Gourock sea serpent, 1942

Introduction

The town of Gourock is situated on the southwest coast of Scotland in the upper Firth of Clyde, an Inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Near to it, at the anchorage of the Tail of the Bank, for some time the British Home Fleet was stationed during Second World War. At these times, during the year 1942, a reportedly undecomposed “sea monster” was found. The account states that it was not examined from scientists due to a lack of interest and was not photographed because of military restrictions. Therefore, it only was roughly sketched from the reporting eyewitness and former Burgh Surveyor Charles Rankin, who also kept a bristle taken from a flipper, and finally it was incremented and buried beneath the playing field of today’s local school St Ninian. Only in 1980, in an episode of a British television series dealing with unexplained phenomena, he reported about it publicly. Those descriptions led to several speculations about the true nature of the animal and especially the grade of decomposition, while in 2012 rediscovered newspaper articles of 1942 classified it as highly decayed basking shark. Correspondences, found again in 2020 at the National Museums Scotland Library, between Charles Rankin and former curator Dr A. C. Stephen of the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh now reveal several more details. After valuation of all hitherto available evidence it seems, that the most plausible explanation to the eyewitness account is the option, that the report is a mix of genuine and non-genuine observation. Thus, those features not matching the given identification as basking shark can be dismissed and consequently, the identification from the Greenock Telegraph and the Gourock Times can be acknowledged again: the carcass of 1942 found at Gourock was a highly decayed basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).

History in media and literature

The “Gourock Sea Serpent” became more widely known when in September 1980 an episode of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” titled “Monsters of the Deep” was aired on British Television. In this episode Mr Charles Rankin, former Burgh Surveyor and Sanitary Inspector of Goruock, was interviewed about his experience with the carcass:

View at McInroy's Point, Ashton. The sea serpent of Gourock washed up in the vicinity. (Lynn M Reid, 2008. Retrieved from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/766622. Used under license cc-by-sa/2.0).

Fig. 1. View at McInroy’s Point, Ashton. The sea serpent of Gourock washed up in the vicinity. (Lynn M Reid, 2008. Retrieved from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/766622. Used under license cc-by-sa/2.0).

I can’t see that this carcass was a rotting basking shark. In the first place this animal showed no signs of rotting. It was absolutely complete. Unmarred. The monster measured approximately 28 feet from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. The body as it lay on the ground was approximately 5 to 6 feet deep. The body could be described as having three parts – the body, the neck and the tail. And the neck and tail tapered very gradually away from the body. The animal had teeth. Teeth about perhaps that size [Rankin shows the first distal phalanx bone of his left pointer finger] on both jaws. In the stomach of the creature was a small portion of what I took to be a seaman’s jersey. It was an open knitted portion of some knitted material and the other thing strangely enough was the corner of what can be described as an old fashioned tablecloth. Just the corner and it was complete with tassels.
(searchfortheunknown. (2009, February 11). Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World: Monsters of the Deep (1980) (Part 3 of 3) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XG0V2LZ9fBw. Transcription from Markus Hemmler)

In the accompanying book to the Television series the report was more detailed:

It was approximately 27-28 feet in length and 5-6 feet in depth at the broadest part. As it lay on its side, the body appeared to be oval in section but the angle of the flippers in relation to the body suggested that the body section had been round in life. If so, this would reduce the depth dimension to some extent. The head and neck, the body, and the tail were approximately equal in length, the neck and tail tapering gradually away from the body. There were no fins. The head was comparatively small, of a shape rather like that of a seal, but the snout was much sharper and the top of the head flatter. The jaws came together one over the other and there appeared to be a bump over the eyes – say prominent eyebrows. There were large pointed teeth in each jaw. The eyes were comparatively large, rather like those of a seal but more to the side of the head.

The tail was rectangular in shape as it lay – it appeared to have been vertical in life. Showing through the thin skin there were parallel rows of ‘bones’ which had a gristly, glossy, opaque appearance. I had the impression that these ‘bones’ had opened out fan-wise under the thin membrane to form a very effective tail. The tail appeared to be equal in size above and below centre line.

At the front of the body there was a pair of ‘L’-shaped flippers and at the back a similar pair, shorter but broader. Each terminated in a ‘bony’ structure similar to the tail and no doubt was also capable of being opened out in the same way.

The body had over it at fairly close intervals, pointing towards, hard, bristly ‘hairs’. These were set closer together towards the tail and at the back edge of the flippers. I pulled out one of these bristles from a flipper. It was about 6 inches long and was tapered and pointed at each end like a steel knitting needle and rather of the thickness of a needle of that size, but slightly more flexible. I kept the bristle in the drawer of my office desk and sometime later I found that it had dried up in the shape of a coiled spring.

The skin of the animal was smooth and when cut was found to be comparatively thin but tough. There appeared to be no bones other than a spinal column. The flesh was uniformly deep pink in colour, was blubbery and difficult to cut or chop. It did not bleed, and it behaved like a thick table jelly under pressure. In what I took to be the stomach of the animal was found a small piece of knitted woolen material as from a cardigan and, stranger still, a small corner of what had been a woven cotton tablecloth – complete with tassels.

Neither Rankin nor his foreman, who also inspected the remains, could decide what species this carcass was. Rankin recalls that he rang the Royal Scottish Museum but they dismissed it without interest. Due to war time restrictions he was refused by the Royal Navy with a stiff warning to take any photographs of the carcass. So the carcass at last was hacked into pieces and buried in the grounds of the municipal incinerator, what today is the playing field of local school St Ninian (Welfare & Fairley, 1980).

Author Paul Harrison (2001) remarked that if the description was accurate it could not relate to a decomposed basking shark and instead sounds more like a species of pinniped. However, he remained inconclusive especially as Rankin seemed to him experienced with seals.

Picture of the original sketch of Charles Rankin of the carcass. Attached to a letter to Dr Stephen and later also shown during the interview in “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World”. (Courtesy of Christine Baird for National Museums Scotland. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NMSlibraries/status/1200385620540981248).

Fig. 2. Original sketch drawn from Charles Rankin of the Gourock carcass. Attached to a letter to Dr Stephen and later shown during a interview for “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World”. (Courtesy of Christine Baird for National Museums Scotland. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NMSlibraries/status/1200385620540981248).

Zoologist Dr Karl P. N. Shuker (1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2012) more conclusively wrote that “when considered collectively, features such these bristles (readily recalling the ceratotrichia – cartilaginous fibres – of a shark fin rays), the lizard-like shape, vertical tail (characteristic of fish), lack of body bones, and smooth skin suggest a decomposing shark as a plausible identity (i.e. adopting the deciptive ‘pseudoplesiosaur’ form so frequently reported for rotting basking sharks)”. The problem with this explanation appears to Dr Shuker that, if the report was accurate, the description of large pointed teeth argues against such an identity and instead favors a carnivorous species. Noting also that, if this would be true, it has to be a very large carnivorous shark as even the largest carnivorous shark, the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, rarely exceeds 20 feet.

In addition, author Glen Vaudrey (2012) listed the case and, as Rankin at this time seemed to be the only available source, thought it could possibly also be a hoax (Glen Vaudrey, pers. comm., August 30, 2012).

Literature evidence of 1942

Further research (Hemmler, 2012) revealed some articles published in local newspapers of 1942. The Greenock Telegraph reported on 10th June:

Gourock workmen have had many novel jobs encrusted to them since the outbreak of war. But to-day they had a task which must be the most unique given to them so far.

They cremated and then buried the remains of a basking shark washed up on the beach at Ashton. The fish was twenty-seven feet in length. It was in such a state of decomposition that no dealers could be prevailed upon accept custody of the “body,” with the result that workmen yesterday set about cutting it into pieces, and removing it to the destructor ”(Away with the body!, 1942).

Two days later, on 12th June, the Gourock Times followed: “Gourock burgh employees have tackled many novel jobs in recent years, but this week they had a task to perform which must be the most unique given them so far. A basking shark, twenty seven feet in length, was washed up on the shore near M’Inroy’s Point. It was in such a state of decomposition that no dealers could be prevailed upon to accept custody of the “body.” Workmen had to set about cutting it into pieces and removing it to the destructor, where it was cremated and the remains then buried” (Notes and Notices, 1942).

Of special interest is the statement in a short notice of the Gourock Times on June 11, 1942, that in contrary to what was known until then there was an expert identifying the carcass: “Gourock’s monster washed up on the beach at the beginning of the week was the subject of argument. It needed an expert to come in and prove that it was a basking shark” (Variorum, 1942).

Correspondence of 1942

It seems that said expert wasn’t from Edinburgh ultimately. The National Museums Scotland Library archived letters compiled by Dr. A. C. Stephen, then Keeper of the Natural History department in the Edinburgh Museum. Correspondence between the eyewitness Rankin and Dr Stephen started at June 13, 1942:

Fig. 3. Picture of the Deepdale Holm carcass found at Mainland, Orkney Islands. Charles Rankin thought it was confirmed as basking shark and then reported about a “similar” carcass washed ashore in Gourock. (From “Basking shark or “Scapasaurus”?”, 1942. The Orkney Blast. Used according to § 51 Urheberrechtsgesetz).

Fig. 3. The Deepdale Holm carcass found at Mainland, Orkney Islands. Charles Rankin thought it was confirmed as basking shark and then reported about a “similar” carcass washed ashore in Gourock. (From “Basking shark or “Scapasaurus”?”, 1942. The Orkney Blast. Used according to § 51 Urheberrechtsgesetz).

The Burgh Surveyor referred to the Deepdale Holm case of February 1942, which he thinks was confirmed as basking shark, and reported about a “similar” carcass at Gourock which due to the “proximity to a public roadway” and “its advanced state of decomposition” was removed as soon as possible:

The body was long – about 5’0” deep over a dorsal fin – tapering gradually to a long neck and long tail. The head was small and the tail fin was flat, soft, bony structure. The total length of the animal was approximately 27’-0””, the fore-part of the body carried two seal-like fins, while behind these were two shorter and wider fins of the same soft bony structure as the tail. The body was light grey in colour, and appeared to have been lightly covered with bristly hairs. The body appeared to have had no bones other than hollow spinal column and the flesh was pink in colour and like fat in appearance. Incidentally, in the belly of the animal was found a green woolen pull-over and a woven cotton article like a bed or table-cover” (Rankin, 1942a).

Dr Stephen (1942a) answered with several general facts about basking sharks and stated that “from your description the animal washed ashore at Gourock was evidently a Basking Shark, but in a very advanced state of decomposition. This is shown by the short bristly “hairs” which are the frayed ends of the muscle-fibres”.

One day later Rankin (1942b) rejected such an identification and enclosed the sketch of the carcass, which was shown also later during his interview for Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World in 1980, stating that he is “quite convinced that the body washed ashore here was not that of a basking shark”.

Despite of this Dr Stephen (1942b) remarked that “without having seen the animal, it is, of course, impossible to be absolutely certain, but from your very accurate sketch and your description I still think it is a Basking Shark”. He described the taphonomical processes, which led to the appearance of a “sea monster” and enclosed newspaper-cuttings of the Deepdale Holm-case as example.

Rankin (1942c) answered: “The photograph [of the Deepdale Holm-shark] resembles closely the body washed ashore in Gourock but our one was not nearly so decomposed and the long neck and body was complete with the skin practically unbroken, and the teeth in the head were large and in a single row, unlike the rows of thin sharp teeth of a shark. The head was certainly about the size of that of a cow and there were two knobs or bumps on the top”. Rankin within this letter attached a “hair”, “pointed at both ends” and “resembling a steel knitting wire in shape”, which he pulled from one of the back fins. Again, he stated he is “convinced that the animal was not decomposed from the outline of the sketch of the basking shark which you sent me”.

Fig. 2. Picture of the bristle which was pulled out from Charles Rankin from a flipper of the carcass. About 6 inches long, tapered and pointed at each end. (Courtesy of Christine Baird for National Museums Scotland. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NMSlibraries/status/1200385620540981248).

Fig. 4. „Hair“ or „Bristle“ which was pulled out from a flipper of the Gourock carcass. About 6 inches long, tapered and pointed at each end. (Courtesy of Christine Baird for National Museums Scotland. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NMSlibraries/status/1200385620540981248).

Dr Stephen (1942c) replied, that the “hair” definitely is “of the type, called dermal rays which make up part of a shark fin” while the description of the teeth would exclude a basking shark. Therefore, he suggested recovering the remains in some months to secure skull and teeth what Rankin (1942d) acknowledged doing in a month or two. However, in 1977 he wrote – as reply to an inquiry of Dr Swinney, Curator of Fish, Reptiles and Amphibians at Royal Scottish Museum – that he left Gourock in 1946 and so hadn’t the opportunity to dug the remains up (Rankin, 1977). He provided a sketch that should show the spot the carcass was buried but actually shows a wider area roughly from Kirn Drive, Georg Street to Larkfield Road and from Gourock castle, Drumshantie Road to Staffa Street.

Examination of a story

With the finding of the newspaper-articles of the Gourock Times and the Greenock Telegraph (Hemmler, 2012) as independent sources, the factual presence of an animal carcass in June 1942 at Gourock is sufficiently proofed.

Most sources either stated or at least suggested a basking shark as (most) probable identity, while the eyewitness account obviously – albeit not naming it – described and sketched an animal more or less corresponding to a plesiosaur, an order or clade of extinct marine reptiles. Almost since their description as group and new genus in the 19th century (De la Beche, H., & Conybeare, W., 1821), the question for a possible survival arose and “the” plesiosaur got a prominent candidate for the identity of sea and lake monster worldwide – notably also for the Deepdale Holm carcass to which Rankin directly referred (Carcase of “Monster”, 1942; Orkney monster, 1942; Fresh light on the myster of the Holm shore “Monster”, 1942; Land, sea and Loch monsters, 1942; Basking shark or “Scapasaurus”?; Naval author on the “Monster”, 1942).

In opposite to the survival of an extinct group of marine reptiles, the identity as decomposed basking shark can be reasoned on numerous cases of so called “pseudo-plesiosaur”, a term which seemingly Dr Heuvelmans (1965) invented or used as first in print to designate stranded marine animal carcasses which superficially resemble plesiosaur (small head, long neck, four fins, tapering tail) but turn out as heavily decayed basking sharks (e.g. Stronsa 1808, Querqueville 1934, Deepdale Holm 1941/42, Girvan 1953). The general taphonomical circumstances which led to such a misleading appearance are explained most often within the sources of such cases, but more generalized also in several books (e.g. Norman & Fraser, 1938; Heuvelmans, 1965; Gould (as cited in Dinsdale, 1966), Shuker, 1995b); the following anatomical description and terminology of the cartilaginous skeleton is derived from Compagno (1990), Izawa & Shibata (1993), Fairfax (1998), Hamlet (1999), Iuliis & Pulerà (2007) and Klimley (2013).

Wax-model of a basking shark in British Museum with added anatomical terminology used in text (“A Canadian ‘monster’”, 1934. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library).

Fig. 5. Wax-model of a basking shark in British Museum with added anatomical terminology used in text (“A Canadian ‘monster’”, 1934. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library).

Compared to Rankins report a “small head” and a “neck […] tapering from the body” (Rankin, 1942a; Welfare & Fairley, 1980) is given after most parts of the sharks splachnocranium (consisting of  mandibular arch, hyoid arch, branchial archs and -rays) vanished, in result just leaving the chondrocranium and the vertebral column up to the pectoral girdle.
The “two knobs or bumps” located “on top of the head” (Rankin, 1942c) probably refer to rests of the left and right dorsolateral rostral cartilage in front of the nasal capsules or describe more probably the same structures as the “bump over the eyes – say prominent eyebrows” (Welfare & Fairley, 1980) which can be identified as supraorbital shelfs of the chondrocranium. “No bones other than spinal column” (Rankin, 1942a) points to the absence of any further skeletal elements like rips, limb girdles or limbs etc. made of bone (what automatically would exclude extinct marine reptiles by the way). The complete skeleton of sharks consists of cartilage, but certainly due to its presence, consistence and calcification the vertebral column can appear more “bony”, hence different to other cartilaginous parts of the shark skeleton. The “tail [which] tapered very gradually away from the body” appearing “vertical in life” (Welfare & Fairley, 1980) matches a heterocercal caudal fin with vertebrae running into the upper lobe, while the lower lobe, consisting of ceratotrichia, either vanishes or is not acknowledged as lobe anymore due to decomposition. The “parallel rows of ‘bones’ with gristly, glossy, opaque appearance” with the “impression opened out fan-wise under thin membrane” almost certainly refer to elongated hypochordal rays which support the caudal fin. The “bony structure similar to the tail” of front and back “flippers” is the somewhat similar appearing radial cartilage of fins. Following, “at back edge of flippers”, are the ceratotrichia, thin and flexible horny fin rays, which are compared as “hard, bristly ‘hair’” which is “6 inches long, tapered and pointed at each end like steel knitting needle”.

Cranium and dorsal fin of a basking shark in detail. Wax-model in British Museum with added anatomical terminology used in text (“A Canadian ‘monster’”, 1934. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library).

Fig. 6. Cranium and dorsal fin of a basking shark in detail. Wax-model in British Museum with added anatomical terminology used in text (“A Canadian ‘monster’”, 1934. Courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library).

In summary a pseudo-plesiosaur would explain most of the anatomical descriptions but faces two problems, namely the need of decomposition as well as reported large pointed teeth (Welfare & Fairley, 1980). Furthermore, even assuming a decomposed status as working hypothesis, also a carnivorous species of shark (Shuker, 1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2012) is no longer an option as explicitly any shark identity was rejected from Rankin (1942c) due to the one-rowed teeth. Logically, without any other bony elements than a spine, a surviving prehistoric marine reptile, any Osteichthyes, Cetacea etc. pp. is also not an option either. A plausible option as solution for this confusing situation comes while comparing all of the given eyewitness accounts in detail. Most of the descriptions are the same or similar to each other over the years but there are some remarkable exceptions:

Regarding the grade of decomposition, it was stated initially that it was in an “advanced state of decomposition” (1942a) – what is acknowledged from press (Away with the body!, 1942; Notes and Notices, 1942) – and then that it was “not nearly so decomposed” (1942c), indicating it was still decomposed what is also acknowledged in the explaining texts to his sketch (“Head decomposed”, “Fins decomposed”, “Tail decomposed”). In the end, it “showed no signs of rotting. It was absolutely complete. Unmarred” (Welfare & Fairley, 1980).
Initially the carcass showed a “dorsal fin”, a “tail fin”, “two seal-like fins” on the body’s fore-part and “behind these […] two shorter and wider fins (Rankin, 1942a). Finally, “there were no fins”, but “flippers” (1980). Admittedly, while sometimes both terms are used inconsistently, his usage in context seems to distinguish between fish “fins” and non-fish “flippers” what causes a contradiction and remarkably a loss of a mentioned dorsal- and tail fin.
“There appeared to be no bones other than a spinal column” (Rankin, 1942a; Welfare & Fairley, 1980) thus, as mentioned above, there is a lack of further bony skeletal elements like for example bony rips, limbs, limb girdle, tail etc. Instead, the fins/flippers showed “bones”, but of a “gristly, glossy, opaque appearance” (Rankin, 1942a), thus describing most probably cartilaginous elements.

Considering the positive explanation of nearly all descriptions with basking shark anatomy and taphonomy, the remaining evidence in form of a possible ceratotrichia and the consequences of the above risen objections it seems that the most plausible explanation to Charles Rankins account is the option, that the report is a mix of genuine and non-genuine observation. Thus, those features not matching the given identification as basking shark can be dismissed and consequently, the identification from the Greenock Telegraph and the Gourock Times can be acknowledged again: the carcass of 1942 found at Gourock was a highly decayed basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).

Acknowledgements

My deepest thanks to Dr Karl Shuker, Glen Vaudrey, Claire Jaycock, Scott Mardis, Richard Freeman and especially to Betty Hendry, Senior Library Assistant at Watt Library, Morven Donald, Library and Information Assistant at National Museums Scotland and Sarah McLean from the Orkney Library and Archive .

References

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