On a remote Scottish island in summer 2016, the tide washed up four strange carcasses. Grey, blob-like and with an unbearable stench, the carcasses resembled nothing anybody on the island had seen before. Months later, though, the islanders declared that the mystery was solved. But is there more to this story than meets the eye?
The island of Colonsay is part of the Inner Hebrides, an archipelago that sits in the Atlantic Ocean off Scotland’s western coast. With a tiny population – just 124 as of the 2011 census – it enjoys a rather slow pace of life. In fact, most of its income comes from tourists, who visit the island to escape the hustle and bustle of life on the mainland.
In August 2016, however, Colonsay was the setting for a drama of its own. Yes, this was when the island’s residents found four mysterious carcasses on the beach. Apparently, these strange bodies had washed up on the west coast of the island. And the locals grew even more puzzled when they could not identify what animals the remains belonged to.
“They were big lumps that seemed to have hair and limbs, but they were very, very smelly,” islander Kevin Byrne told MailOnline. In fact, the overpowering stench of the carcasses prevented any of the locals from taking a closer look. Instead, they began to speculate from afar.
For instance, some people thought that they were the remains of creatures that lived their lives in the farthest depths of the sea. Others claimed that they saw hooves amid the rotting flesh, starting a rumor that the carcasses were horses that had somehow washed ashore.
So, unable to approach the remains, the locals decided to wait it out. Byrne explained, “They were dragged up away from the beach, and we thought, when they rotted down we’d get a look at the skeleton.” But after three months on land, the carcasses took on a decidedly odd appearance.
Then, as the wind blew away the debris that covered the remains, something closely resembling a pelt of white fur was revealed. And so, on November 12, 2016, the island’s Facebook group, Friends of Colonsay, made a post that posited an explanation for the carcasses. It said it was a family of polar bears.
Local man Colin Flower initially made the claim. “They are three meters long, and you can also make out a head and eye socket now,” he told MailOnline. “I can’t see what else it could be? There’s no other sea creature that has that fur.” Intrigued by the possibility of polar bears in Scotland, news outlets around the world picked up on the story.
Moreover, according to the island’s Facebook page, locals believed that the carcasses belonged to polar bears that had been marooned on a melting ice floe and subsequently drowned. The post went on to speculate that the bears’ untimely fate could have been the result of global warming.
Flower, meanwhile, had another theory as to how the bears could have ended up on Colonsay, around 1,400 miles from their nearest habitat. He said, “If the ice cap is melting, the Arctic will become an open ocean so there will be a change in currents. If the water flowing to the south were to be on the surface, it would be the exact opposite of the existing arrangement, and would explain the bears.”
And although some commenters were quick to point out that polar bears don’t have hooves, the islanders claimed that those who inspected the rotting carcasses had not been able to get close enough to the remains. Consequently, it seemed as if the islanders had solved the mystery. That is, until the experts came in.
The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme is a government organization that documents the animals that wind up stranded on Scotland’s 6,160 miles of coastline. Normally, it deals with cetaceans such as porpoises, dolphins and whales. Seals, turtles, and certain species of shark also come under its usual remit.
Nick Davison, the co-ordinator of the scheme, had a different idea about the identity of the carcasses. In fact, he believed that the white pelt that locals had spotted was merely an illusion created by blubber rotting and taking on a hair-like appearance.
What’s more, it’s apparently not the first time that Davison has seen such a phenomenon. “They are known as blobsters,” he told MailOnline. “It is when the decomposing animal becomes a mass of blubber and strands form that look like fur.”
Davison went on to point out that, unlike polar bears, the carcasses did not have legs and that the animal’s distinctive black skin was not present. He also thought that the heads of the carcasses were completely different to that of a polar bear.
Instead, Davison proposed that the carcasses belonged to an animal much more commonly seen around the west coast of Scotland. “They are not polar bears,” he explained. “They are the remains of another species – cetaceans. Most likely a minke or pilot whale, given the size.”
However, on November 14, Friends of Colonsay published more pictures of one of the carcasses, repeating the claim that it belonged to a polar bear. Meanwhile, representatives from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme were quick to point out their official opinion. Conversely, though, the experts noted that it was unlikely that anyone could achieve a positive identification using DNA.
After all, according to experts, it is difficult to extract DNA even from fresh blubber. And when you have a specimen as decayed as those on Colonsay, extraction becomes nigh-on impossible. Nevertheless, the majority of people seem to have accepted Davison’s identification. Moreover, the Friends of Colonsay announced on November 15 that the carcasses were indeed those of a cetacean.
But it’s not the first time that people have reported seeing phantom polar bears over the Inner Hebrides. Indeed, in 2010, a piece in British publication Country Life claimed that one of the Arctic animals had found its way to the Isle of Mull. However, the piece quickly turned out to be an April Fool’s Day prank.
Back on Colonsay, experts believe that once the skeletons of the carcasses become exposed, they will be able to determine for sure what species of cetacean they belong to. In the meantime, the residents of Colonsay are likely enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.