Nothing fires up a media storm like a sighting of a dead sea monster no one can identify. However much scientists shout ‘It’s a whale!’
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I guess I’ll have to. It was a whale that washed up on the Indonesian island of Seram late last week. It was never a sea monster, no matter how hard we all tried to believe or hope it might be. Although the species of whale remains unknown (DNA analysis should solve that problem in time), the big giveaways were the presence of whale jaw-bone, the baleen plates, the vertebrae, the fins, the throat pleats, the whale shape and the fact that whales live close by and have skeletons that look exactly the same as this one did. Still, why let a bit of science get in the way of a good monster story, right?
And so, within hours, a familiar narrative was playing out in the world’s media as the whale became a dead sea monster that no one could identify, a Scooby Doo mystery that could be maintained by journalists for days as long as nobody checked Twitter, where 10,000 scientists were screaming “That is clearly a whale” at each other. As such, in the news reports, the whale’s decomposing skin became “fur” and its blood became “mysterious red fluid” floating in the water. Nothing (apart from spiders and wasps) brings out the worst in journalism like a decomposing whale, it seems.
Animals that have the audacity to wash up on beaches in various stages of decay can never, ever, be familiar creatures. They are always required by journalists to fit the narrative of a grog-induced pirate yarn. And so last year, when a dead marine mammal washed up on a Welsh beach, it quickly became the Beast of Port Talbot. Similarly, a bit of a sperm whale’s head that washed up on a beach in Mexico became the Mexican Sea Monster. Likewise, in New Zealand in 2013, a decomposing killer whale couldn’t just be a killer whale, it had to be a monstrous species of moray eel (although 10,000 scientists on Twitter were saying: “That is a dead killer whale”), or a bizarre prehistoric beast (“No, that is a killer whale”). Incredibly, against all odds, it turned out to be a rotting killer whale.
I don’t blame journalists for hamming these dead whale stories up, of course. We, the readers, want to believe so dearly that wild things so enormous and monstrous might still be out there in the undiscovered ocean. Alas, my friends, don’t hold out hope. The truth is that the chances of such a sea-monster discovery are punishingly small. Though new species of megafauna are discovered from time to time, including in recent years new species of clouded leopard, dolphins and the olinguito, there is nothing credible – no bones, no faeces, no bite-marks, no bodies – to suggest that there could be something large and considerably different from sea creatures that we know of today. That’s not to say that considering the idea is not without merit, of course. It’s an interesting thought experiment, at the very least.
‘We have sentient, big-brained creatures that are monstrous in size right now.’ Photograph: Eye Freediving/Rex Shutterstock
For what if we really were to encounter such a monstrous animal for the first time? Imagine a previously unrecognised species of monster shark such as Megalodon or a new species of giant octopus twice as large as a blue whale washing up dead on a beach in Lincolnshire or Port Talbot – what then? Imagine the thrill. Within hours there would be crowds of floodlit anatomists working to prepare the specimen for further analysis alongside photographers, health-and-safety personnel, police and politicians, all watched from above by hundreds of helicopter news crews. Imagine the news cycle that week, or even that month. Imagine the opinion pieces about the discovery of such a creature. Some would consider the newly discovered monster evidence of a dying ocean we must protect. Others would consider it evidence of an ocean rich with bounteous untapped potential. We would look at its brain and its eyes and wonder what it was thinking before it died, and whether it knew of humanity at all. Some would argue for months it was us that killed the creature. Others would say it lived a long and happy life and that its apparent murder was a liberal conspiracy.
There’s no doubt that it would be a fascinating and empowering wildlife conservation story. “We must protect our oceans with renewed vigour,” world leaders would agree referring to the elusive and threatened creature, while remaining vague on who actually holds responsibility for conserving the open seas. Politics would come into play. Global inertia would kick in. After a while, we’d probably mostly lose interest in this once-awe-inspiring creature. Within a year, we’d be back to square one and everything would be just the way it is now.
Don’t believe me? We have sentient, big-brained creatures that are monstrous in size right now. They were once mystical; they were once almost mythical. They were once considered monsters. They are swimming in the sea right now, fighting with numerous incredibly weird and wonderful sharks and giant squid in the most complex and bubbling ecosystems, and look at the shoddy job we have done of looking after their interests. And what are these monstrous creatures to which I refer? They have a name. “That is a whale,” say the scientists. But who wants to listen to them, right?