An exploration of our Earth's ever-captivating fauna through musings on the bizarre side of Zoology, Cryptozoology, Paleontology, and Paleoanthropology

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Most Compelling 'Sea Serpent' Case: The Alvin Submersible Encounter

Thomas Finley's illustration of the Alvin submarine encountering its alleged 'sea serpent'
While submerged near the Tongue of the Ocean in the Bahamas around July of 1965, Alvin submersible pilot Marvin McCamis allegedly observed an animal which could only be described as reminiscent of the classic 'long necked sea serpent'.1 Accompanied by Captain Bill Rainnie, the two had entered these depths in order to survey the Naval underwater listening array Artemis.1 After descending nearly one mile deep into a crevasse, the pilots allegedly noticed movement and spotted an object which they took to be a utility pole.1 When their position allowed a better view of the object, they realized that it was an animal which possessed a thick body propelled by flippers, a long neck, and a rather snake-like head.1 Before the submersible's cameras could reach the correct angle and activate, the animal quickly ascended and swam off.1 The observation was entered into their logbook, although the two remained hesitant to speak further about it for fear of ridicule.1 While this may sound to be a rather spectacular course of events, those alleged to have been involved in the sighting were all very real. The Alvin, the Naval Deep Submergence Vehicle from which this 'sea serpent' was allegedly viewed, was first commissioned in 1964 from which it made more than 4,600 dives.2 Captain McCamis himself, who passed away in 2004, was assigned as the chief engineer and pilot for the Alvin project after joining the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1963.3 In 1966, McCamis received a Meritorious Service Award from the Secretary of the Navy for his assistance in the recovery of a lost hydrogen bomb using the Alvin.3 Bill Rainnie, who passed away in 1985, received multiple commendation citations and Navy meritorious service awards for his leadership and undertakings with deep submergence.4

Sketch of McCamis' 'sea serpent' from Without a Trace; the date of 1969 has been proven erroneous by Scott Mardis' 1997 correspondence with Captain McCamis
The Alvin submersible (Source)
The Alvin sighting is generally considered to be reliable among 'sea serpent' proponents, as two submersible captains so experienced as McCamis and Rainnie were likely to be competent observers. Still, even such proficient individuals are not infallible to zoological misidentification or eyewitness bias. Could this have been a case of the classic plesiosaurian 'sea monster' motif filling in the gaps of an ambiguous observation? Considering the multiplicity of global reports describing unidentified marine animals which exhibit long necks stretching from bulky flippered bodies, a non-zoological explanation may not be necessary.5 While not all such sightings should necessarily be taken as literal encounters with a radically new animal species, the point as brilliantly stated in Discovering Cadborosaurus remains that:
To dismiss all eyewitness reports as merely anecdotal would be just foolish. In the absence of sufficient material evidence, one can either dogmatically deny even the possibility of undiscovered animals, or look for clues that might help resolve the mystery. ... There are some who would dismiss all such anecdotal evidence, an attitude which smack of dogmatic denial, especially when there is no physical or biological reason for a priori rejection of the possibility of the existence of  marine creatures still unknown to science.6
Scott Mardis has since told me that he sent McCamis a variety of papers which included the Robert Rines photographs, photographs of the Zuiyo-Maru carcass (plesiosaur-like but a decomposed basking shark by all biological accounts), and illustrations based off of plesiosaur reconstructions. The former submarine pilot told Scott that they resembled the animal which he observed. Oddly enough the McCamis sighting seems to indicate an animal which bears a close resemblance to long-necked plesiosaurs, but is there any true merit to the hypothesis that such marine reptiles are still extant? While the relict plesiosaur hypothesis has certainly received little mainstream zoological support, the case of proponents such as Scott Mardis, Dale Drinnon, Nick Nordstrom, Dr. Karl Shuker, and Dr. Denys Tucker is not entirely spurious in the view of this author. Although the diligent 'sea serpent' researcher Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans held strongly to the idea of unidentified marine animals being mammalian in identity, he admitted that many reported features do have precedence in reptiles.5 Such comparative anatomy remains compelling, yet others contend that the points are little more than special-pleading or improbable picking and choosing of morphological traits. Paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish has argued that it would be implausible for plesiosaurs, which maintained a conservatively similar body plan throughout nearly 160-million years, to have suddenly evolved neomorphs such as the hairy manes, dorsal crests, fatty humps, and horn-like protruberances reported by alleged long-necked 'sea serpent' eyewitnesses.7 One of the most frequent arguments against the relict plesiosaur hypothesis contained in cryptozoological literature is that the cold waters of regions such as British Columbia and northern Europe would be unsuitable for the reptiles; a statement oft-repeated yet not necessarily accurate. Recent studies on the physiologies of Mesozoic marine reptiles have suggested that the animals were warm-blooded, and thus would have likely possessed heat conservation systems such as blubber.8 Such body fat on a modern day plesiosaur individual could be seen as variable humps, one of the classic features reported for long-necked aquatic mystery animals, if whipped by turbulent waves.5 Furthermore, tentative findings from Svalbard suggest the presence of skeletal oil9 (possibly indicating oily fat) and a leatherback-like bone histology10 for some plesiosaurs. If the aforementioned inferences are correct, plesiosaurs may have possessed a partially warm blooded physiology yet retained a reptilian metabolism and thus not as crucial a need to surface to breath as mammals and birds. The fossil record shows that the animals were probable benthic feeders with ears and eyes specialized for sensitivity underwater and stomachs containing gastroliths in order to acquire negative buoyancy.7 Along with the dorsally oriented nostrils of these marine reptiles which may have allowed them to breath rather discreetly, these traits suggest that a small amount of time spent at the surface would likely be desirable for plesiosaurs. This could explain the lack of modern sightings of plesiosaurs breathing at the surface, if the hypothesis under scrutiny has basis in zoological truth. In regard to the frequent presence of gastroliths found in fossilized sauropterygian stomachs, it is also worth noting the likelihood that such animals would sink after death due to these ballasts.5 
An illustration of an Antarctic cryptoclidid plesiosaur with a thick coat of blubber, by Tim Morris.



Frequenters of fathoms below? If reports of long-necked 'sea serpents' really do reflect encounters with modern day plesiosauroids, could the deep water encounter alleged by Alvin pilots McCamis and Rainnie represent an observation of one of the animals in its natural habitat with surface sightings representative of rare chance occasions? The current model of plesiosaurs as probable benthic feeders with senses fine-tuned to the water and stomachs full of gastroliths in order to acquire negative buoyancy certainly lends credence to such a notion. (Artwork by Aleks Mats)
While these do add support to the plesiosaur hypothesis, there is the critical problem faced by all such hypotheses within the Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm: an abnormally large gap in the fossil record remains.7 However, there are several fossil remains of plesiosaurs which are outside of the confirmed strata (as detailed in this article and this article). Such fossils are thought to have eroded into younger deposits, but could the remains stretching from the Paleocene to Pleistocene epoch (some of which were articulated) all have been simply reworked? This question remains tentative for now, but does raise some tantalizing implications. Another issue with the relict plesiosaur hypothesis is that the articulation of the zygapophyses in the cervical vertebrae of most plesiosaurs would have prevented much vertical flexure.7 Interestingly, a juvenile specimen of Leptocleidus from Australian Cretaceous deposits was preserved with steeply angled cervical zygapophyses which would likely have allowed it to exhibit vertical neck flexure unprecedented by other recorded plesiosaur specimens.11 As pointed out by biologist Cameron McCormick, this was probably a juvenile condition owing to the degree of cartilage present. Still, the presence of cartilage or other soft tissues among the cervical vertebrae of plesiosaurs could also have allowed greater flexure capabilities than shown by skeletal anatomy alone.12


Current paleozoological consensus suggests that any erect-necked behavior in plesiosaurs would have occured in a manner like that illustrated here by paleoartist John Conway, rather than the classic 'swan neck' pose. Still, it is possible that certain surfacing postures could create the appearance of such a flexible stance, and the degree of neck flexure pertaining to certain plesiosauroid species continues to be a matter of debate. (Source)
Although it has been cast in a doubtful light in recent years, the possibility of the marine mystery animals such as that reported by Captain McCamis as belonging to Sauropterygia is not wholly meritless. It is arguable that the case does not entirely rely upon outdated views, yet continues to be viewed as improbable in the eyes of paleontological academia. Regardless, Captain McCamis and Rainnie's observation stands as one of the most compelling cases in 'sea serpent' literature, a report not easily relegated to the status of a hoax or misidentification.



References:
  1. Drinnon, Dale A. "The Alvin Plesiosaur." Frontiers of Zoology. N.p., 20 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. http://frontiersofzoology.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-alvin-plesiosaur.html.
  2. "Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin." : Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. http://www.whoi.edu/main/hov-alvin/.
  3. "In Memoriam: Marvin McCamis." Marvin McCamis : Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. http://www.whoi.edu/main/obituaries/archive?tid=3622&cid=2939.
  4. "MC-60: William O. Rainnie Papers." WHOI Data Library and Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. http://dla.whoi.edu/manuscripts/node/196764.
  5. Heuvelmans, Bernard, Richard Garnett, and Alika Watteau. In the Wake of the Sea-serpents. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968. Print.
  6. LeBlond, P. H., John Kirk, Christopher L. Murphy, and Jason Walton. Discovering Cadborosaurus. N.p.: Hancock House, 2014. Print.
  7. Naish, Darren. "Sea Monsters and the 'Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm." Weird Weekend 2011. Lecture.
  8. "Warm-blooded Marine Reptiles at the Time of the Dinosaurs." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100614093341.htm.
  9. Liebe, Lene, and Jørn Harald Hurum. "Preliminary Results on Liquid Petroleum Occurring Asfluid Inclusions in Intracellular Mineral Precipitates In the Vertebrae of Pliosaurus Funkei." NORWEGIAN JOURNAL OF GEOLOGY (2012): n. pag. Web.
  10. Liebe, Lene, and Jørn Harald Hurum. "Gross Internal Structure and Microstructure of Plesiosaur Limb Bones from the Late Jurassic, Central Spitsbergen." NORWEGIAN JOURNAL OF GEOLOGY (2012): n. pag. Web.
  11. "The Lord Geekington: The Flexibility of Plesiosaur Necks." The Lord Geekington: The Flexibility of Plesiosaur Necks. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. http://cameronmccormick.blogspot.com/2008/09/flexibility-of-plesiosaur-necks.html.
  12. Naish, Darren. "Plesiosaur Peril — the Lifestyles and Behaviours of Ancient Marine Reptiles | Tetrapod Zoology, Scientific American Blog Network." Tetrapod Zoology. Scientific American, 3 Mar. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2014/03/03/plesiosaur-peril-and-plesiosaur-lifestyle-and-behaviour/


34 comments:

  1. 64 million years without a fossil record is pretty substantial. Plesiosaurs are long gone.

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    1. Until recently there was no fossil record of the chimpanzee.

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    2. Although the lack of a fossil record was an argument which has kept me from being open to the plesiosaur hypothesis as of recently, Scott Mardis has done some work to point out that there are several examples of post-Cretaceous fossils which were identified as plesiosaurs at one point spanning from the Paleocene to Pleistocene (as stated in the update).

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    3. Just because there have not been finds reported, does not mean that they don't exist. The current status quo has created a scenario whereby anything discovered that contradicts the mainstream view does not see the light of day, as evidenced by the Smithsonian's bad habit of burying such finds, as well as the Vatican. This is unacceptable behavior, but it still occurs.

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    4. While I find the idea of deliberate hiding of evidence to suppress the truth very unlikely, there have been many cases of alleged post-Cretaceous plesiosaur fossils which were written off as "reworked".

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    5. Hasn't the coelacanth also been "long gone" from the fossil record for 65 million years? No, wait... we found them alive less than a century ago. Hmm...

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  2. Being born on Lake Champlain in NY, I grew up with stories of Champ. My Grandmother had a close friend who saw Champ and took several pictures. They were at long distance and hard to tell how big Champ was. I remember that friend telling her account. I was mesmerized by the details and was determined go catch Champ. I spent a lot of time on that lake with my family. My Dad worked in Plattsburgh at the AFB and I had to go to Burlington, VT every two weeks for treatment of severe allergies. We either took the ferry, my favorite, or drove the bridge across the lake. I spent every crossing staring out across the waters hoping to see Champ. To this day every time I go home to visit and we cross lake, I still watch the waters. Hard to do while driving.

    I can remember back to a fishing trip we took to a friend's lake property. I was three years old. I remember stomping through the water and weeds with a stick quite clearly even 35yrs later. I don't recall any conversations but the story was I told the friend when asked what I was doing, that I was looking for Champ. He asked what I was going to do with him if I caught him and my reply was "I'm going to boot him in the ass and let him go". That's what happens when you grow up in dairy country.

    I never saw Champ. My Grandma was a no BS woman of short temper. That was one subject she never spoke about. Usually quick to stop any "foolishness", Champ was ignored even though she did not talk about it. I think her friend convinced her she saw something, even though the pictures were hard to see much.

    I fished Lake Champlain year round. Once it iced up enough in the winter we ice fished. I have seen or caught pretty much every fish species in the lake. That lake supports huge numbers of fish, many species being able to reach huge size. Muskies to over 60# and six feet. Sturgeon larger than that. The lake could very easily support a large predator as it still supports man.

    The lake is connected to the salt by several rivers. It drains into the Richelieu River which drains into the St Lawrence. The lake also connects to the Hudson and you can reach NYC by boat from Canada. It would be very easy for a sea dwelling creature to swim into the lake. Once the locks were built, it was harder but still possible, especially if it stuck to the river and up the rapids.

    If you get into sharks, the Greenland shark, we called them sleeper sharks, is known to be seen in the St Lawrence. Champ could have been a sleeper shark. They swim near the surface and reach over 20'. As do Bull sharks, although they are smaller.

    But I think Champ was most likely a plesiosaur. The coelacanth is a living fossil from the Cretaceous period that still lives. If it can last that long, I suspect other creatures could. The oceans are vast unexplored areas.

    As a SCUBA diver and avid snorkeler/skin diver, my Dad swam many a water. He never reported seeing anything other than known species, even during his Navy service. I picked up his love of water and am also a diver. I have played with giant Pacific octopus and seen eels, sharks, seals and sea turtles. But never Champ or any species that is unknown. I hope to one day see an unknown.

    Once again Jay, you perked my curiosity and have written a great article. Even though you did not mention Champ, you wrote about what Champ likely is. You also have made me pull up memories of home. It has been too long since I was there.

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    1. Glad to see you enjoyed the article Big Jim!

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  3. As plesiosaur were air breathing aquatic reptiles one would think if they still existed there would be more sightings as they have to continually come up for air.

    I would love to see one of those things in the wild if they are somehow still around.

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    1. True but the oceans are a vast area and it is always possible that these animals could simply bring their nostrils above the water to breath and would thus be able to breath without being seen.

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    2. But that is pure speculation.

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  4. It seems to me that when someone (reputable, at least) describes something with a fair level of clarity and detail, such as this, it indicates that that's exactly what he saw. Especially favorable is that he stated he's done several hundred dives and not seen one any other time. The ocean's a big world and still a mysterious one at that.

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    1. Absolutely, I think this man is one of the most credible "sea serpent" witnesses. Scott Mardis actually got to talk to him and also thought that he was very credible.

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  5. I believe plesiosaurs are still alive today. How could they not be with so much evidence supporting that they are alive?

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    1. The lack of a type specimen fuels the doubt, although there have been a few carcasses which *could* have been plesiosaurian.

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  6. stop disturbing champ.let him live with peace......

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    1. I think they're doing pretty fine already ;)

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  7. Speaking of plesiosaurs, pinnipeds and sea serpents, do you think that some of the classical age depictions from Greece (especially the ones with forked tails, hair-like body protuberances , and long necks) that Dale claims to represent relict plesiosaurs could actually represent longn-necked pinnipeds?

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    1. Although I try to not base things off of ancient depictions too much (as there could be cultural or mythological factors involved in the creation of these), I certainly consider it a possibility.

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  8. Also, do you think that the "Naitaka" peteoglyph said by Costello and Mackal to possibly be of an actual sea serpent the artist saw could also be of a longnecked pinniped?

    BTW, Dale recently posted an article on FOZ.blogspot about this to clear up some misunderstandings. You should check it out.

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    1. I agree with Dale's contention as to the Naitaka petroglyph in question, although there are a few carvings from British Columbia (such as the carving on an atlatl from the Skagit River) which I consider to be likely depictions of longnecks.

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  9. So you're trying to say that the "Naitaka" petroglyph which Dale says is from Vancouver island is likely an attempt by the artist to reconstruct a longnecked pinniped?

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    1. No, I said I agree with Dale's view in regard to that.

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  10. Sorry; I had some difficulty understanding what Dale was trying to say.

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    1. He said that it combined two different petroglyphs on the frieze

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  11. BTW, do you think that the unidentified carcass that Dale compared to the unidentified animal witnessed by the Alvin was also a plesiosaur-like pinniped along with the animal seen by the Alvin.

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    1. It's possible, but I wouldn't place bets on it since witnesses seem to be horrible at accurately remembering features of carcasses especially after several years have passed. I have the book "Sea Serpent Carcasses—Scotland", and if I am not mistaken, it contains the details on this carcass (as it states that the information comes from a letter which was sent to Dale Drinnon). The fact that the man saw the carcass over 30 years before he wrote to Dale makes me think that the possibility of the man misremembering features is likely, but the details of the carcass are interesting nonetheless. The 12 to 14 foot long carcass was reportedly fresh and without decomposition with a four or five foot long neck, a short fur covering the body similar to that of seals, a head comparable in size to that of a horse, big eye sockets, teeth, four flippers, a mane that ran down the middle of the back, and a tail like that of a tadpole's with a fin that ran down it. To me, it's quite an interesting report and may possibly have been the carcass of a long-necked pinniped. However, it's important to keep in mind that descriptions of carcasses tend to not remain accurate as years pass and thus this may have been a misremembered carcass of a known animal.

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    2. It also could have been a plesiosaur carcass with broken down tissue fibers accounting for the "fur" (the other features certainly sound plesiosaurian). However, a basking shark carcass would be the most likely candidate unless it truly was as fresh and intact as claimed.

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  12. Sorry, I forgot to put a ? at the end of that sentence.

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  13. Once again, about the Vancouver Island petroglyphs, I believe Dale was actually trying to tell us that one out of two of the actual petroglyphs mistaken for one petroglyph was a plesiosaur (but you would say a plesiosaur-like pinniped), the other actual peteoglyph being a boat.

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    1. I'm open to both possibilities: plesiosaurs or leopard seal-like otariids.

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  14. Fairly new to this blog, but really like what i see. I find it comical that a teenager is obviously frustrating who I hope are educated adults, based upon the comments I read above. I'm not sure of who is "right" in these arguments, but this kid deserves credit for holding his own. Kid's got a future.

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    1. Thank you. It is not my intention to frustrate others, but thanks anyway!

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  15. Here's another personal data point that is interesting given the date and location of the Alvin crew sighting. I'm a 65yo retired Navy Engineering Duty Officer and believe I saw one a mile off Boca Raton Florida inlet while fishing, about the same year. My sister was in the fighting chair, my father was driving, and upon hooking into something big, my father immediately began backing the boat down to get closer to the "fish." The gear was a 10-0 reel with 130-pound test line and a 15-foot steel leader wire to prevent the line from being cut by sharp teeth. Such a rig could handle about an 800# marlin. When I looked over the stern of the boat, I fell backward in fear of what I saw: a long necked creature with paddles for feet, a large body, and a scary head that I thought would attack us in the boat by merely coming over the transom with its long neck. My father asked me what was it, because it had just cut the line and gone, and after first telling him he wouldn't believe me, I did tell him. He shrugged. While I can't argue the merits of the fossil record issues pro or con, I still have a vivid memory of what I saw, and it still gives me a sense of awe of what is still not known about what's in the sea. I made contact in the 90's with a former submariner who was cataloging such sightings. Having been on sub duty for many years, he had seen and heard others report seeing many strange creatures.

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