Tales of the sea monsters of Cornwall and Devon are legion and a large variety of forms have reportedly been sighted over the past few centuries, including the belief, still apparently harboured by a few old sailors, that a giant octopus-like creature still plagues the north coast of Cornwall, between Godrevy and Portreath12. Most sightings, though, are of what could be considered to be the sea serpent type, though in various guises. Most of the sightings, at least those of the modern era, have been attributed to a monster known to the locals as Morgawr. Morgawr (meaning 'sea giant' in Cornish), is a serpent-like cryptid purported to live in the sea near Falmouth Bay, Cornwall.
First sighted in 1876,3 various theories have been proposed for as to the identity of this particular sea serpent, ranging from a hoax, and there is certainly evidence for such, or mistaken identity, to the suggestion that the creature is a surviving species of Plesiosaur or that it is a previously undiscovered species of long necked seal. In the absence of a carcass or a living specimen, identity explanations depend only on eyewitness accounts and low-quality photographs. If the witness accounts are, even in part, to be believed then it would appear that several differing forms of creature are at play around these coasts.
History and Sightings
- On April 26, 1876 a sea serpent was allegedly captured by fishermen, about 4-500 yards from the shore, near Portscatho, at Gerrans Bay.456789 The Royal Cornwall Gazette was the first to report the story and gave the following account:
Portscatho. THE SEA SERPENT!—Our correspondent, Mr. Bosisto, writes:—"The sea-serpent was caught alive in Gerrans bay on the 26th ult! Two of our fishermen were afloat overhauling their crab-pots, about 400 or 500 yards from the shore, when they discovered a serpent coiled about the floating cork-mark of the crab-pot below. Upon their near approach, it lifted its head and showed signs of defiance, upon which they struck it forcibly with an oar, which so far disabled it as to allow them to proceed with their work, after which they observed the serpent floating about near the boat. They pursued and captured it, bringing it ashore yet alive for exhibition, soon after which it was killed on the rocks and most inconsiderately cast again into the sea." Why was not the wonderful creature, for which so many people have been looking, preserved and exhibited? It would have brought fame to Portscatho and riches to its captors. "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune." The Portscatho fishermen have missed their tide.10
- A monster was sighted in 1906 off Land's End by two officers and a passenger on a transatlantic liner.1112
- On July 5, 1912 Captain Rauser and the crew of the German vessel Kaiserin Victoria sighted a sea-serpent off Prawle Point in South Devon. It was about 20ft long and a foot to 18 inches thick, blue-grey on top and whitish underneath. The creature was whipping the water violently with its tail and at times nearly the whole of the body was visible.13
- Sometime in the 1920s, Donald Bray, then aged 15, of Hayle and his father were walking at Clodgy Head, St Ives, when they met a Mr and Mrs S, artists, and their daughter Sylvia. The whole party then witnessed a sea-serpent. It had a head like a cow, the neck 3 or 4 feet out of the water and with a humped body. The creature reportedly looked Donald in the eye.14
- In 1926, a Mr Reece and a Mr Gilbert, trawling three miles south of Falmouth netted an amazing creature. It was twenty feet long, with an eight foot tail, a two foot long 'beaked' head, four scaled legs attached to the body with armour-like joints and a broad back covered with 'matted brown hair'. Reportedly, the men brought ashore a smaple of the hair, but experts from the Plymouth Marine Biological Observatory were consulted, but could offer no explanation.1516171819
- In 1933, it was reported that, some years ago, a terrifying monster, "with eyes like saucers" rose by a fishing boat just off the island of Annet in the Isles of Scilly. The men were hauling pots when the monster appeared, they then dropped their pots and set of for the "par" of Annet as hard as they could drive, followed for some distance by the monster.20
- An unidentified carcass, reportedly of a sea monster, was washed ashore at Praa Sands in West Cornwall in 1933. Experts were said to be baffled.212223
- According to Deane and Shaw the Western Morning News reported on July 4, 1934 that a monster was spotted in Whitsand Bay and that, about a year later, 'a monstrous, glossy, black creature, with a long goose-like neck, a humped back and a tremendous tail' was seen off Port Isaac by several witnesses; one of them, the local postman, stressed that he was a teetotaller. They continue that possibly the same creature was witnessed in the Gannel near Newquay.24
- In the autumn of 1944 Ed Boddaert and the other crew members of the Mevagissey fishing vessel The Ibis witnessed a creature somewhere off Fowey Point: "Suddenly the black sea parted some ten to twelve feet in front of Percy's face, off the starboard side. A three to four foot diameter object with a ball like head came straight out of the water and rose to a height of some twelve feet above the water's surface. The deck that I was standing on was four feet off the water, I was about five and a half feet and was looking slightly up at it. A tubular form with globular head seen from the bow and the stern. Not a whale nor a submarine periscope or snorkel."25
- Also in 1944 The Scillonian reported on the sighting, some years ago, by two islanders of a sea serpent "travelling in through St Mary's Sound one early evening in summer. It came from the east, past Peninnis Head (when a school of pilchards scurried out of the way), thumping along the middle of the channel at about the same speed and the same length as the passenger steamer. Coming from the east, it went west, as far as could be seen going off in the direction of Broad Sound. It had a row of humps which kept above the water all the way, the same distance apart, the sea between each hump. The head was not visible, but could be imagined as low in the water. A strange sight, yet not close enough for detail, as it was seen from Carn Mahale. Those who saw it said they were familiar with other sea beasts, but had never seen anything like this before. It was also reported that, on occasion, great spotted fish or serpents were witnessed just beyond the Western Rocks in the Isles of Scilly.26
- On July 5, 1949 Harold T Wilkins, a thriller writer, and a companion reported seeing "two remarkable saurians, fifteen to twenty feet long, with bottle-green colubrine heads, one behind the other, their middle parts under the water of the tidal creek of East Looe, Cornwall, apparently chasing a shoal of fish up the creek. What was amazing were their dorsal parts: ridged, serrated, and like the old Chinese pictures of dragons … These monsters—and two of us saw them—resembled the pleisiosaurus of Mesozoic times.27282930
- Strange barking sounds were heard underwater off the coast of South Devon in 1970. Graham Sampson of Kingsbridge heard a "kind of fiendish bark" when diving at a depth of 80ft. At least three other divers also witnessed the noises, dubbed the "Lannacombe bark". Members of the Salcombe Shark Angling Society also reported that substantially-built hooks had recently been severed, something which they claim could not have been done by even the strongest sharks known in British waters.31
- An unnamed person reportedly witnessed a "large snake-like creature swimming in the sea at Mylor" several years ago, according to Miss M Jenkins, writing to the Falmouth Packet in April 1976.32
- Two witnesses, Mrs Scott and Mr Riley, claim to have seen a "hideous, hump-backed creature" with "stumpy horns and bristles down the back of its long neck", catching a conger eel in its mouth, at Pendennis Point in Falmouth in September 1975.3334 This, regarded by many as the first appearance of Morgawr, was quickly followed by the sighting of a monster by a group of mackerel fishermen, who blamed the creature for bad weather and poor catches.35
- In January 1976, Duncan Viner, a dental technician from Truro, saw Morgawr swimming "a few hundred yards off Rosemullion Head". At first, he thought it was a whale, as only a dark hump was visible; but as he watched, it started to rise in the water and a long neck appeared. Mr Viner estimated the length of the monster to be between thirty and forty feet.3637
- In the same month, Miss Amelia Johnson, on holiday from London, was taking a walk in the Rosemullion area when she saw a "strange form suddenly emerge from the water in Falmouth Bay". She describes "a sort of prehistoric dinosaur thing with a long neck the length of a lamp post". Also in January, Gerald Bennet of Seworgan, saw a creature swimming in the Helford one afternoon. The part of it above the water was "about twelve feet in length with an elongated neck".3839
- Later in January, a carcass was discovered at Durgan Beach, on the Helford, by Mrs Payne of Falmouth. The remains were still unidentified the following year.404142
- In March 1976, 'Mary F' sent two photographs, apparently of Morgawr, to the Falmouth Packet, along with a covering letter. The letter and photographs were published on St Piran's Day, March 5.43 She said the creature, spotted off Trefusis Point in Mylor, was black or very dark brown, at least 18ft long and that "it looked like an elephant waving its trunk, but the trunk was a long neck with a small head at the end, like a snake's head. It had humps on its back which moved in a funny way… the animal frightened me. I would not like to see it any closer. I do not like the way it moved when swimming." Neither Mary F or the negatives have ever been traced. Noted mystery writers and photographers Janet and Colin Bord44 have examined first-generation copy prints, and "feel that these photographs could well be genuine."454647
- Professor Michael McCormick of the University of New Mexico, "a renowned dragon-hunter from Albuquerque, New Mexico", arrived in Falmouth at the end of March 1976 aiming to capture "the Falmouth sea-serpent". He was joined by Doc Shiels and the pair aimed to use "traditional, magical and ceremonial techniques and devices" to lure the creature out.48 This followed on from the recent sighting by "Barry, Penryn fisherman", of something "long and glistening and undulating, with a head shaped like a giraffe's" and which was "sliding through the water at about 15 knots". The creature apparently favours the water off Trefusis Point, in Mylor, and the mouth of the Helford River.49 Mr McCormick, however, had left Cornwall by the beginning of May.50
- On Good Friday, April 16, 1976, a fifteen year old schoolboy from Helston spotted a "weird animal with two humps and a long neck like a snake", moving up the river between Toll Point and the Gew. The monster was 'slimy, black and about twenty five feet long'. He took a photograph of the animal which was later shown on BBC television's Spotlight.51
- In May 1976 two bankers from London were interviewed by The Packet. Tony Rogers and John Chambers had been fishing off the rocks at Parson's Beach in Mawnan when "suddenly something rose out of the water about 150 or 200 yards away. It was greeny-grey in colour and appeared to have humps. Another smaller one also appeared. They were visible for about ten seconds and looked straight at us."52
- Christine Shiels wrote a letter to the Falmouth Packet describing a sighting by her, her husband "Doc", and four of their children, of "Morgawr the sea-monster" at the Mawnan side of Grebe Beach on July 3, 1976.53
- Roy Peters, a 17 year old skin diver from Helston claims to have seen "three mini-Morgawrs" whilst diving in the Helford River off Grebe Beach in July 1976. He said that they had "skin like seals, but because of their ugly heads and necks were definitely not seals."54
- Also in July 1976, fishermen John Cock of Redruth and George Vinnicombe of Falmouth claim to sight a creature, with 'a great head like an enormous seal' while fishing 25 miles south of the Lizard. Mr Vinnicombe stated that "it looked like an enormous tyre about 4ft up in the water with a back like corrugated iron." He also said that the creature had a black body and a grey head, and estimated the animal's length to be about 22 feet.5556
- Sometime in the summer of 1976, Carol Marshall and her son Guy witnessed a "sea-serpent" from the balcony of their home at Downderry in East Cornwall. She said: "it was a great big long thing, like a snake. It came right in to the beach." They watched the creature for two or three minutes and said: "it really shifted and it didn't leave any wake." She said that the creature was "just black" and looked similar to pictures of the Loch Ness Monster.57
- Bramwell Holmes, his wife Pauline and son Andrew, reportedly sighted the monster on August 27, 1976. They witnesses two dark grey mottled humps rise above the water's surface off Restronguet Point in Mylor. They described the humps as about 2ft high and 5ft across.58
- Sometime during the week ending September 11, 1976, Donald Ferris of Falmouth reportedly witnessed the creature at Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth whilst exercising his dog at 7:10 am. He said: "I saw what looked like a small boat coming towards Gyllyngvase from Swanpool. When it got closer, I realised it was a creature like a giant eel, at least 60ft long and dark grey. As it submerged its back reared out of the water in a hump formation."59
- In November 1976, Doc Shiels claimed to have photographed the creature at Parson's Beach in Mawnan, lying low in the water. He said: "I was waving my stick around … and it appeared. No one was more amazed than me." He mentioned "little stumpy horns" on its head, and he described the body of the animal as 15 feet long.6061
- On February 2, 1977, Doc Shiels unsuccessfully attempted to invoke Morgawr at Pendennis Point in Falmouth. "She's playing hard to get," he claimed.62 It was also reported that a schoolboy had witnessed a monster near Durgan a few days before on January 31.
- On the weekend of July 9 - 10, 1977, Len Yates, a Caradon district councillor, his wife and a friend witnessed a strange creature skimming the surface of the sea at Whitsand Bay in East Cornwall.63
- On February 19, 1980, Jeoff Watson (or Wilson) of the Loch Ness Monster Association of Explorers unsuccessfully spent the day at Rosemullion Head with a camera armed with a telephoto lens hoping to capture a photograph of Morgawr. He also planned to repeat the exercise at Trefusis Point and the Helford River.64
- On July 10, 1985, at about 8.00pm, local author Sheila Bird and her brother, a coastal geomorphologist from Melbourne University, were relaxing on the clifftop at Pencabe, Portscatho when Dr Bird, who had no prior knowledge of Morgawr, saw 'a large marine animal swimming slowly northward, about 200 metres offshore.' He then pointed it out to his sister who realised that they must be witnessing the creature known as Morgawr. Two other passers-by, with binoculars, also witnessed the beast. Sheila stated that it was grey and slightly mottled, that it had two humps and that the skin of the creature's neck was grey and had dark markings like folds or pockets of saggy skin, rather than scales. She also noticed the unaccustomed speed and smooth, gliding motion which appeared not to disturb the still waters. All four witnesses noticed a very long tail and estimated the creatures length to be about 17-20 feet.65
- Gerrans Bay, August 1985. Christopher and Susan Waldron of King's Stanley, Gloucestershire report on having seen the creature whilst on holiday. It was noted that Mrs Waldron was watching her husband swimming in the sea, when she noticed a large silhouette under the surface behind him. The shape was described to be that of a large, long necked creature.
- Devil's Point, off Plymouth, 1987. An experienced diver sees a dog-like head on a neck rising 1 metre out of the sea. He notes that it is in a spot favoured by conger eels.66
- Gerrans Bay, 1999. John Holmes videotapes what is claimed to be an unidentified creature in the sea. He described the moment he sawe the creature: "A bizarre movement caught my attention about 250 metres off shore and this thing appeared to be standing about one metre above sea level." Mr Holmes thought he was looking at the fin of a shark or a killer whale at first. "I then saw a snake-like head and neck which appeared to be raised out of the water. I was so shocked by what I saw that I almost fell off the rock.6768
Map of the Sightings
In 1991 Strange magazine published transcripts from a series of tapes made in 1976 by Shiels, in which he discusses the possibility of hoaxing the people of Falmouth with a sea-serpent story.69 The article reports him saying:
- "I am a born hoaxer" (January 30, 1976)
- "I think that I mentioned that I am hoping to hoax the people of Falmouth, and thereabouts, here in Cornwall, into thinking that there is a Cornish sea monster on the loose." (January 30, 1976)
- "They have to be bad photographs in order to seem authentic." (February 4, 1976)
- "Of course we are going to have our hoaxing session here with the Cornish sea monster…" (February 19, 1976)
- "[There is] a great revival in public interest in things that are strange and mysterious, and we may as well ride the crest of this wave as long as we possibly can…" (February 19, 1976)
- "A fisherman friend of mine… he is a good man to start a little bit of a rumour going down here concerning the famous Cornish sea monster as will be, heh-heh. We hope to build the thing up during the next three or four weeks. Paul has agreed to see something strange within the next few days when he is fishing." (February 19, 1976) (note, however, that this fisherman is not one of the two fishermen listed as witness above).
The hoax theory certainly holds some briny water, at least in this respect, and the contemporaneous and neighbouring sightings of Owlman in the years 1976 to 1978 share much of the burden of this theory and the credibility of, at least, some of the witnesses to Morgawr in this period is known by locals to be questionable at best. What is certain, though, is that many of the witnesses, most notably the writer Sheila Bird, are highly credible. It is also clear that credible sightings were made of sea serpents around the coasts of Cornwall and Devon long before Doc Shiels entered upon the scene, and continued long after he had gone.
Mentions in Other Literature
The Morgawr is the name of a powerful demon in the Shannara Series by Terry Brooks. Other than the name, there is no connection between the two.
Brooks has been known to take words and creatures from myths and use them as the basis for his writing. Other examples are the Four Horsemen and the Dagda Mor. Both are demons or groups of demons.
The Morgow Rises! is the title of a horror novel by Peter Tremayne, set in the fictional Cornish village of Bosbradoe.