The Meeting Place of Sea and Land: Encounters with Hybrid Forms on the
By Dr Becca Drake
The sea shore is the meeting place of sea and land. It is for that reason the most fascinating and the most complex of all the environments of life. It has long been recognised as the best training ground for a zoologist because upon it are to be found members of almost all of the invertebrate groups of animals and with them shore fishes and even, on occasion, marine mammals such as stranded whales of breeding seals. On the shore exposed by the ebbing tide hosts of sea-birds descend to feed.
C.M. Yonge, The Sea Shore (Collins New Naturalist Series) (London: Bloomsbury, 1949; repr. 1971), 1.
Late in the day, I have come to the Yorkshire coast to body-board. A grey sky finds me waist-deep in the sea waiting for one last breaker to carry my board all the way in across the long flat sands. As an exercise, it is futile. Rough all afternoon, the sea has only grown more argumentative, and each potential wave crashes hard on my shoulders before I can muster the forward motion to catch it. At home in the water but coming in from hours battling the surf, my body is too weak. I can no longer feel my fingers or toes. I give in to the shove of water against my back and let the waves shake me into the knee-high foam at the edge of the sea. In a moment of strangeness when it feels like I no longer inhabit my body but float somewhere above it in the grey the sea is a churning mass, incomprehensible and sickly grey. My stomach is a twisted thing. Then I see the seal.
At first I don’t know that is what it is. I see a dark thing, a glistening smoothness where there should be off-white churn. It tumbles in the undertow of the waves. Its flipper raises like a pleading hand, the claws glimpsed, black as jet. The body goes under a fresh onslaught of wave, emerging several metres closer just when I have convinced myself I imagined it. It is like one of those scenes in a horror film when the protagonist is faced with the monster but stands still while the viewer screams at the screen for them to run! It edges closer with each new rush of foam on the sand, and I stand still, letting it come until it is just metres away. A turn of wave rephrases the body: smooth backbone arch towards upper silver grey and a raw pink severing, ragged at the edges, where I know the head should be. No longer a body but a collection of lines and colours.
I have cast up many hybrid bodies in my research on the coastlines of late-medieval romance literature; hybrid because they are composed of both sea and land. Whale-women, seal-men and walrus-men, heroes who swim like fish, and villains who are gutted like eels. These bodies inhabit the permeable spaces where sea is supposed to end and land is supposed to begin, although of course there is no clear dividing line between the two. One of them is Forað, a so-called tröllkona (troll-woman) who is able to take hvalslíki (whale form). She does so in defense of her body, under assault from Ketill, the fisherman who has come into her native waters to hunt. When Ketill aims his arrow at Forað she leaps from the cliff into the sea and becomes a whale to swim away but is struck by one of Ketill’s arrows. The saga does not say what happens to her after that, but Ketill catches some fish, loads his boat and goes home. Perhaps Forað’s body is discovered by someone working, walking, or playing at the beach. Perhaps it is never seen again. Or perhaps her body is left to wash up back on the shore, turning soundless in the surf – like the seal I encountered washed up on the Yorkshire coast.
The only other time I have been this close to a seal, I was viewing it through thick Perspex grown green and misty with algae at the Sealife centre in Scarborough. In addition to penguins, jellyfish, an octopus, and numerous other marine animals, the Sealife centre is home to a seasonal brood of seal pups which are rescued and rehabilitated in the centre’s “Seal Hospital”, before eventually being released back into the wild. The seal pups, four of them held at a time, circle their small tank, occasionally pausing to peek through the viewing window that allows the centre’s visitors to watch them. The centre’s website explains that it rescues stranded and injured pups found along the Yorkshire coast and nurses them back to health and rehabilitation. There are multiple reasons a seal may become stranded or injured out at sea and find its way to the relative safety of the shore. It may be abandoned, sick, or have encountered a boat or fishing tackle resulting in injury. The rehabilitation of these creatures we share the coast with is important for preserving the marine ecosystem of our coasts. But to what end should acts of rescue be accompanied by acts of voyeurism of the natural world?
Locked in a glass case in the Maritime Museum, Hull, another hybrid body disturbs, a stitched-together taxidermy of monkey torso and fish tail stretched over a wire skeleton and protruding glass eyes, the “Hull mermaid” holds those who walk past it in its rigour-stricken stare. The mermaid has inhabited the Maritime Museum since its “discovery” by Sir Alistair Hardy in 1934, who was professor of zoology at the University of Hull from 1928 – 1942. It enjoyed a brief hiatus from display here in 1961 when it was displayed in the British Museum in London. During my time spent as poet-in-residence at the Maritime Museum I tried to capture the grotesque hybridity of this creature in poetry.
The “Hull mermaid” is a relic of the Victorian fascination with hybrid bodies and monstrosity and is not the sole specimen of its kind. Its cousin, the so-called “Feejee [Fiji] mermaid” has a tangled history, emerging periodically to the public view then sinking again. It was first acquired by Captain Eades, supposedly from Japanese fishermen who claimed to have ‘found’ it. It was then paraded in front of London society in 1822, drawing the attention of both the curious and the sceptical, but was ultimately exposed as a fake during this tour. It then sunk beneath the notice of the public eye until it was purchased by P.T. Barnum in 1842 and was then displayed in Barnum’s American Museum until it was destroyed in a fire along with many of Barnum’s other collections in 1865.
Steven C. Levi has described the Fiji mermaid in an article tracing its history:
the mermaid was made of a monkey’s body with a shark’s tail. Fish scales with animal hair superimposed covered the monkey’s body and pendulous breasts hung from the chest. The mouth was wide open and the teeth bared as if the creature had been snarling in its death rattle. The right hand was pressed against the right cheek and the left hand tucked under the lower jaw on the left.
This description of the mermaid harbours an unmistakable veil of horror – the creature frozen in ghastly rigor mortis. In horror of the body, the creature’s “pendulous breasts”, “teeth bared” and “snarling” present a grotesquely female form, the female anatomy both exaggerated and presented in miniature, out-of-place on the infantile frame of the mermaid. The mermaid is a thing both animate and frozen. It is also a creature caught between land and sea; half of the land and half of the sea. Held together by iron wiring, this twinned creature of land and sea is uneasily joined under the voyeurism of the onlooking human eye.
The Hull mermaid still lives on in the changing and newly-renovated museum, taking pride of place in its glass case and drawing the squeamish giggles of children and slowing the steps of more sensible passing adults. Its continued habitation of the museum environment speaks for an ongoing fascination with the same questions that fascinated those men and women queuing up to see the “Feejee mermaid” in 1822: What makes a monster, and how far removed are we from being monsters ourselves? Where does the human end and the animal begin?
In Bodily Natures (2010), eco-critic Stacy Alaimo writes ‘“nature” is always as close as one’s own skin – perhaps even closer”. We do not end where nature begins; our bodies slide into the world around us, which might as well be called unnatural as natural. If you think about bodies as a collection of matter – which they are – then there is no barrier between the collection of matter that is you or I and the collection of matter that is the chair you sit on, the desk you rest your arms on, or the glass of water you drink from. One slips permeable into the other. I think about why I come to the sea and what compels me to swim in it even when there are record levels of pollution in England’s coastal waters. It is a desire to slip my own skin, perhaps to melt into the sea around me. I have found no better way to lay my thoughts silent than when pressing myself into seven-foot icy waves; there is no room for worry about work or people or the world when the only thing that matters is staying afloat. I use the sea as a blanket to fold myself into – a new skin. But there is a problem with thinking about the sea like this, and the headless body of the seal reminds me. The sea is not a blank environment to be pressed upon, a place for me to offload my mind when I need to; it is a living environment with its own worries and troubles and tragedies. There are living things, and there are dead things in the sea. By sinking my body into the sea, I meet with them.
Knee-deep in sea and still frozen in the seal’s headless grimace, I am physically closer to this animal than I have ever been. We share the same two-metre’s space of water. The weed that wraps gelatinous fingers around my ankle has surely also touched the seal’s soft underbelly. I would never get this close to such a creature in life, were it alive. I am fascinated by the dappled mottle of its fur, silver, bronze, and brown like an understory. And I am repulsed by my own fascination. Something wraps me, like catching sight of oneself in an unlit mirror, the face not quite familiar – and I cannot look away.
Covell, Mike. “Hull’s mysterious and murky history of mermaids: from folklore to fraud”. Hull Daily Mail, 22nd October 2021, DOI: https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/history/hulls-mysterious-murky-history-mermaids-6088615
Ketils saga hængs. Guðni Jónsson ed., Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda III (Reykjavík: Íslendinganaútgafan, 1956), 172.
“seal-hospital”, visitsealife.com (accessed 18th August 2023), https://www.visitsealife.com/scarborough/explore/aquarium-zones/seal-hospital/
Levi, Steven C.. ‘P. T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid’. Western Folklore 36.2 (1970): 149 – 154.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Yonge, C. M.. The Sea Shore (Collins New Naturalist Series). London: Bloomsbury, 1949; repr. 1971.
Drake, Becca. Exhibits from the Maritime Museum & the City. York: Thin Ice Press, 2023.
 Steven C. Levi, ‘P.T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid’, Western Folklore 36.2 (1977): 149 – 154, 151.
 Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) 2.