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You've Been Trunkoed!

South Africa's mystery critter identified


Illustration by Rene Follet.


Back in early September 2010 (see FT268:19), I and German coll­eague Markus Hemmler jointly solved one of the most perplexing of all cryptozoological mysteries by revealing, almost 86 years after the remarkable events surrounding it had taken place, the much-speculated identity of Trunko and discovering no fewer than three hitherto unpublicised photographs of its beached carcase.

This truly bizarre entity (which I light-heartedly dubbed ‘Trunko’ in my 1996 book The Unexplained, never suspecting for a moment that this would ultimately become universally adopted as its formal name) was of course the infamous white-furred, proboscis-endowed sea monster from the early 1920s that had allegedly battled two whales out to sea at Margate, in Natal, South Africa, before its lifeless carcase had washed ashore on Margate’s beach. There it had remained for 10 days before being carried back out by the tide, without ever having been examined by scientists or even photographed, and never to be seen by anyone ever again. That, at least, had long been the official Trunko story.

However, in uncovering Trunko’s identity and the photos, Markus and I also discovered that almost everything that had been written about this surreal specimen in the cryptozoological literature was wrong. Indeed, to put it bluntly, for the past 80-odd years, cryptid investigators everywhere had been well and truly Trunkoed! So now, for the very first time anywhere, here is the true, complete history of Trunko – or as true (or complete) as anything regarding such a creature of contradict­ion can ever be.

Even the year when Trunko made its famous debut had formerly been unclear. The most commonly cited date for its whale battle and subsequent beaching had been November 1922 (or sometimes even as precise a date as 1 November 1922 – as in Living Wonders by John Michell and Robert Rickard, for example). However, several other dates had also been claimed. According to veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, for instance, the Trunko saga had occurred sometime prior to 1 November 1922. Conversely, a London Daily Mail report of 27 December 1924 gave the date in question as 25 October 1924 (quoted wrongly as 26 October 1924 by Charles Fort in 1931 in his book Lo!). Mid-November 1924 was yet another date cited, this time in a Wide World Magazine article of August 1925 that consisted for the most part of a detailed account of Trunko penned by Johannesburg photographer AK Jones.

Moreover, it was our very discovery in September 2010 of that long-overlooked article containing Jones’s account and two of his three equally neglected published photographs that enabled me to identify Trunko. For until then, no one had realised that any photographs, or Jones’s first-hand eyewitness account and examination of this entity, existed. The cryptozoological world had only been able to speculate blindly concerning its identity and history.

Before presenting the principal text of Jones’s rediscovered report, however, let us first examine three key Trunko accounts that have collectively yielded what until now had been widely considered to be the standard version of events.

First and foremost of these is the report referred to by Fort that had appeared on 27 December 1924 in the Daily Mail. This classic account contains many of the basic elements of the Trunko saga’s standard version:


“On the morning of October 25 I saw what I took to be two whales fighting with some sea monster about 1,300 yards from the shore. I got my glasses, and was surprised to see an animal which resembled a Polar bear, but in size was equal to an elephant. This object I observed to back out of the water fully 20ft and strike repeatedly at the two whales, but with seemingly no effect.” This is an extract from a letter sent to a Natal newspaper by Mr HC Ballance, Margate Estate, South Coast, Natal.


The letter continues:

“After an hour the whales made off and the incoming tide brought the monster within sight, and I saw that the body was covered with hair 8in. long, exactly like a polar bear’s, and snow white.”

Next morning, Mr Ballance found the carcase lying high on the beach. He meas­ured it and found it was 47ft from tip to tail. The tail was 10ft long and 2ft wide [3m by 60cm], and where the head should have been the creature had a sort of trunk 14 inches in diameter and about 5ft long, the end being like the snout of a pig. The backbone was very prominent, and the whole body covered with snow-white hair.

“For 10 days,” continues Mr Ballance, “this mass lay inert. On the eleventh day there was not a sign of the creature.

“I met some natives who told me that while fishing they had seen the monster out at sea, going up the coast, and that is the last we have seen of it.”

Coincidentally, the end of the Mail report was followed by a brief mention of another titanic sea-battle spied off the Natal coast at around the same time as Trunko’s and previously reported in the Mail on 16 December 1924. However, this confrontation featured a whale and a giant squid, whose tentacles were clearly observed when it was later washed ashore. (Nevertheless, that incident has been confused with the Trunko case in some published coverage of the latter.)

The only major discrepancy in this early report from the modern-day standard vers­ion of the Trunko saga is its intimation that Trunko had not died, but that after being beached for 10 days had made its way back out to sea. However, this was not observed by Ballance, merely claimed by some locals who spoke to him about the creature. Also, the Mail’s wording is sufficiently imprecise to lend an alternat­ive interpretation – i.e. that Trunko was merely being carried up the coast passively, by the sea – were it not for the unambiguous subtitle: “Escape After 10 Days’ Sleep”.

Having said that, some much later newspaper accounts have even alleged not only that Trunko wasn’t killed by the whales but, rather, that the whales were killed by Trunko! However, as will be seen, none of the key Trunko accounts includes such a dramatically conflicting claim – which can instead be satisfactorily discounted as mere journalistic hyperbole.

Ballance’s account was summarised and repeated in many subsequent media reports worldwide during the following 12 months or so, but not everybody accepted its veracity. Fort was particularly sceptical. After devoting just two sentences to the Mail report, he dismissed the entire subject as follows: “I won’t go into this, because I consider it a worthless yarn. In accordance with my methods, considering this a foolish and worthless yarn, I sent out letters to South African newspapers, calling upon readers, who could, to investigate this story. Nobody answered.”

The second key Trunko account was by Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, who documented this seemingly unclassifiable marine creat­ure in his seminal tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968). Curiously, however, Heuvelmans’s account and the Daily Mail’s disagreed on a number of important issues, and Heuvelmans’s source for Ballance’s testimony was a report in an unnamed South African newspaper, not the London paper’s report:

On 1 November 1922, three years after he bought the farm of Margate in Natal which has since become the seaside resort of that name, Hugh Ballance told the South African press a very strange tale:

“I saw what I took to be two whales fighting with some sea monster about 1,300 yards from the shore. I got my glasses and was amazed to see what I took to be a polar bear, but of truly mammoth proportions. This creature I observed to rear out of the water fully twenty feet and to strike repeatedly with what I took to be its tail at the two whales, but with seemingly no effect.”

A gigantic Polar Bear with a tail long enough to use as a whip is clearly no ordinary bear – especially as the Polar Bear is never found in the southern hemisphere – it is also something quite new even for the most incorrig­ible of sea-serpent hunters.

The battle lasted three hours and was watched by crowds on the shore, after which the two whales made off, leaving the monster floating lifeless on the surface.

The next night the tide threw the great carcase on the beach. It was described thus by TV Bulpin in his book,
Your Undiscovered Country [1965], about the beauties of South Africa:

“It was certainly a giant of a creature, forty-seven feet long, ten feet in breadth and five feet high. At one end it had a trunk-like appendage about fourteen inches in diameter and five feet long. The creature was covered in snow-white hair and seemed to be devoid of blood.”

This incredible carcase lay on the beach for ten days. Many people came to stare at it. But no zoologist took the trouble to examine and identify it before the spring tide washed it away, for it has never been classified.

Heuvelmans’s account introduced several elements that subsequently became fundamental components of the standard version of the Trunko saga. (Some of these, moreover, contradicted – and directly replaced – their respective, earlier equivalents in Ballance’s testimony.)

Namely: the change of Trunko’s date of appearance from Ballance’s claim of 25 October 1924 to an unspecified date prior to 1 November 1922 (even though it is evident from the Mail report of 27 December 1924 that Ballance’s sighting had taken place in October of that same year, not two years earlier); additional dimensions of the beached carcase, and its apparent lack of blood; the claim that the carcase attracted no scientific interest or examination; and, most significant of all, the statement that it was lifeless and was finally washed back out to sea by the tide (rather than being still alive and making its own way out to sea, as ostensibly claimed by the locals who had spoken to Balance).

But were any of these marked deviations from Ballance’s statement correct? Not until our own discoveries took place in September 2010 could this query be answered.

The third key Trunko account was by South African writer and illustrator Penny Miller in her book Myths and Legends of Southern Africa (1979). Although her coverage of events included the version of Ballance’s testimony quoted by Heuvel­mans, it gave the date of Trunko’s appearance and beaching as 1 November 1922 (rather than prior to 1 November 1922). However, far from repeating Ball­ance’s claim that this entity did not die but made its own way back out to sea, Miller’s account reiterated Heuvelmans’s statement that it was washed up dead onto Margate’s beach, and specified that the actual site was beyond the aptly-named Tragedy Hill. In addition, Miller’s became the first key account to emphasise the stench of decomposition:

As recently as 1922 a dead monster was washed up on the golden beach of Margate. It was a nine-day wonder until the hot weather accelerated decomposition and the stench made its weird bulk unapproachable… For ten days it lay on the beach; even a span of 32 oxen failed to move it! The stench became more and more putrid until finally, the spring tide had pity on the inhabitants of Margate, and overnight the carcass vanished, leaving nothing behind but a cloud of myst­ery and speculation.

Miller’s book also saw the debut of her now-iconic, frequently-reproduced/adapted line drawing of a huge, hairy, limbless, elephant-trunked creature lying dead on the shore with a couple of onlookers standing beside it.

This, then, was the trio of key accounts from which the modern-day standard version of the Trunko saga had evolved, resulting in all manner of speculation (not to mention a rich diversity of imagin­ative illustrations) relative to the possible existence (or otherwise) somewhere in the vast oceans of a still-undiscovered, yet zoologically inconceivable, species of sea creature resembling an enormous hairy polar bear, yet sporting the trunk of an elephant, but with no recognisable head, and a conspicuous absence of limbs. Or, to put it another way, a beast so outlandish that nothing even remotely similar was known either from the present day or from the fossil record.

But now, allowing us to compare and contrast with those key accounts, it is time to unveil AK Jones’s extremely informative and enlightening first-hand report of the Trunko carcase as directly examined and photographed by him. Published in the August 1925 issue of Wide World Magazine but inexplicably overlooked afterwards for more than eight decades, it provides a wealth of morphological details as well as a previously unreported claim that after the carcase had been washed out to sea following 10 days’ lying on the beach, it was subsequently washed ashore again.

Before I present his description of the carcase, however, I should point out that Jones’s account began with a short summ­ary of Trunko’s offshore battle and its subsequent beaching, but that the dates given by him for these events were only approximate – yet very intriguing. He gave the date of Trunko’s beaching as “about the middle of November last” (i.e. mid-November 1924), and the date of Trunko’s whale battle as “about three weeks previously” (i.e. the last week of October 1924). The latter date thereby corresponds with Ball­ance’s testimony in the Daily Mail report. However, Jones’s account is the only one to claim that a time period of about three weeks had elapsed between the battle and the beaching. All others had claimed that the beaching took place just hours after the battle.

A second noteworthy discrepancy was Jones’s claim that “…a terrific struggle had been witnessed out at sea by residents of Margate, between what they took to be a whale and some other animal which they could not clearly distinguish”. Again, Jones’s account is the only one to claim the involvement of just one whale, and also that Trunko was not clearly discernible by its shore-based observers (though this might explain a lot!).

So is Jones’s account the correct one in either or both of these instances? Alternatively, can its unexpected discrepancies with all other key accounts be safely ascribed to nothing more mysterious than an imperfect recollection by Jones of events that he had not personally experienced, and which in any case had occurred and been reported by the media a full year before he had got around to writing about them himself? As yet, we simply do not know.

However, what we do know, and what is much more important anyway, is what he did experience personally – the beached Trunko carcase:

About the middle of December [1924] it was discovered that the monster had been washed up a second time, and was now lying on the rocks about three miles farther up the coast. I happened to be spending a holiday at Margate at the time, and secured three photo­graphs of the creature, taken from different angles. No one here is able to identify it, but perhaps some of your scientific readers may be able to throw some light on its identity.

As the photographs clearly show, the monster is covered with slimy hair about four or five inches long, under which lies what I should take to be a very tough hide. The whole thing has the appearance of a huge sheepskin that has been thoroughly soaked. The body seems to be composed of extremely firm flesh; there is little ‘give’ in it when poked with a stick. There are probably bones in the monster, but no actual bone can be felt, as the whole thing is so firm that even if there is bone it cannot be distinguished by touch. However, I should say that there is a bony framework, or else the hollow which runs the whole length of the back, clearly shown in the first photograph, would not still be so clearly defined as it is, considering the rough handling to which it must have been subjected by the sea.

At one end there is a round lump about two feet in diameter, which might be taken for a head, but there are neither eyes, mouth, ears, nor anything else visible. There are, moreover, no limbs, flappers, tentacles, tail, or any other features which would help to identify it. The measurements are as foll­ows: About fifteen feet long, six feet broad, and two feet thick. The carcass, at the moment of writing, has already begun to decompose, and there can be little doubt that it is composed of flesh of some sort. Probably, if it is allowed to rot and the skeleton becomes visible, it will be poss­ible to identify it by this means.

It’s worth noting here that whereas Jones stated that the carcase lacked a tail, Ball­ance’s description of it as quoted in the Mail report referred specifically to a 10ft-long tail (another newspaper even described the tail as lobster-like). As Ballance had viewed the carcase when it was originally beached, however, whereas Jones had only viewed it after it had been re-beached, the tail had probably dropped off during the carcase’s intervening period at sea. Supporting this theory is Jones’s failure to include any mention of Trunko’s eponymous proboscis either, which therefore must also have been lost by then, explaining why the carcase was now much smaller than when viewed earlier by Ballance.

Jones ended his article by speculating that an underwater earthquake that had been recorded near Margate just before Trunko’s appearance may have perhaps dislodged this entity from the ocean-bed and thrown it up to the surface of the sea, in a manner similar to what had occurred some time previously when a sea monster had been washed ashore on South America’s east coast following a nearby seaquake. (Interestingly, it is certainly plausible that the Margate seaquake was responsible for the surfacing, sighting, and subsequent whale battle off the Natal coast of the giant squid – normally a deepwater species – noted by the Mail at the end of its Trunko report.)

In his account, Jones noted that he took three photos of the Trunko carcase. Two were published alongside his account, but it was the third photo, the one that didn’t appear there, which initiated the chain of discoveries made by Markus and me last autumn that finally unmasked Trunko. I have already described these in detail in my ShukerNature blog posts and my Alien Zoo report, but they can be summarised and updated here as follows.

In early September 2010, Markus drew my attention to a page devoted to Trunko on the website of the Margate Business Association (MBA).

Uploaded on 19 October 2009 and entit­led “The Legend of Trunco” [sic], much of its information was nothing new, and not entirely accurate either. However, there were two very notable exceptions. One was a brief extract from a letter about Trunko by Johannesburg photographer AC [sic] Jones – who was also credited there as the author of a Wide World Magazine article on Trunko from July 1925 (in fact, August 1925). And the other, to our great astonishment, was a black-and-white photograph snapped by Jones of Trunko’s beached carcase!

Moreover, I was shocked to realise that I’d already seen an extremely similar image. The Mail report of 27 December 1924 documenting Ballance’s eyewitness testimony had contained a very small sketch of a long but largely featureless white carcase on a beach with the silhouette of a human figure standing in front of the carcase at its extreme left-hand end, looking down at it, with one arm outstretched. This sketch had simply been labelled “A sea monster”, and so provided no hint that it might be directly related to the Trunko report. However, looking at Jones’s photo of the Trunko carcase, it was immediately obvious that the sketch had been based directly on this photo as every discernible detail was the same: the carcase’s shape and pale colour, the skyline, the precise location, shape, and orientation of the human figure, even the angle of its outstretched arm.

This was clearly no coincidence, and as Jones had snapped his photos during the same month, December 1924, as the Mail report had been published, I can only assume that the Mail had somehow seen this particular Jones photo somewhere and had prepared a sketched vers­ion of it for inclusion. Confirmation of this notion may well exist in a statement on the MBA’s Trunko page that Jones’s Trunko account had been published not only in the Wide World Magazine but also in the Rand Daily Mail (a Johannesburg newspaper).

No date of publication was mentioned for this Rand Daily Mail report (which no doubt included Jones’s photos as well as his account), and neither Markus nor I have so far been able to trace it. However, if this report had been published prior to the publication of the London Daily Mail’s own, separate Trunko story (which is more than likely, given the much greater newsworthiness of a South African sea monster to a South African newspaper than to a London one), then it well may be that the Rand Daily Mail report would have been seen by at least a few reporters and artists at London’s Daily Mail. In turn, this may conceivably have inspired the latter newspaper to produce its own Trunko report, complete with a sketch of a photo from the Rand Daily Mail’s version.

What the photo of the Trunko carcase shows bears a striking resemblance to classic hairy ‘globsters’ reported from beaches all over the world down through the decades. The zoological identity of these huge, amorphous, hairy masses form­erly incited considerable controversy in scientific circles, but recent DNA analyses of tissue samples taken from various specimens have confirmed that a globster is merely a massive, tough skin-sac of blubber containing collagen (and occasionally an isolated bone or two) that is sometimes left behind when a whale dies and its skull and skeleton have separated from the skin and sunk to the sea bottom. Moreover, its external surface is usually covered in exposed connective tissue fibres that resemble pale, shaggy, scraggy hair or fur, and there is no trace of blood as this has long since drained or been washed away.

Despite numerous attempts, Markus and I had both failed to elicit any reply from the MBA concerning this remarkable photograph. Consequently, the only way to determine whether it was a genuine image of the Trunko carcase was to locate Jones’s Wide World Magazine article, and see if it contained this or any further photos (or at least a detailed description) of the carcase. Happily, in just four days Markus and I had independently succeeded in doing precisely that. There before us were the two additional Jones photos and his in-depth description, which confirmed beyond a shadow of doubt that the Trunko carcase had indeed been a globster. As for its famous trunk, this was probably an isolated bone encased in blubber (or else a long tubular evagination of blubber; possibly even the remains of a throat pleat if the pre-globsterised whale had been a baleen species).

But as this meant that it had never been alive in the sense of being an exotic, trunk-bearing, snowy-furred mystery beast, how could its lively sea battle with the two whales be explained?

In fact, long before I had discovered Jones’s photos and article, I had documented what I believed to be the answer to this riddle. While preparing the Trunko section for my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), I had come across a meticulous examination of the Trunko phenomenon undertaken and posted by American cryptozoological investigator Lance Bradshaw on his Krypt­id’s Keep website.

In his account, Lance had postulated that the Trunko battle could be reasonably explained as an optical illusion. That is, observers on the shore looking some distance out to sea thought that they were watching some bizarre furry mega-beast battling two whales, but what they were really seeing was two whales repeatedly throwing into the air a huge but already dead carcase, playing with it in an animated manner already on record for cert­ain cetaceans (particularly killer whales, which are indeed native to South Africa’s coast). It is even possible (as I’ve already proposed for the Daily Mail-reported giant squid) that this carcase had originally been propelled from the sea depths up to the surface by the recent Margate seaquake mentioned by Jones.

And now, with our discovery that Trunko as a living snowy-furred, trunk-sporting cryptid had never existed, and in reality had been nothing more than a long-dead, globsterised whale carcase, Lance’s theory had finally been confirmed. Needless to say, this also explained why the body of a supposedly battle-scarred, fatally-wounded cryptid had not been pouring (or at least copiously stained) with blood.

And so, finally, the true history of Trunko would appear to be that in late October 1924, various onlookers present on Margate’s beach had observed at least one whale (but most probably two) some distance out to sea boisterously playing with a globsterised whale carcase that was later washed ashore onto the beach. There it lay for 10 days, decomposing very odiferously before being carried out to sea by the tide, then washed ashore again in December 1924, where it was closely observed, photographed, and examined by AK Jones before the tide took it back out, after which it was not seen again.

Moreover, while investigating Trunko, Markus also solved a longstanding mystery concerning the identity and whereabouts of a smaller but no less intriguing white-furred, long-snouted sea monster carcase. Discovered washed ashore on Alaska’s desolate Glacier Island, the discovery date of this ‘Son of Trunko’ was traditionally thought to have been November 1936, but was later found to have been 10 November 1930. And after it had been examined by a scientific team, cryptozoologists had traditionally assumed that the creature’s remains had not been preserved and that its zoological identity remained a mystery. Markus, however, discovered not only that it had been formally identified, as a minke whale Balaeonoptera acutorostrata, but also that its complete skeleton had eventually been donated to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where it remains to this day, officially labelled as USNM 256498.

As for Margate’s erstwhile cryptozoo­logical mega-star: Trunko would not of course be Trunko without leaving behind some still-unanswered questions. In parti­cular, how can the notable discrepancies between the details in Ballance’s account and those in Heuvelmans’s be explained? Having said that, however, now that Trunko has been conclusively exposed as a globster, it is evident that Ballance’s claim that it made its own way out to sea again after having been beached earlier was nonsense. For almost a century, it may indeed have acquired the mystique of a veritable maritime mirabilis, but even the indefatigable Trunko was incapable of resurrecting itself from the dead!

I wish to thank most sincerely Lance Bradshaw, Markus Bühler, Jonathan Downes, Richard Holland, Tim Morris, Richard Muirhead, Michael Newton, Mark North, Spencer Thrower, and, above all others, Markus Hemmler, for their much-valued assistance and encouragement during my Trunko investigations.

Anon: “Fish like a polar bear. A fight with two whales. Escape after 10 days’ sleep”, D.Mail, 27 Dec 1924.
Lance Bradshaw: “What about Trunko?” Kryptid’s Keep.
TV Bulpin: Your Undiscovered Country, TV Bulpin, Cape Town, 1965.
Charles Fort: Lo! Charles Kendall, 1931.
Markus Hemmler,: “Trunko-Recherche: Übersicht des Aktuellen Stands”, Kryptozoologie-Online, 10 Sept 2010.
Bernard Heuvelmans: In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958.
AK Jones: “The case for the sea-serpent. A remarkable batch of ‘sequels’”, Wide World Magazine, 55 No. 2, Aug 1925, pp304–5.
Dixie Lambert: “‘Sea monster’ discovery on Glacier Island the buzz of old Cordova”, Cordova Times, 2 May 2008.
John Michell & Robert JM Rickard: Living Wonders, Thames & Hudson, 1982.
Penny Miller: Myths and Legends of Southern Africa, TV Bulpin, Cape Town, 1979.
Karl PN Shuker: The Unexplained. Carlton, 1996; From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings, Llewellyn, St Paul, 1997; Extraordinary Animals Revisited, CFZ Press, Bideford, 2007; Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times, CFZ Press, Bideford, 2010; numerous entries at http://karlshuker.blogspot.com.

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Trunko - jones

Photos by AK Jones, from Wide World Magazine.
AK Jones c.1924

  Trunko - miller

Penny Miller' sketch, from Myths and Legends of South Africa (1979).

Trunko - carcas

AK Jones's photo, published in the Rand Daily Mail.
AK Jones c.1924

  Trunko - buhler

A reconstruction by Markus Buhler.
Markus Buhler

Author Biography
Dr Karl Shuker is a long-time regular Fortean Times contributor and the author of many books on cryptozoology and other fortean topics. Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo was published by CFZ Books in 2010.


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