Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the 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), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday, 17 February 2021

SEA MONSTERS, DRAGONS, AND A PILOT WHALE SKULL

 
CFZ Deputy Director Graham Inglis holding the Falmouth pilot whale skull back in June 1996 when we met at Hay-on-Wye (© Dr Karl Shuker)

I was recently perusing through various old photograph albums as well as a sizeable number of unsorted packets of sundry photos that I'd snapped long ago, stored away, and largely forgotten about afterwards when I opened two such packets whose contents I'd not seen in many years, but which were and still are of notable cryptozoological significance. Consequently, after having made those pictures public for the very first time anywhere when I posted them on Facebook a few days ago, I am now formally publishing them for posterity as a ShukerNature exclusive, a mere 24 years after they were snapped, together with the somewhat sketchy background information that I have uncovered so far concerning the specimen depicted in them. If any readers have additional details or amendments appertaining to what I have documented here, I would be very grateful to receive and incorporate them herewith, fully-credited as always.

 
CFZ Director Jonathan Downes and I, presenting the Falmouth pilot whale skull's left-hand profile, at Hay-on-Wye, June 1996 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

A somewhat grey, windy, but thankfully dry day in June 1996 found me taking an 80-mile ride on my motorbike from my West Midlands home to Hay-on-Wye, the small yet world-famous 'Town of Books' on the English-Welsh border, which at its peak of popularity contained within its modest-sized borders almost 40 second-hand book shops. You'll not be surprised to learn that this town had long been a popular place of pilgrimage for me as a serious bibliophile, visiting it and making profuse purchases there several times annually for many years (sadly, however, most of the bookshops that I used to visit are now long gone, and they have not been replaced by any others either, so it has been several years since I was last there).

 
Close-up view of the Falmouth pilot whale skull's left-hand profile (and making handy use of Graham's packet of Golden Virginia tobacco as a source of scale for the skull's size!) (© Dr Karl Shuker)

On this particular day, however, its books and bookshops were, for once, of only secondary interest to me, because the primary reason for my visiting Hay that afternoon was to meet up with a coterie from the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ), who were bringing with them a remarkable cryptozoological specimen for me to see in the flesh – or, to be precise, the bone, as it was a skull, but no ordinary one. After what seemed like an interminable time caught behind what was assuredly the lengthiest and slowest-moving articulated lorry in existence, and on rural roads far too winding for me to risk overtaking it, I finally reached Hay-on-Wye where, waiting to greet me and anxious as to why I was so late, were CFZ Director and longstanding crypto-friend Jonathan Downes, his first wife Alison, and the CFZ's video/films expert Graham Inglis (who is also now its Deputy Director).

Jon and I, presenting a dorsal view of the Falmouth pilot whale skull that clearly reveals its nasal cavities and characteristic pilot whale rostrum (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Moreover, carefully carried by Graham was the specimen that had brought us all together that day – what I shall refer to here as the Falmouth skull (see later for details), aka the alleged skull of a certain Cornish sea monster. Needless to say, the briefest of glances revealed that in reality it was from a cetacean, specifically a pilot whale, which we already knew anyway, but it was wonderful to see and hold it, a truly spectacular zoological and erstwhile cryptozoological exhibit, as my photos of it here readily reveal. But what was its history? As I noted above, the details concerning this specimen that I have so far uncovered are somewhat sketchy and currently incomplete, but they do provide a general overview, and are as follows.

 
Close-up of dorsal view of the skull – like all toothed whales, pilot whales possess a pair of internal nasal cavities but only a single external blowhole (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The Cornish coasts have long been deemed to be the domain of a Nessie-like sea serpent dubbed Morgawr, and particularly during the mid-1970s a fair few alleged sightings of a long-necked maritime cryptid with humps along its back were reported by the media. So too were the notorious 'Mary F' photos, ostensibly depicting just such a beast, which were sent anonymously to the local Falmouth Packet newspaper and published by it during March 1976 after having supposedly been snapped a month earlier at Trefusis Point. Back in January of that same year, however, and first brought to cryptozoological attention via a brief mention in A. Mawnan-Peller's privately-published booklet Morgawr: The Monster of Falmouth Bay – A Short History (1976), what to some had seemed to be more substantial evidence for a sea monster, albeit a dead one, had surfaced, literally, on Durgan Beach, Helford River – the carcase of an unidentified creature, where it was encountered by Falmouth resident Mrs Kaye Payne.

 
Vintage illustration of the dorsal view of a pilot whale skull, whose very appreciable morphological correspondence to the Falmouth skull confirms that the latter is indeed that of a pilot whale (public domain)

Despite inciting much local speculation that it may actually be the corpse of Morgawr itself, this intriguing specimen was carried back out to sea by the outgoing tide before any scientists had visited to examine and formally identify it. After the Falmouth Packet reported Mrs Payne's discovery of it, however, the newspaper was contacted by teenage amateur naturalist Toby Benham, from Mawnan Smith (a village roughly three miles south of Falmouth). As the Packet then reported in an article entitled 'Not a sea monster, says Toby', published on 5 May 1976:

The mystery of the bones of Durgan Beach may have been solved this week by 13-year-old Toby Benham, a keen student of skeletons.

Toby believes the bones, found at Durgan by Mrs. Kaye Payne of Falmouth, come not from a 20 foot sea monster as has been suggested, but from a whale.

He came to this conclusion because he thinks the bones form part of a skeleton he discovered on nearby Prisk Beach just after Christmas.

Toby of…Mawnan Smith, studied the "Packet's" photograph of Mrs. Payne holding a bone from the beach, and he is convinced it is one of those he saw.

"I am sure it is from a whale," the young naturalist said emphatically.

STORM TIDES

His explanation for their appearance at Durgan is equally emphatic. Storm tides swept them around from Prisk, he says.

The original skeleton was about ten feet long and the skull which is now one of the prizes in Toby's collection of bones, looks like that of a whale.

He said the skull had what appeared to be blow-holes and it seemed very similar to pictures he has of whales' heads.

If Toby was correct in his assumption that the Prisk carcase he saw and the Durgan Beach carcase encountered not long afterwards by Mrs Payne were one and the same, and that his 10-ft size estimate for the Prisk carcase's length was also correct, then we must assume that the 20-ft estimate attributed to it when on Durgan Beach was an exaggeration. Also, bearing in mind that he took away the skull from the Prisk carcase, it would be interesting to know whether the Durgan carcase was headless – if so, this would strengthen Toby's case for the two carcases being one and the same. Conversely, if the Durgan carcase included a skull, this would obviously disprove his case.

 
Close-up of the Falmouth pilot whale skull's right-hand profile (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Indeed, it is because of the above-revealed uncertainty as to whether this skull does have anything to do with the Durgan Beach carcase that, unlike various other chroniclers, I have deliberately chosen to refer to it here on ShukerNature not as the Durgan Beach skull but merely as the Falmouth skull. Taking these nomenclatural nuances even further, a far more appropriate, unequivocally accurate name for it would be the Prisk Beach skull, because we do at least know that it was obtained by Toby from the Prisk Beach carcase. Just to make matters even more confusing, the skull has also been dubbed by some the Durgan Dragon (more details concerning this moniker's origin would be greatly appreciated).

 
With Jon, Graham, and the Falmouth pilot whale skull at Hay-on-Wye, June 1996 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Anyway: as the years passed by, Toby reached adulthood and moved out of the family home, but he left the skull behind, where it remained outside as an unusual garden ornament and door stop for quite some time, until finally his mother donated it to the art department of Toby's old Falmouth school (name presently unknown to me, and now closed), as revealed both in a Morgawr review article penned by Jonathan Downes that appeared in the 2002 CFZ Yearbook, and also in a short account on this specimen contained within English cryptozoologist Neil Arnold's book Shadows on the Sea: The Maritime Mysteries of Britain (2013). According to Neil's account, after learning about the skull and its whereabouts, Jon contacted a teacher in the school's art department named Mr Brown, and was granted permission not only to take as many photographs of it as he wanted, but also to borrow it for direct examination and identification, which Jon did (in 1996), whereupon he readily recognized that it was a whale's skull.

 
A living pilot whale (public domain)

Further study narrowed the skull's taxonomic identity down to one or other of the two species of pilot whale – the short-finned pilot whale Globicephala macrorhynchus and the long-finned pilot whale G. melas. These exhibit considerable anatomical variation and overlap with each another, thereby making it difficult to specify the skull's precise species, but British palaeontologist and fellow crypto-enthusiast Dr Darren Naish who has closely examined it has informed me that he believes it to be G. melas, stating in a Facebook post:

If you look at the tip of the whale's rostrum, you can see that the maxillae are visible virtually all the way to its end, rather than roofed by the premaxillae for most of the rostrum's anterior half. This feature shows that it's G. melas rather than G. macrorhynchus.

 
Vintage engraving of a pilot whale from 1900 (public domain)

Meanwhile, as confirmed by Jon in  his afore-mentioned Morgawr article, the proprietors of Toby's old school kindly agreed to donate this skull to the CFZ Museum, which is where it has resided ever since. It is good to know that this cryptozoologically-relevant specimen is safely preserved and its current location verified – all too many crypto-specimens have been lost, discarded, or even destroyed down through the years. And so, another monstrous mystery of the maritime kind is duly if belatedly documented here on ShukerNature.

 

My sincere thanks go to Jon and Graham from the CFZ for kindly making the skull available for me to directly observe back in June 1996. Be sure to click here to visit the CFZ's official website and discover who they are and their substantial contributions to cryptozoology.

 
Jon looking on while I balance the skull of a pilot whale on my knees, as you do… (© Dr Karl Shuker)

 

 

3 comments:

  1. I remember reading about this legendary "Morgawr skull" that on examination by the CFZ turned out to be that of a pilot whale a LONG time ago... nice to finally see the photographs. Thanks for posting this, Karl!

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    1. My pleasure, Simon - I'm delighted that I found the photos after so many years had passed since snapping them - they could have so easily been lost for all time, which would have been a great shame.

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  2. I like that you publish old cases with hints of the excitement they caused, Dr. Shuker. There's still fun to be had by reading about them and visualising the situations.

    But I have to say there's something else I can appreciate in those photos. I accidentally buzz-cut my hair shorter than intended yesterday, and shaved off beard a few weeks ago too!

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