Greek 'Sea Monster' Identified

A 'monster' photographed by a Scottish tourist in the Greek isles is likely made of PVC.

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.

Photos: Sea Monsters Real and Imagined

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."

Rare Sea Monster Caught on Film

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.

Mysterious Face Seen in Cliff: Mind Trick or Carved?

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.

A composite image of the alleged sea monster and a boat bumper.

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.

'Thames Monster' Video: Hoax Or Mammal?

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?

Real Moby Dick: Some Whales Ram With Their Heads

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?

Ancient Sea Monsters Were Black

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.

Is the Loch Ness Monster Dead?

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.

VIDEO: Why Squid Are Terror Monsters Of The Sea

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) ...

Mermaids Exist! And They Are Seismically Sensitive

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.

Make Way For Manatees Month: Photos

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.

First Face? Prehistoric Fish Was a Jaw-Dropper

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 ...

Giant Squid Photos

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) ...

You might have guessed it: Human garbage. Yep. It's the ugliest, most alien-looking, fatal and pervasive monster in the seas. Garbage patches have been getting a lot of attention lately. These are areas on the seas where currents and winds tend to concentrate floating garbage.

Life On The Ocean Floor Garbage Patch: Photos