A strange photo of what appears to be an unknown marine animal taken by a Scottish tourist in the Greek islands is making headlines around the world.

According to Fox News, “Harvey Robertson was on a boat cruise off the coast of Parga, sailing through sea caves with his family. He was initially just trying to capture the unusual color of the surrounding water with his iPhone camera.” Robertson says he didn’t see the animal at the time but “Looking back through his camera, Robertson saw that he had captured a grey creature that resembles an elongated manatee. The strange animal appears to pop out of the water in one photo, then disappears under the greenish water in the next.”

The viral photo has sparked speculation among armchair zoologists and monster lovers about what this bizarre animal might be, ranging from a beaked whale to the “love child of a hippo and crocodile” (best not dwell on the logistics of that coupling). While the image has some superficially similar features to various animals it does not in fact look like any known animal.

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All the ideas are interesting, but teams of marine biologists packing their bags for a long-term research project in the sunny Greek islands to study the beast may want to hold off on making plane reservations because this chimera has been identified.

Zoologist Dr. Darren Naish of the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton and host of the Tetrapod Zoology podcast believes that a skin sample biopsy of the “creature” would reveal high concentrations of polyvinyl chloride. In fact Naish has found a near-perfect match for the mysterious monster Robertson photographed: an errant and half-sunken low freeboard fender, used to protect boats from damage.

Naish told Discovery News “The object never quite made sense as a live animal – what’s with that round black marking identified by many as an ‘eye,’ and why is there another hole near the tip of what looks like a snout? And where are the flippers or fins? I then remembered seeing extremely similar features in curved boat fenders. These vinyl structures (there are many different types) fit over the gunwales and sides of boats and protect them from dock walls and so on—they often have a shiny look that recalls the skin of animals like dolphins, and this feature obviously made people think that the object looked especially like an animal.”

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Hoax or Misidentification?

It’s not clear whether the photo is a hoax (i.e., Robertson knew what it was when he photographed the object but he shared the photo claiming it to be a genuine mystery) or a misidentification (i.e., Robertson genuinely had no idea what it was).

The most likely and charitable explanation is that he could have easily guessed what the object was at the time and paid little attention to it until weeks later when the image was seen going through trip photos. Marine equipment such as thick ropes, fenders, and the like are common and unnoticed in their context, but could seem very mysterious out of context.

In other words had Robertson reviewed the images on his iPhone camera immediately and noticed it, he could simply have looked over the side of the boat to see what it was; since he didn’t, it’s a mystery. Others on the same tour boat likely saw exactly the same thing but paid no attention to a half-sunken boat bumper bobbing in the water.

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This process is common with many “ghost photos” in which photographs are examined days, weeks, or months after the image was taken. Only later does someone see some apparently strange or mysterious figure and come to think they had been in the presence of a ghost or unusual animal. But by then the opportunity for investigating is long gone; this is what happened earlier this year with a viral “ghost photo” from the United Kingdom.

This Greek hippo-dolphin monster is different, however. Since the photo is almost certainly of a low freeboard fender, it did not disappear and is probably still there for others to photograph for themselves. They are common in ports around the world and not normally of sufficient interest to be worth a photograph.

Seeing Faces and Mis-seeing Features

It is not surprising that people, including many “experts,” have been fooled by the image. Conclusively identifying known marine animals can be difficult under the best of circumstances simply because of the environment. Unlike terrestrial animals which we are used to seeing and identifying from our own eye level and whose feet and legs are visible, animals in water are by definition partly submerged and therefore partly hidden from view, especially when seen from a pier or boat (which gives an unusual view from above and to the side).

In many places where lake monsters have been sighted (for example Scotland’s Loch Ness or Canada’s Lake Okanagan) the visibility is very poor just below the surface due to suspended sediments. Even in relatively clear water, such as that found in the Greek isles, moving water inevitably causes distortion of the image: colors change, important details are obscured, and so on.

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Naish notes that “For this fender explanation to work, the object would have to have been heavily distorted by refraction, but this looks plausible based on the photo. Furthermore, features that look like skin folds and so on seem more likely to be scum and reflected light on the water surface.”

The object fooled many people because it seems to have an animalian face, complete with a mouth, nostril, eye, and possibly even ears. The fact that the top of the bumper somewhat resembles an elongated face to us is not a coincidence.

The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces and we often see faces and heads in everyday, non-animal objects, including potatoes, rock cliffs, and clouds. We can now add boat fenders to the list, though not a new marine animal to the zoology books.