Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A very Kiwi conspiracy: in search of New Zealand's giant sea serpent

As a young child I probably overdid it on books in the boy's own fantastic facts genre, reading with breathless wonder about giant - and collectively extinct - megafauna such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Therefore it's probably not surprising that a few years' later I was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 novel The Deep Range, featuring as it does a giant squid and a sea serpent, both very much alive. How seriously Clarke took such cryptozoology is unknown, although he clearly stated he considered it likely that the ocean depths harboured specimens up to twice the size of those known to science.

Of course it's easy to scoff at such notions, bombarded as we are with endless drivel about megalodon and mermaids, both from a myriad of websites and even worse, the docufiction masquerading as fact on allegedly science-themed television channels (I'm talking about you, Discovery!) As Carl Sagan was known to say, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Incidentally, if anyone has seen the clearly Photoshopped image of World War Two U-boats in front of the dorsal and tail fins of a megalodon, the total length of such an animal would be well over thirty metres. Most experts place the maximum length of this long-extinct species under twenty metres, so why do so many fakes over-egg the monster pudding?

I digress. One obvious difference between today and the pre-industrial past is that there used to be myriads of sightings regarding sea monsters of all shapes and sizes, but nowadays there are comparatively few, especially considering the number of vessels at sea today. Whilst there is a vast collection of fakery on the World Wide Web, much of this material appears to have been inspired by the BBC 2003 series Sea Monsters (and the various imitations that have since been broadcast) and the ease with which images can now be realistically manipulated.

As for scientifically-verifiable material of unknown marine giants, there is almost none - colossal squid aside. As Steven Spielberg summed up a quarter century after his canonical UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with all the smartphone cameras about there should be documentary evidence galore. Likewise, enormous marine beasties should now be recorded on an ever-more frequent basis. After all, it's hardly as if giant sea serpents are being fished into extinction! Yet the lack of evidence implies that once again, the human penchant for perceiving patterns where none exist has caused the creation of myths, not the observation of genuine marine megafauna.

At least that's what I thought, until a couple of serendipitous events occurred. Early last year I noticed the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's second-largest vessel MV Kaharoa docked in Viaduct Harbour in Auckland. It had just returned from a month's research expedition to the Kermadec Islands, about 900 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. What was interesting was that I later found out the Kaharoa had been on an identical trip the previous year, ostensibly to record the condition of the snapper stocks. Yet NIWA usually organises these missions every second year rather than annually. So why was the vessel returning to the Kermadecs a year early? Although a joint venture between France, Scotland and New Zealand, the funding has to originate either with public money or corporate grants. Therefore it's unlikely the decision for a 2014 mission was undertaken lightly.

MV Kaharoa

I'd forgotten this mildly diverting conundrum when many months later I was browsing the NIWA website and came across their Critter of the Week blog. It was fairly late at night and I'll confess to having imbibed several bottles of beer, but I was pretty astounded to see a fairly murky and obviously deep water image containing what appeared to be nothing less than a hairy-maned sea serpent, with a note stating it was estimated to be around  twenty metres in length. I quickly loaded some news channels, including the New Zealand Herald and the BBC's Science and Environment news home page, but without finding any references to such a beast. I then flicked to the main NIWA website, but again didn't come across anything related to the creature. I returned to the Critter of the Week blog, only to find the page was no longer there. How X-Files is that?

Of course I'd forgotten to screenshot the page or download the image, so there was no proof that I hadn't been hallucinating. Did I imagine it or just misinterpret a perfectly normal specimen? Or was the blog temporarily hacked by a nutter or conspiracy theorist, who added a spoof article? As I went through the options and discarded them, it gradually dawned on me that perhaps the Kaharoa's unexpected summer expedition had been organised with one particular purpose in mind: the search for an elusive giant spotted the previous year.

I usually consider myself to be fairly sane, so let's consider the facts in lieu of hard evidence:
  1. NIWA excel at finding new creatures: they have reported 141 species unknown to science within the past three years;
  2. The Kermadecs are home to some very large animals for their type, including oversize oysters, the giant limpet Patella kermadecensis and the amphipod Alicella gigantea, which is ten times the size of most species in the same taxonomic order;
  3. NIWA scientists have been known to comment with surprise on how many deep water species have recently been discovered - even if a specimen hasn't actually been captured - for regions that they have repeatedly studied over some years;
  4. Expeditions are only just starting to explore the region between the depths of 2000 and 8000 metres;
  5. Although the Kermadecs are on the edge of a marine desert, a combination of hot water and minerals upwelling from hydrothermal vents and the seabird guano that provides nutrition for the near-surface phytoplankton, help to kick-start diverse food webs;
  6. There is an increasing quantity of meltwater from the Antarctic ice shelf, which being less dense than seawater may affect the depth of the thermocline, a region of highly variable temperature, which in turn could be altering the ecology of the region;
  7. MV Kaharoa was carrying baited Hadal-landers, ideal for recording deep sea fauna, whereas snapper usually live in the top two hundred metres.

Apart from my own close encounter of the fishy kind, has there been any other recent evidence of what could be termed a giant sea serpent in New Zealand waters? Just possibly. A Google Earth image of Oke Bay in the Bay of Islands shows the wake of something that has been estimated to be around twelve metres long. The wake doesn't fit the diagnostic appearance for great whales or of a boat engine. Therefore could this be proof of sea serpents in the area? I have to say it looks more like an image rendering glitch to me, but then I'm no expert. On the plus side, the most likely candidate for such a creature is the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which I discussed in a post five years ago and which authoritative sources suggest can attain a maximum length of eleven metres. So clearly, the Oke Bay image is within the realm of possibility. As for the lack of documentary evidence compared to earlier centuries, could it be that the vast amounts of noise pollution from ship's engines may keep the creatures far from standard shipping lanes?

Where does this leave the Critter of the Week content that so briefly slipped - presumably accidentally - onto the live site? One possible clue that led marine biologists back to the Kermadecs could be the 2012 Te Papa Tongarewa Museum report on a colossal squid dissection, which states that chunks of herring-type flesh were found in its stomach and caecum. The oarfish belongs to the herring family and so it is just possible that titanic struggles between squid and oarfish are occurring in the ocean deep even now. And where better for an expedition to search for an elusive monster without fear of interruption than these relatively remote islands?

Unfortunately this is all surmise, as NIWA have refused to respond to my queries. It may be a long shot, but if anyone has noticed Te Papa taking delivery of a lengthy, narrow cross-section tank, or very large vats of formalin, why not let me know? The truth is out there, somewhere...probably...