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Hunting for the Olympics River Monster

Is it an alligator, or an al-Qaeda cell in a submarine?

by Joshua Haddow
29 May 2012, 8:00am


Mike Wells, boater, filmmaker and journalist.

Late last year, Mike Wells – a filmmaker and journalist for Olympic Watchdog,  – was sat at the stern of his houseboat on the River Lea in East London when he saw a Canada goose disappear suddenly beneath the water.

“Myself and a friend had spent the morning sawing firewood," explains Mike, gazing into the waters of the Lea. "We were sat on deck at about midday, having a cup of coffee. There were a few Canada geese swimming around, floating on the surface minding their own business. One of them was a little bit separated from the others, about 30 metres away from us, and to our amazement it just went vertically down into the water. It took about a quarter of a second. There was hardly a splash. Feet first, you know, it didn't dive – they're not diving birds.

"We waited to see if it was going to come back up – nothing. We were amazed. Canada geese weigh about 20 pounds, they're big birds."

A group of conversationists reckon they saw pretty much the same thing happen in 2005, and since then, stories have been circulating that the River Lea is home to an aquatic beast that's capable of swallowing a Canada goose whole. Adding fresh intrigue to the story is the fact that both geese were "taken" close to where a brand new Olympic basketball court is currently being built on Leyton Marshes, and not far from the actual Olympic Stadium itself.

The following explanations for what the monster might be are based on Mike's observations, my investigation of the local habitat and a bunch of other hair-brained theories that have been bandied around. Everything you read from here on in is based on that very exact science. I poked around for ages in the bushes but didn't get to see the beast, so I got some illustrator's impressions of it done instead.


GOOSE-EATING CANDIDATE #1: A SNAPPER TURTLE

The first suggestion I put to Mike was that this monster could be something he'd made up to publicise the Olympic authorities' attempts to evict local boaters to "clean up" the area before the games. He replied, “I can see why somebody would say that. But it's also possible that it's a snapper turtle."

The snapping turtle theory is not a new one. A spokesperson for British Waterways is reported to have suggested "a terrapin, but they’re more likely to go for ducks”. A duck's sort of like a goose, right? Maybe the snapping turtle just got confused. Apparently a pet baby turtle being released into the wild and then growing up to become a big, goose-munching motherfucker isn't far from the realms of possibility – as Mike Gallant, formerly of the Lea Rivers Trust, once theorised.


GOOSE-EATING CANDIDATE #2: ALLIGATOR OR PYTHON (OR BOTH?)

When the conservationists reported seeing a bird disappear beneath the water in 2005, a spokesperson for the London Wildlife Trust said: "Someone could've released a crocodile. It could survive a while, there's plenty of food and the climate is warm enough…" By the time The Sun got to speculating about Mike's sighting in 2011, the crocodile had evolved (in theory terms, not literally) into an alligator. This story was then re-reported by several other news outlets.

And this claim went more-or-less unchallenged, until I spoke to another "river man" the day I met Mike. He said that, growing up on the river, he'd heard an alligator story every other year. He put the rumours down to “idiocy”.

Idiocy perpetuated by people like zoology graduate Michael Allen. Michael, who lives near the Olympic Park, said back in '05 that, “It might be an escaped pet snake, like a python. A small goose or a duck would be a perfect meal.”

Of course no one at this point has ruled out the possibility that it could be BOTH an alligator AND a python, together forming the most lethal tag team in east London since the Krays.


GOOSE-EATING CANDIDATE #3: HUNGRY OCCUPIERS

There weren't any Canada geese around the day I visited the river, just a couple of hapless ducks. Mike commented several times on the geese's absence. I asked him where they had all gone, suggesting maybe the noise of the nearby construction site might have scared them off. “No,” Mike said, “That wouldn't scare them. I guess they might have all been eaten, though.” He then laughed loudly.

This disturbed me. But not as much as what I was told by another group of people campaigning against the Olympics. That's right, Occupy were here.

This was a splinter Occupy group that had been supporting the local population's campaign to halt the building of the basketball court. One guy I spoke to, with a short, grey beard, claimed to be “representing” the group, and described to me how they'd bravely played bowls in the path of the construction vehicles. How some people had been arrested. And how they would not move until they stopped what was happening, ie the Olympic Games. (Don't bother going down there to see them, they've since been removed.)

I asked if he'd heard about the disappearing geese. “Well," he said, "I've eaten some of them.” Once he realised I was "from the press" he decided that he would like to remain anonymous. Which is understandable, because I'm almost 100 percent certain he's got more traps laid at the bottom of the Lea than there are postcode murder weapons.


GOOSE-EATING CANDIDATE #4: AL-QAEDA SUBMARINE CELL

As you can imagine, security around all the Olympic sites is very tight. Mike explained to me, “There's been secret services on the marshes. They try to blend in when they're jogging past looking really tough. It's really obvious. Who knows where they're staying, hopefully they'll fuck off after the Olympics.”

I don't think it's in any way paranoid to think that there are secret service, or at least undercover police, doing the rounds at any or all of the Olympic sites. That's the world we live in and you'd be a fool to think otherwise. However, I'm still wrestling with how serious Mike was when he suggested: “I think something the security services should monitor carefully is the possibility of radio-controlled explosive geese and an al-Qaeda cell that is living in a mini submarine in the river and has to surface every now and then, grab a goose for lunch.”

"Do you genuinely believe that this is possible?" I asked him. He replied, “I mean, there's a lot of possibilities, but security of the Olympics is paramount, everything has to be looked at, no matter how unlikely.”


GOOSE-EATING CANDIDATE #5: SWAMPY

Why not? Everything else from the 90s is coming back into fashion, and the idea that the decade's eco-warrior poster boy has started eating meat is surely no more improbable than an Adidas poppers revival.


It's easy to be cynical about people being cynical about the Olympics, but Mike has seen first-hand how destructive the the Games can be. His old home, before he became a boater, was labelled "derelict" and demolished to make way for Olympic developments. Alongside other locals, Mike has recently fought to combat the Olympic Delivery Authority's excavation of public marshes in order to build the "temporary" set of basketball courts.

Mike was arrested shortly after I met him in connection with an incident we can't really go into the details of here due to legal reasons, though we can say that his bail conditions restrict him from going within 100m of any Olympic site. Through his work with Games Monitor he has uncovered other less than savoury practices, such as the disturbance of radioactive waste on the Olympic Stadium site.

Needless to say, there are other members of the local community who aren't so keen on the Olympics. Like this guy:

Add this boat owner's arrest to laments of forced gentrification, the closing of local businesses that have dared to use the Olympics name, as well as the big fucking ROCKETS being mounted on top of people's homes, and you start to build an ever-darker picture. Maybe there isn't a blood-thirsty crew of al-Qaeda submarine terrorists, or a bird-eating turtle, or a displaced alligator in the waters of East London. Maybe the real monster here IS the Olympics. Just blew your mind, right?

Illustrations by Sam Taylor

Follow Josh and Sam on Twitter: and @sptsam

You can find out more about the games when you watch our upcoming Olympic-themed , which Mike and the fabled monster will also feature in.