See UPDATE below.
Since none of the major news outlets are doing justice to this story and I have the day off for snow, I might as well put these pieces together about a so-called “mystery monster” report from Wolf Island, in southern Georgia on March 16. The first report I saw was from local outlet First Coast News via KHOU:
A man from Waycross, Georgia found his own version of the Loch Ness Monster on Friday while at Wolf Island.
Jeff Warren was out with his son on a boat near the Barrier Islands going around Wolf Island when he saw what he thought was a dead seal.
News4 reports Warren described the creature as 4-5 feet long. This is obviously incorrect as the visuals against the shoreline depict an object 1-2 feet long at most, though we don’t have an object for scale. Warren’s quotes suggest he didn’t know about the local legend of the Altamaha-ha, a serpent-like beast said to roam the channels and marshes of the Altamaha River and vicinity. Some locals told him it looked like Altie. From Legends of America:
This strange cryptid is described as having a sturgeon like body including a bony ridge on its top. With front flippers and no back limbs, it swims like a dolphin, and has the snout of a crocodile, with large, protruding eyes and large sharp teeth. Its coloring is said to be gray or green with a whitish-yellow underbelly. Reports indicate that it is 20-30 feet long, though some have stated seeing smaller or larger creatures, suggesting that Altamaha-ha is not alone.
Warren had taken a video of the creature on the shore of the Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge near Darien, Georgia. Warren then sent his pic and video to various news outlets, the first of several red flags that this story is not as it first appears. The video is only 14 seconds long and Warren (or whoever took the video, I assume nothing here) did not approach the carcass close enough to get a detailed look. Since it was just at the water’s edge, there was hardly any excuse for this except that it was on purpose.
The news organizations approached marine scientists who inexplicably said it was some sort of shark. The tail does look like a shark but the rest of the body does not. A person from the Tybee Island Marine Science Center said, “It looks like a deep-sea shark, like a frilled shark. Although I don’t see gill slits.” She laments that the carcass was not recovered to examine. It would be strange for a deep ocean creature to appear on this shore but by assessing the fin placement and the shape of the head, this beast does not much resemble a frilled shark.
Another scientist, from Savannah State University, suggested a basking shark. I’d wonder if she actually saw the video because while basking sharks decompose into a plesiosaur-shaped weird thing with what looks like a small head and long neck attached to a wide body and long tail, this is NOT THAT either. Other than the bit of protruding guts (that most outlets blurred out because we can’t take a bit of flesh showing), there is no obvious decomposition happening here.
There is the possibility that is some deformed animal rendering it superficially unrecognizable. But there is a recognizable (but mythical) creature to match it nearly exactly. Coincidentally, that animal happens to be the beloved mascot of the local Darien and McIntosh County Chamber and Visitors Center.
A group of Scottish Highlanders successfully settled the area that became Darien. It seems quite the coincidence that the creature resembles the historical depiction of the Loch Ness Monster. While the creature is said to be known in tales from the natives, this is unclear as traditional stories of spirit animals are often usurped by the locals and blended with modern ideas to form new folklore (see my series on cryptozoology and myth). This reporter looked at a news report from the 1800s when the creature was first described in the area. She also talked to the local fishermen who have accepted the Nessie-type creature as real and believe those they say swore they encountered it. Altie seems to have resurfaced in the modern form in 1981 when a former newspaper publisher named Larry Gwin reported seeing the creature while fishing with his friend. They described it with two big humps about five feet apart. This sparked a wave of new reports and the County had its own version of the Loch Ness Monster. This similar story has been told many times across the world. It’s the typical origin story of local monsters.
This critter is embedded deep within the local culture and is so important that they have erected a monument to it and will not let the story sink anytime soon.
So are we looking at a photoshop job for the Warren report? Possibly, but since that is rather readily detectable, sharp-eyed observers, like John “Crawfish” Crawford, see what it most probably is:
After examining the photo he was convinced it was a model, maybe made of clay and maybe with chicken guts for entrails. The photo looked a lot like the Wikipedia entry for the Altamaha-ha, he said. And Crawford knows that some fishermen friends have pulled practical jokes in the past to get media attention for the Altamaha-ha legend.
“Whoever did it did a good job,” said Crawford, an accomplished naturalist and marine educator at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “I’m sure it’s another saga in the Altamaha-ha thing.”
It seems readily apparent that it was a hoax to me and to several of my cryptid researchers colleagues online who saw all the red flags:
- Limited video and photos taken from far away and positioned to hide details.
- Suspiciously exaggerated initial report of size.
- No specifics about locations.
- Warren was apparently familiar with the area but was not familiar with the depiction of the creature as advertised in the town.
- No samples obtained for ID.
- Observation taken directly to the press.
- The tail portion appears to have the pattern of chicken wire with a papier-mache covering. This suggests the front-half, a model of Altie, was connected to a shark’s tail.
- The creature matches the Altie model nearly exactly in shape.
- Crypto-tourism is a genuine thing that promotes new visitors to an area to look for the supposed monster and to buy merch.
Hoaxes like this are not uncommon and not hard to pull off. (Remember the Georgia Bigfoot? Maybe that’s where they got the idea about exposed guts.) It’s a bit fun and entertaining to promote your local monster but that comes with the negative side that you are misinforming people about the area.
Why were the scientists questioned so quick to name real animals as possibilities and fall for the gaff? Dr. Darren Naish, vertebrate paleontologist, (world-famous podcaster,) and author of
Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths, told me this is a common problem. “The scientists so often asked about these sorts of things only approach the problem from their area of specialty, and aren’t broad-brush experts with (as in this case) knowledge of ‘sea monster carcass’ shenanigans.” They inadvertently give the sighting or report credibility with their suggestions. Calling out a hoax is distasteful to many scientists because they can’t be sure and they risk getting bad publicity for it. But Naish adds that it’s dangerous to pretend you are an expert in everything generally within that field. “A responsible expert should thus start by saying ‘this appears to be beyond my area of expertise’,” he says, to avoid making an egregious mistake, real or hoax. When scientists are called on by the media to make a conclusion that will be read as the definitive answer, they make a best guess or decline to comment. I’m not sure which is worse.
If you ever find a suspicious carcass lying around, at least take some close-up pictures or video of the head, the teeth, feet or flippers, and any other obvious parts. Use a known object in the frame as a scale for measuring. Turn it over if you can. And if it’s truly weird, do your best to save the body or at least a part of it in a sealed plastic bag and throw it in the freezer. Then, take your report to the local wildlife center instead of the press. Then a real ID can be made.
Is Altie real? That’s a trick question. Certainly, people see things in lakes, rivers and the sea that are brief glimpses of real animals or objects that resemble a strange-looking monster. They interpret what they see in a form that is suggested by their memories, environment, and existing stories. In this case, it was not a misidentification, this was a deliberate attempt to make media waves. It succeeded. I noticed the story today has made it to Newsweek, People, USA Today, LiveScience, and national news syndication, all with the conclusion that “scientists think it’s a decomposing shark” (Sigh). It’s a shame that the eventual conclusion, whatever the real story is, will never reach that far. In good news for Darien (but generally bad for society), the truth doesn’t always matter. In cryptozoology, a false conclusion meshes with a real experience and we are left unsure about what the thing is that we are left holding.
UPDATE: (16-Dec 2018) I’m a bit behind with this as the reveal occurred officially in September 2018 but better to set the record straight. The “artist” Zardulu admitted to making this hoax out of exactly the products suspected by those in the know immediately upon this story hitting the news. This same person was responsible for the three-eyed catfish hoax from the Gowanus Canal in March of 2016 – also readily exposed as fake. Pretty sorry stuff, if you ask me. You don’t make fans by hoodwinking the public or by trafficking in fake news. This is the kind of crap that makes cryptozoology a laughable “field”.