Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Sea Monster Files

The Royal Navy is not hiding any secret files on sea monsters - but crews who make unusual sightings may have recorded their experiences in ship logbooks. This revelation emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information request made by marine biologist Sebastian Darby. Darby’s request asked the MoD if there were “any abnormally large, or dangerous sea monsters hundreds of metres under the sea that haven’t been revealed to the public.” If such creatures did exist, he argued, it would be in the public interest to publish the facts as the lives of marine biologists could be at risk. The original request and response from the Navy FOI officer can seen on the helpful What Do They Know website here.

The response says MoD does not keep “any form of central repository of information purely devoted to sea monsters”. But the navy did encourage personnel to record sightings of marine mammals “and its possible this could include unusual sightings.” All such reports were sent to the UK Hydrographic Office in Somerset, but individual ship’s logs are retained until they are deposited at The National Archives after 30 years. But a search of thousands of ship’s logs for entries on sea monster sightings would exceed the cost limits allowed for a FOI request.

Nautical folklore is replete with such stories and first-hand accounts of sightings have been recorded in Atlantic waters since the Middle Ages. In more recent centuries, one of the most celebrated sea serpent reports was made by the captain and officers of the frigate HMS Daedalus off the Cape of Good Hope in the South Atlantic on 6 August 1848 (see image, right). On arrival in England the captain, Peter M’Quhae sent details to the Admiralty and to The Times newspaper. Later, he personally supervised a detailed drawing of the 60 ft long creature. But his story was rejected by palaeontologist Professor Richard Owen, who insisted the crew had seen a giant seal.

A number of other 19th century accounts have emerged in British Admiralty files deposited at The National Archives in Kew. One contains an account of a sea serpent written by Captain James Stockdale in May 1830. Stockdale and the crew of the barque Rob Roy were near the island of St Helena when they heard a scuffling noise in the water. As they turned to the port bow they were amazed to see the head of “a great thundering sea snake” whose head rose six feet out of the water “as square with our topsail [and] his tail was square with the foremast.” Stockdale said his ship was 171 feet long with the foremast 42 feet from the stern, which would make the monster 129 feet long. He reported to his masters in London:

“If I had not seen it I could not have believed it but there was no mistake or doubt of its length – for the brute was so close I could even smell his nasty fishy smell.”

Unusual reports like these appear to have been filed away without comment by the Admiralty, in much the same way that the Air Ministry dealt with reports of flying saucers and UFOs from RAF crews during the 20th century. Unless a clear threat was identified, either from sea monsters or aliens, sightings like these were classified as interesting but of “no defence significance.”

Ewe couldn't make it up!

The idea that aliens are mutilating farm animals and other creatures began in the USA during the 1960s. Opinion is divided between those who believe the wave of mysterious deaths of cattle that followed can be attributed to predators, nefarious military experiments, cult activity or- whisper it!- real aliens. But it was inevitable that “mutes”, like most other UFOlogical legends, would be exported from the USA to the rest of the world. The phenomenon in the UK is sporadic and has tended to preoccupy the energies of the type of UFO buff that Patrick Moore used to describe as ‘independent thinkers’. We didn’t have to wait long for The Sun to set this hare running and in April, under the frivolous headline “Baas Attacks” we were told that farmers near Shrewsbury in Shropshire had found bodies of sheep which had been “lasered” by mysterious orange lights in the sky, leaving the poor creatures without brains or eyes. Others have been found with neatly drilled holes via which brains and internal organs have been extracted, and so on.

The source for The Sun’s story was ‘UFOlogist’ Phil Hoyle who claims that such mutilations are regularly taking place in a 50-mile "corridor" between Shrewsbury and Powys in Wales. Hoyle’s grandly-named ‘Animal Pathology Field Unit’ was featured briefly on BBC3’s I believe in UFOs programme earlier this year, but his wild claims left even the clueless presenter Danny Dyer lost for words. One of the unit’s investigative activities was to organise a skywatch at one of the farms plagued by extraterrestrial mutilators. Afterwards Hoyle was quoted as saying: “The technology involved in these attacks is frightening. For a short while it looked more like a Star Wars battle. These lights and spheres are clearly not ours. They are built by technology and intelligence that's not from here.” The following day he quizzed farmers (none of whom were named or quoted) in the vicinity and found that "all but one had some type of unusual disappearance of animals or deaths with strange injuries".

Now I can understand why The Sun runs this type of 'flat earth' story but when it is picked up by the Press Association and repeated by the Daily Telegraph (5 April 2010) you begin to realize how far fact-checking has declined in British journalism.

For his 2008 book Flat Earth News Nick Davies commissioned Cardiff University to survey the contents of four ‘quality’ newspapers (Times, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph) during two random weeks to assess the source of their editorial content. He found that a massive 80% of the content was drawn from either agency and/or PR sources. That left just 12% of the content that appeared to be generated through the efforts of the paper’s own reporters. This is what Davies calls churnalism - but essentially it is lazy journalism and it is endemic in newsrooms everywhere. Stories like this one are copied without the most basic checks and endlessly recycled on the internet.

Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously – after all newspapers run daft stories every day, as their role is to entertain as well as to inform. But any journalist worthy of the name should have asked why farmers – not usually known for their lack of initiative when it comes to pursuing claims for loss of livestock - had not reported these mutilations to the police or the authorities, or made any claims for compensation. At an even more basic level, who are these farmers and why isn't a single source - apart from Hoyle - named in the story?

It took me less than half an hour to make some basic inquiries with the Animal Health team that is responsible for the Welsh Border region (part of the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This established the team had not received a single complaint from farms in this region or even any report of an unexplained animal mutilation during the past five years. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Mama, they're making CGI's at me!

Also in April The Sun claimed fighter jets had been captured on film in daylight pursuing a UFO over the M5 motorway. We were told “a mystery cameraman” obtained the footage from a West Midlands service station car park and posted the footage on YouTube. Ex MoD saucer-botherer Nick Pope was quoted as saying this was “one of the best videos” he had seen and suggested the object was either a military drone or “the real thing” – “a UFO in our airspace and military aircraft scrambled to intercept.”

But was it? Had the balloon gone up? Or was it just another cynical exercise to attract readers? If so readers were not taken in.

Immediately, commentators dismissed the footage as fake. Questions asked included: why was there just one witness and why was he anonymous? why do both the UFO and the jets appear to be motionless and why do the trucks appear so clean and spotless? Another identified the jets as Russian Sukhoi Su-27s, not normally part of the RAF’s interceptor force!

All the clues pointed towards a clever hoax. Investigative UFOlogist Isaac Koi - who has a fantastic new website here - spent an afternoon scrutinising the mystery footage and consulted CGI experts who have posted similar films on YouTube. One said: “…everything that appears in the video is digital. The textures are very clean. The trucks, the tree, the UFO, the jets. Not mine, but it is very good, and is CGI.”

Not conclusive proof, but it shows what an enquiring kind and a small investment of time can come up with. Koi pointed out there is a P&O container in the foreground of the video on which some serial numbers are visible. Suspiciously, the camera appears to focus on the serial number before shifting to the UFO. He then traced an online 3D image of a P&O container with a serial number visible, which appears to be the same serial number as the container image online.

Conclusive evidence the video is a hoax?

Yes. The creator of the video confessed on 21 April and posted the full video on YouTube, along with a stage-by-stage account of how it was produced using a simple computer programme. It appears the whole story was a clever exercise in viral marketing - with the tabloids and UFO 'experts' all taken in by their will to believe.

Bear in mind that none of the international news outlets - including The Sun and Daily Mail - who ran the original story have told their readers it was a hoax.

As a YouTube viewer commented, the hoax revelation has received just 65 hits in five days. That compares to the original footage, which received hundreds of thousands of views, net comment and international media coverage.

Won't get fooled again?

Only 'till next time.