The coasts of Britain and why to avoid them

A piece for the Financial Times to mark National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s Monsters of the Deep exhibition, 14 March 2020 

In February this year, even as Stuart Slade was in Falmouth assembling the exhibits for a new museum show on sea creatures, a 60ft fin whale was washed up and died on a nearby beach. “Nothing compares to seeing such an animal up close,” he says. “You come away awed, and full of wonder, and just a little bit afraid.”

The objects filling Slade’s gallery for the mysterious Monsters of the Deep exhibition are by turns terrifying, wonderful and funny — sometimes all three. Some are real, some reconstructed, some, like the worrisomely convincing corpse of a mermaid, are assembled out of parts to entertain or gull the public.

The show, at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, marks the moment Falmouth’s “local” museum learns to punch well above its weight, embracing global phenomena and potentially difficult themes, such as the discomfortingly large role imagination plays in how we see the real world.

Hoaxes, which you might think would be something of an embarrassment here, prove central to the exhibition’s vision. In any event, they can’t be ignored, not while Falmouth’s very own sea monster, Morgawr (first sighted in 1975), could be prowling the bay. According to a report from around the time in the Falmouth Packet: “Mrs Scott said she would ‘never forget the face on that thing’ as long as she lived.”

It transpired that Morgawr was mischievously fabricated from coordinated fictional “sightings”, but the lines between fact and fiction tend to be blurred whenever sea monsters are involved. On September 25 1808, on Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, a large carcass was washed ashore. Edinburgh’s leading natural history society, the Wernerian, decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent.

By the time the London anatomist Sir Everard Home realised it was more likely a decayed basking shark, the Beast’s reputation had firmly rooted itself in local folklore. Google (if you dare) pictures of dead basking sharks. Their jaws, dorsal and caudal fins disappear first, leaving them with tiny heads and long necks, like ancient reptiles transported from some deep corner of the Mesozoic.

Most sea monsters are real animals, misidentified under extreme circumstances. In 1493, Christopher Columbus “quite distinctly saw three mermaids” off the coast of Haiti. “They are not so beautiful as they are said to be,” he remarked in his journal, “for their faces had some masculine traits.” They were in fact manatees: four-metre long marine mammals with prehensile upper lips and widely spaced eyes (it had been a long voyage).

Most useful to the Falmouth show are the depictions of sea monsters in art, because it’s here that we get to grips with the key question: why have creatures that do not exist persisted in our imaginations since we first put pigment to cave wall?

Some believe sea monsters are a folk memory of creatures long extinct. Native Australian legends of the fearsome Bunyip (head of an emu, body of a dog, tail of a horse) might just scrape by as descriptions of extinct Australian marsupials such as the diprotodon or Palorchestes. But what are we to make of Mishipeshu, which terrified generations of Anishinaabe in the Great Lakes region of Canada? This was an underwater panther, for whom, needless to say, no fossil records exist.

These forms of wonder and fear change across time. The Kraken is supposed to be an octopus, at least according to the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. But in 13th-century Greenland, the Kraken was more like a giant crab. Slade, who has been head of public programming in Falmouth for 15 years, says: “The conversations I’ve had about this exhibition tend all to go the same way. People point out that only 5 per cent of the oceans has been explored. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to saying, ‘There must be something else out there that hasn’t yet been discovered.’”

The inference is mistaken but not obviously so. Back in 1893, the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in The Times: “There is not an a priori reason that I know of why snake-bodied reptiles, from fifty feet long and upwards, should not disport themselves in our seas as they did in those of the cretaceous epoch which, geologically speaking, is a mere yesterday.”

Palaeontologist Darren Naish, who is lead curator of the Falmouth exhibition, is willing to entertain Huxley’s theory: “His was the right attitude to take at the time, because the life of the deep oceans was only just being discovered.” (Monsters of the Deep makes much of the groundbreaking research expedition led by HMS Challenger, which between 1872 and 1876 discovered a staggering 4,700 new species of marine life.) “Large fossil dinosaurs and early whales, and some amazing gigantic living animals, had been discovered only relatively recently,” Naish points out. “The whale shark, the world’s biggest fish, was a mid 19th-century discovery.”

In an effort to make the new findings comprehensible, folkloric sea monsters were associated with ancient reptiles. Accounts invariably began with the observation that, for years and years, people have talked about giant serpents in the oceans and long-bodied monsters, then go on to point to the actual fossil evidence that such things were a reality. The earliest artists’ impressions have the plesiosaur (50ft long; extended neck; four oar-shaped flippers on a broad, flat body) as a giant, coiling serpent.

How, then, can we be certain that such beasts aren’t out there? In 1998, Charles Paxton, an aquatic ecologist at the Animal Behaviour Research Group at Oxford university, used a statistical technique to estimate the current diversity of large marine animals, based on their rate of discovery.

Extrapolating on data from 1830 to 1995, Paxton produced a graph showing the rate at which these animals are coming to light. He estimated that at most there are around 50 new large species still waiting to be discovered and, according to his graph, we’re likely to come across one every five-and-a-half years or so.

What will they look like? Cryptozoologists — researchers who aspire to the scientific study of undiscovered animals — have for years held out for the existence of radically novel animals, “living plesiosaurs” that have somehow survived from the time of the dinosaurs. These “cryptid” animals come with brilliant names like the super-otter and the father of all turtles (names invented by Bernard Heuvelmans, whose 1968 book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents kick-started marine cryptozoology). They are meant to be gargantuan, more than 15 metres long, and unlike any creature known to science.

However, as Naish observes, “Of all the animals that have been discovered in recent decades, none has been radically novel.” Recent discoveries have included the Megamouth Shark and a couple of new types of beaked whale (the most recent was spotted by local whalers in Hokkaido, Japan last September). And as each new whale or shark is discovered, the chances of there still being a complete outlier in hiding — something really out there in terms of what’s possible — grow infinitesimally small.

So where did they all go, those writhing sea serpents, gargantuan crabs and city-block-sized squid? An article in an 1875 edition of the West Briton (a local Cornish weekly, still in print) offers clues. It tells the tale of two fishermen, setting nets in Gerrans Bay near Truro, who discovered a serpent “coiled about their floating cork. Upon their near approach, it lifted its head and showed signs of defiance, upon which they struck it forcibly with an oar”. Later, they pursued it and dragged it ashore for a look-see, “after which, it was killed on the rocks and most inconsiderably cast out to sea”.

Which is to say, if sea monsters existed, we must already have killed them. It’s something we’re worryingly good at. “It’s difficult to be tremendously optimistic about the persistence of ecosystems and many animal species,” says Naish, looking to the future of the oceans. “I find it hard to think that marine mammals and ray-finned fishes and sharks will persist into the future.” Instead, the sea monsters of tomorrow are going to be small and numerous, as the oceans, ever warmer and more acidic, fill with cephalopods, jellies, nematode worms and algae.

We can, however, look forward to some new invasions from the deep before that. With whole ecosystems shifting poleward as the planet warms, lionfish, sea snakes, crown-of-thorns starfish and at least three species of shark (hammerhead, ragged tooth and blacktip) are already heading for UK beaches.

Meanwhile, octopuses and squid will fill the niches vacated by over-harvested fish. Their life cycles are so short that they’ll be able to adapt faster than anything with a backbone. Right now, squid are multiplying crazily in British waters, although they’ll eventually lose out to the true inheritors of the oceans: the jellyfish.

In 2009, in the Sea of Japan, the giant Nomura jellyfish (up to two metres in diameter and weighing 200kg) began clogging and bursting fishing nets. This was deemed worthy of headlines at the time, but the jellyfish — most little more than gelatinous bags containing digestive organs and gonads — had barely begun their campaign of conquest. These days, they’re just as likely to be found blocking the seawater intake valves of British nuclear power plants.

For the future, Naish envisions a massively simplified food chain dominated by fast-growing things that can survive in warm seas where there’s very little oxygen. “You’re talking about a vast biomass but made of small detritus feeders living on algae,” he says. Given a few billion years of natural selection, some jellies may evolve into colonial super-organisms quite big enough to stride about on. “I like the idea of giant colonial jellies — like enormous but squishy islands,” he muses, “or big serpentine things that move slowly, drifting along on the weaker, less oxygenated currents of the future.”

That’s not all. A new surface fauna may evolve from mid-water and deep-water plankton, says Naish, “in which case your large surface-dwelling animals would be weird, spiny and translucent. A sea full of translucent, floating crustaceans; I see some merit in that idea.”

Mind reeling, I walk out of the exhibition past a Jenny Haniver. That’s the carcass of a ray or a skate that someone has cut and folded and dried, so that it ends up looking like a fairy, or a mermaid, demon, or dragon. No one really knows what they’re for. In some places, they’re said to have magic powers; most often they were simply made as curios for sailors. You find these sorts of things all over the world, from Mexico to Japan.

Morgawr may be a fake, and the Stronsay Beast just a hillock of rotten fish meat. Still, the monsters of the deep live. And for as long as human beings tread the earth, they cannot die.

Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

Shell game

Reading Catching Thunder by by Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter for the Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2018 

In March 23 1969 the shipbuilders of Ulsteinvik in Norway launched a stern trawler called the Vesturvon. It was their most advanced factory trawler yet, beautiful as these ships go, and big: outfitted for a crew of 47.

In 2000, after many adventures, the ship suffered a midlife crisis. Denied a renewal of their usual fishing quota, its owners partnered up with a Russian company and sent the ship, renamed the Rubin, to ply the Barents Sea. There, in the words of Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter, two Norwegian journalists, the ship slipped ineluctably into “a maelstrom of shell corporations, bizarre ships registers and shady expeditions”.

In the years that followed, the ship changed its name often: Kuko, Wuhan No 4, Ming No 5, Batu 1. Its crew had to look over the side of the ship at the name plate, attached that morning to the stern, to find out which ship they were on. Flags from countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania and Panama were kept in a cardboard box.

It fell to a Chilean, Luis Cataldo, to be captaining the ship (then named the Thunder) on December 17 2014 – the day when, off Antarctica’s windy Banzare Bank, in the middle of an illegal fishing expedition, it was spotted by the Bob Barker, a craft belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The Bob Barker’s captain got on the radio and told Cataldo his vessel was wanted by Interpol and should follow him to port.

Cataldo retorted that he wasn’t inclined to obey a ship whose black flag bore a skull (albeit with a shepherd’s crook and a trident instead of crossbones). And it is fair to say that the Sea Shepherd organisation, whose mission “is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans”, has enjoyed a fairly anomalous relationship with nautical authority since its foundation in 1977.

So began the world’s longest sea chase to date, recorded with flair and precision in Catching Thunder, Diane Oatley’s effortlessly noir translation of Engdal and Saeter’s 2016 Norwegian bestseller. The book promises all the pleasures of a crime novel, but it is after bigger game: let’s call it the unremitting weirdness of the real world.

This is a book about fish – and also a chase narrative in which the protagonists spend most of the time sailing in circles and sending each other passive-aggressive radio messages. (“You are worried about the crew, and now all the Indonesians are nervous,” Cataldo complains. “One person attempted to take his life. Over.”)

It’s about attempting to regulate the movement of lumps of steel weighing more than 650 tons which, if they want, can thug their way out of any harbour whether they’ve been “impounded” or not, and it’s about the sheer slow-mo clumsiness of ship-handling.

At one point the Thunder “moves in circles, directing a searchlight on the Bob Barker, then suddenly stops and drifts for a few hours. Then the mate puts the ship in motion again, heading for a point in the middle of nowhere.” There’s no Hollywood hot-headedness here. The violence here is rare, veiled and, when it comes, unstoppable and ice-cold.

The Thunder was wanted for hunting the Patagonian toothfish, a protected species of “petulant and repulsive” giants that can grow to a weight of 120kg and live more than 50 years. When the Bob Barker caught sight of it in the Southern Ocean, no one could have guessed that their chase would last for 110 days.

Stoked by Sea Shepherd’s YouTube campaign, the pursuit became a cause célèbre and the Bob Barker’s hardened crew were prepared for the long game: “As long as the two ships are operating without using the engines, it is only the generators that are consuming fuel. If it continues like this, they can be at sea for two years.”

Engdal and Saeter must keep their human story going while doing justice to the scale of their subject. At the start, their subject is the fishing industry, in which a cargo of frozen toothfish can go “on a circumnavigation of the world from the Southern Ocean to Thailand, then around the entire African continent, past the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and into the South China Sea before ending up in Vietnam.” But they also have something to say about the planet.

Suppose you catch fish for a living. If you saw that your catch was dwindling, you might limit your days at sea to ensure that you can continue to fish that species in future years. This isn’t “ecological thinking”; it’s simple self-interest. In the fishing industry, though, self-interest works differently.

And in a chapter about Chimbote in Peru, the authors hit upon a striking metonym for the global mechanisms denuding our seas.

The Peruvian anchovy boom of the late 2000s turned Chimbote from a sleepy village into Peru’s busiest fishing port. Fifty factories exuded a stench of rotten fish, and pumped wastewater and fish blood into the ocean, to the point where the local ecosystem was so damaged that an ordinary El Niño event finished off the anchovy stocks for good.

The point is this: fishing companies are not fisherfolk. They are companies: lumps of capital incorporated to maximise returns on investment. It makes no sense for an extraction company to limit its consumption of a resource.

Once stocks have been reduced to nothing, the company simply reinvests its capital in some other, more available resource. You can put rules in place to limit the rapaciousness of the enterprise, but the rapaciousness is baked in. Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Politically savvy readers will find, between the lines, an account here of how increasingly desperate governments are coming to a rapprochement with the Sea Shepherd organisation, whose self-consciously piratical founder Paul Watson declared in 1988: “We hold the position that the laws of ecology take precedence over the laws designed by nation states to protect corporate interests.”

Watson’s position seems legally extreme. But 30 years on, with an ecological catastrophe looming, many maritime law enforcers hardly care. Robbed of income and ecological capital, some countries are getting gnarly. In 2016, Indonesian authorities sank 170 foreign fishing vessels in less than two years. They would like to sink many more: according to this daunting thriller, 5,000 illegal fishing vessels ply their waters at any one time.