Artistic reconstruction of Owen Burnham's discovery of the Gambian sea serpent carcase (© William M. Rebsamen)
Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?! As I write this introduction to the present ShukerNature blog article, I can scarcely believe that over 30 years have gone by since I penned what became my very first investigative cryptozoological article, published as a two-parter in the September and October 1986 issues of a now long-defunct British magazine, The Unknown. And what was my article's subject? Why, none other than a certain mysterious sea beast found dead a few years earlier on a beach in The Gambia, West Africa - the very same creature whose extraordinary history I am writing about now. Clearly, time not only flies but also on occasion takes delight in looping the loop!
Back in 1986, I became the first cryptozoologist to write about the Gambian sea serpent, and went on to document it further in a number of other publications, including various of my books, but most extensively of all within my two works on putative prehistoric survivors – In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016). Indeed, it was this remarkable case that single-handedly (or even single-flipperedly!) transformed me into a full-time independent researcher and writer on the ever-fascinating subject of mystery beasts. Although I have since investigated and duly introduced a very sizeable number of other hitherto little-publicised or wholly-unpublicised cryptids to the general international reading public, Gambo (as it was subsequently dubbed, although not by me – see later) remains one of the most intriguing, tantalising, and controversial cryptids that I have ever investigated.
My two books (not shown to scale) documenting putative prehistoric survivors (© Dr Karl Shuker/Blandford Press / (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)
Needless to say, therefore, it came as quite a shock when recently I suddenly realised to my considerable embarrassment that apart from a single exceedingly brief mention of its case in a Loch Ness monster article (click here to read it), I had never documented the Gambian sea serpent on ShukerNature. Consequently, in order to make very belated amends for this major oversight on my part, I have great pleasure in presenting herewith my complete coverage of this thoroughly captivating and still-unresolved cryptid from my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors. Please welcome Gambo, the very mysterious stranger on the shore that launched my cryptozoological career. I'm sure that Mr Acker Bilk would have approved. (You need to be of a certain age and musical persuasion to comprehend that comment!)
Incidentally, the coining of the name 'Gambo', by which the Gambian sea serpent is nowadays very commonly referred to colloquially in cryptozoological circles, is often mistakenly attributed to me, but here is the true origin of this famous mystery beast moniker. It made its debut within the title ('Gambo – The Beaked Beast of Bungalow Beach') of a three-page Fortean Times article prepared in-house but credited to me as it constituted a condensed version of my two-part article from 1986 in The Unknown, and was published in FT's February/March 1993 issue (#67). Significantly, therefore, I did not directly pen either the FT article itself (within whose second paragraph of main text 'Gambo' was specifically introduced by whoever did pen it as the name by which this cryptid would be referred to thereafter within the article) or its title. Consequently, whoever the FT person was who did is also, therefore, the person who coined the now-iconic name 'Gambo', and, in so doing, serendipitously created a little snippet of cryptozoological history, but their identity has never been disclosed (at least not to me, anyway!).
The Fortean Times article of February/March 1993 on the Gambian sea serpent, credited to me, and whose FT-penned title constitutes the very first, now-historic appearance of the name 'Gambo' - please click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker/Fortean Times)
It all began on 12 June 1983, when wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham and three family members encountered the carcase of a huge sea creature, washed up onto Bungalow Beach in The Gambia, West Africa. Most sea monster remains are discovered in an advanced state of decomposition, greatly distorting their appearance and making positive identification very difficult, but the carcase found by Burnham was exceptional, as apparently it was largely intact, with no external decomposition.
Subsequently reallocating to England but having lived most of his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, Owen was very familiar with all of that region's major land and sea creatures, but he had never seen anything like this before. Realising its potential zoological significance, he made meticulous sketches and observations of its outward morphology, and noted all of its principal measurements.
My renditions of the Gambian sea serpent, first published in the September and October 1986 issues of The Unknown, and based upon original sketches by Owen Burnham (© Dr Karl Shuker)
In May 1986, BBC Wildlife, a British monthly magazine, published a short account by Owen describing his discovery, and including versions of his original sketches. Greatly interested, I wrote to him, requesting further details, in order to attempt to identify this remarkable creature. During our ensuing correspondence, Owen kindly gave me a comprehensive description (plus his sketches) of its appearance. The following is an edited transcript of Owen's first-hand account of his discovery, prepared from his letters to me of May, June, and July 1986:
I grew up in Senegal (West Africa) and am an honorary member of the Mandinka tribe. I speak the language fluently and this greatly helped me in getting around. I'm very interested in all forms of life and make copious observations on anything unusual.
In the neighbouring country of Gambia we often went on holiday and it was on one such event that I found this remarkable animal.
June 1983. An enormous animal was washed up on the beach during the night and this morning [June 12] at 8.30 am I, my brother and sister and father discovered two Africans trying to sever its head so as to sell the skull to tourists. The site of the discovery was on the beach below Bungalow Beach Hotel. The only river of any significance in the area is the Gambia river. We measured the animal by first drawing a line in the sand alongside the creature then measuring with a tape measure. The flippers and head were measured individually and I counted the teeth. [In the sketches accompanying his description, Burnham provided the following measurements: Total Length = 15-16 ft; Head+Body Length = 10 ft; Tail Length = 4.5-5 ft; Snout Length = 1.5 ft; Flipper Length = 1.5 ft.]
The creature was brown above and white below (to midway down the tail).
The jaws were long and thin with eighty teeth evenly distributed. They were similar in shape to a barracuda's but whiter and thicker (also very sharp). All the teeth were uniform. The animal's jaws were very tightly closed and it was a job to prise them apart.
The jaws were longer than a dolphin's. There was no sign of any blowhole but there were what appeared to be two nostrils at the end of the snout. The creature can't have been dead for long because its eyes were clearly visible and brown although I don't know if this was due to death. (They weren't protruding). The forehead was domed though not excessively. (No ears).
The animal was foul smelling but not falling apart. I've seen dolphins in a similar state after five days (after death) so I estimate it had been dead that long.
The skin surface was smooth, the only area of damage was where one of the flippers (hind) had been ripped off. A large piece of skin was loose. There were no mammary glands present and any male organs were too damaged to be recognizable. The other flipper (hind) was damaged but not too badly. I couldn't see any bones.
I must mention clearly that the animal wasn't falling apart and the only damage was in the area (above) I just mentioned. The only organs I saw were some intestines from the damaged area.
The paddles were round and solid. There were no toes, claws or nails. The body of the creature was distended by gas so I would imagine it to be more streamlined in life. It wasn't noticeably flattened. The tail was rounded [in cross-section], not quite triangular.
Owen Burnham in Kenya's Namanga Hills Forest (© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my Gambo writings)
I didn't (unfortunately) have a camera with me at the time so I made the most detailed observations I could. It was a real shock. I couldn't believe this creature was laying in front of me. I didn't have a chance to collect the head because some Africans came and took the head (to keep skull) to sell to tourists at an exorbitant price. I almost bought it but didn't know how I'd get it to England. The vertebrae were very thick and the flesh dark red (like beef). It took the men twenty minutes of hacking with a machete to sever it.
I asked the men on the scene what the name of this animal was. They were from a fishing community and gave me the Mandinka name kunthum belein. I asked around in many villages along the coast, notably Kap Skirring in Senegal where I once saw a dolphin's head for sale. The name means 'cutting jaws' and is the term for dolphin everywhere. Although I gave good descriptions to native fishermen they said they had never seen it. The name kunthum belein always gave [elicited] a dolphin for reply and drawings they made were clearly that. I also asked at Kouniara, a fishing village further up the Casamance river but with no success. I can only assume that the butchers called it by that name due to its superficial similarities. In Mandinka, similar or unknown animals are given the name of a well known one. For example a serval is called a little leopard. So it obviously wasn't common. I've been on the coast many times and have never seen anything like it again.
I wrote to various authorities. [One] said it was probably a dolphin whose flukes had worn off in the water. This doesn't explain the long pointed tail or lack of dorsal fin (or damage).
[Another] decided it could be the rare Tasmacetus shepherdi [Shepherd's beaked whale] whose tail flukes had worn off. This man mentioned that the blow hole could have closed after death. Again the tail and narrow jaws seem to conflict with this. Tasmacetus's jaws aren't too long and the head itself seems to be smaller than my animal's. Tasmacetus has two fore flippers and none in the pelvic region. The two flippers are quite small in relation to body size and pointed rather than round. Tasmacetus has a dorsal fin and 'my' animal didn't seem to have one or any signs of one having once been there. Tasmacetus even without tail flukes wouldn't have a tail long enough or pointed enough. The tail of the animal I saw was very long. It had a definite point and didn't look suited for a pair of flukes. Apparently, Tasmacetus is brown above and white below and this seems to be the only link between the two animals. I've been to many remote and also popular fishing areas in Senegal and I have seen the decomposing remains of sharks and also dead dolphins and this was so different.
[A third] said it must have been a manatee. I've seen them and believe me it wasn't that. The skin thickness was the same but the resemblance ended there.
Other authorities have suggested crocodiles and such things but as you see from the description it just can't have been.
After I think of the coelacanth I don't like to think what could be at the bottom of the sea. What about the shark (Megachasma) [megamouth shark] which was fished up on an anchor in 1976?
I looked through encyclopedias and every book I could lay hands on and eventually I found a photo of the skull of Kronosaurus queenslandicus which is the nearest thing so far. Unfortunately the skull of that beast is apparently ten feet long and clearly not of my find.
The skeleton of Ichthyosaurus (not head) is quite similar if you imagine the fleshed animal with a pointed tail instead of flukes. I spend hours at the Natural History Museum [in London, England] looking at their small plesiosaurs, many of which are similar.
I'm not looking to find a prehistoric animal, only to try and identify what was the strangest thing I'll ever see. Even now I can remember every minute detail of it. To see such a thing was awesome.
Presented with such an amount of morphological detail, quite a few identities can be examined and discounted straight away - beginning with Tasmacetus shepherdi. Although somewhat dolphin-like in shape, this is a primitive species of beaked whale, described by science as recently as 1937, and known from only a handful of specimens, mainly recorded in New Zealand and Australian waters, but also reported from South Africa. Whereas all other beaked whales possess no more than four teeth (some only have two), Tasmacetus has 80, and its jaws are fairly long and slender.
Line drawing of Shepherd's beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi, showing its general shape, plus its size relative to an average human (© Chris huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
However, the Gambian beast's two pairs of well-developed limbs effectively rule out all modern-day cetaceans as plausible contenders, because these species lack hind limbs. They also eliminate those early prehistoric cetaceans the archaeocetes - even Ambulocetus. For although this palaeontologically-celebrated 'walking whale' did have two well-formed pairs of limbs, unlike the Gambian sea serpent its teeth were only half as many in number, yet of more than one type. The Gambian beast's long tail and dentition effectively ruled out pinnipeds and sirenians from contention too.
Many 'sea monster' carcases have proved, upon close inspection, to be nothing more exciting than badly-decomposed sharks, but as the Gambian beast apparently displayed no notable degree of external decomposition, this 'pseudoplesiosaur' identity was another non-starter.
Artistic reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Kronosaurus queenslandicus (public domain)
Indeed, after studying his detailed letters and sketches, it became clear that, incredibly, the only beasts bearing any close similarity to Owen's Gambian sea serpent were two groups of marine reptilians that officially became extinct 66 million years (or more) ago.
One of these groups consisted of the pliosaurs - thus including among their number the mighty Australian Kronosaurus that Owen himself had mentioned. Yet whereas their nostrils' external openings had migrated back to a position just in front of their eyes, those of the Gambian sea serpent were at the tip of its snout
Artistic reconstructions of the likely appearance in life, plus total size relative to an average human, of four thalattosuchian genera (© Mark T. Young et al., PLoS ONE 7(9): e44985/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The other group constituted the thalattosuchians - always in contention here on account of their slender, non-scaly bodies, paddle-like limbs, and terminally-sited external nostrils. True, their tails possessed a dorsal fin, but a thalattosuchian whose fin had somehow been torn off or scuffed away would bear an amazingly close resemblance to the beast depicted in Owen's sketches. Alternatively, assuming that a thalattosuchian lineage has indeed persisted (and continued to evolve accordingly) into the present day, its members may no longer possess such a fin anyway.
Without any physical remains of the beast available for direct examination, however, its identity can never be categorically confirmed. In 2006, using a map that Owen had prepared for them, a team from the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) that included British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman visited the site in The Gambia where, 23 years earlier, the headless carcase had apparently been buried shortly after Owen had viewed it – but to their horror they discovered that a nightclub had since been built upon that exact same spot! Nevertheless, the team did attempt to do some digging as close as possible to the nightclub, but they did not uncover any remains.
Richard Freeman (left) and other team members from the CFZ's 2006 Gambian expedition digging in search of Gambo's carcase near the nightclub on Bungalow Beach (© CFZ)
As for myself, more than three decades on from my first article on this subject I remain totally open-minded as to what Gambo was. Contrary to a number of claims or assumptions made by others over the years, I have never stated that I believe it to have been a modern-day descendant of a prehistoric reptilian lineage. I have merely stated that, based upon Owen's verbal description and sketches, this is what it most closely resembles – but as the saying goes, appearances can (and often do) deceive. Consequently, without having first examined physical evidence it would be ridiculous to make any firm assertion as to this animal's taxonomic identity – which is why I have never done so.
After all, it is possible (although in my opinion unlikely) that Owen's account and drawings are not very accurate, in which case Gambo may have been nothing more than some ordinary, known species of cetacean after all; or, at most, a previously unknown cetacean species - in which latter case I propose Gambiocetus burnhami gen. nov. sp. nov. ('Burnham's Gambian whale') as a suitable scientific name for it, based upon the detailed morphological description presented by me above. In any event, here's to one record finally – and very firmly – set straight, I trust!
Finally, for those younger readers who may still be perplexed by my oblique reference at this present ShukerNature blog article's onset to Mr Acker Bilk: notable for always including 'Mr' as part of his official stage name, he was a very popular British clarinettist who had many hit singles and albums during the 1960s and 1970s, of which the most famous was his original recording of a certain track that very swiftly became not only his signature tune but also an internationally-successful instrumental standard – 'Stranger on the Shore'.
Written by Bilk for his daughter Jenny, it stayed in the UK singles chart for over a year following its initial release in 1961, was the first British single to hit the number one spot in the modern-day version of the USA's Billboard Hot 100 (which it achieved in 1962), and went on to become the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. So now you know!
Mr Acker Bilk in the 1960s performing 'Live In The Clarence Ballroom' (formerly The Duke Of Clarence Assembly Rooms) (© Marquisofqueensbury/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Owen Burnham most sincerely for so kindly making available to me such a vast quantity of information and other materials concerning Gambo and also a number of other West African cryptids, as well as for his much-valued friendship down through the many years that have passed since our first communications to one another way back in the mid-1980s.