Those highly-modified aquatic mammals known as the sirenians or sea-cows, represented today by the manatees and dugongs, are already well known in cryptozoological circles by virtue of the extensively documented (yet incompletely verified) claim that they are responsible for many mermaid or siren sightings reported from around the world (hence the sea-cows' zoological name - 'sirenian').
Other sirenian claims upon the cryptozoologist's attention include: the possibility that the largest of all modern-day species, the supposedly extinct Steller's sea-cow Hydrodamalis gigas, still survives; the unmasking in 1985 of the ri (an aquatic mystery beast from New Guinea) as the dugong Dugong dugon; the one-time disputed existence of the dugong in Chinese waters; and the likelihood that an unidentified creature reported from various West African lakes and another such animal from eastern South America's Lake Titicaca may constitute unknown species of sirenian. In addition, there is the case presented here, one that had not been previously documented by cryptozoologists until my own writings on this subject were published.
There are three known species of present-day manatee. The Amazon manatee Trichechus inunguis inhabits the estuaries of the Orinoco and the Amazon; the Caribbean manatee T. manatus is distributed from the coasts of Virginia in the southeastern United States to the West Indies and the northern coasts of Brazil; and the African manatee T. senegalensis frequents the coasts and rivers of West Africa from Senegal to Angola. At one time, moreover, there were also persistent reports of putative manatees around the coasts of St Helena, a small south Atlantic island, almost equidistant from South America and Africa.
In view of the fact that there is a region on the southwestern coast of St Helena that is actually named Manatee Bay (sometimes spelt 'Manati'), one could be forgiven for assuming that there was never any uncertainty about these creatures' identity. In reality, however, this entire matter has never been unequivocally resolved, as evinced by the following selection of reports and the highly contradictory opinions that they have elicited.
A melange of manatees exhibiting their varied poses and movements in a vintage engraving (public domain)
As documented in a Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London article from 1935, Cornish traveller Peter Mundy journeyed in 1655 to India on the Aleppo Merchant, and during his return voyage the following year on the same vessel he paid a brief visit to St Helena. While walking along the beach near Chappell Valley, he saw a strange creature lying ashore and apparently severely injured. Mundy went nearer to examine it:
However, when I touched it, [it] raised his forepart, gaping on mee with his wide and terrible jawes. It had the coullor (yellowish) and terrible countenance of a lion, with four greatt teeth, besides smalle, long, bigge smelling hairs or mustaches.
The creature attempted to make its way back to the sea, but Mundy dispatched it with stones. It was evidently very large:
...in length aboutt ten foote and five foote aboutt the middle. Some say it was a seale, others notte. I terme itt a sealionesse, beeing a femall.
In his journal, Mundy included a sketch of this animal (reproduced in Fraser's account), which leaves no doubt that it was indeed a species of pinniped (seals, sea-lions, walruses).
Peter Mundy: Merchant Adventurer – a modern-day history of Mundy, edited by R.E. Pritchard (© Bodleian Library/R.E. Pritchard, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
As uncovered by St Helena resident G.C. Kitching, the Public Records of Jamestown (this island's capital) contain many allusions to alleged manatees or sea-cows (including what appears to be the first usage of the name 'Manatee Bay', which occurred on 27 January 1679). For example, one such record, for 28 August 1682, listed the capture of "several sea-cows"; and on 20 March 1690, another record noted the following incident:
Tuesday, Goodwin and Coales brought up for killing a Sea-Cow, and not paying the Company's Royalty. They desire pardon, and say the Sea-Cow was very small; the oyle would not amount to above four or five gallons.
On 11 May 1691, a record mentioned that a sea-cow had appeared on shore at Windward, just a month before traveller William Dampier visited St Helena. Dampier became most intrigued by the alleged existence of manatees around the island's coasts:
I was also informed that they get Manatee or Sea Cows here, which seemed very strange to me. Therefore inquiring more strictly into the matter, I found the Santa Hellena Manatee to be, by their shapes, and manner of lying ashore on the Rocks, those Creatures called Sea-lyons: for the Manatee never come ashore, neither are they found near any rocky Shores, as this Island is, there being no feeding for them in such places. Besides, in this Island there is no River for them to drink at, tho' there is a small Brook runs into the Sea, out of the Valley by the Fort.
Returning to the records, on 29 August 1716 they reported that 400 lb of ambergris was found in Manatee Bay, and on 11 September 1739 "A Sea-Cow [was] killed upon Old Woman's Valley beach, as it was lying asleep, by Warrall and Greentree".
Steller's sea-lion bull, exhibiting its characteristically leonine mane (© Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
John Barnes's A Tour Through the Island of St. Helena (1817) contains a detailed account of these supposed sirenians as described by reliable observer and St Helena resident Lieutenant Thomas Leech, who identified them as sea-lions. Yet in complete contrast, another equally proficient observer, Dr Walter Henry, just as confidently identified them as manatees, stating in the second volume of his Events of a Military Life (1843):
We had sea-cows at St. Helena, the Trichechus Dugong, but they were not common. When shooting near Buttermilk Point with another officer one calm evening, we stumbled on one lying on a low rock close to the water's edge, and a hideous ugly brute it was, shaped like a large calf, with bright green eyes as big as saucers. We only caught a glimpse of it for a few seconds, for as soon as it noticed us, it jumped into the sea, in the most awkward and sprawling manner.
Note that Henry couched his references to these creatures' existence around St Helena in the past tense. This is because the last recorded appearance of such animals here took place in 1810, when one came ashore at Stone Top Valley beach, and was duly shot by a Mr Burnham. It measured 7 ft long, and 10 gallons of oil were obtained from it. Another of these creatures was also reported in 1810, this time from Manatee Bay.
Since then, St Helena's purported manatee appears to have been extinct, and as is so often the case it was only then that science began to take an interest in it. After reading an account of this creature in J.C. Melliss's St. Helena: A Physical, Historical, and Topographical Description of the Island (1875), in which Melliss claimed that it belonged either to the African or to the Caribbean species of manatee, on 20 June 1899 English zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker published a short review of the subject in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, which contained a number of the accounts given above in this present ShukerNature article. Although stating categorically that he did not wish to express a definite opinion concerning whether or not the animal could truly be some form of sirenian, Lydekker nonetheless ventured to speculate that if this were indeed its identity, it probably constituted a distinct species (perhaps even requiring a separate genus), as he felt unable to believe that it belonged to either of the manatee species nominated by Melliss.
Cape (brown) fur seal (© Karelj/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In 1933, the entire matter was the subject of an extensive examination by Dr Theodor Mortensen of Copenhagen's Zoological Museum, as published in the journal Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening. After careful consideration of the varied and often conflicting reports that he had succeeded in gathering, Mortensen came out in support of the views of Mundy and Leech - that the St Helena manatee was in reality a sea-lion.
Moreover, Mortensen even boldly identified its species - the Cape (brown) fur seal Arctocephalus pusillus (=antarcticus) - and believed the matter to be closed, reviving it briefly on 17 March 1934 in Nature merely to include mention of Dampier's account, which he had not seen when preparing his detailed paper. Certain other records, given in this present article of mine but again not seen by Mortensen, were presented as a response to his Nature note in Kitching's own Nature report, published on 4 July 1936, but Kitching did not express any opinion regarding the creature's identity.
By way of contrast, as outlined within his report of Mundy's sighting, in 1935 F.C. Fraser had leaned very heavily in favour of one specific identity - once again involving a pinniped, but not a sea-lion this time. Instead, Fraser nominated a true (i.e. earless) seal - namely, a young male specimen of the southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina. As its scientific name suggests, this creature does bear a fancied resemblance to a lion-like beast, and is therefore more reminiscent of a sea-lion (albeit one of massive proportions) than are most other true seals. Even so, it bears rather less resemblance to the beast depicted in Mundy's illustration. Moreover, as revealed in 2005 via a Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals paper jointly authored by Juan José Alava and Raúl Carvajal, this species did historically breed on St Helena, but equally they were readily recognised for what they were.
Since the 1930s, the St Helena manatee - or sea-lion, or elephant seal - seems to have been forgotten, like so many other 'inconvenient' animals, but could it really have been a sirenian? Sadly, the reports on file are not sufficient in themselves to provide an unequivocal answer - all that they can do is offer certain important clues.
Male southern elephant seal (© B. Navez/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
For instance, as manatees measure up to 15 ft long the St Helena beasts were evidently large enough, and their description as calf-shaped by Henry also conforms with that identity. Conversely, the saucer-shaped eyes of Henry's beast conflict markedly with the small, relatively insignificant versions sported by the generally myopic manatees. Large eyes are characteristic of pinnipeds, as are the fearsome jaws and teeth of Mundy's animal. The same can also be said of the latter's moustaches - but as manatees have a bristly upper lip too, this feature is less discriminatory.
If the St Helena beasts were sirenians, their presence around this island indicates that they may truly have constituted a species in their own right. After all, as Lydekker pointed out in defence of his belief that they belonged neither to the African nor to the Caribbean species of manatee, although it is conceivable that a specimen or two may occasionally be carried from Africa or America to St Helena this surely could not occur regularly.
As it happens, there is one notable feature mentioned in a number of the reports cited in this chapter and elsewhere that on first sight greatly decreases the likelihood that these animals belonged to any species of manatee - known or unknown. Although they will rest on the surface of the water in shallow stretches when not feeding, manatees do not generally come ashore. Yet according to several independent accounts, the St Helena beasts have frequently been seen resting (even sleeping) on the sands or on rocks, completely out of the water, after the fashion of pinnipeds. Also, the large amount of oil obtained from their carcases is more suggestive of seals than of sirenians.
So are we to conclude that they were not sirenians after all, instead merely large seals or sea-lions? Yet if this is indeed all that they were, why did the islanders refer to them so deliberately as manatees or sea-cows? It is extremely rare for pinnipeds to be referred to anywhere by such names. In addition, as Lydekker judiciously pointed out, just because known sirenians do not normally come ashore voluntarily, this does not mean that there could not be an unknown distinctive species of sirenian that does (or did) come ashore under certain circumstances.
An early and very charming but thoroughly inaccurate, seal-like portrayal of manatees, from De Nieuwe en onbekende weereld - of Beschryving van America en 't zuid-land, by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671, clearly showing a definite confusion back then between sirenians and pinnipeds (public domain)
And this is where we must leave the mystery of St Helena's sirenians-that-might-be-seals - still unsolved, and quite likely to remain that way indefinitely, due to the tragic probability that its subject is extinct, lost to science before its identity had even been established.
Finally, there is at least one case on record that constitutes the exact reverse of this one, because it involves some supposed seals that were ultimately revealed to be sirenians. Sea mammals assumed to be seals had been reported from the Red Sea island of Shadwan - but as recorded in 1939 by Paul Budker, when the animals featured in these reports were finally investigated they proved to be dugongs, which are indeed native to the Red Sea.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.