A multi-agency search was called off on Monday after a suspected body part was revealed to be a form of coral.
The grim discovery was made by a dog walker on Monday afternoon and prompted a missing person search by various emergency services.
However, the ‘finger’ was later examined by crime scene investigators who revealed the object was not a human body part, but actually a piece of coral commonly known as ‘Dead Man’s Finger’.
Whitby’s volunteer Coastguard team had been asked to search the area by North Yorkshire Police, and team member Nathan Brown said: “We would rather search for a thousand hours and find nothing and everything be OK, than not search, and members of the public not report things, and there actually be something seriously wrong.”
The discovery had been made on Whitby’s Black Steps, which lead from the beach promenade to Mulgrave Road.
Seaweed expert Jane Pottas said it would be surprisingly easy to mistake the coral, which is a commonly found around the coast of the UK, for a severed finger.
She added: “People have even sent it down to the Natural History Museum, thinking it’s body parts. It lives in deeper water and sometimes gets ripped off in stormy weather and washed ashore.”
The species goes by the Latin name Alcyonium digitatum but is also commonly known as ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’, as the similarities have often been observed.
The following evening, Whitby’s Coastguard team was again called out, this time to reports of a flare which was spotted off Robin Hood’s Bay.
The incident occurred at around 6.50pm and the coastguard team was tasked to respond.
However it later emerged that the flare was launched by helicopters on exercise from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk.
Dead Man’s Fingers
The dead man’s finger is known as a soft coral but its surface is as hard as cartilage.
The branches are totally covered with small polyps.
The polyps themselves have eight tentacles, but they are only visible with a very good magnifying glass.
The polyps are readily frightened. If you were to brush against a dead man’s finger, the polyps retract quickly into the coral skeleton, only daring to come out several hours later.
With the polyps retracted, the coral structure looks like a leathery finger.