How a 'Sea Monster' Photo Went Viral

A dead eel photographed in an Australian lake had an unlikely second life as a viral mystery monster.

A strange creature recently washed up on the shore of an Australian lake. It was found and photographed by a fisherman named Robert Tyndall, who came across it while fishing last weekend.

As a Mirror news story described it, "With the body of a legless crocodile and the head of a dolphin, this strange sea creature looks more like something out of medieval myth than a real animal."

The "monster" was photographed on the banks of Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, Australia. The Mirror described it as having "a long, slender body with scales and a tail like a crocodile with no legs, a head shaped like a dolphin's and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth."

Photos: Sea Monsters Real and Imagined

A photo of the seemingly huge mystery monster went viral, with wild speculation ranging from a dinosaur to a Photoshop hoax. The image was widely shared and spawned headlines such as "Photo of 'Freakish Lake Monster' Terrifies the Internet" and "Prehistoric-Looking Sea Creature with Razor Sharp Teeth Washes Up on the Shore of an Australian Lake."

Within a few days experts had identified it as a pike eel, which, though nocturnal, is common in the lake. Furthermore, despite the impressive size depicted in the photo, it was estimated to be about five and a half feet long-a sizeable eel, but somewhat smaller than the maximum length for that species.

So how did a non-monstrous dead eel end up making international news?

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Optical Illusion Part of the reason that the creature seemed like a monster is that it appears huge in Tyndall's photo. It's what in photography is called forced perspective, which tricks the eye into making objects appear to be much larger or smaller than they really are. The eel was photographed at a low angle close to the ground instead of from above, as it would normally be seen by a standing adult.

This helps create the illusion of enormity in several ways: First, it puts the carcass higher in the photo and therefore closer to the horizon line. Things that we usually see close to the horizon are often large (such as trees, buildings, and mountains). Second, the angle obscures the tail, which seems to slide gently into the water and is hidden by the reflection from the sky, subtly suggesting that it's longer than it is. An overhead photograph taken from a higher angle would avoid the sky's reflection and show exactly where the creature's body ends.

Furthermore there is nothing in the photo near the carcass to provide a sense of scale. If it had been photographed next to a dollar bill or a Coke can, for example, people looking at the image would have a recognizable scale for reference.

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No one is suggesting that Tyndall attempted to deceive anyone with the photograph-after all, it is a large eel and it's human nature to try to find angles that make it seem bigger, just for fun. Generations of fishermen have found creative angles to hold fish up to a camera that can make a goldfish look like a whale.

Though some smelled a hoax, there's no reason to suspect any (intentional) photo manipulation or trickery. It's a real-and not uncommon-animal in the area.

Social Media Monsters But the misleadingly magnified photo is only part of the reason the image went viral. As it turns out, the photo did not begin as a mystery at all. In an interview with The Newcastle Herald, Tyndall acknowledged, "I knew it was some kind of eel and it's a big eel, but it definitely looks bigger. I think everyone enjoys using their imagination. Judging by the comments, it was growing by the minute."

So if the person who photographed it knew what it was all along, how did a picture of an otherwise ordinary pike eel take on an afterlife as a mysterious monster viral sensation?

Video: Real Life Sea Monsters

The answer lies in the nature of social media, which is very good at sharing content around the world with only a few clicks but often strips that content of its explanatory context. Countless photographs, infographics, and quotes which were originally accurate in the context in which they originally appeared (in a blog, for example, or on social media) have been shared and taken out of context and become unintentionally misleading in the process.

On Monday a New South Wales man named Ethan Tippa shared the photo on Facebook, along with a colorful query: "This is at swansea boat ramp. What the [...] is it?"-a post that was shared nearly 3,000 times.

In another amusing example of viral misinformation, in some news stories Mr. Tippa is identified as a "father" -- the parent of a child-while in others he is referred to as "Father Ethan Tipper," not only misspelling his last name but suggesting that Tippa (whose Facebook post described the photo with a strong four-letter word) is a priest.

Social media makes sharing photos and memes quick and easy, but even if a photo is shared with all the information needed to correctly identify the "mystery," it only takes one person along the chain to strip it out, and in this social media game of "telephone" it's easy to manufacture mysteries.

Though many experts, as well as Tyndall himself, had a pretty good idea of what the "monster" was, it was widely shared (at least at first) as a complete mystery. Contacting local fishery and zoology experts for commentary of course takes time, and as Mark Twain is credited to have written, "A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Facebook/ Ethan Tippa

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


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?

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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) ...

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.

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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 ...

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