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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Friday 30 June 2023


The hafgufa, as depicted in a medieval manuscript, namely the British Library MS. Harley 3244, fol. 65r, 1236, c.1250, (public domain)

The hafgufa is a mysterious sea monster described in Konungs skuggsjá ('The King's Mirror'), which is a mid-13th-Century Old Norse manuscripts – but that is not all. It has actually been traced back as far as an account in a 2nd-Century-AD text from Alexandria, Egypt, entitled Physiologus, whose text is accompanied by illustrations of a whale-like creature termed the aspidochelone, depicted with its huge mouth wide open and fishes jumping into it.

According to The King's Mirror:

It is said of the nature of this fish [the hafgufa] that, when it goes to feed, it gives a great belch out of its throat, along with which comes a great deal of food. All sorts of nearby fish gather, both small and large, seeking there to acquire food and good sustenance. But the big fish keeps its mouth open for a time, no more or less wide than a large sound or fjord, and unknowing and unheeding, the fish rush in in their numbers. And when its belly and mouth are full, [it] closes its mouth, thus catching and hiding inside it all the prey that had come seeking food”

The hafgufa is also mentioned in various other Norse manuscripts from this same period. Moreover, a similar description for the aspidochelone is given as follows in Physiologus:

When it is hungry it opens its mouth and exhales a certain kind of good-smelling odor from its mouth, the smell of which, once the smaller fish have perceived it, they gather themselves in its mouth. But when his mouth is filled with diverse little fish, he suddenly closes his mouth and swallows them.

In the scientific age, there has been much speculation and dispute as to whether the hafgufa was based upon a real creature, and, if so, what that creature might be, with the consensus being that it was probably some kraken-like monster.

An aspidochelone from a French manuscript, c.1270, held at the J. Paul Getty Museum (public domain)

Now, however, this maritime mystery beast's true nature may at last have been revealed, thanks to the publicising of a remarkable mode of feeding behaviour practised by various rorqual whales.

Known as trap feeding and first scientifically recorded in 2010, various humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae and Bryde's whales Balaenoptera brydei have been observed waiting motionless at the water surface in an upright position with their huge mouths wide open, into which shoals of fishes unsuspectingly swim to their doom, fatally mistaking the whales' gaping jaws for shelter, until the jaws close, engulfing them!

Moreover, this eyecatching activity has lately attracted worldwide attention thanks to an Instagram video clip of a Bryde's whale performing it that went vital after featuring in a 2021 BBC wildlife documentary (click here to view this clip).

According to the Norse manuscripts, as noted above, the hafgufa behaves in a similar manner, even actively attracting shoals of fishes to swim into its open mouth by emitting a specific perfume. And sure enough, when seeking to lure fishes into their mouths by regurgitating food, both the humpback and Bryde's whales produce a distinct smell.

A detailed study examining and comparing medieval Norse accounts of the hafgufa with modern-day reports of trap feeding by rorquals was published on 28 February 2023 in the journal Marine Mammal Science (click here to read it). The paper was co-authored by maritime archaeologist John McCarthy, from the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University in Australia, who had become interested in this correlation after reading about the hafgufa in traditional Norse mythology.

Once again, therefore, it seems likely that an ostensibly fabulous monster of mythology can lay claim to a firm basis in mainstream zoological fact after all.

Another illustration of the hafgufa, this time from Ortelius's 1658 map of Iceland (public domain)

Friday 9 June 2023


Just how big can moray eels get? A vintage illustration of the Mediterranean moray (aka Roman eel) Muraena helena (public domain)

Extra-large, even giant-sized, eels are frequently cited as potential identities for all manner of freshwater and maritime monsters around the world, including Britain's very own Nessie. Down through the years, I've documented a fair few of these reports, from such disparate, far-flung locations as North America, New Zealand, and the Mascarene Islands. Now, another location, Vietnam, can apparently be added to that list.

Longstanding Loch Ness Monster researcher Steve Feltham hosts a very interesting and informative public Facebook group entitled 'Steve Feltham, Nessie Hunter, Interactive Collective', which acts as a forum for sharing relevant information relevant to this pre-eminent cryptid. On 13 October 2022, group member Mike Gavan from New Zealand posted the following fascinating account of what may have been a truly gigantic eel encountered underwater off Vietnam by one of his friends:

I’ve just had a visit from an older friend of mine, Tim.

Tim was a deep sea diver in the 1970s, working from a bell at an average depth of 200 m [656 ft], his work was in the area of undersea recovery, maintenance for the oil industry world wide.

Around 1974, Tim was diving on a recovery job at 220 m [722 ft] off the coast of Nha Trang, Vietnam.

His job was to recover a length of special purpose ducting that had been lost overboard, he was to locate it, tie it and await a winch.

About 10 minutes into his dive from the bell Tim saw what he believed was part of the ducting and proceeded towards it, [but] as he got close enough to touch it he realised that it was not ducting!

"It was soft and felt like an eel or fish, the girth was around 6 ft, when I did actually touch it a large head looking like a snake or reptile appeared in my lamps, I contacted the top and asked if they were seeing what I was seeing as I had a camera attached to my dive suit, yes was the reply. ”Go to the bell now Tim, repeat, go to the bell now!” was their reply, I estimated the creature to be over 100ft, possibly 120-130 ft in length, I turned and headed bell asap, which wasn’t quickly due to my dive suit and gear, it was terrifying and I never looked back, I’ve seen giant sharks, strange lights etc but that snake thing was the weirdest thing I ever saw in my tenure as a deep sea diver!"

Tim is now 78 years old, honest and trustworthy & also sound of mind.

He lives on a back country farm of 4000 acres in solitude now.

This was relayed to me literally 2 hours ago.

The creature that immediately came to mind when I read this report was a moray eel or muraenid, of which there are over 200 species found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide, often in coastal regions, and are famously serpentine in appearance. However, the longest known species, the slender giant moray Strophidion sathete, is 'only' up to 13 ft long, a far cry indeed from the immense length cited by eyewitness Tim for the elongate entity that he allegedly encountered at very close range (and even allowing for possibly a sizeable degree of over-estimation on Tim's part due to the extreme shock and fear that he'd clearly experienced).

But could there be exceptional individuals far greater in size than any recorded by science existing incognito in our oceans, their huge dimensions buoyed by their liquid environment? If so, they would indeed be veritable monsters. I wonder what happened to the film that Tim's camera recorded of this creature, as viewed by his above-surface team? That would certainly be well worth a watch!

A vivid illustration from 1801 of Gymnothorax favagineus, the aptly-named leopard moray eel (public domain)