been released, and, as with Trunko, the Glacier Island sea serpent’s remains were not retained.

How extraordinary if, just like the globsters have now been shown to be, an entity as outwardly astonishing as Trunko ultimately proved to be nothing more than the decomposition-distorted remains of a long-deceased whale. Yet until physical evidence can be procured, it is destined to remain just as controversial as they too once were. [Although this is still true, A.C. Jones's newly-revealed photo strongly suggests that Trunko was indeed a globster.]

As for the occurrence and identity of globsters: in recent times and for the vast majority of cases, the following explanation has been confirmed to be the correct one, and which in my Extraordinary Animals Revisited book I formally dubbed 'the quasi-octopus effect' (mindful of 'the pseudo-plesiosaur effect' responsible for converting decomposing shark carcases into deceptively plesiosaurian ones):

After a whale dies, its body can float for months, decomposing, until eventually its heavy backbone and skull dissociate from their encompassing skin-sac of rotting blubber, and sink to the sea bottom, leaving behind a thick gelatinous matrix of collagen - the tough protein found in skin and connective tissue. It is this mass of collagen, still encased in its skin-sac, that washes ashore, as a globster. Furthermore, if a few of the whale's ribs remain within the collagen matrix, and any 'fingers' of fibrous flesh are attached to them, these resemble tentacles. And if the whale is a sperm whale, the spermaceti organ gives the resulting globster a bulky shape reminiscent of an octopus. DNA tests that were performed on samples of the tissue from the huge Chilean globster washed ashore in June 2003 independently confirmed its sperm whale identity.

All of which explains how a rotting whale can metamorphose with ease into a giant octopus - and also, it would now seem, into a surreal South African sea monster that had hitherto baffled the cryptozoological world for generations.

My grateful thanks to Markus Hemmler (http://www.kryptozoologie-online.de/) for bringing this cryptozoologically-significant photograph to my attention.

4 comments:

  1. Daniel McCallister6 September 2010 05:29

    Never realized there were any pics of the infamous Trunko. Like all blobsters, the pics are a bit underwhelming.

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  2. Perhaps what was perceived as a battle between three creatures was actually two live whales vigourously feeding on the carcass of a third. Are there killer whales in this region? Other predatory whales?

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  3. Shoot, this really comes as a disappointment. I first read about Trunko three years ago in high school and had started writing a rock opera about him. Despite this new evidence, the legend of Trunko's marvelous escapade in South Africa will still remain one of my favorite stories. I know I'm not being scientific, but I prefer my imagination's conception of the mythical beast to the reality that he was just a globster all along. Oh, well, it's all very interesting nonetheless!

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  4. Darn, I loved trunko! It was my favourite one. Of course, even if trunko has gone RIP, I believe that reports of sea elephants have surfaced elsewhere. The idea of whales not being alone as aquatic leviathans intrigues me! The oceans still have their surprises.

    Of course, it's too bad Trunko's gone. I thought he was really cute, personally!

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