Weird Stuff

Weird World: The Thames River Monster

Is it a whale? Is it a large piece of driftwood? Or is it a very clever hoax, a sort of postmodern prank for the internet generation?

Well yes, actually – it probably is one of the above, or something similar. But, whatever it is, I just love this sort of news story (I use the term loosely).

For those of you who haven’t yet seen this footage (where have you been?), here it is:

Posted by YouTube user Penn Plate (is that a suspiciously odd name, or am I just being mean?), this short video was uploaded just before April Fool’s Day (is that significant, or am I just being paranoid?). “This was on the cable car in Greenwich yesterday,” he or she wrote. “Something huge was moving under the water and then briefly surfaced. Are there whales in the Thames? Or is it some weird submarine?”

Well, actually whales have been spotted in the Thames, albeit rarely – as have seals, dolphins and porpoises – so the first explanation is certainly a possibility. If, however, you take a closer look at the footage, the shape caught there doesn’t look very whale-ey (I defer to any whale expert who might disagree). There seem to be two or three distinct humps emerging from the water, much like our stereotypical image of the Loch Ness Monster. This, predictably, has unleashed a fair few jokes about Nessie enjoying a city break in the capital. If I remember correctly, there was once a Dr Who story featuring a similar plot device, back in the days when Dr Who was all wobbly sets and unconvincing special effects. It turned out that the monster was actually a very sophisticated robot, being controlled by aliens for their own nefarious purposes:

That’s it! It’s obviously all a dastardly alien plot!

The footage, alas, is not clear enough for us to distinguish what the mystery shape is. It looks big, whatever it is. “We are not aware of anything that large and moving in the Thames,” said Ian Tokelove of the London Wildlife Trust. Ah, a sceptic might retort, but it’s not necessarily the dots, but how you choose to connect them, that makes all the difference. We’ve been mentally primed by the Loch Ness Monster story, which has been swirling around in the collective consciousness since the 1930s. When we see two or three humps simultaneously emerging from a body of water, we perhaps automatically think of a large prehistoric creature or sea serpent. Could the footage actually be of two or three seals or dolphins merrily frolicking together, blithely unaware of the confusion they’re causing up above?

It’s a human thing, maybe. Confronted by a large body of water, we almost instinctively populate it with creatures real and imagined. It is, perhaps, our way of dealing with our essential lack of knowledge about the watery parts of our rather watery world. 95% of our oceans remain unexplored by us. The coelacanth, long believed to be extinct, was found alive and well in 1938. Here be dragons, the legends on old maps read, denoting unknown and unexplored territory. The dragons may be fewer these days, but they’re still there, a sobering and perhaps necessary reminder of how little we actually know.

And then there is the mystery of the Thames itself. Despite running through the heart of one of the largest cities in the world, this dark, gloomy river still has an aura of mystery. “The Thames is liquid history,” said Battersea MP John Burns in 1929. There were Bronze Age settlements along the river long before the Romans founded Londinium. The Thames has served not just as a mercantile and seafaring highway, but also as an open sewer, a breeding ground for epidemics, and a graveyard; many people have met their deaths in its silty waters. It gives with one hand and takes away with the other. It leads us to new horizons, and simultaneously reminds us of the dark void where all horizons end.

Here be Dragons. Image credit: DAVID ILIFF. License CC-BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons
Here be dragons. Image credit: DAVID ILIFF. License CC-BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve a feeling we’ll continue to fill up our rivers, lakes and oceans with dragons. Science and logic notwithstanding, we seem to have a deep need for them. The Thames River Monster may or may not be a hoax, but the unknown creatures of the deep will keep on swimming through the human mind…

Top Aquatic Monsters

Champ, or Champy, is the nickname given to a monster supposedly residing in Lake Champlain in the North-eastern United States. Local Native American tribes spoke of the creature, and there has been no shortage of sightings in the years since. Is it a real animal, unknown to science, or the product of misidentification, hoaxing and hysteria? The same might be asked of our next monster…

Nessie surely needs no introduction. The first known association between Loch Ness and its famous monster came in the 6th century with St Columba, but the story really gathered momentum in the 1930s, and has been going strong ever since.

The Kraken, said to live off the coasts of Norway and Greenland, has guest-starred in numerous fictional works, from Old Icelandic sagas to Moby-Dick. Some sceptics believe that the Kraken might simply have been a misidentification of our next monster, namely…

The Giant Squid. Yup, folks, this one is actually real, and can grow to a size of 13 metres (43 feet)! For many years, giant squid were thought to be the creatures of folklore, existing only in the feverish imaginations of sailors. Even now, we know very little about them; they live deep in the oceans, in conditions that aren’t exactly favourable to us feeble humans…

By the time you read these words, I will be shepherding a large group of Italian teenagers around Brighton. I have a feeling that sea creatures will be the least of my worries. Leave a comment, if you wish. I might not be able to respond immediately, but I’ll get round to it eventually…

2 thoughts on “Weird World: The Thames River Monster

  1. Ah, mythical creatures, Mari – we still want to be believe in them even though we know better. Mind you, I remember back in 2003, perhaps, when Japanese fishermen first landed one of those squid that it seemed like it had to be a hoax too…

    By the way, I’ve stopped getting notifications of your new posts… I’m not sure why. Have fun in Brighton – say ‘hello’ to my sister (she lives right in the centre).

    1. Hello Paul, and thanks for commenting. WordPress keeps on playing its strange little tricks on me too, and I frequently find that I’ve followed or unfollowed a blog without even meaning to. I’ve just got back from Brighton, so if your sister saw a wild-eyed blond woman surrounded by Italian teenagers, it was probably me!

      I think we really do want to believe in these creatures – I certainly do. I’m still mildly disappointed by recent research which suggested that Loch Ness almost certainly does not have a large prehistoric animal swimming around in its waters. I’m pinning my hopes on Bigfoot instead…

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