Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Pembrokeshire Merman in 1782 and the 2008 "Manatee"?

Building on our earlier post
Manatee maids in Wales looks like there is a history of strange sightings going on the area. In Mrs. Morgan's Tour to Milford Haven in the Year 1791, there is a detailed account of a "merman" observed by Henry Reynolds in 1782 in this area. This sighting was outside Milford Haven on the southern promontory which creates it somewhere near Linney Head, only 7 miles away from the 2008 Manatee sighting in Pembroke Dock . The original report read as follows and makes fascinating reading:

A Tour to Milford Haven, in the Year 1791
By Mary Morgan (London, 1795) pages 302-6

Letter 43
Mrs Morgan To Mrs. G .
Haverfordwest, Sept. 22. 1791

IF you delight in the marvellous, I shall now present you with a tale that is truly so; and yet, from the simple and circumstantial manner in which it was told by the person who believed he saw what is here related, one would almost be tempted to think there was something more than imagination in it. However, I will make no comments upon the matter, but give it you, exactly as I copied it from a paper lent me by a young lady, who was educated under the celebrated Mrs, Moore,[Hannah Moore] and who has acquired a taste for productions of the pen, and likewife for whatever may be deemed curious. Mr. M[organ] enquired of the gentleman who took down the relation from the man's own mouth, a physician of the first respectability, what credit might be given to it. He said, the man was of that integrity of character, and of such simplicity also, that it seemed difficult to believe he should be either able or willing to fabricate this wonderful tale. Farther the doctor was silent, and so am I.

Henry Reynolds, of Pennyhold [Pen-y-hold], in the parish of Castlemartin, in the county of Pembroke, a simple farmer, and esteemed by all who knew him to be a truth-telling man, declares the following most extraordinary story to be an abfolute fact, and is willing, in order to satisfy such as will not take his bare word for it, to swear to the truth of the same. He says, he went one morning to the cliffs, that bound his own lands, and form a bay near Linny-stack. From the eastern end of the same, he saw, as he thought, a person bathing very near the western end, but appearing from almost the middle up, above water. He, knowing the water to be deep in that place, was much surprized at it, and went along the cliffs, quite to the western end, to see what it was. As he got towards it, it appeared to him like a person sitting in a tub. At last he got within ten or twelve yards of it, and found it then to be a creature much resembling a youth of sixteen or eighteen years of age, with a very white skin, sitting in an erect posture, having, from somewhat about the middle, its body quite above the water; and directly under the water there was a large brown substance, on which it seemed to float. The wind being perfectly calm, and the water quite clear, he could see distinctly, when the creature moved, that this- substance was part of it. From the bottom there went down a tail much resembling that of a large conger eel. Its tail in deep water was straight downwards, but in shallow water it would turn it on one side. The tail was continually moving in a circular manner. The form of its body and arms was entirely human, but its arms and hands seemed rather short and thick in proportion to its body. The form of the head, and all the features of the face, were human also ; but the nose rose high between its eyes, was pretty long, and seemed to terminate very sharp. Its head was white like its body, without hair ; but from its forehead there arose a brownish substance of three or four fingers breadth, which turned up over its head, and went down over its back, and reached quite into the water. This substance did not at all resemble hair, but was thin, flat, and compact, not much unlike a ribbon. It did not adhere to the back part of its head, or neck, or back ; for the creature lifted it up from its neck, and washed under it. It washed frequently under its arms, and about its body.

It swam about the bay, and particularly round a little rock, which Reynolds was within ten or twelve yards of. He said about an hour looking at it. It was so near him that he could perceive its motion through the water was very rapid; and that, when it turned, it put one hand into the water, and moved itself round very quickly. It never dipped under the water all the time he was looking at it. It looked attentively at him, and the cliffs and seemed to take great notice of the birds flying over its head. Its looks were wild and fierce ; but it made no noise, nor did it grin, or any way distort its face. When he left it, it was above an hundred yards from him; and when he returned with some others to look at it, it was gone. This account was taken down by Doctor George P - - - at Prickers-ton, from the man's own mouth, in presence of many people, about the latter end of December 1782.

Chambers Book of Days 1869 repeats this account in its entry for November 24th while discussing Mermaids in the UK and suggests:

We hear nothing further of this merman or merboy; but on looking at the roundabout evidence of the story, we find it to he thus A paper containing the account was lent to Mrs. Morgan; the paper had been written by a young lady, pupil of Mrs. Moore, from an oral account given to her by that lady; Mrs. Moore had heard it from Dr. George Phillips; and he had heard it from Henry Reynolds himself from all of which statements we may infer that there were abundant means for converting some peculiar kind of fish into a merman without imputing intentional dishonesty to any one.
The account is far more reliable than suggested here as Mr Morgan checked back with the Doctor. The account written by Mrs Morgan is an exact copy of what Renyolds said. It looks like Renyolds saw something odd and whatever it was or one of its relatives came back over 200 years later.

The description sounds much like a manatee to some degree with its light grey colour and snub nose. But what about the weird sounding stuff going down its back from near its nose?? At first I thought perhaps this is a description of a bearded seal, an Arctic species which can have white fur. More likely to be this than a Manatee perhaps considering the climate, as Manatees a very sensitive to cold, and that such seals are regularly seen in the UK today. As it seems he sighted the beast in December that rules out a Manatee save for the mysterious Steller's Sea Cow
which was found in the far north Berring sea thousands of miles away from the UK. It was already probably extinct at this point thanks to sailors.

British Marine Life Study Society - "Bearded Seals are a non-migratory Arctic species that feed on molluscs including clams. There has now been at least a dozen records from the Shetland Isles and one record of this seal off Ireland and one off Hartlepool in north-east England"

Bearded Seal seen in Scotland

In fact the society report one this year:

3 March - May 2008 onwards

A Bearded Seal, Erignathus barbatus, was spotted at Loch na Keal on the Isle of Mull, a large island in the Inner Hebrides, western Scotland. The healthy seal had hauled itself up on to some dry rocks when it was first seen. Subsequently, it has been unpredictable in its movements. The Bearded Seal was first seen by David Woodhouse (Mull Wildlife Expeditions) on 3 March 2008.

But there is another possibility. The hooded seal another Arctic species in which males have a bizarre inflatable 'hood' on their heads, close to the nose. Reynolds says of the thing on the seal's head "but from its forehead there arose a brownish substance of three or four fingers breadth, which turned up over its head, and went down over its back, and reached quite into the water. This substance did not at all resemble hair, but was thin, flat, and compact, not much unlike a ribbon."

Could this be a description of a hooded seal?? It certainly sounds very odd indeed. Unlss it was bits of seaweed.

Once again the British Marine Life Study Society reveals an interesting fact:

29 July 2001
A Hooded Seal, Cystophora cristata, was washed on a Little Haven beach,
Pembrokeshire, south west Wales and found a home at the Seal Hospital at Milford Haven. The seal was healthy apart from a small cut on one flipper. The Hooded Seal is an Arctic species and even discoveries off the coast of Scotland, including the Orkney and Shetland Isles are rare. It moults around Greenland and the Denmark Strait (between Iceland and Greenland).
Report by Tony Pearce (via UK Wildlife)"

Seeing they have been in seen in Pembrokeshire before could the 2008 report by Carol Morgan be of a hooded seal rather than a Manatee? It seems more likely.

Interesting to note that a Walrus is not impossible in the southern British Isles as well. British Marine Life Study Society again:
April 1999 - A Walrus, Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus was seen hauled out on rocks in County Mayo, Ireland for six hours. Lying within 100 metres of the busy coastal road and spotted as a "rock that moved", the resting walrus finally disappeared at dusk. There have been several walrus sightings at sea off County Donegal in recent winters, and a couple of walruses were reported to have been seen by surfers in Killala Bay in December. A dead walrus was found in County Kerry in January 1995.
The Walrus is an Arctic species and is rarely seen even off Scotland and the Shetland Isles.
Talking of old mermaid sightings if we look at the logbook of Henry Hudson on 15 June, 1608 near the Novaya Zemlya islands we can make a interesting comparison to the Welsh reports.

This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and called up some of the companie to see her, one come up, and by that time shee was close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From Navill upwards, her back and breasts were like a woman’s her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse and speckled like a Macrel.

The Novaya Zemlya islands are off the north coast of Russia in the Arctic ocean, too cold for a sea cow. So could this sighting be a Walrus or Bearded seal then? Note its colour as well.

One noted mermaid was seen a number of times in Newark Bay in Deerness, Orkney in the 1890s. One account said:

It is about six to seven feet in length, has a little black head, with neck, a snow-white body and two arms, and in swimming it just appears like a human being. At times it will appear to be siding on a sunken rock, and will wave and work its hands.

So it seems to me these older accounts are of arctic mammals not Manatees considering where they are seen too cold for Manatee. The fact they are considerably larger than common seals and a different colour and appearance would lead to a different identification. That is unless there is a secret species of Northern Manatee similar to the Stella Sea Cow which could endure cold or something even weirder. Or they are real mermaids!

It is interesting to note that there is also the legend of the ‘Ceffyl Dwr’ or water horse in Pembroke as in the rest of Wales similar to the Scottish Kelpie. I have hunted for this beast myself in the Gower in places it was once seen without success. This special horse would appear to unwary travellers who would be tempted to mount it, only to be carried into the sea and drowned. Could this legend be based on distant accounts of Manatees or unusual arctic seals which do look a bit horsey? Legends of Waterhorses are also found inland in rivers and lakes. Fossil records of Manatees have been found in Europe anyway.

Manatees swimming

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