|YOULL NEED PATIENCE to track down Britains most secret underwater wonders, but make it your New Years resolution to find just one and youll have enough fishy tales to last a lifetime.|
Imagine being out for an ordinary afternoon stroll with an ordinary dog on an ordinary beach. Across your path lies the carcass of an extraordinary creature that defies all scientific attempts at identification. Far-fetched X-Files fantasy It happens all the time.
Or perhaps youre minding your own business, staring at the waters of a beautiful bay. Next thing you know, a dirty great sea monster rears above the waves, a conger eel clamped in its vice-like jaws. You couldnt make it up.
Anybody diving in UK waters, inland or offshore, is doing so where mysterious creatures are routinely reported by perfectly level-headed citizens.
And this simple fact was hammered home to me during a recent dive trip to Cornwall, at the time when Weymouths dolphin was dominating the news.
I was enjoying an evening pint and a plate of mussels at the olde worlde Five Pilchards pub, a stones throw from the beach at the fishing hamlet of Porthallow.
In accents thicker than clotted cream, fishermen were quietly discussing a report in their local paper, the West Briton, about the reappearance of a massive sea monster off the Manacles.
It was all so matter-of-fact, so normal. In a pub where the local bitter is called Doom, it came as no surprise that the monster was known to all and even had a name: Morgawr.
My pint of Doom was good but not so good that I was starting to hallucinate, so a little investigation was called for.
Brendan the barman said Morgawr meant sea giant in the ancient Cornish tongue. Brendans Irish, his cooks a Murphy and sos my mother, so I wasnt falling for that old blarney.
But I took it all back after flicking through the newspaper, which told of two separate sightings of Morgawr, both by respected local seamen.
This vast sea monster is, it seems, in Falmouth Bay and has been, on and off, for donkeys years. The Cornish will tell you to come and see their basking sharks, but I suspect that they like to keep their sea monsters to themselves.
A couple of days later I was to experience the Morgawr phenomenon for myself. Heading for shore after a glorious drift dive off Black Head, the RIB we were following suddenly arced away to the south, its skipper Giles peering intently at the water.
Basker, I shouted to our helmsman and my fellow-divers as we followed, assuming that a basking shark had been spotted from the other RIB. But when we pulled alongside, Giles was scratching his head and his divers were looking puzzled as to why he had changed course at all.
It was only later, over a cuppa in the dive centre, where another copy of the local paper reminded me that Morgawr was in the vicinity, that the reason for our little diversion dawned on me.
I would bet that Giles can spot a basking shark from 1000m. But he hadnt said a word about baskers as the reason for turning his boat. He hadnt said anything, which says it all.
A little investigation revealed that Morgawr, his friends and relatives, are popping up at dive sites all over the country all the time, sometimes alive and very much kicking, sometimes as a rotting carcass on the shore.
That divers dont report sightings more frequently is no great surprise. Visibility in UK waters isnt usually great and divers not in the water are generally fiddling with their kit or feeding their faces, rather than keeping a keen lookout.
No, its the fishermen, seamen, coastguards and the like, those trained to scan the surface of the water, who spot these peculiar apparitions.
Sceptics complain about the paucity of photographs from sea monster sightings but in almost 20 years of diving in the Dover Straits I dont think I can recall ever leaving the boat with anyone carrying a camera, let alone anyone keeping an eye open for a passing sea serpent.
But if we all start to look beyond the wreck or reef, barely visible in the gloom, divers will surely start to report the sorts of sightings that have resulted in a myriad of monster reports.
Selecting six of the best for the budding monster-spotter is difficult given how many candidates are out there, but after much research I have come up with the pick of the crop. Here they are, with as many distinctive features included as possible, to aid identification for those who wish to use sightings towards Underwater Naturalist qualifications.
A word of warning, however. William Hill, the bookmaker, has just halved the odds of the Loch Ness Monster being found, from 500/1 to 250/1, but I still believe that yarn to be a clever marketing ploy to attract tourists. So if its Nessie nonsense youre after, read no further.
The following are the real deal and sightings dont come any more convincing, corroborated or contemporary than the Cornish sea giant, so if spare time and a limited budget are serious constraints, hedge your bets by heading west for Morgawr, surely the best chance to bag a British sea serpent.
the Cornish Sea Giant, Falmouth Bay
Its a 40ft woolly whopper and seems to spook those who sight it. Reliably spotted at least twice this summer, Morgawr sounds like a plesiosaur in need of a good barber.
Sceptics say that this type of dinosaur has been extinct for 70 million years, so finding one would challenge much of what we know about evolution and the natural world. Which is exactly what happened when the bizarre living fossil coelacanth fish was found swimming around merrily in 1938.
Our waters are too cold for a prehistoric reptile Well, theyre too cold for barracuda, apparently, yet one was netted off Cornwall last year.
Morgawr is not a pretty sight, according to a Mrs Scott of Falmouth who, in 1975, reported seeing the monster off Pendennis Point. She described a hideous humpbacked creature with stumpy horns, and bristles down the back of a long neck.
It dived, then resurfaced with a conger eel in its jaws, which clearly beggars belief given the reluctance of congers to leave their lairs. Its probably safe to assume that Mrs Scott actually saw Morgawr munching on a big ling, which is more free-swimming and resembles a conger because of its double dorsal and extended anal fins. An easy error to make in the circumstances!
The following year a lady who identified herself only as Mary F photographed the monster, swimming off Trefusis Point. She described Morgawr as black or very dark brown, with a snake-like head and humps on the back.
There were loads of sightings in the mid-70s. Two London bankers on a fishing trip saw a pair of monsters in the mouth of the Helford River, prompting speculation that Falmouth Bay may be home to a family of sea serpents.
There are whole books about Morgawr, and there have been so many sightings between the coast at Rosemullion Head and Toll Point that locally this stretch is called the Morgawr Mile.
With generally excellent underwater visibility off the Cornish coast, and numerous sightings close to shore, Morgawr easily tops the list for the monster-hunting diver.
Theres something other-worldly about the Orkney Islands, with its legions of lichen-clad standing stones, which sprout from ancient barrows against the spectacular northern sky. It somehow comes as no surprise when islanders recall seeing the Stronsay Beast as calmly as if theyd been counting cattle.
Numerous reports over the past two centuries record long-necked, serpent-like sea creatures being washed ashore.
One rotting carcass, 55ft long with a neck of 10ft and a mane of bristly hair, was reported in The Orcadian in the early 1800s and was formally given a Latin name, Halsydrus pontoppidani, by the Natural History Society of Edinburgh.
Some scientists insisted that this find was no more than a rotting basking shark but the decomposing carcass alone exceeded all proportions expected of the shark species.
Live specimens of the Stronsay Beast have been reported again and again. Fishermen off Shapinsay encountered a creature with a body like a horse, covered in scales and spots, in 1902.
In 1919 five men who had been fishing in the Pentland Firth near Hoy told The Orcadian that the creature they saw could weigh up to 6 tons, with the neck alone as thick as an elephants foreleg, sticking 5-6ft out of the water.
Then there was the lighthouse-keeper on the Pentland Skerries, John Brown, who saw a huge creature in 1937 rising 20-30ft above the surface. At least it didnt go for him.
Pity poor Alec Groundwater, a young boy sitting on a rock looking over Scapa Flow on a summer day in the 1850s. The Beast rose from the depths, flat-headed, with a wide mouth full of teeth, shaking a mane of hair. Up it reared, and tried to grab the lads legs. After several unsuccessful attempts it dived back into the depths, rose one last time to shake its head at the terrified child, then vanished.
Divers flock to Orkney for the Scapa Flow wrecks but its a wasted journey not to enjoy some of the scenic diving and rich sea life around the islands, too.
With the Stronsay Beast so regularly and spectacularly reported over the span of two centuries, this northern outpost must come high on the list of must-dive destinations for the serious underwater monster-spotter.
While monster-hunting on this far-flung islands shores in 1998, I was enthralled to see otters gambolling playfully in the sand dunes. If its peace and tranquillity the modern monster craves in todays hectic world, it doesnt come any better than this.
With nothing between the western beaches and the coast of America, its amazing what gets washed ashore. Like the body of a half-woman, half-fish, the Benbecula Maigdean-mara.
A couple of days before being beached it had been seen swimming around, until a local lad lobbed a big rock at it. Boys will be boys.
From the remains found ashore, the upper body was reported to be the size of a child of three or four, while the lower body resembled a salmon. Unfortunately that was long ago, in 1830.
The reason for my visit was much more recent - the story of teenager Louise Whitts, published by parascope.com in 1996.
She found the remains of an unknown creature, 12ft long, with diamond-shaped fins along its back, a bit like a dinosaur.
The story goes that her photographs were sent to the Hancock Museum of Natural History in Newcastle for identification, where pride is taken in being unable to unravel such mysteries. But to no avail.
This one comes in at number three because its recent, nobody questions that it was real, and the locals are so sanguine about the existence of all sorts of weird and wonderful things off their shores that if you dont see what theyve nicknamed the Blobster, you might bump into something equally outrageous.
Anybody who makes the effort to get out to Benbecula will be enthralled by the experience. Diving with a Blobster would be the icing on the cake.
Martin Mere, Lancashire
Its a wildfowl nature reserve, so its probably best not to descend unannounced on this 20 acre Lancashire site for a club weekend, but Martin Mere gives an idea of what lurks beneath inland waters.
Several years ago a manager at the site reported something the size of a small car circling just below the waterline.
Suspicions aroused, people began keeping a closer eye on the mere and were astonished to see a fully grown swan fighting against something that was trying to pull it under.
Whatever is down there is strong, because the big swan lost.
Bear in mind that a bash from a swans wing is supposed to be fierce enough to break a grown mans legs, and the story of Martin Mere illustrates that discretion could be the better part of valour for divers investigating inland monster sightings.
Visibility at inland sites is often atrocious, but thats what makes the prospect of an unexpected encounter with something that has jaws wide enough to swallow an adult swan all the more invigorating.
So next time youre halfway up the M6, pull off the motorway and find out why the fowl at Martin Mere arent just wild, theyre livid.
Rest assured that if you see this one, youll know about it. Reported to be up to 60ft in length and able to go like the clappers, descriptions evoke classic sea-serpent characteristics of small, snake-like head, slim body and diamond-shaped fins down the back.
The reliability of many of the witnesses is surely beyond doubt, as typified by the captain and navigating officer of a survey ship in 1923. Its 9am and the weather is bright and sunny when the serpent rises from the water just 200 yards from the ship. Survey ship captains and navigating officers simply didnt invent stories about sea serpents in the 1920s.
The most recent reference I can find is a sighting in 1978 by a walker on Kessingland beach, so its a long shot but if its a classic sea serpent youre after, load your camera and head for Lowestoft.
Id suggest mask, fins and snorkel in pursuit of this high-speed specimen, to ensure maximum manoeuvrability.
In 1954 the country was still shaking off the rigours of rationing, and walkers were taking in the bracing air of Canveys beaches when they came across the corpse of an unidentifiable creature in shallow water. Apparently a marine mammal, but with feet and legs, the story goes that it completely foxed zoologists.
Cute as mystery creatures go, this one is only a few feet long, but distinctive, with reddish skin and protruding eyes.
The same year, in the same area, the Reverend Overs is said to have come across a second body, taller this time - about 4ft - and in better condition. It had large eyes, clearly defined nostrils, sharp teeth and what looked like gills, so was perhaps not a mammal after all. Again, the corpse had two legs and two feet with strange toes.
This one is interesting because of its modest size. The easy mistake to make when diving for monsters is to concentrate on finding something the size of a house, 60ft long and 6 tons in weight, but in doing so you risk overlooking juvenile or simply small specimens.
If you think you glimpse just another seal flashing past in the gloom, dont assume its a seal, especially if youre down Canvey Island way and something tugs on your fin tips.
Thats six. Do some homework and youll easily find 60. Dont believe me Anybody who has ever dived Englands deepest lake, the eerie Wast Water in west Cumbria, knows that theres something very large and very strange down there. I saw it move off into the depths, way below me, when I was at 36m in wonderfully clear water in the early 80s.
Sceptics would say I was full of narcosis. I say I saw something the size and shape of a giraffe head off into the deep. Thats seven.
When you stop laughing, consider this fact. There are little fish in Wast Water left behind by the retreat of the last Ice Age. Perhaps something higher up the food chain was left behind with them.
A monster always sounds good in the Gaelic tongue and the Welsh offer Ddraig y mr Dyfed (the Dyfed Sea Dragon). Its well worth a look if youre diving in this part of North Wales. Thats eight.
Then there is the 40ft beast that torments seal colonies off New Quay (nine) and the mysterious monster in Bala Lake is legendary (10).
Were spoilt for choice.
Wreckheads spend hours in the reference library researching lost ships. Spend a few hours investigating more animate attractions and youre bound to come up with something far more interesting.