Animals

Beached 'Sea Monster' Just a Whale's Head

A large, shapeless, gray mass that recently washed ashore on a Mexican beach had officials and observers alike scratching their heads.

A large, shapeless, gray mass that recently washed ashore on a Mexican beach had officials and observers alike scratching their heads over what in the world the thing could be. People guessed it might be a giant squid, a type of whale or perhaps some sort of unknown, monstrous creature.

But according to a marine mammals expert, the jumbled and untidy pile of grayish skin and flesh is likely part of a sperm whale's head.

Representatives of the Protección Civil y Bomberos de Acapulco (Civil Protection and Firefighters Department in Acapulco) discovered the peculiar object on Bonfil Beach, and described it as measuring about 13 feet (4 meters) in length, according to a report by the Mexican news site 24 Hours. [Release the Kraken! Giant Squid Photos]

Photos: Sea Monsters Real and Imagined

Sabas de la Rosa Camacho, an official with the Acapulco department, told 24 Hours in a phone interview that the department received a notification about the strange object on the beach at 4 p.m. local time on March 9. He speculated that strong currents related to recent bad weather had brought it to shore. Video posted by department officials on Facebook show a uniformed man with a stick lifting the mass's folds and poking at it in several places.

While the mystery object was assumed to be the remains of a decomposing marine animal, de la Rosa Camacho noted that it did not have a strong or unpleasant smell. And though the investigation revealed bones within the heap, officials could not identify what type of animal it was, he said.

Heading off rumors Though it's tempting to assign a monstrous identity to this unfamiliar object, the most probable explanation is that it's the top half of the head mass for a sperm whale, said James Mead, curator emeritus of marine mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

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In sperm whales, the roomy top part of the head is divided into two main regions, Mead told Live Science in an email. The top area is occupied by the spermaceti organ, a holding container for a waxy liquid that helps the whale with echolocation. In the bottom area is what's known as "the junk," which is mostly connective tissue.

Mead explained that the flesh pile on the beach is probably a sperm whale's junk and the top part of the head minus the spermaceti organ.

"The junk has separated from the skull, and you can see about midway through the video the nasal plugs, which form the valve that closes the bony narial tube," Mead said.

He suggested that the length approximation for the mass, 13 feet (4 m), represented the junk stretched out. Its relaxed length would be about 10 feet (3 m), "which would mean that it had come from a sperm whale that was on the order of about 30 to 40 feet [9 to 12 meters] long," he told Live Science.

Original article on Live Science

Oarfish: Photos of World's Longest Bony Fish Gallery: Vampire Squid from Hell Image Gallery: Ancient Monsters of the Sea Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

In a still frame from a video, an Acapulco official examines the strange mass that washed up on Bonfil Beach on March 9, 2016.

We all enjoy a tall tale. Cultures with seafaring traditions are especially ripe in what seem like the tallest sea monster tales of all: hydra, kraken, sirens, scylla, leviathans, assorted serpents and mermaids. Usually the stories are never confirmed and deemed baseless. Then again, some of the tales are based on something. With our skeptical hats on, let's have a look at sea monsters both real and fanciful. We begin with a story that went viral just this week, about a supposed monster that revealed itself during a swim in the Thames River. A

Nessie-like

bump in the water, filmed from overhead, started it all. But you'll have to judge for yourself: Real or fake? Watch the video and read

Ben Radford's take

on the tale.

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In keeping with our subject of monsters of the deep, we also learned this week that at least

some whales

really can, and will, use their heads for ramming -- just as the fictional Moby Dick did, in the Herman Melville classic of the same name. Did whales perfect the head-butt long before people started banging heads?

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Sea monsters are truly global, of course. This one from Japan serves as the villain for the classic maiden in distress, who awaits rescue by her hero. The poor monsters are almost always cast as the bad guys. And so they usually end hacked to pieces; fish food. But is there any truth behind these sea serpent tales?

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Maybe it's the oarfish. It looks too monstrous to be true. It can grow many meters long, has strikingly bright silver scales, scarlet fins and some ornate headgear that more than explains why some call it a roosterfish. If only it were a reptile, it'd be a true sea serpent. Alas. It is a fish. A very weird and beautiful fish, but still a fish.

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There are also other, newfound "sea serpents" our sea-going ancestors never imagined. This one was spotted by a satellite coiling off the south coast of Japan's Hokkaido island. What do we know about it? 1) It's arguably one of the largest organisms on Earth, 2) It swallows ships, engulfs islands and generally does what it wants, and 3) We're darned lucky it's made of plankton.

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Research into such massive blooms and the individual plankton cells that comprise them has revealed surprising cooperation among the microorganisms. They appear to operate like more than just floating individual cells. They live and die for the greater good, it seems. So they may be, in fact, a gigantic watery superorganism. Now that's a cool monster for you: You can swim in it and never know you've been in the belly of a beast.

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Mermaids and mermen have always been the stuff of fantasy. Where did the fantasies come from? There are some standard answers to this question, which have always seemed rather inadequate. For instance ... (next slide, if you please) ...

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The manatee has often been called the source of mermaid myths. It's a mammal, so it breathes air. But who would ever mistake a manatee for a sleek and beautiful mermaid? Could it be love-starved sailors with poor eyesight? There was no shortage of these fellows in the days before optometrists.

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Another possibility is that merfolk were inspired by fish with roughly human-looking faces, like this fellow. Some fish can look humanoid. That would be enough to get superstitious sailors started.

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How about giant, ship-destroying squid and octopi? These monsters were old hat even to the easily freaked-out. Most folks figured they were historical exaggerations. That's until some very large and unusual squids started washing up or being hauled in by marine biologists in recent years. Colossal squid are meters long, pretty amazing beasts. Still, they have never been known to lift ships out of the water. And since were on the topic of squids ...

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Do you remember when this one hit the headlines? It's not so gigantic, at four meters long, but it was observed 3,380 meters down in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu. It's pretty big to have gone unseen before its May 2001 discovery. So what else is out there? It's pretty clear marine biologists have only just begun discovering what lives in the deep sea. The more time they spend searching, the more they will find. But none would dispute that the nastiest sea monster to ever rise out of the sea is ... (drum roll please) ...

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