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Sun 27 Feb 2005
The mermaid of Chennai hoax
Category : education
"Mermaid or Man-made?" By Sandra Leong, The Sunday Times, 27 Feb 2005.
In an article about Urban legends, visiting researcher Bella Galil and Peter Ng get roped in to unravel a hoax email.
Mermaid or Man-made?
A dead mermaid was washed onto a Chennai beach after the Dec 26 tsunami. True or false?
THE plight of desperate sailors must have been a terrible one. Legend has it that in the 17th and 18th centuries, seamen on long and treacherous voyages became so sex-starved that they started seeing beautiful half-human, half-fish creatures that beckoned amid the sea spray.
These mermaids or mermen - depending on their gender - were also documented by 17th century naturalists like Dutchman Georg Eberhard Rumphius in books like The Curiosity Cabinet Of Amboina.
Among his factual drawings of the flora and fauna of Indonesia - Rumphius' pet region - was a comely mermaid who was said to have lived a few days in a tub of seawater, mewing like a kitten.
So, when a widely circulating e-mail titled 'Mermaid Found in Marina Beach, Chennai' arrived in LifeStyle's inbox last week, we expected to see attached photos of a gorgeous, topless nymph - much like actress Daryl Hannah in the 1984 movie Splash - languishing on a sandy beach.
Instead, they showed a frightening, dessicated sea creature with a monkey-like head and fish-like body. Equally disturbing were its protruding ribs, scales, claws and very dry white hair.
'Believe it or not,' read the undated and unsigned text. 'Below are pictures of a mermaid found at Marina Beach in Chennai, India, last Saturday. The body is preserved in the Egmore Museum under tight security.'
THE message was convincing enough for LifeStyle reader Alex, who forwarded us the e-mail after receiving it from his friends. Declining to reveal his full name, he said: 'The way the whole thing was phrased sounded pretty serious. The pictures also looked real enough.'
Separate postings on Internet user forums confirmed the news of the mermaid or 'Kadal Kanni' in Tamil, believed to have been washed ashore after the Dec 26 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Similarly, the Egmore Museum - officially known as the Goverment Museum, Chennai - is real. Founded in 1851, it boasts an array of art, archaelogical and bronze works, and is one of the city's most respected establishments.
To get to the bottom of the watery mystery, we sent the images to marine biologist Bella Galil from the National Institute of Oceanography in Israel. Currently a visiting researcher at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, she has written several papers about mythical sea creatures.
The existence of mermaids, she said, is an enduring myth that has survived many centuries. 'Fish were viewed since earliest times as symbols of fertility because of the number of their offspring.'
The Phoenicians, an ancient people who lived on the Mediterranean coast from 1200 to 800 BC, worshipped a moon goddess named Atergatis who was personified as half woman, half fish.
But all mermaids 'found' so far have been fakes, says Dr Galil. When Westerners began exploring the Far East around the 15th century, they began bringing home exotic creatures that resembled the mythological ones - but were uglier.
'The people in the East recognised the opportunity to make fakes and sell them to the gullible Westerners. But they did not have the expertise to make them look like the conventional representations of the mermaid,' she explained.
Many fakes were actually displayed in European museums until modern science exposed the ruse.
... and sinker
DR GALIL'S colleague, Associate Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, scrutinised the Chennai mermaid and described it as 'a classic put-together animal'.
First, the creature looks dried and taxidermised instead of soggy and rotten, as one would expect of an animal washed up by the sea.
Second, it is in varying states of decay. While the scales on the fish-like body seem intact, its ribs are wasted.
Third, it would be mechanically impossible for the creature to use its arms, considering the awkward way they have been attached to its ribcage.
'My feeling,' said Prof Ng, 'is that it's a medium-sized fish glued to a small monkey. This thing cannot survive in the water.'
Computer experts, however, had their own theories. Dr Terence Sim, an assistant professor with the School of Computing at NUS, said the photos were doctored. In the full-length shot of the mermaid, its tail casts a visible shadow on the white background. The same cannot be said for its arms - which suggests that the body parts came from different photographs.
But since e-mail messages are theoretically traceable, could we then track the origins of the allegedly doctored images?
'I was hoping to look at the header of the e-mail to see if I could get any clues, but unfortunately not,' said Dr Sim.
The route an e-mail has taken is encoded in its headers, normally suppressed by mail programmes. While certain mail programmes have options to view these headers in ordinary text, others like LifeStyle's Lotus Notes programme may have been configured to cut the headers off - effectively severing the digital trail.
And unless it is an issue of security, internet service providers (ISPs) do not track or monitor e-mail messages sent or received through their networks.
Ms Cassie Fong, StarHub's assistant corporate communications manager, said: 'As chain e-mail are forwarded from person to person who may not even know one another or reside in the same country, it can be difficult for any single ISP to trace the origin of such e-mail messages.'
Which left just one more avenue to be explored in our search for the truth: The Government Museum in Chennai.
Its education officer, Mr Mathavai Mohan, drove the final nail into the mermaid's coffin. Sounding astonished, he said over the phone: 'We don't have this incredible mermaid museum exhibit. I don't know anything about it.'
What about the claim that it was being held under tight security? Could the museum be keeping it under wraps?
'No. I'm in charge of education. And if we had such an exhibit, I would be looking for publicity,' he said.
But for those who at times like to indulge in a little bit of fantasy, Dr Galil has a parting shot: 'Somewhere deep in us, we all want to believe in monsters. When it's no longer conceivable to believe in monsters of land, the last place on earth still unexplored is the sea.
'To this day, we really don't know what lives in the sea. But it seems to be a good place for monsters.'
Thanks to Wong Yueat Tin for the alert.