Showing the great pink sea snail from the film musical 'Doctor Dolittle' (Dr Karl Shuker)
In Part 1 of this article, I documented the pushmi-pullyu – the most famous of several cryptozoologically-relevant animals featured in Hugh Lofting’s delightful series of Doctor Dolittle children’s novels. Now, in Part 2, I investigate some extremely sizeable aquatic examples.
THE GIANT SEA SNAIL
Second only to the pushmi-pullyu as the best-known Dolittle-associated literary cryptid, the great sea snail – or, to give it its full title in the novels, the great glass sea snail – was the subject of the good Doctor’s highly eventful sea quest to Spidermonkey Island, off the Brazilian coast, in Hugh Lofting’s second Dolittle novel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922). Here is how he was first described to the Doctor, by a small round aquarium fish called the silver fidgit:
“He is an enormous salt-water snail, one of the winkle family, but as large as a big house. He talks quite loudly when he speaks, but this is not often. He can go to any part of the ocean, at all depths because he doesn't have to be afraid of any creature in the sea. His shell is made of transparent mother-o'-pearl so that you can see through it; but it's thick and strong. When he is out of his shell and he carries it empty on his back, there is room in it for a wagon and a pair of horses. He has been seen carrying his food in it when traveling... He is the only one in existence, since his second wife died long, long ago. He is the last of the Giant Shellfish. He belongs to past ages when the whales were land animals and all that. They say he is over seventy thousand years old."
Winkles (i.e. periwinkles) belong to the gastropod order of molluscs. Needless to say, however, if it were real the great glass sea snail would be inconceivably bigger than any gastropod ever recorded by science. Indeed, even the world’s largest known species of gastropod, the Australian trumpet Syrinx aruanus, a member of the turban shell family, Turbinidae, ‘only’ measures up to 3 ft (90 cm) long and weighs up to 40 lb (18 kg). Also worthy of comment is that normal gastropods are not in the habit of exiting their shells at will and carrying them empty on their backs afterwards! Nor are their shells composed of transparent mother-of-pearl (nacre). All in all, therefore, the great glass sea snail was very clearly (pun intended!) a veritable wonder of the marine world.
The Australian trumpet Syrinx aruanus (Stephanie Dancer/Wikipedia)
And not just any old wonder either, but one of immense cryptozoological significance. For as the Doctor’s venerable and exceedingly knowledgeable parrot, Polynesia, subsequently speculated after finally witnessing at close range the great sea snail’s enormous pink-hued shell in shallow water close to shore:
"“That," whispered Polynesia, "is what sailors for hundreds of years have called the Sea-serpent. I've seen it myself more than once from the decks of ships, at long range, curving in and out of the water. But now that I see it close and still, I very strongly suspect that the Sea-serpent of history is no other than the Great Glass Sea-snail that the fidgit told us of.”
"...Seeing him in his full length like this, it was easy to understand how old-time, superstitious sailors had called him the Sea-serpent. He certainly was a most gigantic, and in his way, a graceful, beautiful creature."
The great glass sea snail as the great sea serpent? Although countless identities have been offered for this most perplexing of cryptids, I can’t recall a giant shell-sporting gastropod being among them. Then again, the Doctor’s unique linguistic skills gave him access to inside information from the animal kingdom that today’s cryptozoologists – and zoologists – can only dream of.
Consequently, it would appear that long before the likes of Oudemans, Heuvelmans, and other modern-day cryptozoologists had even considered the problem, the riddle of the great sea serpent’s identity had already been conclusively solved by Doctor Dolittle. What a guy!
Intriguingly, just as the pushmi-pullyu underwent a notable transformation between the original Lofting novels and the 20th Century Fox Studios film musical – metamorphosing from a horned African descendant of the gazelle and the unicorn lineages into a hornless Tibetan species whose morphology now more readily allied it with the llamas – so too did the great glass sea snail.
Out went its shell’s transparent appearance and its occurrence in the sea around Spidermonkey Island, and in came an opaque version whose pink colouration was emphasised instead, and a completely new location too, this time in the vicinity of Sea Star Island - a unique floating isle that could turn up anywhere in the world but which was presently lying just off the African coastline. The scenes on Sea Star Island were actually filmed on the tropical Caribbean island of St Lucia, and in view of its dramatic change in colour scheme, the great glass sea snail was referred to in the film as the great pink sea snail. However, it was still of gargantuan size, and transported all of the good Doctor’s human and animal friends back home to England within its shell’s capacious inner chambers. The Doctor himself, meanwhile, remained on Sea Star Island for a time, but was later borne through the skies to England by another exceedingly large - and equally noteworthy - cryptozoological creature, which I’ll be documenting in Part 3 of this article.
Moby Dick - the great white whale, star of the famous novel by Herman Melville
I was seven years old when the film musical was released in Britain in 1967, and on the day that my father took me to see it at the local cinema I was in a state of great excitement, especially as my mother had told me to make sure that I didn’t miss seeing “the great pink whale”. Sadly, however, despite paying particular attention throughout the film (no mean feat in itself, as its running time was a rather lengthy 152 minutes), I never did spot this wonderful yet evidently highly-elusive creature – but for good reason. When, returning home afterwards, I told my mother that I hadn’t spotted it, she confessed, in a rather embarrassed state, that she had somehow confused Dolittle’s great pink snail with another famous oceanic mega-beast – Moby Dick, the great white whale! Thus was born the great pink whale - albeit neither in nature nor on screen, but at least for a short time in my mother’s hazy recollection and, as a result, in my own enthusiastic imagination. A pity, really, as a great pink whale would almost certainly have been an even more amazing sight than either a great pink snail or a great white whale!
The exceedingly elusive great pink whale!
Still, for a nascent cryptozoologist like I already was, even at the tender age of seven, the film musical did afford one especially memorable and unexpected delight. When the Doctor was discussing with travelling companion Emma Fairfax (a character, incidentally, created specifically for the film as a gentle love interest for him) how the great pink sea snail could easily take all of his friends, including Emma herself, back home to their Westcountry village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in England, he revealed that this remarkable sea-beast had an equally remarkable – and famous – freshwater relative:
Dolittle: “He told me he’d been planning to visit his cousin in Scotland for 300 years and kept putting it off. It’d be a great opportunity for him.”
Fairfax: “His cousin in Scotland?”
Dolittle: “Yes, you’ve heard of the Loch Ness monster?”
Dolittle: “Well, that’s a cousin.”
Fairfax: “Good Heavens!”
So not only had Doctor Dolittle solved the mystery of the great sea serpent, he was also clearly au fait with Nessie! Perhaps, therefore, the world was a little hasty anointing Heuvelmans as ‘the Father of Cryptozoology’! As for the great sea snail having famous family - well, just imagine, the Loch Ness monster, no less, as a cousin! What a small world it is!
LIVING DINOSAURS AND A METHUSELIAN MEGA-TURTLE
Staying with freshwater cryptids: in Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office (1924), the good Doctor journeyed to the small tropical African kingdom of Fantippo, to establish a mail service. During his time there, he paid a visit to a small, mysterious offshore island known as No-Man’s-Land, where, according to the Fantippan people, dreadful dragons reputedly existed. During his sea-voyage to it, his ship was wrecked, but the good Doctor and his dog Jip were rescued by one of these so-called dragons, which turned out to be something even more notable:
At length the extraordinary creature that had come to their rescue reached the island, and with Jip and the Doctor still clinging to his wide back, he crawled out of the water on to the beach...
The tremendous animal which the Fantippans had called a dragon had now climbed right up the beach and was standing fully revealed in all his strangeness. At first he looked like some curious mixture between a crocodile and a giraffe. He had short, spreading legs, but enormously long tail and neck. On his head were two stubby little horns...
‘How very interesting!’ said the Doctor. ‘Naturalists have thought your kind of animal are no longer living, you know. You are quiffenodochi, are you not?’
‘Oh no,’ said the beast. ‘The quiffenodochus has gone long ago. We are the piffilosaurus. We have six toes on the back feet, while the quiffenodochi, our cousins, have only five. They died out about two thousand years ago.’
‘But where are the rest of your people?’ asked the Doctor. ‘I thought you said that many of you had swum out to rescue us.’
‘They did,’ said the piffilosaurus; ‘but they kept hidden under the water, lest the natives on the shore should see...While I was bringing you here they were swimming all around you under the water, ready to help if I needed them. They have gone around to the secret cove so that they may come ashore unseen...’
Doctor Dolittle and the piffilosaurus.
In short, decades before the amphibious long-necked mokele-mbembe began to hit the cryptozoological headlines in a big way, Doctor Dolittle had already encountered a company of living sauropods! Nor was that his only reptilian revelation.
The Doctor’s final adventure in the Post Office novel was his truly historic expedition to Junganyika, the Secret Lake, which no human had ever before seen, hidden away amid some of tropical Africa’s wildest, densest, and least accessible mangrove swamps. His guide was a snake so enormous that South American cryptozoology’s colossal sucuriju gigante or giant anaconda seems positively puny in comparison. And his goal was to meet Mudface - a huge turtle, measuring fully 12 ft across his shell, who lived upon a mud pile rising up above the Secret Lake’s water surface, and was also the world’s oldest living creature, having been alive at the time of Noah’s Ark.
Moreover, in the tenth novel of the Dolittle duodecalogue series, Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1949), much of its content was devoted to Mudface’s very detailed, extensive account of events as witnessed by him prior to and during the Great Flood.
Mudface was fictitious, but he certainly calls to mind the now-famous giant turtles inhabiting a lake in the centre of Hanoi, capital city of Vietnam. Here is what I have written about these fascinating if taxonomically-contentious reptiles in the soon-to-be-published third incarnation of my Lost Ark/New Zoo series of volumes dealing with new and rediscovered animals of modern times:
"TURNING TURTLE IN HANOI
"During the past five centuries, Hoan Kiem Lake, a small alga-choked but seemingly well-oxygenated expanse of freshwater situated in the centre of modern-day Hanoi, Vietnam, has been associated with legends and stories of giant turtles (i.e. freshwater tortoises), and for many years at least three such creatures have been regularly reported here. On 24 March 1998, however, events escalated when a passing cameraman succeeded in filming three of them with his videocamera while they surfaced to gulp air.
"After the film had been shown on television, Hanoi National University biologist Professor Ha Dinh Duc announced that he had been studying these outsized chelonians since 1991, and believed that they constitute a new species. Conversely, a number of other herpetologists consider them to be conspecific with Pelochelys bibroni, but this identification was discounted by Dr Peter C.H. Pitchard, co-chairman of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group within the Survival Specialist Commission (SSC), after he had visited Hanoi to view them himself. Instead, he announced that in his opinion: "...these turtles are either an outlying population of the Chinese species Trionyx [=Rafetus] swinhoei or that they are a new species. Certainly they are not Pelochelys bibroni". This conclusion was also favoured by Dr Patrick P. McCord, a leading U.S. expert on soft-shelled freshwater tortoises, of which R. swinhoei is one such species. Accordingly, Prof. Duc later dubbed the Hoan Kiem turtles ‘Rafetus hoankiemensis’, thereby classing them as a distinct species within the existing genus Rafetus, which in 2000 he formally named R. leloii.
"A stuffed specimen, preserved almost 40 years ago, is currently on exhibition at a small temple on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. According to Duc, R. leloii is the world's largest freshwater tortoise, attaining lengths of up to 6.5 ft and weights of up to 440 lb, with a greenish-brown carapace, pink belly, a green and yellow football-sized head, downcast mouth, oval shell, and peeling skin.
"However, there have already been claims that the narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle Chitra indica (another Asian freshwater tortoise) can attain lengths of 6 ft. In any event, the existence of what could be a new species of very sizeable reptile remaining 'undetected' by science while existing in full view of downtown urban Hanoi's teeming populace is sufficiently noteworthy in itself to encourage further investigation of these remarkable animals - especially as they may be the only representatives of their kind. Having said that, in 2003 herpetologists Drs B. Farkas and R.G. Webb published a paper in which they denounced R. leloii as an invalid species, reclassifying its trio of representatives as specimens of R. swinhoei."
So far in this series of articles, I have documented a remarkable twin-headed land beast, and some equally astonishing aquatic cryptids. In the third and final part, I shall be examining a trio of truly incredible ‘things with wings’ that Doctor Dolittle has encountered during his numerous and very varied exploits around the globe – and beyond!
A day after I posted this article, Jonathan Downes added a fascinating disclosure on the CFZ bloggo - namely, that although no great pink whale ever appeared in the Doctor Dolittle novels, one such creature did occur in a notable children's novel by acclaimed authoress Joan Aiken. A pink sperm whale called Rosie, she featured in (and also on the front cover of) Night-Birds On Nantucket (1966). Click here for full details. Thanks, Jon!