Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sepia madrasi

“Sea-Ghost” scare now comedy hit

CHENNAI, Aug. 7 (Xinhuanet) – It is hard to comprehend how the creature spreading fear across the Bay of Bengal only a year ago could now be a subject of jokes and light-hearted laughter.

But the summer of 2007 was awash with sightings of a pallid face — bloated like a drowned corpse, with holes for eyes and a lipless mouth that uttered silent curses — pressing itself against the windows of vessels and seafront structures (often where no human could possibly be), then vanishing.

The stories generated hysteria, culminating in the near-fatal public thrashing of an albino child by a mob convinced he was the “Sea-Ghost” in mortal disguise.

In mid-October, however, Dr. Maharajapuram K. Nayagam quelled the phenomenon. The local marine biologist outed the spectre as a certain species of cephalopod: the Leper’s hand cuttlefish (Sepia madrasi), named for its stubby tentacles.

Taking note that the sightings always occurred during choppy weather at windows near the waterline, Dr. Nayagam rounded up several specimens using a baited cage, then presented them on a Sun News television broadcast, demonstrating how their livid muzzles could resemble phantom faces.

“There’s a broad, fleshy area around the beak — unusual for cuttlefish,” explains Dr. Nayagam. “Above the beak we find a dual valve for the funnel: two openings, which form the ‘eyes’ of the face.

“This pseudo-face only appears when the tentacles are spread out and apart — but that will happen when a Leper’s hand cuttlefish clings to a window. They enjoy flat, smooth surfaces when they can find them, although they will typically stay for a just few seconds before ‘taking off’ via jet propulsion.”

Leper’s hand cuttlefish once preferred deeper waters but have closed in on the bay in recent years.

The saga came full circle this month with the release of The Sea-Ghost Among Friends, a VCD by Ravi Akbar Khan, one of the most popular Tamil comedians.

Structured like a talk show, the feature eschews modern special effects for puppetry using actual marine life: freshly killed fishes (and cephalopods) are given electric shocks via hidden wires, causing their features to move as though speaking. Three Leper’s hand cuttlefish were needed to actualize the Sea-Ghost.

Khan, who provides all of the voices for his characters, claims sales of The Sea-Ghost Among Friends far exceed those of any other comedy VCD produced in “Kollywood,” and that a Hindi-dubbed version will debut next week.

“People find this one even funnier than usual,” he says. “I think it’s because many of them were frightened a year ago, and now they’re just relieved.”