Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Searching For Live Pterosaurs

Dreams and Reality

As a teenager, I once daydreamed of exploring a remote jungle to discover a creature like the giant dinosaur said to inhabit the Congo area of Africa (I later learned the name for that cryptid: Mokele-Mbembe). OK, that was my fantasy more than once, for Ivan T. Sanderson's books, nonfiction, about his adventurous expeditions, thrilled me. Even though he was often only on the brink of a discovery, never completely fulfilled, he would keep exploring. Oh, that I could go on a jungle expedition! How I longed to discover a living dinosaur! But I had many unrealistic fantasies; this appeared to be just another daydream.

My passion for jungle exploration was replaced by my zeal for chess competition: tournament after tournament of U.S.C.F. rated events in Southern California in the late 1960's. But by 1971 the reality became undeniable: I lacked the mental talent to ever become a grandmaster; even master level appeared a little out of reach. I needed to be realistic, to be responsible and earn a living.

By 1978, I had accumulated a variety of work experiences: potatoe man at a McDonald's, custodian at a Methodist church, sprinkler-repair assitant on the grounds of California State University at Long Beach. I married a wonderful young lady from Chile, learning a little Spanish while teaching her a lot of English. I soon became a custodian at the university.

In the 1980's my wife and I began to raise our three children. My daydream as a teenager became a shadowy memory; for being a responsible provider for a family does not mix with being a live-dinosaur discoverer . . . not usually. But my cleaning assignment at the old University Theater allowed me to take my breaks at the nearby library (exploring libraries, for me, has been a life-long adventure). Some of the books I checked out would now be labeled "paranormal," although at that time, I would have found that label distasteful: The word might suggest that I myself was rather abnormal. That was when I could still pretend to be normal.

In 1997 I quit work at the university to start my own video production business. By early 2003 I was beginning to become established as a forensic videographer in Southern California, specializing in day-in-the-life and settlement documentaries for attorney firms. I also helped my wife with her childcare business. (I had given up professional wedding videography, although I was grateful for the experience it gave me: thinking on my feet while videotaping events.) My work became centered in videotaping accident victims and in interviewing their care providers while videotaping. I never dreamed how my skills from these experiences would soon be put to use.

Rediscovering Cryptozoology

By mid-2003, I began rediscovering cryptozoological reports, in particular accounts of apparent dinosaurs. Fascinating accounts! The first-hand account by Edward Brian McCleary appeared hard to dismiss, for four of his teenaged friends had died from an attack by a sea monster on March 24, 1962, off Pensacola, Florida.

But eyewitness accounts of apparent living pterosaurs especially fascinated me. I sent an email to a missionary in Venezuala, who confirmed a report of a deep-seated belief that natives had about a "giant bat" that had terrorized their people in the past. In the fall of 2003, I got a phone call from Paul Nation of Texas. He had been informed of my inquiries about expeditions in Papua New Guinea, for he was one of those who had searched for an animal that the natives of Umboi Island call "ropen."

Paul told me about their interviews with native eyewitnesses who described an animal that seemed to be a living pterosaur. I was astonished at the content of the videos Paul soon mailed me, for the eyewitness credibility was convincing: I recognized that the islanders were telling the truth about their experiences. How astonished would be the members of a jury should these witnesses testify in court!

What is a Ropen?

The ropen has been seen by many islanders of Papua New Guinea. Most sightings have been from a distance at night, for it glows brightly while flying, brighter than a thousand fireflies. I realized that the nasty reputation the creature has for robbing human graves gives us something in return: evidence that this is a creature unclassified or unacknowledged by Western science, for nothing in a textbook describes a bioluminescent flying creature that is large enough to carry away a human body. Fireflies are a world apart.

But the appearance of the ropen, its size and description---that came from only a few native eyewitnesses, including a boy named Gideon. During his videotaped interview, he was asked about the size of the creature he had seen flying over Lake Pung; he described the size in terms of a nearby house.

As an expert in the credibility of witnesses being videotaped, I was struck by the way the teenager responded to the interview questions. He was still afraid of what he had seen, still afraid even just to talk about the encounter. It soon became obvious to me that the boy could not have seen a fruit bat flying over a lake: Natives catch this common bat to eat; they do not run from it for fear of being captured and eaten.

Apparently the existence of the ropen had been hidden from the Western world by several factors, including the assumption that natives are talking about superstitions or describing the giant fruit bat called "flying fox."

Active Involvement

Before the end of 2003, I had edited much of the video footage, for Paul and I hoped that we could sell the resulting mini-documentary "Searching for Ropen" to help fund the upcoming expedition in 2004. Sales were disappointing but we kept up hope.

Two other Americans were planning to go to Papua New Guinea with Paul. They would take cameras and much equipment, determined to find at least one ropen.

By early 2004, I began to hope for something that appeared almost too good to imagine. The ideal team on Umboi Island would be made up of two teams, perhaps starting from different sides of the island and meeting later on one of the mountains to continue searching; but two equal teams could mean two-plus-two, and Paul Nation plus David Woetzel plus Garth Guessman equaled only three. In addition, if a critical need was quality video recording, who would be better qualified than a professional videographer? The possibility of videotaping a living pterosaur enfused my imagination. How thrilling!

Paul was willing for me to join the team, but a mid-2004 expedition to Papua New Guinea became unrealistic for him. It was just as well, for I later found that half a year's preparations was barely sufficient for me.

The First Disappointment

But within a few months Paul found that any expedition was out of reach for him in 2004. By that time, I had set my heart on searching for ropens on Umboi Island, but I found another setback. Woetzel had never met me and he was now leading the one expedition; their plans were set and I had no part in them.

Devastating! How close I had been to a wonderful opportunity of discovery! I pondered how I might assist the expedition team through keeping in touch with them during their expedition, for they had a satellite phone. Still, that volunteer desk job appeared to mock fate. How could this be? I was a professional camera operator enthused with a drive to explore Umboi Island and find what has terrified natives and defied modern scientific assumptions. I knew that I had the skills to learn the Tok Pisin language and communicate with the natives. And by this time I was almost sure that the ropen was a living pterosaur.

A Solitary Solution

It was always staring back at me from the mirror, although it appeared at first unthinkable: the solution of going on my own expedition, alone. It appeared, at first, too impractical. I gradually leaked out the idea to Paul Nation, during our email correspondance; he saw nothing insurmountable. I saw unending potential problems, but nothing impossible to solve, for my ignorance was balanced by Paul's knowledge. And my experiences and personality now bolstered my confidence.

For about half a year, Paul sent me detailed instructions while I gathered supplies, filled my mind with facts about Papua New Guinea, and exercised my body. I learned as much of the Tok Pisin language as I could. As I learned more about the reports of eyewitnesses of the ropen, one danger (so I then thought) remained: What if natives accounts were the result of some anomaly related to native thinking? I now had to consider the previously unthinkable: the possibility that previous expeditions had been in vain, caused by some terrible, not-yet-discernable mistake.

Doubt Flees

Fortunately, three non-natives came to my rescue. Duane Hodgkinson, a World War II veteran, told us of his sighting of a "pterodactyl" near Finschhafen (in what was then called "New Guinea") in 1944. I interviewed him by phone (he now lives in Montana) and email and mailed him a questionnaire. His credibility convinced me that we had been correct in believing the natives. He and his army buddy had seen the creature take off into the air on the far side of a clearing.

I also communicated with an Australian couple who saw a giant creature that had flown over Perth, Australia, in 1997. Their answers to my questions convinced me that they also were telling the truth. Like Hodgkinson, they were sure that a giant flying creature had a very long tail.

Giant flying creatures described like Rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs---they were seen by Americans and Australians just as well as by natives of Papua New Guinea. With different cultures of eyewitnesses who reported the same creatures, the case for living pterosaurs appeared irrefutable, like a clear chess combination: unstoppable. I was convinced that the ropen was a living pterosaur.

Final Preparations and the Imminent Danger

In my final preparations for the September, 2004, expedition, I learned how dangerous it can be to search for this kind of cryptid in Papua New Guinea. It's not so much the malaria that Paul Nation caught during one of his expeditions; I was determined to take malaria-prevention pills regularly and to use insect repellent. It was not the reports of a few natives who had been killed by large flying creatures in Papua New Guinea; I was determined to avoid getting too close to a ropen. It was not the alarming crime rate in the city of Lae; the hotel (nice but too expensive) is surrounded by a tall fence with barbed wire. For me, it was the imminent danger: finding a way to explain everything to my wife.

Fortunately my wife is a faithful Christian, so I was able to be at peace and leave my family for one month: She understands "Thou shalt not kill." Nevertheless, at a time like this your whole life can flash before your eyes.

My 2004 Expedition

Somehow I survived the most dangerous part of the adventure and prepared to fly to Papua New Guinea. I knew that it could take one week to reach Umboi Island; I would leave California on a Sunday and arrive at Lab Lab, Siasi (Umboi) on the following Sunday. My adventures were many and varied; for details see Whitcomb's ropen expedition.

In brief, I arrived on Umboi with an interpreter, Luke, whom I had found on the mainland. I was still assuming that at least 10-20 ropens live on the island. I also assumed that I would be able to spend adequate time on a mountain and be able to videotape at least one of the creatures. But my assumptions came to resemble those of General Lee's at Gettysburg: Almost everything appeared to go wrong.

At first, our excursion into the jungle was delayed because of a funeral procession that was soon expected; the funeral itself was delayed. When we did leave Gomlongon Village, to head for Lake Pung, we entered the forest before getting permission from village leaders in Tarawe, the recognized land owners; two days later we had to leave, with angry Tarawe villagers refusing us permission to remain in that area and with a rumor that armed bandits were bragging about coming up to get us. Eventually we had a sighting of a ropen from a distance: My interpreter and a local leader saw it briefly one night . . . one hour after I had retired to sleep. After two weeks, I ran out of money and time (the same thing) and had to leave Umboi Island. After interviewing many eyewitnesses, I concluded that only one large ropen lives in the interior of Umboi Island.

I was able to interview many eyewitnesses of the ropen, expecially those who had seen the glow as it flew at night. But three of the eyewitnesses I interviewed had seen the giant creature in daylight. These were three of seven boys (now young men) who had been terrified at the sight of a ropen flying over Lake Pung around 1994; their testimonies and deportment harmonized in a way strongly suggesting that they were telling me the truth.

One man, Mesa Augustin, was still scared to talk about the experience, ten years later; it was obvious that a daylight encounter with a giant ropen can leave a lasting impression on a human. Another man, Gideon, was the same witness I had seen in Paul Nation's video. But now he appeared to be at ease while I questioned him about the ropen. There had been a misunderstanding in the earlier videotaped interview, for Gideon made it clear to me that he had seen only one ropen; I later realized that when the boy had, in the earlier interview, responded to a question that included "ten to twenty," his positive reply was probably in terms of size, not number of creatures (he was sure the tail was seven meters long). My use of Tok Pisin, limited though it was, did help.

I left Papua New Guinea and returned to the United States, having failed to see a living pterosaur. But the reality of the ropen, the truth of its existence, had become deeply impressed on my consciousness. The terror in the face of Mesa Augustin (as he told me about what he had seen in daylight), the sincerity in the face David of Opai (as he told me about the bright flash of light over his head one night), and the credibility of many other eyewitnesses whom I had interviewed---all combined to prove to me that this usually-nocturnal flying creature is not confined to stories: It flies around Umboi Island, from mountain to mountain and to-and-from the reefs surrounding Umboi. (And I was able to videotape the islanders while interviewing them.)

Personal Success

My dream of discovering an amazing creature appeared, at first, to have evaporated, for I took home no video footage of any living pterosaur. The ropen remained a cryptid, living deeply entrenched in the memories of eyewitnesses. But their convictions emerged from their souls, becaming part of my own experience; through them I've seen the ropen.

Since returning home, in October of 2004, I have tried to encourage others to explore Papua New Guinea; I have also tried to inspire those who choose to learn by reading. I have since written countless web pages on the ropen and other similar creatures seen around the world; from 2005 to 2009 I wrote two books on living pterosaurs. I have been interviewed on a few radio talk shows. Two television production companies interviewed me before they undertook their own expeditions in Papua New Guinea, resulting in two entertaining (and sometimes enlightening) episodes. Excerpts from my videotaped interviews of eyewitnesses on Umboi I put onto Youtube. I continue to help my wife with her childcare business, with a new source of material for telling the children dragon stories.

It appears that my dream of becoming like Ivan T. Sanderson, continuously exploring jungles, will remain unfulfilled; the adventure of writing about jungle expeditions, however, I share with him, for I continue to write about those who are still exploring and searching for living pterosaurs. I now dream that something that I have written might inspire someone to stay awake when the interpreter sees a ropen, videotape the clear image of a living pterosaur, and carry this nocturnal creature into the daylight of official discovery.

Whatever part you may play, let me know, please, how I might help you.


Live Pterosaurs in America

To help support this research into living pterosaurs, please consider purchasing the nonfiction book Live Pterosaurs in America (Book on cryptozoology), which gives many details about the many eyewitness sightings reported in North America for many years.

We have appreciated the donations which helped with two of the expeditions in Papua New Guinea. At this time, it seems that the best way to help is through many purchases of Live Pterosaurs in America, which allows for continued research and for spreading the word.

See also:

New Mokele-mbembe Expedition

Objection to Live Pterosaurs