BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Sea monsters! The words alone conjure up a menagerie of fantastical creatures of all shapes: spiralling sea serpents, krakens big enough to gobble ocean liners, water-spouting sea dragons, and other baroque creations lifted off ancient maps. Were those fearful seafarers correct when they wrote “Here be monsters?” The public, at least, wants to believe. Every few years, strange oceanic goings-on briefly catch public interest, sparking the romantic notion that “Things Man Was Not Meant to Know” lurk somewhere out there in the briny deep…even if scientists across generations have roundly debunked most sea monster tales.
Our centuries-long obsession with sea monster tales surely stems out of our mutual respect and fear of the old grey widow-maker. Fantastic, well, fish tales do highlight the public’s continuing fascination with the ocean and its inhabitants. Throughout history, humans have populated the inky depths with all sorts of fantastical creatures. It’s almost a cliché at this point to say that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of our oceans, even if it’s true. The fishy denizens of the inky depths do look monstrous (or at the very least like mangled Muppet characters), even if most of them aren’t much bigger than your forearm.
Our fascination persists, even in an age of comprehensive oceanic research. Whenever anything unusual washes up on a beach, the incident immediately becomes the subject of much media attention. On December 13, 2016, the New Zealander residents of Auckland’s Muriwai Beach woke up to discover that a monster had come to town. Overnight, a writhing mass of flesh straight out of Lovecraft washed up on the bleak grey shorelines. Onlookers could only describe the anomalous entity as “alive;” the huge, unidentifiable lump appeared to be covered in what looked like a morass of shaggy, soggy black fur and encrusted with a colony of opportunistic barnacles. “It’s got a putrid smell when you’re downwind,” said Muriwai resident Rani Timoti in an interview, “and when you look closely, it looks like wiggling worms.” What else is there to say?
The press – who can’t resist a good alliterative title when they see one –immediately dubbed the object the “Muriwai Monster.” Online commentators struggled to identify just what the heck this alien-looking object could be; various internet explanations included a chunky blob of whale flesh, a Rastafarian sea monster, and even (of course) an alien time machine. So does the Muriwai Monster finally offer proof of sea monsters? Not quite. General scientific consensus holds that the “monster” is probably a mass of waterlogged driftwood. It seems likely that the Monster began life as a tree that washed away and sunk into the ocean. Colonies of highly-adapted wood-eating worms saw a pulpy feast and chowed down. Over the years, their presence attracted other animals. The tree probably returned to the surface after a spate of violent seismic activity – the 7.6 earthquakes that upheaved slabs of seabed probably brought the would-be monster with them.
The shaggy “hair” actually belonged to gooseneck barnacles. These unique creatures are among the only truly sessile organisms on the planet – once they latch onto any surface, they immediately anchor themselves down with organic “cement,” remaining there for the rest of their life. The ocean is a vast and precious resource, and even though the real ocean may be a little short on krakens or Rastafarian lumps of flesh, it’s home to billions of equally wonderful and awe-inspiring species who should be afforded the same respect as the monsters we mentally construct for our own amusement.