THERE is no doubt in Mike Hallowell's mind that some mysterious animals are lurking in South Tyneside.
The Gazette's Wraith-scape writer uncovered several stories from the borough as he worked on the Northumberland and Tyneside edition of Mystery Animals of the British Isles.
Readers of his column were particularly helpful in tracking down tales of howling dogs, giant lobsters and mermaids.
Mike, from West Boldon, said: "The readers of my Wraithscape column have been a terrific help.
"They've sent me some fantastic stories, and the book wouldn't have been the same without them."
Mike was at a conference with his wife Jackie last year, when over a bottle of wine with his publisher, they came up with a "mad idea" of producing a huge series of volumes about mystery animals throughout every area of the UK.
Mike said: "It will probably run into 40 volumes or more, so I'm glad I'll only be writing two or three of them!"
The study of and search for animals which fall outside of contemporary zoological catalogues, such as Big Foot, the Yeren and the Loch Ness Monster, is known as cryptozoology.
It rose in popularity during the 1950s, but has seen relatively little interest from mainstream scientists, because it does not use scientific methods.
Mike has had a number of cryptozoological encounters himself, including a brief encounter with Big Foot, or sasquatch, while living on tribal land in Webster Parish, Louisiana, in 2003.
The beast has been 'spotted' many times in the southern US state, and while walking through the woods one day, Mike found a sasquatch tipi.
"These are dome-like affairs created by bringing together the tops of saplings, and either tying them together or interlacing them," said Mike.
"Indeed, they do look like the framework of an American Indian dwelling without the covering, although not, strictly speaking, a tipi.
"No one knows why sasquatch does this, or whether the tipis have a practical, cultural or spiritual function."
As a paranormal investigator, Mike and his colleagues were called to investigate a sasquatch-like creature in Northumberland, which features in the book.
Mike said: "People keep asking me what the strangest mystery animal is that I've researched. Its hard to pick one, but if I was pushed, I'd have to say the Beast of Bolam Lake.
"Hearing that there was an 8ft tall hairy hominid running around in rural Northumberland came as quite a shock, I can tell
"Think of a cross between a mountain gorilla and the Incredible Hulk, and you'll have some idea what I'm talking about."
Mike said the beauty of cryptozoological animals is they can turn up any place, any time.
He said: "When I started to research the book, I couldn't believe some of the wild stories that people were sending me, and yet when I checked them out, the eyewitness testimony was really strong.
"There's no doubt in my mind that there are some very strange creatures running about out there – and some of them I wouldn't like to bump in to. The next book I'm writing in the Mystery Animals series is set in Durham and Wearside, and, if anything, the strange creatures there are even weirder.
"They include a talking duck, a giant mouse, a headless horse and a flying adder. Writing about them is a strange way of making a living, but the upside is that life never gets boring."
A GAZETTE story about a big cat roaming around Cleadon gave Mike the chance to investigate a mysterious animal living practically on his doorstep.
The beast is said to have reared its head on January 11, 1999, when several residents said they saw a large, dark, cat-like creature loping past their hedges.
One man believed it was a puma or a panther, and so was born the tale of the Cleadon Panther.
Mike said: "At once, a wonderful ambience of paranoia took hold. A relatively sedate village suddenly had a crisis on its hands."
Sightings continued, as did Gazette articles, and it turned out some villagers had seen the beast during the last 18 months, but hadn't said anything, in case they were thought to be crazy.
One resident told a policeman: "It was the size of a great Dane, it had huge rippling muscles and its mouth was filled with the most wicked-looking teeth I've ever seen."
By May, big cat fever was showing no signs of slowing down and then, without warning, the bubble seemed to burst. The big cat had gone.
Mike has also investigated reports of black dogs, including one that menaced villagers in East Boldon for several days in 1851 and one in Grange Park, East Boldon, in the 1990s.
ONE of the strangest creatures in the book is the giant lobster of Trow Rocks.
While researching another story, Mike was contacted by a Wraithscape reader, who casually dropped the lobster, which Mike had never heard of before, into the conversation.
The reader used to play on the beach as a child opposite the wreckage of a dock gate, which the lobster is said to have inhabited.
Again, a Gazette article recalled by another Wraithscape reader helped Mike in his research.
Published in the early 1960s, it told how a student walking near the shore saw what he described as a "huge monster" on the sand, which then scuttled down into the sea.
Mike has not been able to locate the article, but intends to keep looking.
He said: "Whether it ever existed or not – it may still be alive, for all I know – is something at this juncture I cannot determine."