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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Makara and Moha-Moha

One of the weirdest sea monster encounters ever was reported in 1891, when a very, very strange creature was supposedly seen at the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia.

The creature in question is called the "moha-moha," which the natives of Australia supposedly thought was a "dangerous turtle."

The witness was a Miss S. Lovell, a teacher at Sandy Cape, Great Sandy Island, Queensland. She sent a letter to Land and Water magazine that was addressed to "a constant reader" who signed himself "Tempus omnia monstrat." The letter from Miss Lovell reads:

"We have had a visit from a monster turtle fish. [Author note - of course turtles are reptiles, not fish!] I send a sketch of it, it let me stand for half an hour within five feet of it. When tired of my looking at it,  it put its large neck and head into the water and swept round seaward, raising its dome-shaped body about five feet out of the water, and put its twelve feet of fish-like tail over the dry shore, elevating it at an angle. Then, giving its tail a half twist, it shot off like a flash of lightning, and I saw its tail in the air about a quarter of a mile off where the steamers anchor.
"It has either teeth or serrated jaw bones. Native blacks call it 'Moka, moka,' [note - should be Moha-moha] and say they like to eat it, and that it has legs and fingers. I did not see its legs, as they were in the water. What I saw of it was about 27 ft. or 28 ft., but I think it must be 30 ft. in all. Whilst its head was out of the water it kept its mouth open, and, as I could not see any nostrils, I fancy it breathes through its mouth. The jaws are about 18 in. in length; the head and neck greenish white, with large white spots on the neck, and a band of white round a very black eye and round upper and lower jaws.
"The body was dome shaped, about 8 ft. across and 5 ft. high, smooth, and slate-gray in color. Tail about 12 ft., the fish part wedge-shaped, and fin of chocolate-brown. Then beautiful silver shading to white scales size of thumb nail."

So, from this description, we have a creature with a long neck, dome like turtle, and a fish tail, as shown in the drawing below.
The drawing in the middle, and the two at the bottom, are
sketches of the Moha-Moha, as supposedly seen in 1891
(Top is the Valhalla serpent,
which will be discussed in anther post)

But what is it? The Land and Water editor thought that it was a turtle called Carettochelys, or pig-nosed turtle. But I highly doubt this is the case. For one thing, it only grows to about 30 inches long, not 30 feet like the creature Miss Lovell says she saw.
Carettochelys, the pig-nosed turtle

The L&W editor also thought that Miss Lovell must have been mistaken about the creature having a fish tail, as turtles obviously don't have that, and said "the fair observer must have been mistaken on this very important point."

Miss Lovell, however, disagreed with him, and said:

"You speak of the impossible length of its tail. I beg to state this is a most astounding statement from people who have never seen this monster, half fish, half tortoise. The tail was over the dry shore for half an hour, so close to me, that five footsteps would have enabled me to put my hand upon it."

The editor, however, was not changing his opinion:

"With no wish to cast any doubt on our fair correspondent's veracity and powers of observation, we must adhere to the editorial remarks made in our issue of January 3, and point out to her that from a scientific point of view, the existence of a creature combining the characteristics of a fish, together with those of a tortoise, are absolutely impossible."
R. T. Gould

R. T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea-Serpent, remarked:

"His knowledge of paleontology, apparently, was slight. The extinct Pterichthys and Drepanaspis seem to have existed for the express purpose of refuting his assertion."
A cool, though outdated, reconstruction of Pterichthys,
showing it as terrestrial, by F. John

To which Bernard Heuvelmans commented in his book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents:

"…Pterichthyodes is disturbingly like the moha-moha - but only in the body and the tail. No fish has ever had a true neck, that is to say a thinner link between the head and body."

Later, Miss Lovell sent another letter to Land and Water:


"The blacks, who had not seen it on the day I did, named it at once from my sketch, which must, therefore, be pretty accurate, and called it Moha, Moha,' and laughed and said 'Saucy Fellow, Meebee' in English, 'dangerous turtle.'
"It is eight years since it attacked the black's camp. It can stand upright, and it put its legs on the shoulders of a powerful black, 6 ft. high, and knocked him down. That year ti invaded their camp, and nearly caught one man by the leg. For months after the blacks camped inland."
Miss Lovell also added that "It is not a turtle, but a monster, half fish, half tortoise, with the carapace perfectly rounded in front."

In his aforementioned book on sea serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans notes that there is a tortoise called Chelondina longicollis in Australia that does indeed have a long neck. He does not use this as an explanation for Moha-Moha, as it is nowhere close in size, but to show that a tortoise could have a long neck.
Bernard Heuvelmans

But of course, it would be impossible for the Moha-Moha to be a literal "half fish, half tortoise" like Miss Lovell said. The Editor of L&W comments on this as well:

"Our correspondent must not suppose that we doubt her having seen some abnormal monster, but we cannot believe that it is 'half fish half tortoise' as she describes, and the only solution we can offer is that the monster tortoise had clasped by its nether limbs, and had pressed against its abdomen some very large fish, the upper part of whose body was thus concealed, while the tail projected behind, and gave the tortoise the appearance of having a fish's tail."

That is an idea more ridiculous than that of a sea serpent!

Heuvelmans notes that that idea is "very far-fetched," and also notes that "an equally, if not more, far-fetched possibility, anatomically at least, is that it is a gigantic placoderm fish, somehow surviving the Devonian, in process of swallowing a huge conger tail first."

(I can't decide which of those is more ridiculous. Tell me which one you think is in the comments!)

William Saville Kent, who was writing The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, asked Miss Lovell for a detailed account of what she saw so he could give the Moha-Moha a scientific name.
William Saville Kent

Kent wrote:

"With reference to its obviously-combined chelonian and saurian peculiarities, couple with a fitting acknowledgement of its discoverer, it is here distinguished as the Great Barrier sea-serpent, Chelosauria lovelli."

Kent was, however, concerned about the fish tail:

"The only explanation that can be suggested with relation to it is that it is actually a bifurcated fleshy tail, or possibly an originally spatulate or paddle-like one, at which a shark, or perhaps a cross-grained, back-biting relation, had taken an unfriendly nibble."

So, so far we have quite a few possibilities - an ancient Devonian fish, a "turtle-fish," a Devonian fish eating an eel, a tortoise grabbing a fish with its rear appendages, and a strange creature that had its tail bitten by a shark. Again, almost more ridiculous than it actually being an odd unknown animal.

There's a plot twist, though.

Miss Lovell went on to write another letter about her encounter, which Heuvelmans calls her "new account:"

"I was (while walking on the Sandy Island beach) admiring the stillness of the sea, it being a dead calm, when my eye caught sight of the head and neck of a creature I had never seen before.
"I went to the edge of the water and saw a huge animal, lying a full length, which was not at all disturbed by my close proximity to it, enabling me to observe the glossy skin of the head and neck, smooth and shiny as satin. Its great mouth was wide open all the time it was out of the water.
"In about a quarter of an hour or so it put its head and neck slowly into the sea, closing its jaws as it did so. I then saw what a long neck it had, as it moved round in a half circle, and also perceived that the head and neck were moving under a carapace. When the head was pointing out to sea it rose up, putting a long long wedge-shaped fish-like tail out of the water over the dry shore,  parallel to myself, and not more than five feet from me, not touching the sand, but elevated. I could have stood under the 'flukes of its tail.'
"The only part of the body that had marks like joints (like in size and shape to a common brick) was also on the dry shore, but resting on the sand; the great dome-shaped carapace, dull slate-greym was standing quite five feet high, and so hid its long neck and head from my view, which before fit rose I could see as a long shadow on the water. The carapace was smooth and without marks of any sort. The fish-like part of the tail was as glossy and shiny as the head and neck,  but of a beautiful silver-grey, shading to white, with either remarking or large scales, each bordered with a ridge of white, but if scales, not like those of a fish in position, as the fishes' scales lie horizontally, while the Moha's, if scales, like perpendicularly, each the size of a man's thumbnail. It had a thick fleshy fin near the end, about three feet apart from the flukes, and, like them, chocolate brown. The flukes were semi-transparent; I could see the sun shining through them, showing all the bones very forked. One of the girls asked me if a shark had bitten a peace out of its tail., and the other wanted to know if I thought it was an alligator! The fish-like part was quite twelve feet long.
"All the time the animal was on shore it was perfectly motionless; at last it gave a  curious half-twist to the fluke part of its tail, the movement only just reaching beyond the fleshy fin, and, without disturbing the water in the slightest degree,  vanished. I seemed only to have taken one breath when I saw its tail out of the water about the place where the steamer anchors, sending a quantity of fish into the air. I then saw it give a twist of its tail, and it disappeared altogether. The black boy saw it on the shore the previous Monday, the 9th inst.
"As I was so close to it for at least half an hour, I was able to study its shape and coloring. In moving about, head and tail were seen alternatively above water, but not even the shadow of its great body, and, from the length of that, a spectator could not guess that the head and tail belonged to the same creature, particularly as the coloring is so different. The parts I did not see were the legs. I stooped down and tried, but in vain, to see them, though the Moha was standing in only a foot of water, but the Black described them as being like an alligator."

What are my thoughts on all of this? Well, from Miss Lovell's description of a crazy "monster turtle/tortoise fish," that fact that she said she got so close to it for so long (because wild animals always let people come right up to them!), and her contradicting stories, make me believe the whole thing is made up. As well, Heuvelmans notes in his book: "If you try to reconstruct what she describes mentally - or better still graphically - you will not succeed." He also says: "She also says the tit was 'in only a foot of water' and that it raised 'its huge dome-shaped body about five feet out of the water.' But how did it hide such a dome when it was in the water?"

Like with Heuvelmans, to me this report just screams "hoax!"

*******

In his book, Heuvelmans mentions makara, a creature from Hindu mythology that is a type of sea monster. It is described as a "half terrestrial animal in the front part, and a half aquatic animal in the hind part." Sound familiar?

Maybe Miss Lovell's Moha-Moha story was inspired by the makara, and she decided to create a creature like it.

I would not be surprised at all if that was the case.

The goddess Ganga on the makara



This post is part 3 of what will probably be an ongoing examination of various sea serpent accounts over the years. See the others here:

Bernard Heuvelmans vs. Henry Lee
"A Sort of Odd Marine Dimetrodon"

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