The Shadow over Portsmouth

In July 2002, Rhode Island had its only second* known fling with marine cryptozoology at Teddy’s Beach in Portsmouth. I was aware of this encounter since 2003 from Bruce Champagne’s “Type 3 Animal Test” but the existence of a newscast came as a total surprise. As with everything ever filmed, it’s on YouTube:

* Edit: I forgot about the “Block Ness Monster”. Thanks, Scott Mardis!

It’s… something. In Narragansett Bay, it makes the news when dolphins travel into the upper reaches, so the possibility of an unknown large, aggressive species cruising around is basically zero. It is tempting to dismiss the encounter at Teddy’s Beach as an inept description of some unknowable mundane species, but what if it’s a surprisingly accurate documentation of a very rare – but known – visitor to the Bay?

Before getting into what the Teddy’s Beach encounter may have been with, I’ll lay out all the available information as objectively as plausible.

Newscast: Sighting occurred on a late Tuesday afternoon, apparently under sunny conditions. Object “roughly” 15 feet long [4.57 meters]. Man “cleaning” wound in the water for an hour and a half nearby [and again two days later?!].

Female eyewitness: Object made hissing sound. Big teeth. Basketball-shaped face, went “in” [eyewitness made tapering gesture], was squared off [made gesture indicating bottom of face], had white coloration [made gesture apparently indicating throat]. Swam around and made physical contact with eyewitness. Contact indicated scales, also suggested to be on the face.

Male eyewitness: Object went “around” eyewitness [spread out arms, unclear meaning] got very close [perhaps 1-2 meters]. Had scales [“a couple” on head?]. Head shaped like a footbasketball [eyewitness made basketball-sized gesture]. Fangs compared to eyewitness’s fingers, gesture indicated 4-5 on bottom plus “two or three” on top plus “layers inside”. Blackish on top [of head]. White under neck. Shot water out of nose. Hissed [while spitting water?] at eyewitness. Object initially thought to be eel. Moved by “rolling” at first [white visible] then moved “like a barracuda” but also with a “hump” when “chasing” female eyewitness [gesture made seemingly indicating vertical and lateral oscillation].

Bruce Champagne: 5 meters in length [contra: 4.57 m]. Greenish-black on top [contra: blackish] white below. Basketball-sized eel-like head [contra: basketball-shaped and sized]. 10 cm long teeth [finger length?]. Investigated swimmer [contra: “chasing”]. Swam with “rolling” motion [contra: “rolling” and “hump”/”barracuda”-like]. Makes mention of body diameter being estimated [inferred from gesture made by male eyewitness?].

Champagne’s “Type 3” construct, purportedly 87% similar to the creature observed at Teddy’s Beach.

My colleague Markus Bühler suggested that perhaps the eyewitnesses encountered a Leatherback Seaturtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Leatherbacks have been documented from Hope Island (Raposa), nearly as far up the Bay as Teddy’s Beach. It came as a major surprise to me that leatherbacks enter Narragansett Bay at all, and I suspect that most other residents are not aware of their occasional presence. What’s especially intriguing about the leatherback hypothesis is that the “layers” of fangs described by the male eyewitness could be explained by keratinized spines:

Taken from WoRMS

The “two or three” fangs on the upper jaw could be explained by the projections of the leatherback’s upper beak; there aren’t four or five complimentary projections on the leatherback’s lower beak but perhaps the male eyewitness was counting some of the outlying keratinous projections. Leatherbacks have big round heads, so the comparisons to a basketball plausibly fit. It isn’t clear what going “in” and being squared off could mean on a basketball-shaped head, but perhaps they’re a reference to the wide mouth and the shape of a leatherback’s lower beak. Male leatherbacks have white throats (Ernst and Lovich 2009) which fits the eyewitness descriptions.

Taken from Dan Irizarry’s Flickr

The reported antagonistic behavior towards the female eyewitness is… curious. The mention of water coming out of the nose suggests respiratory issues, which means the “hissing” may have been labored breathing. Dermochelys has been reported to vocalize when in duress (Ernst and Lovich 2009) but I’m not clear if hissing is in their repertoire. Chasing a human without prompting would be strange for any animal, so perhaps it was swimming towards the eyewitnesses and the behavior was misinterpreted as aggressive. Leatherbacks will, however, act aggressively towards humans who provoke them:

Leatherbacks may attack boats without provocation. This video is also useful in showing that breathing at the surface can create the illusion of water coming out of the nose:

The initial impression of an eel-like creature would seem remarkable for an observation of a turtle, although the initial part should be stressed along with the male eyewitness’s gesture which may have indicated the object was wide. A length of around 4.57 meters is larger than any leatherback, but there is little reason to take reported sizes literally from any eyewitness. The presence of “scales” is problematic for leatherbacks, which lack them as adults, but it could have been possible that they were misinterpreted bony ossicles and/or mottled coloration. I am admittedly confused what sort of movement the male eyewitness was attempting to describe.

The leatherback hypothesis isn’t a perfect fit, but it’s far more likely an explanation than some bizarre unknown species. The fact that one of the largest living reptiles graces Rhode Island with its presence is fantastic enough as it is.

References:

Ernst, C. H. and Lovich, J. E. (2009) Turtles of the United States and Canada. John Hopkins University Press.

Raposa, K. Aquatic Birds, Marine Mammals, and Sea Turtles IN: An Ecological Profile of the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Available.

2 thoughts on “The Shadow over Portsmouth

  1. the only time i ever saw a leatherback in the water (from a ferry – somewhat surprising) my initial reaction was what the hell was that seal looking thing. I like herps and was well aware of leatherbacks being present (they nested 5 minutes walk from my door) and even then it took me a couple of seconds to click as to what it was. If you didn’t know what one was or that they were around and were in opaque water so the shell wasn’t obvious they’d look freaky.

  2. The description given by this mustached guy sounds a lot like a leopard seal’s… Although in the “wrong” hemisphere… Was it the famous Parson’s tortoise-headed seal ?

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