expedition report 2002

Richard and Sarah Burdon (Champion Newspapers) explore the lake

In late July the CFZ carried out an investigation into the strangest story to filter out of Lancashire in years. In February many reliable witnesses, all seasoned bird watchers, saw overwintering swans being attacked and dragged underwater by some powerful unseen predator at Martin Mere bird reserve. Luckily all the birds managed to fight off the aquatic assailant and make it to shore. One however had its wing feathers so badly bitten that it could not migrate to Iceland in the summer and remained on the Mere. The 50,000+ swans and geese were so spooked that they left the Mere on several occasions.

Sarah Burdon with Jill the Education Officer from Martin Mere

Fearing a hoax we rang the Mere and spoke to the chief warden Pat Wisniewski who confirmed the odd yarn and had even seen some immense animal swimming in the Mere. Pat welcomed the idea of a CFZ investigation. Hence Jon Downes, Graham Inglis, Richard Freeman, and new addition John Fuller took the 300 mile plus trip to track this titan from the abyss in its inky watered lair. We intended to sweep the lake with an electronic fish finder and attempt to bait the animal to the surface and hopefully photograph and identify it. We agreed that a giant wels catfish was the most likely candidate. A pike would need to be exceptionally large to attack a swan and would have probably left lacerations with its teeth, unlike the sucking bite of the catfish.

Richard and John Fuller survey the lake

Pat turned out to be one of the very nicest blokes we have met. Anyone who includes Dr Who, HP Lovecraft and Hawkwind amongst his likes must be a good egg. He had arranged for us to sleep in the Rains hide overlooking the deepest part of the Mere. Though the Mere was very beautiful our hearts fell as we walked around it on the evening of our arrival. The Mere was shallow, muddy and only a few hundred feet across. Richard especially doubted that it could support a large predator. By 9.30 that night he was eating his words.

The Lake at Sunset

Whilst walking around the Mere`s edge Richard came upon a massive fish basking in the shallows. It`s black,oily, scaleless back bore a small dorsal fin . Disturbed the massive animal made off and dove in a tremendous swirl to reappear briefly further out close to a small island.. It dove again in amidst a huge disturbance. It`s length was hard to estimate as only the back broke the surface but if it was attacking swans the team agreed it would have to be around 8 feet long.

Next day the dinghy, "Waterhorse" (named after Tim Dinsdale's boat), was inflated and the fish finder deployed to gauge the depth of the Mere. In summer the depth is far less than winter. Many areas of the Mere were only 18 inches or so deep and badly silted up. A couple of areas, including were the sighting had occurred, were deeper.

Does a giant fish live beneath these tranquil waters

Graham set out to map the lake and it`s islands as this had not been done in detail before. We intended to make a 3d map of the Mere`s depth as well. This was swiftly abandoned after the second sighting that took place in the same place as the first. At 11 am Richard saw the fish again. This time it was just beneath the surface. It threw it`s elongate body into a violent "s" shaped curve and thrashed the water as it disappeared. The description fitted none of the fish known to be resident in the Mere but recalled a wels.

Tim Matthews and Jon Downes plot world domination by the lakeside

The wels, sheetfish or European catfish (Silurus glanis) is indigenous to continental Europe east of the river Rhine; it appears to be particularly common in eastern Europe, especially in the basin of the river Danube. It has a slimy, scaleless, elongated body and a broad, flat head with a wide mouth. Writing in Naturalised Animals of the British Isles Sir Christopher Lever notes that it has a "distinctly sinister appearance". He goes on to describe the creature in some depth:

"The head, back and sides are usually some shade of greenish-black spotted with olive-green, and the underside is yellowy-white, with an indistinct blackish marbling; the head and back may sometimes be a deep velvety black and the sides occasionally take on a bronzy sheen. Two long barbels depending from the upper jaw, and four short ones from the lower jaw, help to give the catfish its name. There is no adipose fin, but an enormously elongated anal fin: a tiny dorsal fin is situated half-way between the bases of the pectoral and pelvic fins. The largest authenticated wels, taken from the river Dnieper in the Ukraine in the southern U.S.S.R., measured over 16 ft (5 m) in length and weighed 675 lb (306 kg); elsewhere in Europe and in England, however, the wels seldom exceeds 5 ft (152 cm) in length and 25 lb (I 1 kg) in weight."

Martin Mere (Our dinghy the waterhorse in the foregrouns

The wels is a solitary fish. It lives mostly in the still, deoxygenated waters of lakes, marshes and lagoons, but can also be found in the lower reaches and backwaters of slow-flowing rivers. Unusually for a catfish it is tolerant of both heavy industrial pollution and salt water and is found naturaly in the brackish water of certain parts of the Black and Baltic Seas. Wels are nocturnal, choosing to feed after dark. They are voracious predators, especially when adults. Lever lists prey species as including: "turbot, bream, crayfish, eels, frogs, roach, tench, ducklings, goslings and occasionally water-voles.".

David and Estelle Walsh who witnessed the first attack on a swan

They have even been reported as man-eaters. Lever cites an authority called Valenciennes (presumably the eminent 19th Century Ichthyologist) as saying: "In the year 1700, on the 3rd of July, a countryman took one near Thorn for Torun, Poland] which had the entire body of an infant in its stomach'. Lever also quotes someone called Grossinger (whom I have been unable to identify further) as saying that a Hungarian fisherman discovered the corpse of a woman in another 'having a marriage ring on her finger and a purse full of money at her girdle'.

The evidence available to us leads us to conclude that the giant fish may have been introduced to Lancashire by Frank Buckland of the Acclimatisation Society after his visit to Southport in the 1870s. Full details of this and the other evidemnce which has led us to this conclusion can be found in Jon`s forthcoming book on the expedition. After this the mapping of the Mere`s depth was abandoned to concentrate on the area we believed to be the monster`s lair. We set up a rope between the shore and a small island. From this we dangled the fish finder's transducer into the water and set up the display screen on land. John Fuller kept watch with a camera and we baited the area heavily.

Jon inputs data into his laptop at the expedition base

Firstly we used duck pellets, which were roundly ignored. Later we tried bait balls made from corn beef and sardines (our staple diet for the mission). Still the monster did not rise. Finally the cadaver of a dead lapwing was employed but even this mouth-watering morsel could not tempt the beast. However four large soma contacts were recorded by John Fuller over the next few days.

During the course of the next few days Graham completed a map of the lakeshore and islands and we carried out over 60 interviews with media from around both the country and the world including Radio Free Iran! The media circus reached it`s zenith with several live broadcasts on Sky News.

John Fuller and Tim Matthews

Though we did not photograph the monster we confirmed it`s existence and are confident that it is infact a wels catfish.We also filmed they eyewitness testimonies of many of the birdwatchers who saw the attacks including Pat himself.

On return to Exeter we called on by GMTV within 24 hours. They paid for us to return to the Mere for a live broadcast. They set up underwater cameras (next to useless in the pitch waters of the Mere) and interviewed us throughout the morning. At one point something large broke the surface of the water behind the presenter but this may have been a large carp. Nothing further was gleaned on this extra day at the Mere.

L-R Alexandra Matthews; Tim Matthews; Jon Downes; Richard Freeman; John Fuller
(Sarah had gone home and Graham was taking the picture)

If the monster causes as much disruption this winter as it did over the last Pat is considering calling us in again to net the beast and move it to a smaller pool not used by overwintering waterfowl. The beast has become quite a tourist attraction upping the numbers of visitors to the Mere. In the tradition of giving lake and sea monsters awful names, the CFZ have christened Martin Mere`s monster "Marty".

Jon`s book The Monster of the Mere will be published by cfz publications later in the year