May 19, 2017 I Micah Hanks

The Mystery of the Gambian Sea Monster: Dolphin, Whale, or Something Else?

There are a lot odd things found adrift in our oceans. From the "continent-sized" swarms of accumulated plastic debris floating adrift in the Pacific Ocean, to mystery carcasses like the recent Indonesian "Globster", which made headlines for initially being mistaken as possible remains of a giant squid (it was later determined to be a decomposed whale carcass).

Occasionally, due to lack of proper sampling or record keeping, there are remains of animals which, unlike our unfortunate Indonesian cetacean, are not so easily identified as whales or other species. One particularly notable instance involved the so-called "Gambo" creature, which was reportedly discovered on a Gambian beach in 1983.

Although no photographs or other documentation were produced that confirm, without question, that the creature actually ever existed, drawings of the creature were procured at the time by 15-year-old Owen Burnham, who drew what essentially resembled a cross between an alligator, and some variety of dolphin (in fact, locals described the creature as most closely resembling a dolphin).

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Drawings based on the description of "Gambo" given by Owen Burnham.

Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker, on the other hand, likened Burnham's descriptions of the alleged animal to a pliosaur, an extinct variety of short-necked plesiosaur. Writing for Strange Magazine in 1995, Karl Shuker described the discovery of the creature thusly:

On June 12, 1983, wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham, who has spent much of his life in West Africa, and is very familiar with its wildlife, discovered (in the presence of some members of his family) a very remarkable carcass on Gambia's Bungalow Beach. It measured 15-16 ft. long, had black upperparts and much paler underparts, a long pair of jaws containing 80 teeth, a pair of nostrils at the tip of the upper jaw, and two pairs of flippers. As whales and dolphins have dorsal blowholes rather than terminal nostrils, and only a front pair of flippers (they lost their hind pair during evolution), it could not have been any modern-day form of cetacean. What was truly exceptional concerning this carcass, however, was that it had not begun to decompose externally. Indeed, except for the fact that one hind flipper had almost been torn away, there was no outward sign of damage to it.

Owen Burnham has since corresponded with the present author in detail regarding this case, providing a great amount of information. The remarkable fact that emerges is that only two types of animal resemble the carcass he saw--both of which officially died out more than 60 million years ago! One is a pliosaur--a short-necked form of plesiosaur; the other is a sea crocodile or thallatosuchian. As Owen Burnham is an extremely reliable, knowledgeable eyewitness, and was not alone when he encountered and examined the carcass, the case of the Gambian sea serpent would seem to offer some of the most provocative evidence currently available in support of the scientifically undiscovered, modern-day existence of one group of prehistoric reptiles!

Perhaps the most interesting descriptive component to Owen Burnham's account involved the pair of flippers the creature supposedly had, as this might have truly distinguished the creature from known species of dolphins and other cetaceans. However, despite the "evidence" it seemed to provide of what resembled an extinct reptile species, the biggest problem with the Gambo story is that, unlike other "mystery" carcasses, no remains of this animal were ever photographed, nor were they recovered subsequently from the proposed burial site.

Another strange addenda to the Gambo affair tells that the creature's head was severed shortly after its discovery, and sold to a tourist or collector. The mouth of the creature, which, as Owen Burnham describes, contained 80 teeth, was described by those who saw it as "beak-like", which might account for why villagers referred to the bloated carcass as having belonged to some form of dolphin (further, this makes the assertions that it had been an extinct reptile rather unusual).

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A variety of beaked whale, Mesoplodon densirostris, also known as Blainville's beaked whale. Could "Gambo" have been something similar?

Had there truly been such an animal found along the Gambian coast in 1983, and if so, what was the creature most likely to be, if it existed at all? Based on descriptions, the creature seemed to most closely resemble a dolphin or whale, although its physical characteristics differed from any known species. It is worth noting that in late 2016, a new species of whale was discovered, following the discovery of an unusual carcass on an Alaskan beach. Japanese legends had previously told of a dark colored, beaked whale, though no particular associations had been made between the alleged beast and any modern identifiable species. Upon discovery of the Alaskan "mystery carcass," questions about the creature led to the discovery that a set of bones on display at a nearby educational center also belonged to this variety of whale, which was soon determined to be a newly discovered species.

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The Alaskan "mystery" whale.

"In the last 200 years, humans have scoured what we think to be every corner of the surface of the ocean, and yet somehow there has been this mystery whale out there," marine ecologist Michelle Ridgeway told CNN in an interview about the discovery.

Could it be that the Gambian "serpent" hadn't been a reptile at all, but instead some similar variety of mystery cetacean lurking out there in our oceans? We found one within the last year, after all... perhaps there are others out there still awaiting discovery.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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