Wednesday 25 May 2016

The sea monsters are coming to tell us how little we know of nature

Even eco-protesters show by their actions the disconnection between humanity and the rest of the animate world – which just wants us to leave it alone 

Wednesday 18 May 201614.31 BSTLast modified on Wednesday 18 May 201614.33 BST

This spring is proving to be spectacular when it comes to its quota of sea monsters. As if reports of a sea serpent in the Thames and the Loch Ness monster being “found” weren’t enough, reality bites back with some true-life beasts beyond all expectation.

A bizarre beaked whale washes up on an Australian beach like a primeval message from prehistory. A narwhal, complete with spiralling tusk out of some medieval bestiary, turns up in a Dutch estuary. And last Sunday a bowhead whale– an animal that may reach 300 years in age, and which surpasses all description with its huge, arching mouth filled with plates of fibrous baleen four metres long – surfaced off Cornwall, 1,000 miles and an ocean away from its designated domain.

What’s going on? What summons these weird deputations from the deep? They appear to be advance warning of something we already know – acidifying, warming seas, and irrefutable climate change. But they also bear witness to our mythic relationship with nature. Just as the middle ages had their Kraken, and we had the Loch Ness monster last century, so the modern world seems to be supplying new monsters of its own – by virtue of our dysfunctional occupation of this watery planet.

The beaked whales, strange cetaceans defined by teeth that in some species grow over their mouths like a muzzle, are perhaps the last large unknown animals. There are species of beaked whales yet to be seen alive, known only from a handful of carcasses cast upon on remote strands.

Equally, the narwhal is legendary on account of its ivory tusk – in fact, a grossly extended and highly sensitised tooth erupting through its upper lip, and once touted as the true horn of the unicorn. The 16th-century explorer Martin Frobisher gave one to Elizabeth I, so valuable it could have bought her a new castle.

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