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 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.