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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Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Brian Froud's wonderful rendition of Peter Costello's proposed long-necked freshwater seal graces the cover of the 1975 Panther paperback edition of Costello's classic crypto-book In Search of Lake Monsters (© Peter Costello/Brian Froud/Panther Books)

In Part 1 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here), I investigated the candidature of an undiscovered species of giant long-necked seal as an identity for certain sea serpents, as promoted in particular by Drs Anthonie Oudemans and Bernard Heuvelmans. However, the concept of such a creature is not confined to the contemplation of marine cryptids, as now revealed.


Heuvelmans believed that it was his hypothesised long-necked seal, which he had formulated and dubbed Megalotaria longicollis in his seminal book Le Grand Serpent-de-Mer (1965), rather than any postulated form of surviving plesiosaur that was responsible for those water monsters yielding the now-iconic, vertically-held, periscope-like head-and-neck image firmly planted in everyone's mind when picturing water monsters (and most especially the Loch Ness monster), whether marine or freshwater in habitat, though in his book he confined himself to those cryptids on record from the seas and oceans.

Just under a decade later, however, one of Heuvelmans's cryptozoological disciples and longstanding correspondents, Irish author Peter Costello, produced what was very much a companion book to his mentor's sea serpent tome but concentrating its attention instead upon lake monsters, in particular Nessie. (Judging from a footnote in his sea serpent tome – "Which will appear in a separate book on 'monsters' of lochs, lakes, marshes and rivers – freshwater unknown animals" – apparently Heuvelmans had originally planned to prepare such a book himself, but subsequently assisted Costello in producing his own book instead.)

Nessie as a long-necked seal (© Robert Elsmore)

Published in 1974, Costello's book was entitled In Search of Lake Monsters, and in this global study he followed much the same course as Heuvelmans did in his own, i.e. analysing an extensive collection of eyewitness reports of aquatic cryptids from around the world (but freshwater in this instance, with particular emphasis upon Scottish loch monsters), and then providing what he considered to be the most likely identification for them. Here, however, he diverged markedly from Heuvelmans, pursuing the Oudemans approach instead.

For whereas Heuvelmans had proffered a series of no less than nine different hypothetical cryptids as the collective solution to the sea serpent mystery, Costello bravely put forward only a single identity to explain virtually all of the lake monsters documented by him (including Nessie), diverse though they seemed to be in form, and therefore potentially inviting criticism of the kind that Oudemans's Megophias had attracted, i.e. that his solution was of the 'one-size-fits-all' variety – but that was not all. The single identity that he proposed was none other than Heuvelmans's very own giant long-necked seal, Megalotaria longicollis, thereby deeming it to be capable of living in freshwater habitats as well as in marine environments.

Artistic reconstruction of Megalotaria (Identity of artist/copyright holder unknown to me, so I would welcome receipt of appropriate credit details)

As expected, therefore, for the most part Costello's description of this giant long-necked seal reiterated that of Heuvelmans for the same hypothetical species. However, he did also provide a few additional details, especially when specifically relevant to its inhabiting a freshwater domain, such as the assertion (rather than merely a speculation as offered by Heuvelmans for maritime Megalotaria) that it hunts by sonar, especially in stygian bodies of water like Loch Ness where vision is rendered largely or entirely superfluous, and that its hearing is therefore exceptionally sharp. As noted in Part 1 of this ShukerNature article, however, currently there is no conclusive evidence that pinnipeds do use sonar. He also claimed that it gives vent to a sharp staccato cry that sounds like a sea-lion's bark.

According to Costello, therefore, Nessie is merely a lake-dwelling long-necked seal, a freshwater-confined representative of Heuvelmans's marine Megalotaria, not even sufficiently distinct, despite its different habitat, to warrant any taxonomic delineation from the latter creature. Yet if this were true, why have other maritime pinnipeds only rarely or never established exclusively freshwater intraspecific populations? The only notable examples are two totally freshwater subspecies of the ringed seal Pusa (=Phoca) hispida – namely the greatly-endangered Saimaa seal P. h. saimensis (confined entirely to Finland's Lake Saimaa) and the Ladoga seal P. h. ladogensis (confined entirely to Russia's Lake Ladoga) – and some non-taxonomically discrete colonies of the common seal Phoca vitulina in a few lakes, such as Alaska's Lake Iliamna (already well-known to monster seekers for the giant fishes that allegedly inhabits its voluminous waters) and certain lakes in Quebec (a few researchers do elevate these Canadian individuals to the rank of a valid subspecies of common seal, known as the Ungava seal P. v. mellonae).

For the most part and with the vast majority of pinniped species (particularly the bigger ones), however, colonisation of freshwater simply does not occur. Yet it's not as if they never find their way inland from the sea – on the contrary, every year there are confirmed reports of seals in various rivers across the UK, for instance, and there are even verified records of specimens of known seal species in Loch Ness itself. However, whereas these have not led to the establishment of landlocked freshwater seal colonies (despite being much smaller than Megalotaria and therefore enabling a given volume and prey content of freshwater to accommodate and sustain more specimens of these seals than would be the case with a giant long-necked seal), according to the freshwater long-necked seal hypothesis the marine Megalotaria has somehow managed to accomplish this feat in numerous lakes all across the world.

Reconstructing Nessie as Megalotaria (© Robert Elsmore)

But how could this particular pinniped species (always assuming that it does exist, of course!) have been so markedly successful at freshwater colonisation on an international scale, which would surely have involved some very visible migrations into freshwater at the onset, while also being so extraordinarily (indeed, inexplicably) adept at eluding all attempts by scientists and laymen alike to confirm its reality that not so much as a single skull or skeleton has ever come to scientific attention anywhere across its entire global distribution?

It is just about within the realms of possibility that amid the vastness of the world's seas and oceans the maritime Megalotaria can still evade scientific detection even in modern times, but how can its freshwater counterparts do the same, even when their lakes occur in close proximity to human habitation? For me the concept of Megalotaria, whether in the seas or (especially) in freshwater lakes, remains a particularly thorny one both to grasp and to retain.


Much less familiar a cryptid than the longneck sea serpent (and its freshwater equivalents) is a second aquatic mystery beast whose identity may be that of a still-undiscovered species of long-necked seal.

The Bering Sea separates Alaska from Far East Russia, and contains a number of islands, which have been and, in some cases, still are inhabited by members of the Inuit nation. According to their traditional lore, the seas around at least two of these islands are home to a very mysterious, and allegedly highly dangerous, marine creature known as the tizheruk to the Inuits that once lived on tiny King Island (the entire population had resettled on the Alaskan mainland by 1970), and as the pal rai yuk to those still living on the much larger Nunivak Island.

In his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), pioneering American cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal (until his retirement working in an official capacity as a biochemist at the University of Chicago) noted that the Inuits originally inhabiting King Island had provided a detailed account of the greatly-feared tizheruk to ethnologist Dr John White, formerly of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Based upon this information, which he shared with Mackal, White revealed that only the tizheruk's head and neck are usually observed, which rear 7-8 ft out of the water. The head is snake-like in appearance, and on the rare occasions when the tail is visible it can be seen to bear a flipper at its end. These animals are generally encountered in the bay areas, less frequently in the open sea, and by placing their ears against the inside of their boats the Inuits can hear them coming up for air. Moreover, if they tap against their boats, the sound often attracts these animals, their curiosity bringing them closer as they seek to discover the tapping noise's nature – not that the Inuits make a point of attracting tizheruks, however, because they claim that these creatures will actively attack humans, and they recounted numerous episodes to White in which hunters had reputedly been killed by them.

Artistic representation of the tizheruk (© Hodari Nundu)

Mackal considered that the tizheruk was most probably a scientifically-unknown species of long-necked seal, and went on to suggest a more specific identity for it that is extremely thought-provoking. Namely, a currently-undiscovered northern counterpart of the Antarctic's (in)famously aggressive leopard seal Hydrurga leptonyx (aka the sea leopard).

Generally up to 12 ft long, weighing as much as 1300 lb, named after its throat's spotting, possessing a visibly elongate neck (especially when striking prey or stretching it to look at something – click here to view a very famous and truly spectacular example of its neck-elongating behaviour), and belonging to the phocid (earless) family of seals, this formidable beast is the second largest seal species indigenous to the Antarctic – only the southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina is bigger. It is also voraciously carnivorous, second only to the killer whale as the Antarctic's top predator, preying upon creatures as large as fur seals and emperor penguins.

A leopard seal stretching its neck to peer down into the sea, revealing how elongate it can become (© Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikipedia)

Moreover, those cryptozoologists favouring a reptilian rather than any mammalian identity for long-necked marine cryptids can take at least a crumb of comfort from the fact that, as commented upon by many scientists and laymen alike over the years, the leopard seal is startlingly reptilian in superficial appearance. This is especially true when seen on land, across which it can move at a remarkable speed by vertical wriggling.

In his book Sea Elephant: The Life and Death of the Elephant Seal (1952), British marine mammalogist L. Harrison Matthews penned the following memorable description of the leopard seal's very distinctive mode of terrestrial locomotion and its reptile-like mien while performing it, based upon his first-hand observation of this fascinating species at South Georgia:

And when it moves the resemblance [to a snake] is heightened for, unlike every other sort of seal, it holds the foreflippers closely pressed to the body and makes no use of them to help itself along – it wriggles with an up-and-down looping movement, pressing the chest and the pelvic region to the ground alternately.

Leopard seal wriggling via vertical undulations across some ice with its front flippers pressed tightly and almost invisibly against its body (public domain)

One of the best descriptions of this rapacious mammal's surprisingly reptilian  appearance coupled with its notoriously savage nature can be found in Alfred Lansing's book Endurance: The True Story of Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic (1959). It documents the history of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's third and final Antarctic expedition, the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17, during which his ship Endurance was lost, resulting in the expedition having to spend months camped upon an ice floe hunting seals and penguins in order to survive. Lansing's book includes an evocative account of a terrifying attack upon expedition member Thomas Orde-Lees one day in March 1916 by a ferocious, very tenacious, and extremely cunning leopard seal of exceptional size:

Returning from a hunting trip, Orde-Lees, travelling on skis across the rotting surface of the ice, had just about reached camp when an evil, knob like head burst out of the water just in front of him. He turned and fled, pushing as hard as he could with his ski poles and shouting for Wild to bring his rifle.

The animal – a sea leopard – sprang out of the water and came after him, bounding across the ice with the peculiar rocking-horse gait of a seal on land. The beast looked like a small dinosaur, with a long, serpentine neck.

After a half-dozen leaps, the sea leopard had almost caught up with Orde-Lees when it unaccountably wheeled and plunged again into the water. By then. Orde-Lees had nearly reached the opposite side of the floe; he was about to cross to safe ice when the sea leopard's head exploded out of the water directly ahead of him. The animal had tracked his shadow across the ice. It made a savage lunge for Orde-Lees with its mouth open, revealing an enormous array of saw like teeth. Orde-Lees' shouts for help rose to screams and he turned and raced away from his attacker.

The animal leaped out of the water again in pursuit just as Wild arrived with his rifle. The sea leopard spotted Wild, and turned to attack him. Wild dropped to one knee and fired again and again at the onrushing beast. It was less than 30 feet away when it finally dropped.

Two dog teams were required to bring the carcass into camp. It measured 12 feet long, and they estimated its weight at about 1,100 pounds…The sea leopard's jawbone, which measured nearly 9 inches across, was given to Orde-Lees as a souvenir of his encounter.

In his diary that night, [fellow expedition member Frank] Worsley observed: "A man on foot in soft, deep snow and unarmed would not have a chance against such an animal as they almost bound along with a rearing, undulating motion at least five miles an hour. They attack without provocation, looking on man as a penguin or seal" .

If, as postulated by Mackal, a creature comparable in form and ferocity to the leopard seal existed in the Bering Strait, it would certainly make a plausible identity for the tizheruk.

Leopard seal photographed on land in 1910 during the Terra Nova (British Antarctic) Expedition 1910-1912 (public domain)

Moreover, it is well known that leopard seals are very inquisitive. Quoting Matthews again from his elephant seal book:

Many a time when I have been fishing with the pram moored to the floating kelp I have brought a leopard [seal] right alongside by playing on its curiosity – if you tap gently and regularly with a rowlock on the gunwale or thwart you very soon find any leopard that may be near swimming alongside and looking up into your face.

Needless to say, this instantly recalls the identical activity carried out by the Inuits and the identical response to it given by the tizheruk.

Concluding his book's tizheruk coverage, Mackal speculated that this cryptid may resemble an enlarged version of the leopard seal in general appearance, but more specialised in that it either lacks forelimbs completely (as the Inuits seem not to mention them in their lore relating to it), or possesses reduced versions that it keeps folded tightly against its body when seen out of the water (just as the leopard seal does), rendering them virtually invisible and thus enhancing its superficially serpentine appearance.

Most southern hemisphere seals have a northern hemisphere counterpart of sorts, thereby making the leopard seal a noteworthy exception – unless its northern hemisphere counterpart is simply awaiting formal discovery, meanwhile living in scientific anonymity amid the chilling waters around certain islands in the Bering Sea?


As noted at the beginning of Part 1 of this ShukerNature blog article, whereas plesiosaurs do at least have a fossil record substantiating their erstwhile existence, there is no evidence whatsoever in the currently-known fossil record for the existence at any time in pinniped history of an extreme, veritable giraffe-necked form like Megalotaria as predicted by Heuvelmans et al. as the identity of aquatic longnecks. Indeed, the only confirmed evidence for the former existence of any seals possessing necks that were in any way longer than those of modern-day species is the series of fossil remains from the so-called swan-necked seals belonging to the extinct phocid genus Acrophoca.

Acrophoca longirostris skeleton at the Smithsonian Institution of Natural History (© Ryan Somma/Wikipedia)

But just how long were their necks, and were they long enough to justify their popular 'swan-necked' tag? Dating from the late Miocene to early Pliocene (approximately 7-4 million years ago), the first species to be discovered and named was Acrophoca longirostris, which was formally described by palaeontologist Dr Christian de Muizon in 1981, and whose fossils have been uncovered in Chile and Peru. It measured up to 5 ft in total length, and in Muizon's description he revealed that both the length of its cervical vertebrae and the total length of its cervical column exceeded those of all modern-day seals. Moreover, its cervical column length was approximately 21% of its total vertebral column length, whereas in modern-day seals it is generally 17-19%. Its skull was also noticeably lengthy (hence its species name, longirostris).

Yet although the neck of A. longirostris was proportionately longer, it was not as streamlined as the neck of what may well be its closest modern-day relative – the leopard seal. Moreover, its flippers were less well-developed, a second characteristic indicating that it was less adapted for swimming than the leopard seal, and that it may therefore have spent much of its time around the Pacific's coasts rather than out at sea (a behavioural preference that, if true, has been perpetuated by the leopard seal, in spite of its more specialised form for swimming).

Acrophoca longirostris depicted in a mural at the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe in Germany (© Markus Bühler)

As for its 'swan-necked' appellation: in a Tetrapod Zoology blog article of 4 February 2006 dealing with Acrophoca, palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish stated that because the necks of seals are sufficiently flexible to exhibit a marked lengthening effect when they lunge at prey, stretch, or spy-hop:

…when alive, Acrophoca would have been capable of looking even longer in the neck than we might think just from its fossils. But clearly it’s a stretch [pun intended?!] to imagine this animal as having a long long long neck like a swan, or a plesiosaur, so, sadly, ‘swan-necked seal’ really is a bit of an exaggeration.

In 2002, with fellow palaeontologist Dr Stig A. Walsh, Naish co-described what appeared to be a new, second Acrophoca species, based upon fossils retrieved in Chile, but they declined to give it a formal scientific name. This was because substantial new fossil material hailing from Peru suggested the presence of several additional Acrophoca species, so it was felt best to await their full description first. Interestingly, one of these new species had an even longer skull than A. longirostris, so it may have looked more unusual than the latter.


Ironically, however, we do not even have to look back into prehistory to uncover bona fide, fully-verified long-necked seals. So far, this two-part article has been assessing attempts by various cryptozoologists down through the ages to propose as the identity of longneck aquatic cryptids the existence of a highly-specialised species of seal whose defining characteristic is its long neck. In reality, however, what is not readily realised is that science has already confirmed the existence of several such species – species, moreover, which are actually alive today. But how can this be? Allow me to explain.

With the notable exception of the leopard seal's well-delineated neck, in most modern-day seal species the neck is largely hidden, often concealed by blubber, to the point of seeming to be all but non-existent in certain forms. A close examination of such species' skeletons, conversely, reveals a very different – and extremely surprising – picture.

On 15 March 2013, American biologist Cameron A. McCormick's blog Biological Marginalia posted a fascinating article entitled 'The hidden necks of seals', containing a table of measurements obtained from a range of different pinniped species. For each species, the length of its neck was given as a percentage of the combined length of its thoracic and lumbar (T-L) vertebrae, and the results were quite remarkable to read. Using this comparison, the bearded seal Erignathus barbatus had the shortest neck among phocids, at only 21% T-L, whereas the harp seal Pagophilus groenlandicus boasted the longest neck, at 35% T-L – exceeding even the leopard seal's 29% T-L. As for otariids, the shortest neck was that of the Australian sea-lion Neophoca cinerea at 34.5% T-L, and the longest was that of the northern fur seal Callorhinus ursinus at 41% T-L.

An adult bull specimen of the northern fur seal (public domain)

But what was most significant was that even the shortest necks were actually much longer than they outwardly appeared to be in the living animal. So in a very real sense, some already-known, modern-day seal species are actually cryptic long-necked seals, or, to be precise, hidden-neck long-necked seals.

In view of this unexpected revelation, one can scarcely even begin to guess at what the neck percentage T-L value might be for a giraffe-necked, Megalotaria-type of long-necked seal – especially when we take into account (judging at least from the above data) that there may be an additional neck portion hidden from sight beneath blubber at its basal region. In fact, such an exceptionally long neck could well be of truly plesiosaurian proportions!


Prior to the establishment of the Journal of Cryptozoology in 2012, the appearance in a peer-reviewed academic journal of a paper dealing with cryptids was probably just as rare as the beasts documented in it. This is why, back in late 2008 (and in June 2009 online), the publication by the mainstream scientific journal Historical Biology of a paper contemplating the possible existence of still-undiscovered pinniped species was of particular note – and, one hopes, an indication of increasing mainstream approval for serious cryptozoological research.

Authored by Drs Darren Naish and Michael A. Woodley (the latter being a Royal Holloway, University of London postgraduate biology student at that time), both with well known cryptozoological interests, together with Royal Holloway computer scientist Dr Hugh P. Shanahan, it was entitled ‘How many extant pinniped species remain to be described?’. In it, the authors examined the description record of the pinnipeds using non-linear and logistic regression models in an attempt to ascertain the number of still-undescribed species, and they combined that work with an evaluation of cryptozoological data, featuring such alleged pinniped cryptids as the longneck sea serpent, the merhorse, Vancouver’s serpentiform Cadborosaurus, and the tizheruk.

Artistic representation of Cadborosaurus as an exceedingly serpentiform pinniped-like cryptid (© Richard Svensson)

From the results obtained, they revealed that three possibly new, currently undescribed species of pinniped match their statistical expectations, but even these, the authors felt, would need to possess some exceptional characteristics if they do indeed exist.

A giraffe-proportioned neck combined with huge body size would certainly be exceptional, but for all the reasons presented and assessed in this two-part article, it seems to me at least that these would be highly improbable characteristics for a seal species to possess and yet remain undiscovered by science, especially if it did indeed occur in both marine and freshwater habitats. Consequently, I am not expecting to witness the formal scientific discovery of a Megalotaria-type pinniped any day soon – but how I would love to be proved wrong!


As readers of this article will no doubt have realised by now, I am definitely not a proponent of the giraffe-necked, Megalotaria-type giant seal as an identity for any aquatic cryptid. Consequently, I would like nothing more than to jettison it as far away from my thoughts as possible when reviewing such creatures, but there is one tantalising case that always prevents me from doing so – and this is it.

The Orkney Islands and Caithness on the mainland of northern Scotland are separated by a strait of seawater known as the Pentland Firth, which is a popular habitat for seals throughout the year. Two species are known to occur here, the common seal and the grey seal Halichoerus grypus – but at about 9.30 am on or around 5 August 1919, off the Orkney island of Hoy, what seems to have been a third, and dramatically different, seal species also made an appearance in this strait, to the astonishment of its eyewitnesses. These consisted of a holidaying lawyer named J. Mackintosh Bell and some local cod fishermen friends of his whom he had chosen to work with on their boat while visiting the Orkneys. His friends had seen the creature before, were very perplexed as to what it might be, and had actually just begun to tell him about it in the hope that he may be able to identify what it was when the subject of their conversation abruptly appeared, not far away from the boat that they were in.

Lieutenant-Commander Rupert T. Gould of Britain's Royal Navy investigated and documented aquatic monsters in his spare time, and after learning about this sighting he contacted Bell and asked him for full details. Bell duly forwarded an in-depth account, which Gould later published in slightly abbreviated form within his book The Case For the Sea-Serpent (1930). Four years later, moreover, Gould wrote the first comprehensive study of Nessie, entitled The Loch Ness Monster and Others, spending several days at the loch, travelling around it on his motorbike, and interviewing many eyewitnesses during his researches for this book.

The Case For the Sea-Serpent, Singing Tree Press's 1969 reprint (© Singing Tree Press)

As far as I am aware, Bell's original, full-length account has never appeared in print, but here is the slightly abbreviated version of it that Gould published in his sea serpent book:

The very first day I was there, I think it was about 5 August, I went afloat with a crew of four at about 9.30 a.m. for the purpose of firstly lifting lobster creels and then for cod fishing. On making our way to the creels, which had been set in a line between Brims Ness and Tor Ness, my friends said "We wonder if we will see that sea monster which we often see, and perhaps you will be able to tell us what it is."

We got to the creels, hauled some, and were moving slowly with the motor to another, when my friends said very quietly "There he is."

I looked, and sure enough about 25—30 yards from the boat a long neck as thick as an elephant's fore leg, all rough-looking like an elephant's hide, was sticking up. On top of this was the head which was much smaller in proportion, but of same colour. The head was like that of a dog, coming sharp to the nose. The eye was black and small, and the whiskers were black. The neck, I should say, stuck about 5-6 ft., possibly more, out of the water.

The animal was very shy, and kept pushing its head up then pulling it down, but never going quite out of sight. The body I could not then see. Then it dis­appeared, and I said "If it comes again I'll take a snapshot of it." Sure enough it did come and I took as I thought a snap of it, but on looking at the camera shutter, I found it had not closed owing to its being swollen, so I did not get a photo. I then said "I'll shoot it" (with my .303 rifle) but the skipper would not hear of it in case I wounded it, and it might attack us.

It disappeared, and as was its custom swam close alongside the boat about 10 feet down. We all saw it plainly, my friends remarking that they had seen it many times swimming just the same way after it had shown itself on the surface. My friends told me that they had seen it the year before just about the same place. It was a common occurrence, so they said. 'That year (1919) was the last of several years in which they saw it annually. It did not show itself again for two or three years, and then it was only seen once. As to its body, it was, seen below the water, dark brown, getting slightly lighter as it got to the outer edge, then at the edge appeared to be almost grey. It had two paddles or fins on its sides and two at its stern. My friends thought it would weigh 2 or 3 tons, some thinking 4 to 6. Not only my friends, but others, lobster fishing, got many chances of seeing it. . .

I may say that since 1919 all cod and other deep-sea coarse fish have left the Pentland Firth. I think the reason is that such monsters frequent the rocky caves, which are always covered by deep water. My friends think the animal may have been killed by a passing steamer, but I think it is possibly a native of warmer seas, and that if we get a really hot summer it will be seen again.

Bell also furnished Gould with two sketches that he had drawn of the animal, one showing how it looked when swimming underwater, plus a map of the approximate location where they had seen it. This was on the northern side of the Pentland Firth, roughly 1.6 miles north-westward of Tor Ness, the southern point of the Orkney island of Hoy, and about an eighth of a mile offshore, in some 20 fathoms of water.

Bell's sketch of the creature that showed its head and very long neck (public domain)

When Gould wrote to Bell requesting the approximate dimensions of the creature, Bell provided the following additional details:

. . . Dimensions. Neck, so far as seen, say 6—7 feet. Body never seen when neck straight up, but just covered by the water. You could detect the paddles causing the water to ripple. When under water, swimming, the body, I think, to the end of the tail flappers would be about 12 ft. long - and, if the neck were stretched to say 8ft., the neck and body 18—20 ft. long. The skipper of the boat remarked that sometimes the top of the head, when seen from a boat vertically, was a bright red. Neck thickness say 1 foot diameter : Head very like a black retriever — say 6" long by 4" broad. Whiskers black and short. Circumference of body say 10-11 feet, but this I am not sure of, as I never saw all round it, but it would be 4-5 ft. across the back. . .

Needless to say, everything about this creature, both in Bell's verbal accounts and in his sketches, screams out "Seal!!" – very long neck notwithstanding.

Bell's sketch of the creature that showed its appearance when swimming underwater (public domain)

When documenting it in his 2007 review of the long-necked seal concept, Robert Cornes stated: "If this account is true and there appears no reason to think otherwise, then it is arguably the most convincing for the existence of a seal with a long neck". Indeed it is, because if Bell's testimony and sketches are accurate, it is difficult to comprehend how the creature that he and his friends saw could have been anything other than a seal – and an exceptionally, extraordinarily long-necked one at that.

It is for this reason, if for no other, that the concept of the long-necked seal, even in its most bizarre, giraffe-necked manifestation, continues to frustrate and fascinate me in equal measure, and seems destined to do so for a long time to come.

A delightful cartoon seeing the funny side of the long-necked seal, in every sense! (© William Rebsamen)

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Here's Nessie!: A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness.


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HEUVELMANS, Bernard (1968). In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Rupert Hart-Davis (London).

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  1. Thank you very much Karl, a very thought-provoking and detailed analysis. If one takes all the sightings compiled over the years, with some Champs and Caddies thrown in for good measure...who can tell what it may point to....probably not 9 different large aquatic cryptids for sure, but possibly 1 or 2.

    I often wonder, and it isn't a theory I can recall being discussed very often in this context, if gigantism (a condition characterized by excessive growth and height significantly above average caused for example by over-production of growth hormone) is not an interesting explanation for many of the more interesting sightings of mysterious creatures. We know from humans and other creatures that from time to time, nature pops up unusual variants of known species, either with outsized parts (e.g. mutations), dwarf or giant versions of the normal type, or even specimens with both sets of differences. The long passage of time and the sheer numbers of animals to have lived would suggest that maybe (probably?) giant or misshapen specimens of eels, seals, whales, cephalopods or whatever have inhabited lakes and seas from time to time, their rarity probably excluding them from the fossil record. Presumably genetically these will be one-offs rather than a viable genetic breeding population, so explaining why we don't see (whatever the collective pronoun is) of Nessies swimming across lakes and seas, and why sightings are so rare. The J. Mackintosh Bell example (1919) is a case in point, a singular animal seen infrequently but repeatedly and then vanishing. The Gloucester Massachusetts 'sea serpent' example (1817) again suggests that maybe the same creature was seen by many people over a number of years.

    Agreed, it is a bit of a stretch to see how such mutations could create a creature so distinct from its type that it looks more plesiosaur-like, for example, than its normal version, but even if the chances of such mutations are very low indeed, given how many seals (for example) have lived over the last 400 years, maybe a dozen or so did look rather unusual and perchance 1 or 2 of these were observed......
    Adam Barak, Southampton

    1. Hi Adam, Glad that you enjoyed my articles so much. Yes, gigantism certainly occurs across a wide range of animals, but, just as you say, the problem in reconciling a giant long-necked seal with gigantism is how the latter could create a creature so distinct (via its long neck) from a normal seal or sea-lion. All the best, Karl

  2. I had a thought. It is likely an unoriginal thought, which has at some time been dissected by those more knowledgeable of anatomy and physiology than I am, but if so I've never encountered it.
    If some existing seal species have a relatively long neck that goes unnoticed due to the amount of fur and blubber surrounding it, what would an individual who for some reason has lost a part of their blubber look like? Either due to disease, metabolism issues, mutation? What would their neck look like?
    If a bear without fat deposits can be mistaken for a wolfman, then a seal without fat deposits could be mistaken for something reptilian, no?
    Now that I write this though, I think I understand why this thought has not come across professional literature more often, seeing as seals need their blubber to stay warm so an anomalous specimen would be unlikely to survive. Nonetheless I think of it as a fascinating thought to mull over...

    1. It's an interesting idea certainly, but if such a creature with this condition existed, its very strange outward appearance (as exemplified by the naked bears) would certainly have been noticed and commented upon, whereas in contrast Heuvelmans noted that some eyewitnesses specifically noted that the long-neck seemed to have rolls of fat or blubber.

  3. These articles reminded me of some striking images I'd seen of leopard seals.