The Truth is Out There: On the Wild and Divisive World of Cryptozoology
Mother-Daughter Duo T. S. Mart and Mel Cabre Consider the History of Mythical Flying Creatures
What is a Ropen?
For years, reports of living pterosaurs have come out of Papua New Guinea and its surrounding islands. Of particular interest is a creature said to live on Umboi Island which is just off the mainland coast. Locals have reported sightings of a creature they call Duwas or Ropen. With a wingspan said to be up to 29 feet, the dark-gray flyer possesses two leathery, bat-like wings and a long tail with a diamond-shape on the end. Also noted is a head crest and dermal bump, a tooth-filled beak, and razor-sharp claws.
Cryptozoologists believe the Ropen emerged from either the Dimorphodon or Rhamphorhynchus lineages. Dimorphodons were only about three feet long with a wingspan nearing five feet. They were named for having two distinct types of teeth in their skull. The tail of Dimorphodon was long, with 30 vertebrae of varying lengths, and may or may not have had a widened tail tip like that found on Rhamphorhynchus. No impressions of one have been found to date. Rhamphorhynchus was slightly smaller than Dimorphodon and had a long, narrow skull and teeth that pointed forward. Fossils impressions of Rhamphorhynchus‘s long tail show it clearly ended in a diamond-shaped tip.
The Ropen is far larger than either of these extinct pterosaurs. It is thought to be nocturnal and give off a bioluminescent glow. As reported on Paul Nation’s Indava Bird Project website, locals call the light Indava, which means, “Bird that flies at night and brings death.”
Johnathan Whitcomb is a leading cryptozoologist involved in the Papua New Guinea pterosaur investigations. Also a private investigative journalist and forensic court videographer, he has devoted more than 10,000 hours to investigating the Ropen and interviewing witnesses. Whitcomb studied the Ropen’s lights and found they moved toward the coast early at night and returned inland later. This aligned with the reports of locals, who say the Ropens fly out to the reef at night to feed and then return to their resting places in the mountains.
Whitcomb published his findings in Creation Research Science Quarterly, where he garnered respect for his attention to detail. As is usual for cryptozoologists, his work was met with skepticism, but in addition there were personal attacks. Whitcomb and other biblically grounded cryptozoologists have been the targets of cynical, unkind, and even hateful remarks. In this chapter the big question is not whether the Ropen exists, but why this cryptid has caused dissension outside the world of cryptozoology. But first, we need to explore the Ropen story to provide context.
Where It Began
In 2005, Ropen investigator and explorer Garth Guessman interviewed eyewitness Duane Hodgkinson while fellow investigator Johnathan Whitcomb filmed the exchange. In the video, Hodgkinson talks about his unexpected Ropen sighting in 1944. Hodgkinson had been stationed in Finschhafen, New Guinea, with the US military. While there, he made several trips into some of the surrounding native villages with a friend and a native guide.
In the interview, Hodgkinson reported they had been walking along a trail about noon on a clear day. The group came upon a large clearing of grass about two feet high. A thrashing in the brush came from one edge of the clearing. The men paused, and a large creature “ran to their left, taking six to ten steps” before it ascended at an angle of about 30 degrees. It disappeared over the dense brush but soon returned and flew over the clearing, presenting a perfect side view of its features before flying out of sight.
The tail had been approximately ten to fifteen feet, and the wingspan about 29 feet. It had a long neck, and a long appendage off the back of its head. Hodgkinson said he was so focused on the head crest that he didn’t notice if there was anything at the end of the tail. A certified flight instructor with over 13,000 hours of flight time, Hodgkinson likened the bird’s wingspan to the Piper Tri-Pacer he owned.
Hodgkinson’s testimony, along with Ropen reports from others investigating sightings of possible pterosaurs, inspired Johnathan Whitcomb to conduct his own expedition. He hoped to gather video evidence of a “living pterodactyl.” While he didn’t obtain video during his expedition on Umboi Island in 2004, Whitcomb interviewed several people who had seen the Ropen. He came to this conclusion:
Only after I had left Umboi Island and was leaving for the mainland of Papua New Guinea did I suddenly realize something I never before expected. All the sightings correlated very well with the idea that a single giant pterosaur lived on the island. There is no sign that there’s a colony of Ropens. Breeding may take place on a much larger island nearby, but the Ropen of Umboi Island is an individual creature with its own territory.
Papua New Guinea and Umboi Island
Formed by volcanic activity and surrounded by beautiful coral reefs and beaches, Papua New Guinea lies between Australia and the Philippines. The country comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea (the second largest island in the world) and several smaller islands. The entire nation covers 178,704 square miles and has an estimated population of only about 8.7 million people, making Papua New Guinea one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Along with many groups of uncontacted people, researchers believe there may be a wealth of undiscovered species of plants and animals in the interior’s unexplored and richly diverse jungles.
Umboi Island is positioned between mainland Papua New Guinea and the Island of New Britain. It’s here that many locals have seen the Ropen lights flying to or from the larger mountains. Some describe the light as lasting about five seconds.
He hoped to gather video evidence of a “living pterodactyl.”
FUN FACT: During World War II, the New Guinea campaign (1942–1945) was a protracted and deadly military campaign among the conflicts between Japan and the Allies. During the three years of the campaign, approximately 216,000 Japanese, Australian, and US servicemen lost their lives. What we now know as the Independent State of Papua New Guinea was created after the Allies won the war and combined the Territories of Papua and New Guinea.
From the First Sightings to the Present
Lucy Evelyn Cheesman was an entomologist who curated insects for the London Zoo. She went on eight solo expeditions in the South Pacific and collected over 70,000 specimens. While in Papua New Guinea, she witnessed unusual lights that moved across the sky, lasting for only four to five seconds, and wrote about them in her book The Two Roads of Papua (1935).
Later, local people shared stories about the Ropen with missionaries and sparked the interest of young earth creationists such as Paul Nation, Johnathan Whitcomb, and Garth Guessman. These men led several expeditions and conducted dozens of interviews throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Many residents reported seeing large, featherless birds and lights in the night sky.
One of the most notable of these interviews occurred during a visit in 2004, when pterosaur investigator Johnathan Whitcomb spoke to a man named Gideon and two other witnesses who said they (and others) had climbed up a mountain to a volcanic crater lake not far from their village in the west central area of Umboi Island. There they said they saw the Ropen fly over the lake and described the long tail with a diamond shape on the end.
On his website “Pterosaurs Still Living,” Whitcomb writes about his conversation with Gideon. The Umboi resident likened the mouth or beak of the Ropen to that of a crocodile. Gideon continued drawing the body with a series of bumps or scale ridges that ran down the neck, back, and tail. He agreed the wings were like that of a flying fox and described the tail as about 23 feet long with no feathers.
Cryptozoologist Paul Nation has documented his five expeditions to Papua New Guinea to study the Ropen on his webpage, IndavaBird.com. In 2006, he traveled for four days, deep into the rainforest. During this expedition, he photographed a yellowish glow that moved across the sky and disappeared near a volcanic peak. Computer enhancement of video he took convinced Nation the lights were not manmade.
In 2015, field researchers Milt Marcy and Peter Beach also led an expedition to Umboi Island. In the village where they stayed, elders shared stories about long-ago encounters with pterosaurs. One story told of a time when someone shot a pterosaur using a missionary’s gun, and the meat, cooked in three large pots, fed the entire village.
During their expedition, Marcy and Beach captured video of a large flying creature resembling a pterosaur or frigatebird. Frigatebirds live along coastal waters in the tropics and subtropics and can soar for long periods. They have distinctive bent wings and long forked tails used to steer. Because of the distance, specific details were hard to discern, and the flyer remains unidentified.
A Clash of Worldviews
Whether their sightings are of sky monsters, Bigfoot, Dogman, or the Ogopogo, eyewitnesses are hesitant to share their experiences outside of the cryptid subculture for fear of ridicule. However, that doesn’t diminish the impact of the life-altering encounters. When a person whole-heartedly believes what they saw, their worldview shifts to accommodate a new reality. Because that reality differs from the norm, eyewitnesses often become researchers and investigators to understand what they witnessed and prove it was real.
When a person whole-heartedly believes what they saw, their worldview shifts to accommodate a new reality.
As noted above, some of the investigators had encounters, others did not. So what has driven Christian cryptozoologists to study the Ropen and devote thousands of hours to website construction, expeditions to remote locations, interviewing witnesses, and writing books and articles?
In his 2012 book The Undefeated Mind, Alex Lickerman, MD, talks about passion. Passion drives our wants and is the fuel that feeds our motivation. In an article for Psychology Today, Lickerman writes: “The word itself, ‘passion,’ derives from the Latin root ‘pati’—which means ‘to suffer.’ The veracity in this linguistic statement lies in the fact that passion is what moves you to persevere at something despite fear, unhappiness or pain. It is the determination and motivation to push through suffering for the sake of an end goal.”
But not everyone shares the same passion. Type Ropen into a search engine and you’ll see two types of articles—those written by cryptozoologists and those that refute, and, on occasion, attack the cryptozoologists. There are few moderate responses.
As discussed in chapter four, our worldview (the way we interpret our surroundings) influences how we perceive information. A biblical creationist will interpret information based on six days of creation by God. Many believe in a young earth (about 6,000 years old). An evolutionary biologist, who interprets information based on the big bang theory and the theory of evolution, measures the earth’s age in billions of years. Of course, many fall somewhere in the middle, and are able to reconcile a bit of both theories. Others believe in a different theory altogether.
Cryptozoologists of any faith—or no faith at all—are passionate in their beliefs. It rolls with the territory. As with any human, worldview influences the interpretation of data…
In his book Big Bird! Modern Sightings of Flying Monsters (2000), cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard devotes an entire chapter to sightings of Pteranodon-type animals in Africa, New Guinea, Australia, Asia, and even Europe. He reports objectively on the young earth creationists’ point of view by focusing on eyewitness accounts and available information. While his beliefs and worldview may differ from other investigators and cryptozoologists, Gerhard doesn’t let it stop him. His efforts result in fun and poignant content that allows the reader to decipher the truth for themselves. This objective approach not only encourages a larger audience, it effectively shows off his research skills.
Excerpted from A Guide to Sky Monsters: Thunderbirds, the Jersey Devil, Mothman, and Other Flying Cryptids. Used with the permission of the publisher, Red Lightning Books. Copyright © 2021 by T. S. Mart and Mel Cabre.