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Gourock-Kadaver 1942

The report of borough surveyor Charles Rankin

Painting of the supposed Gourock Sea Serpent (Glen Vaudrey)The “Gourock Sea Serpent” became widely known when in September 1980 an episode of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” titled “Monsters of the Deep” was aired on Television. In this episode former council officer Charles Rankin was interviewed about his experience with the carcass:

I can’t see that this carcass was a rotting basking shark. In the first place this animal showed no signs of rotting. It was absolutely complete. Unmarred. The monster measured approximately 28 feet from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. The body as it lay on the ground was approximately 5 to 6 feet deep. The body could be described as having three parts – the body, the neck and the tail. And the neck and tail tapered very gradually away from the body. The animal had teeth. Teeth about perhaps that size [Rankin shows the first distal phalanx bone of his left pointer finger] on both jaws. In the stomach of the creature was a small portion of what I took to be a seaman’s jersey. It was an open knitted portion of some knitted material and the other thing strangely enough was the corner of what can be described as an old fashioned tablecloth. Just the corner and it was complete with tassels.
(Transcript of Mr. Rankin’s Interview from www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XG0V2LZ9fBw)

In the accompanying book to the Television series the report is more detailed:

It was approximately 27-28 feet in length and 5-6 feet in depth at the broadest part. As it lay on its side, the body appeared to be oval in section but the angle of the flippers in relation to the body suggested that the body section had been round in life. If so, this would reduce the depth dimension to some extent. The head and neck, the body, and the tail were approximately equal in length, the neck and tail tapering gradually away from the body. There were no fins. The head was comparatively small, of a shape rather like that of a seal, but the snout was much sharper and the top of the head flatter. The jaws came together one over the other and there appeared to be a bump over the eyes – say prominent eyebrows. There were large pointed teeth in each jaw. The eyes were comparatively large, rather like those of a seal but more to the side of the head.

The tail was rectangular in shape as it lay – it appeared to have been vertical in life. Showing through the thin skin there were parallel rows of ‘bones’ which had a gristly, glossy, opaque appearance. I had the impression that these ‘bones’ had opened out fan-wise under the thin membrane to form a very effective tail. The tail appeared to be equal in size above and below centre line.

At the front of the body there was a pair of ‘L’-shaped flippers and at the back a similar pair, shorter but broader. Each terminated in a ‘bony’ structure similar to the tail and no doubt was also capable of being opened out in the same way.

The body had over it at fairly close intervals, pointing towards, hard, bristly ‘hairs’. These were set closer together towards the tail and at the back edge of the flippers. I pulled out one of these bristles from a flipper. It was about 6 inches long and was tapered and pointed at each end like a steel knitting needle and rather of the thickness of a needle of that size, but slightly more flexible. I kept the bristle in the drawer of my office desk and sometime later I found that it had dried up in the shape of a coiled spring.

Reproduction of the sketch of Mr. Rankin shown during his interview (Markus Hemmler)

The skin of the animal was smooth and when cut was found to be comparatively thin but tough. There appeared to be no bones other than a spinal column. The flesh was uniformly deep pink in colour, was blubbery and difficult to cut or chop. It did not bleed, and it behaved like a thick table jelly under pressure. In what I took to be the stomach of the animal was found a small piece of knitted woolen material as from a cardigan and, stranger still, a small corner of what had been a woven cotton tablecloth – complete with tassels.

Neither Rankin nor his foreman who also inspected the remains could decide what species this carcass was. Rankin recalls that he rang the Royal Scottish Museum but they dismissed it without interest. Due to war time restrictions he was refused by the Royal Navy with a stiff warning to take any photographs of the carcass. So the carcass at last was hacked into pieces and buried in the grounds of the municipal incinerator, what today is the playing field of local school St Ninian (Welfare & Fairley, 1980).

Speculations: from pinniped to sharks and hoax

Author Paul Harrison remarked that if the description was accurate it could not relate to a decomposed basking shark and instead sounds more like a species of pinniped. However he remained inconclusive especially as Rankin seemed to be experienced with seals (Harrison, 2001).

Zoologist Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker (2003) more conclusive wrote that “when considered collectively, features such these bristles (readily recalling the ceratotrichia – cartilaginous fibres – of a shark fin rays), the lizard-like shape, vertical tail (characteristic of fish), lack of body bones, and smooth skin suggest a decomposing shark as a plausible identity”. Considering this general identity it seems very probable to assume that it was just another pseudoplesiosaur. Many mysterious carcasses seem at first to look with their external shape, often with a small head, a long thin neck, a large body with fins and a pointed tail, at the first sight like a representative of an extinct marine reptile. However in all cases where sufficient material or data for identification was present, they turned out without exception as the carcass of a basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). The problem with this explanation appears to Dr. Shuker that if the report was accurate the description of large pointed teeth argues against this identity and instead favors a carnivorous species. Nonetheless he remarks that it has to be a very large carnivorous shark because even the largest carnivorous shark, the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, rarely exceeds 20 feet.

From basking shark to pseudoplesiosaur  (Markus Bühler)A last and more current speculation regarding the identity was that, as Mr. Rankin seemed to be the only available source for this incident, it could possibly be a hoax (Glen Vaudrey, pers. comm., 30 August 2012). This was rejected nearly immediately because of the “bristle” which council officer Rankin kept in his office desk, which was shown during his interview (Karl Shuker, pers. comm., 17 November 2012). Nevertheless naturally there is still the possibility that the “bristle” could be part of a supposed hoax also.

Evidence from 1942

Recent research has shown that there was indeed a “monster” carcass found at Gourock in June of 1942. The Watt Library in Greenock provides a complete archive of local newspapers also including some articles referring to the Gorouck carcass. The Greenock Telegraph reported on 10th June:

Gourock workmen have had many novel jobs encrusted to them since the outbreak of war. But to-day they had a task which must be the most unique given to them so far.

They cremated and then buried the remains of a basking shark washed up on the beach at Ashton. The fish was twenty-seven feet in length. It was in such a state of decomposition that no dealers could be prevailed upon accept custody of the “body,” with the result that workmen yesterday set about cutting it into pieces, and removing it to the destructor.

Just two days later, on 12th June, the Gourock Times followed:

Gourock burgh employees have tackled many novel jobs in recent years, but this week they had a task to perform which must be the most unique given them so far. A basking shark, twenty seven feet in length, was washed up on the shore near M’Inroy’s Point. It was in such a state of decomposition that no dealers could be prevailed upon to accept custody of the “body.” Workmen had to set about cutting it into pieces and removing it to the destructor, where it was cremated and the remains then buried.

Certainly interesting is the statement in a short notice of the Gourock Times on the 11 June 1942 that in contrary to what was known until now there was an expert examining the carcass:

Gourock’s monster washed up on the beach at the beginning of the week was the subject of argument. It needed an expert to come in and prove that it was a basking shark.

Discussion

Without question, there was a dead shark found in June 1942 at Gourock. However all reasonable explanations of what kind of shark this could be, either a basking shark or a carnivorous one, offer some uncertainties and open questions.

Carnivourus shark:

If it was a carnivorous shark it has to be an extremely large individual as Dr. Shuker (2003) already remarked. If we consider the great white shark as a probable candidate it must have been an individual fairly well exceeding the accepted maximum length. Additionally there is the problem that the presence of C. carcharias around Scotland at least seems possible to some but the only evidence are unverified sightings and the finding of a fossilized tooth (Lumley, 2011; Wren, 2012). Furthermore until now there is no evidence that a carnivorous shark carcass can become the same appearance like a pseudoplesiosaur.

The tiny teeth of a basking shark (Tiburones Chile)The main argument for the carnivorous identity and against a basking shark with its tiny teeth is the description of “large pointed teeth”. But the important question then is how accurate was the description of Mr. Rankin? We cannot say anything about the intention and of him personally but from his report and the new presented evidence we can judge that he certainly was not accurate in every detail and only to a certain degree. It was dismissed before for example that the animal showed no signs of rotting, was absolutely complete and unmarred. Instead the overall description indicates clearly a decomposed shark as was also acknowledged from both local newspapers. Considering all of this some doubts can arise that his report is accurate. Also, in the detail of the length of the teeth after thirty-eight years, he himself stated that “perhaps” the teeth had been as large as his first distal phalanx bone.

Basking shark:

In opposite to C. carcharias the common presence of C. maximus around and even in the Firth of Clyde instead is well documented (Fairfax, 1998) also the appearance as pseudoplesiosaur. Regarding the “large pointed teeth” and in contrary to Dr. Shuker (2003) we cannot dismiss a basking shark identity so easily because at least there was one very similar description of some body parts from a Chilean pseudoplesiosaur carcass of 1991 (luisrn, 2008). Even if we assume that Mr. Rankin was talking about real teeth the previously mentioned question remains how accurate was his description? All in all a basking shark identity seems more plausible and more probably than anything else. Especially now as we have some newspaper accounts clearly stating that it was a basking shark and that an expert had done this identification. But in order to solely dismiss any doubts some questions remain for example regarding the identity of the said expert or some other helpful evidence like a photo of the carcass.

In view of this I would appreciate anyone contacting me who can assist with new information regarding this case. And naturally I appreciate every comment to the discussion in any form (either through Email to Diese E-Mail-Adresse ist vor Spambots geschützt! Zur Anzeige muss JavaScript eingeschaltet sein! or in my discussion board or anywhere else).

Acknowledgements

My deepest thanks to Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker, Glen Vaudrey, Claire Jaycock and especially to Ms. Betty Hendry, Senior Library Assistant, at Watt Library.

References

Pictures

  • Painting of the Gourock Sea Serpent: Glen Vaudrey
  • Reproduction of Mr. Rankin’s sketch: Markus Hemmler
  • Basking shark and pseudo-plesiosaur-prozess: Markus Bühler/Markus Hemmler
  • Basking shark teeth: Tiburones Chile (www.flickr.com/photos/tiburoneschile/4621998927/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/tiburoneschile/4622603724, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)