Mysterious sea monsters that wash ashore are rarely mysterious (and never monsters) | Popular Science
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Mysterious sea monsters that wash ashore are rarely mysterious (and never monsters)

The real weirdos never even make it to land.

purple sea cucumber

An adorable sea blorb that didn't wash ashore, but was instead pulled up from the abyss. You'd never find something this cute decomposing on the beach.

Asher Flatt

The ocean is a mystery and all that stuff. It’s a wild stallion to be ridden, it’s a woman to be bedded, it’s whatever trite metaphor you remember from an old timey book written by a man who didn’t really understand stallions or women. We can’t seem to shake this idea that the sea is a writhing, unfathomable mass filled with peculiar creatures never before seen.

So every time some blob washes ashore, we all want it to be shrouded in watery mystery. What is this weird squishy thing on the beach? It must be a hitherto unknown creature! It couldn’t possibly be something ordinary, even though most of us have no idea what the majority of the ocean’s inhabitants look like and have no reason to think we can ID a new species. It’s just too kooky lookin’ to be boring!

The truth is, almost everything that washes up on beaches is nothing new. Take the ‘horrifying sea monster’ that emerged in Texas. Turns out it was just a fangtooth snake-eel. And yeah, that sounds a little monstrous, but don’t hate on eels. They might be slimy and toothy—that doesn’t make them monsters. They’re just...misunderstood.

It’s the same story for every sea blob. The massive thing that came ashore in Indonesia? Baleen whale. Another big blorb near a small island in the Philippines? Also a whale. A flesh-eating creature skulking in the Australian shallows? Sea fleas. Fleshy hunk of unidentified jelly? Thought at first to be an octopus, but actually turned out to be some sperm whale skin. Enormous flat fish? Okay, that one was pretty straightforward. It was an enormous flat oarfish.

They all just look gross because they’ve been tossed around and chomped on. The ocean can polish glass and reduce stones to sand—it can certainly gloop-ify once-sturdy fishes, too. By the time they come ashore, often after major storms, of course they look disgusting. They are disgusting. But monsters? Nah. Like wolf spiders or dung beetles, they’ve just evolved to fit a niche.

And the niche-iest of all sea creatures don’t even make it ashore most of the time. They stay hidden at the blackest bottoms of the world’s oceans. Until we drag them up, that is. These are the real mysteries—the organisms that we just can’t reach most of the time. Abyssal animals can even look blobby while they’re still alive. No one can see down there anyway, so what’s the point in having flashy scales when you could look like this?

blind cusk eel

A lovely blind cusk eel. Why, what were you thinking?

CSIRO ANFC

Faceless fish

Asher Flatt/CSIRO

Yeah, they look upsetting. But they’re just actually amazing. These things have evolved to live at intense pressures in the cold, dark depths of the ocean—and they’re great at it. That’s a hard life, but they go about their gloopy business because that’s what life on Earth is really about: surviving. Eels and oarfish and whales are doing the same thing, only sometimes they wash up on our shores where we so rudely call them monsters. Your body would look pretty awful if it got battered by waves and salt too, so show some respect. Call a whale a whale and a fish a fish. But always call a bryozoan a dragon booger—it’s technically accurate, after all.

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