Legends of sea serpents and strange creatures from the deep are found across the globe. In Cornwall, a region surrounded by water, those stories of sea monsters date back hundreds of years. But it appears that there have been certain periods in history and certain locations where sightings have been much more frequent.
This article was intended to explore the legend of the Morgawr, said to inhabit Falmouth Bay and the Helford river, an area which became known as the ‘Morgawr Mile’, but of course, while tracking down this illusive sea monster many other stories surfaced and I have included them too to illustrate just how frequently these creatures were once spotted.
Though many of these sightings were made by surprised folks standing on dry land there have been just as many reports from fishermen and mariners, from men who knew the Cornish waters well and were experts in the creatures that live in it. These are the stories that are hardest to dismiss as fantasy, hoax or mistaken identity.
“Captain Drevar of the ship ‘Pauline’ said he had seen a sea serpent on three occasions, that it had followed his ship and was amusing itself by catching and crushing whales in its coils.”West Briton, January 1877 – from report in Birmingham Post
A Sea Serpent off Longships
A Falmouth tugboat called Triton was making its way back home after a trip to Dublin in September 1903 when the captain, a man called White, spotted something in the water about 15 miles off Longships lighthouse. Captain White, who had been sailing the waters between Falmouth and the Isles of Scilly for over 30 years, was at loss to explain what he was seeing.
He described to the Falmouth Packet newspaper a sea serpent 100ft (30m) long moving at a tremendous speed. It had, he said, a strangely shaped head and tusks “several feet in length”. White suggested that the sea monster may have been feeding on the unusually large sharks he had seen in the area that summer.
Liner spots Leviathan off Lands End
This story had to sail all the way to America before it was sent back to the port of Falmouth. According to reports in August 1906 the Phoenix line passenger liner St Andrew out of Antwerp was sailing for New York and as it passed Land’s End two officers and a male passenger saw a “wonderful sea serpent”.
“The proportions of the leviathan are stated with remarkable exactness it’s body is said to be 5 feet in circumference and the length enormous. Five or six yards were rearing out of the water and the reptile’s head had a fierce and most forbidding aspect with rows of huge teeth on its powerful jaws. The officers and the passenger said that they watched the contortions of this strange creature for fully a minute and then it plunged beneath the waves.”Falmouth Packet, 17th August 1906
The Flushing Monster
This story is perhaps one of oddest and yet one of the most convincing as the witnesses were experienced fishermen who saw this particular creature at close quarters for several minutes.
In May 1926 the Western Morning News reported that two fishermen from Flushing were trawling in their boat close to Falmouth when they had made an extraordinary discovery. What had begun as an ordinary fishing trip turned into something of a local sensation.
It seems that when Mr B. Rees and Mr B. Gilbert had tried to haul in their net they found that it was extremely heavy and taking much longer than usual to bring on the boat. After more than an hour of struggling they eventually managed to heave the catch to the surface and the two fishermen were astonished to see that amongst their regular haul of fish there was also a “strange monster” some 20ft (6m) in length.
The men, who were both experienced mariners, didn’t recognise this sea creature as any species that they knew and from the struggle that they had had with the net they felt that they may have pulled it up from the seabed.
Rees and Gilbert described it as having a beak about two feet long and six inches wide, four legs covered in thick scales attached with “armour-like joints” to a large body with a flat back that was covered with matted brown fur. The monster also had a thick tail about eight feet in length.
The pair were understandably confused and a little frightened. They were apparently torn between bringing the strange but heavy creature back to shore with them or cutting it loose. But while the fishermen debated what to do the monster, which was still alive, took matters into its own scaly flippers. It threw itself over the side of the boat and escaped. All that was left was a patch of blood on the deck and some of the matted fur which the men brought back to Flushing with them.
Apparently the Falmouth authorities contacted the Plymouth Marine Biological Observatory but they were unable to offer any explanation for the fishermen’s experience.
The North Coast Nessie
During the summers of 1934 and 1935 there were a number of sightings of sea monsters off Cornwall’s north coast. The first report was from Whitsand Bay where a group of four people spotted something in the water while they were sitting on the beach.
“It swam with an undulating motion and its head was shaped like that of a snake . . . The creature was not swimming like a fish but more like a caterpillar crawls . .. it was at least 10ft long.”Western Morning News, 24 July, 1934
Then in May 1935 later ” a monstrous glossy black creature with a long goose-like neck, a humped back and a tremendous tail” was seen off Port Isaac on three separate occasions. One of the witnesses was a postman, Mr Honey, who said that the sea monster’s neck was standing at least 4ft off the surface of the sea and that its hump was huge and round like a barrel. Honey said that he stood watching it for five minutes as it moved smoothly through the water without making a ripple.
A year later in June 1935 a sea monster was seen again, this time in the River Gannel near Newquay. The description given by eyewitnesses was very similar to the creature seen at Port Isaac. The Western Morning News spoke to Mr R. Northey, the owner of a tea room in Crantock, who had seen it from his garden and thought he saw the beast fishing for mullet in a deeper pool in the tidal river:
“It was at least 25ft long . . . the strange creature resembled an artist’s impression of the Loch Ness Monster. It was going along like a submarine on the top of the water and its speed was very fast.”WMN, 6th June 1935
Falmouth Bay Sea Serpent
During the 1970s the Cornish sea monster sightings seemed to move to the south coast, specifically the area around the mouth of the Helford River, between Rosemullion Head and Dennis Head, and also in and around the Carrick Roads and Falmouth Bay. This creature, though its not clear that it was just one, was also given a name – Morgawr which means ‘sea monster’ or ‘sea giant’ in Cornish.
The first recorded sighting in the 1970s was in September 1975 off Pendennnis Point when Mrs. Scott, a local woman and her friend Mr. Riley described seeing as “a hideous humped creature with a long bristled neck and stumpy horns”. They claimed that they watched the monster as it caught a conger eel in its mouth before disappearing under the waves.
Their experience was to be the first of many in the next few years.
On 5th march 1976, few months after the Scott and Riley had seen their stumpy horned monster, a letter and a pair of photographs were printed in the Falmouth Packet.
The grainy images had been submitted to the newspaper by someone calling themselves ‘Mary F’. Mary claimed to have taken the pictures in the waters off Trefusis Point near Flushing.
“The enclosed photos were taken by me about three weeks ago from Trefusis. They show one of the large sea creatures mentioned in your paper recently. I am glad to know that other people have seen the sea serpent. The pictures are not very clear because of the sun shining right into the camera and the haze on the water, also I took them very quickly indeed. The animal was only up for a few seconds. I would say it was about 15 to 18 ft long, I mean the part showing above the water.
It looked like an elephant waving its trunk, but the trunk was a long neck with a small head at the end, like a snake’s head. It had humps on its back which moved in a funny way. The colour was black or very dark brown and the skin seemed to be like a sea lions my brother developed the film I didn’t want to take it to the chemist perhaps you can make them clearer as a matter of fact the animal frightened me I would not like to see it and he closer I do not like the way it moved when swimming you can put these pictures in the paper a few like I don’t want payment and I don’t want any name in the paper about this I just think you should tell people about this animal what is it?
Yours sincerely Mary F, Falmouth.”letter dated 29th february, published – Falmouth Packet, 5th march 1976
Mary F. has never been identified but it was around this time that the fishermen in Falmouth Bay began blaming their poor catches on the Morgawr.
The next sighting was made by the George Vinnecombe, who had been a fisherman for 40 years when he and a friend, John Cock, had a strange experience off Falmouth. In July 1976 the two men set out on a day’s fishing trip from Falmouth on what Vinnecombe described as a beautiful, clear, calm day.
They soon spotted what they thought was a capsized boat in the water and went closer to investigate. According to the men as they drew nearer the sea monster raised up its head on a neck about 6ft long.
“He didn’t come roaring over, jaws open or anything like that, the old boy was quite content to look at us as we were looking at him. We’ve seen all sorts, whales and dolphins and that kind of thing but this was nothing like that at all. It looked like a prehistoric monster. There was something about it, it was something different to anything I’d ever seen before and larger than anything I’d ever seen before. We had a 32ft boat and it was as big as the boat.”george Vinnecombe, interview – Strange but True, 1996
The two men were interviewed by the local papers which led to a visit from someone from the Natural History Museum in London. After the Vinnecombe and Cock both independently identified the creature they had seen as a plesiosaur – a dinosaur extinct for many millions of years – from a book of sea creatures the museum official apparently tried to tell them that what they had seen was only a sea turtle.
But perhaps the most famous of Cornwall’s sea monsters is the Morgawr said to live in the Helford River.
Sea Monster in the Helford
One of the first sea monster sightings in the Helford was not officially reported for many years. Not far from the river is Gear Farm which had been home to Rex Hosking’s family since the 1940s. In around 1979 Rex told the author Jill Newton, who was writing a book about the Helford, about an experience he had had around 30 years previously.
“It was about 1950, I was down by the river at almost low tide when I saw this thing swimming along in the channel. It had what seemed to be two humps out of the water and I thought that it must be an extremely large conger. I came home and told my family and of course they just laughed at me. Since then I have always looked at the river closely but I have never seen anything like it again.”Jill Newton, Helford River, 1979
And Rex was by no means the last person to see something strange in the river.
In January 1976 a dental technician from Truro called Duncan Viner spotted something swimming just off Rosemullion Head near the entrance to the Helford. Viner said that at first he thought it was a whale as he could just see the dark hump of its back and then he saw it raise its head and long neck up out of the water. He estimated the sea monster to be around 30 to 40ft (12m) in length.
On Good Friday that same year a Helston school boy reported seeing ‘weird animal with two humps and a long neck like a snake’ in the Helford river near Toll Point. In the next few months a holidaymaker from London, Amelia Johnson, also spotted a creature in the river, as did two more visitors called Tony Rogers and John Chambers who were interviewed by the Packet in May. It was seen by holidaymakers Allan and Sally White off Grebe Beach and by a local man called Gerald Bennett. The area around the entrance to the Helford was quickly dubbed ‘Morgawr’s Mile’.
Understandably many people were still very sceptical of all this talk of sea monsters, like Donald Ferris, a Falmouth man who worked for the local council. He was walking his dog on Gyllyngvase beach in September 1976 at about seven o’clock in the morning when he was confronted with something that changed his mind. He told the West Briton:
“I saw what looked like a small boat coming towards Gyllyngvase from Swanpool. When it got closer I realised it was a creature like a giant eel at least 60ft long and dark grey . . . Until now I was convinced that this monster thing was a big joke but I have never seen anything like that in my life. It shook me.”west briton, 16th September 1976
One of the last witnesses during this flurry of encounters in the 1970s was the author and editor of Cornish Life Dave Clarke who claimed that in 1977 he had seen Morgawr in the water off Parson’s Beach. He later wrote in his pocket guide book to Cornwall:
“In early 1977 . . . I encountered Morgawr for myself, swimming far out in the river before coming nearer to look at my dog on the beach. A blunt head and long neck were visible for several seconds before it swam away and submerged.”
The story goes that Clarke had visited the beach with his dog Sam and Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, who later claimed that he had used his psychic powers to make the monster appear, to do some research for an article about the creature. Clarke described the Morgawr as 15 – 18m long with a slim, muscular arched neck. He had tried to photograph it but apparently his camera jammed.
The search for Morgawr
In the weeks, months and years that followed the spate of sightings in and around the Helford River many inquisitive people were drawn to the Falmouth area, eager to see Morgawr for themselves.
The legend began to attract the attention of scientists, researchers, New Age thinkers. witches and TV companies.
There was even an episode of ITV’s Strange but True in 1996 which featured Morgawr, complete with interviews with eye-witnesses and some wonderful recreations of the encounters.
Everyone in the area was now obsessed with sea monsters. There were even competitions in local schools in which the children had to build their best Morgawr costume.
In April 1976 the Aberdeen Evening Express reported that an Inverness witch called Psyche was coming to Cornwall “to join the hunt for the sea monster”. She was said to have implied that she believed that there was a connection between the Scottish Loch Ness Monster and the sea serpent in the Helford. Psyche, whose real name was unknown, was being joined by two other witches, Vivienne from London and Amanda from Liskeard and together the three women planned to swim naked in the Helford to lure the creature out.
The same month The Stage newspaper reported that ‘Doc’ Shiels had joined forces with a Professor Mike McCormack from New Mexico in the US and that the pair intended to catch the “Durgan Dragon”.
“Cornwall is currently enjoying the presence of a huge sea serpent in Falmouth Bay known as the Durgan Dragon. The Doc and Mike are attempting to contact it by psychic means and photograph it, maybe even capture it, without success to date.”The Stage, 8th April 1976
Then in 1980 a young sociology student called Jeoff Watson claimed to have photographed the Morgawr in the Helford, though as far as I can tell these images have never been published. In an article called “Man on Trail of Five Nessies” Jeoff spoke about hunting down all the sea monsters he believed were living in the lakes and rivers of Britain and said that from his encounter Morgawr appeared to have “two eyes on stalks”. Whether he succeeded in his mission to meet all the Nessies is unknown.
(It has to be said that much of this interest may have been encouraged by the controversial character Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels would features in the Strange but True episode and who we also encounter when discussing the mysterious Owlman of Mawnan. Doc was a bit of publicity hound, constantly seeking attention.)
Final Thoughts & Theories
So, having bombarded you with all those accounts how exactly do we unravel this story. With so many independent witnesses over such a long period of time can we just discount it all as bunkum? And if not, what are the theories about what could be lurking in the waters of the Helford River and Falmouth Bay, or indeed in the sea around the whole of the Cornish coast?
Is there a Cornish Nessie?
The writer, Michael Bright, who published the book ‘There are Giants in the Sea’, a real homage to unknown sea creatures, wrote that it was possible that the sightings in the Fal area of Cornwall were either a “mass hallucination” or perhaps just a large sea turtle . . . He concludes that normal, natural events are often misinterpreted or given a supernatural quality.
So if not a monster, then what?
A basking shark, an oarfish, giant squid or a floating log or mat of seaweed perhaps? In 1988 a Port Isaac fisherman landed a 2m long, 318kg leatherback turtle. And the ‘it must have been a giant eel’ theory does hold water until you start taking into account the descriptions given by witnesses, some of whom would certainly have been familiar with these fairly common sea creatures, even if it was a particular huge example!
So is it possible that there are as yet undiscovered sea monsters lurking in the depths?
There are many that believe that sea monsters like Morgawr are actually dinosaurs that escaped extinction, prehistoric survivors from the Jurassic age. Dr Karl Shuker, a British zoologist fascinating by sea monsters, has said that the existence of a descendent of a supposedly extinct plesiosaur is one credible explanation for sightings such as those around the coast of Cornwall.
All that I can say for certain is that there seems to have been plenty of people who witnessed something that they couldn’t explain and of course Cornwall is not unique, these unexplained ‘sea monsters’ have been spotted all over the world.