Being Enlightened with Knowledge


contact |  news |  backgrounds |  search |  home
Interesting Facts Strange and Unexplained Mysteries and Secrets
Strange & Unexplained - Sea Serpents

Frequent Reportings
The American ship Silas Richards was sailing off St. George's Bank south of Nova Scotia at 6:30 P.M. on June 16, 1826, when its captain, Henry Holdredge, and a passenger, Englishman William Warburton, saw a most peculiar sight: an enormous, manyhumped snakelike creature slowly approaching the vessel. Warburton raced to inform the other passengers, who were below deck, but only a handful responded. Warburton recalled, "The remainder refused to come up, saying there had been too many hoaxes of that kind already."

Even in the early years of the nineteenth century, the sea serpent had a reputation as, in Bemard'Heuvelmans's words, the "very symbol of a hoax." That reputation would withstand a battering in the later years of the century, with the publication of a number of reports which could not reasonably be ascribed to mistakes, delusions, or lies, and emerge intact in our time to figure in insane cliches about the "silly season."

That the sea serpent has such a reputation says far more about the capacity of human beings for blind incredulity than it does about the quality of the evidence for the creature once called the "great unknown." Perhaps the sea serpent is due for a revival. With the initiation of systematic deep-sea research in recent years, marine biologists have discovered a bewildering variety of life forms, some never suspected, others thought extinct for millions of years. An article in the June 2, 1992, issue of the New York Times remarks, "Scientists concede that other creatures, perhaps even larger and stranger than the monstrous Architeuthis [giant squid], may continue to defy discovery in their vast watery refuges."

Early history

Though sea serpents are ubiquitous in myths and legends, the first attempt to describe them as figures in natural history appears in a 1555 work by Olaus Magnus, the exiled Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, Sweden. The archbishop wrote that sailors off the coast of Norway had often seen a "Serpent ... of vast magnitude, namely 200 feet long, and moreover 20 feet thick." A dangerous beast, it lived in caves along the shore and devoured both land and ocean creatures, including an occasional seaman. "This Snake disquiets the shippers," Olaus Magnus wrote, "and he puts up his head on high like a pillar."

Except for this last detail, Magnus's is an exaggerated and unbelievable account, but we know from chroniclers who came after him that "serpents" were reported regularly in the North Sea, though not everyone regarded them as dangerous. In 1666 Adam Oschlager wrote of a sighting of a "large serpent, which seen from afar, had the thickness of a wine barrel, and 25 windings. These serpents are said to appear on the surface of the water only in calm weather and at certain times."

In 1734 a Protestant priest, Hans Egede, saw a monster," estimated to be 100 feet long, rise from the water off the coast of Greenland. He recorded the experience in a book published in 1741. A little over a decade later, the most influential of the early treatments appeared: The Natural History of Norway (1752-1753) by Bishop Erik Pontoppidan.

In one chapter, destined to be cited frequently in the controversies of the next two centuries, the bishop addressed the question of merfolk, the kraken (known to us as the giant squid and, though once deemed mythical, recognized by science since the late 1800s), and the sea serpent, all of which he believed, on the testimonies of individuals of good reputation, to exist. The reports indicated, Pontoppidan wrote, that more than one kind of animal was involved. Egede's monster, for example, was distinctly different from those seen off the Scandinavian coasts. For example: "The head in all the kinds has a high and broad forehead, but in some [as in Egede's] a pointed snout, though in others that is flat, like that of a cow or horse, with large nostrils, and several stiff hairs standing out on each side like whiskers."

In the New World

In An Account of Two Voyages to New England, published in 1674, John Josselyn recalled a 1639 conversation with residents of the Massachusetts colony: "They told me of a sea-serpent or snake, that lay coiled upon a rock at Cape Ann." This is the first known printed reference to an American sea serpent. In the next century and a half thousands of residents of New England and Canada's maritime provinces would observe comparable creatures.

One of the better of these early reports comes from Capt. George Little of the frigate Boston:
In May, 1780, 1 was lying in Round Pond, in Broad Bay [off the Maine coast], in a public armed ship. At sunrise, I discovered a huge Serpent, or monster, coming down the Bay, on the surface of the water. The cutter was manned and armed. I went myself in the boat, and proceeded after the Serpent. When within a hundred feet, the mariners were ordered to fire on him, but before they could make ready, the Serpent dove. He was not less than from 45 to 50 feet in length; the largest diameter of his body, I should judge, 15 inches; his head nearly the size of that of a man, which he carried four or five feet above the water. He wore every appearance of a common black snake.

A year earlier the crew of the American gunship Protector had an extraordinary encounter in Penobscot Bay. One of the witnesses was an 18-year-old ensign, Edward Preble, who would go on to become a commoclore and a notable figure in U.S. naval history. In his biography of Preble, James Fenimore Cooper recounts this event:

The day was clear and calm, when a large serpent was discovered outside the ship. The animal was lying on the water quite motionless. After inspecting it with the glasses for some time, Capt. [John Foster] Williams ordered Preble to man and arm a large boat, and endeavor to destroy the creature; or at least to go as near to it as he could.... The boat thus employed pulled twelve oars, and carried a swivel in its bows, besides having its crew armed as boarders. Preble shoved off, and pulled directly towards the monster. As the boat neared it, the serpent raised its head about ten feet above the surface of the water, looking about it. It then began to move slowly away from the boat. Preble pushed on, his men pulling with all their force, and the animal being at no great distance, the swivel was discharged loaded with bullets. The discharge produced no other effect than to quicken the speed of the monster, which soon ran the boat out of sight.

There were sporadic sightings in the following decades, but the New England sea serpent did not become an international cause celebre until the second decade of the nineteenth century. Over a period of several years, from Boston up to Cape Ann at the northeastern tip of Massachusetts, numerous witnesses on both ship and shore saw the animal. Some representative reports:

Solomon Allen III, August 12, 13, and 14, 1817: 1 have seen a strange marine animal, that I believe to be a serpent, in the harbor in ... Gloucester. I should judge him to be between eighty and ninety feet in length, and about the size of a half barrel.... I was about 150 yards from him.... His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse. When he moved on the surface of the water, his motion was slow, at times playing about in circles, and sometimes moving nearly straight forward. When he disappeared, he sunk [sic] apparently down.

Hawkins Wheeler, June 6, 1819: 1 had a fair and distinct view of the creature, and from his appearance am satisfied that it was of the serpent kind. The creature was entirely black; the head, which perfectly resembled a snake's, was elevated from four to seven feet above the surface of the water, and his back appeared to be composed of bunches or humps, apparently about as large as, or a little larger than, a half barrel; I think I saw as many as ten or twelve.... I considered them to be caused by the undulatory motion of the animal-the tail was not visible, but from the head to the last hump that could be seen, was, I should judge, 50 feet.

Samuel Cabot, August 14, 1819: My attention was suddenly arrested by an object emerging from the water at the distance of about one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards, which gave to my mind at the first glance the idea of a horse's head.... I perceived at a short distance eight or ten regular bunches or protuberances, and at a short interval three or four more.... The Head ... was serpent shaped; it was elevated about two feet from the water.... He could not be less than eighty feet long.

On August 19, 1817, the Linnean Society of New England met in Boston and selected three men-a judge, a physician, and a naturalist-to conduct inquiries. They were to interview witnesses and secure affidavits from them. The sightings went on almost daily through the end of the month. From all this testimony, and from that of other witnesses in 1818 and 1819, a composite description of the sea serpent emerged: a huge snakelike creature, dark on top, lighter on its underside, moving with vertical undulations.

The animal, whatever else it may have been, was not a serpent. Reptiles move laterally, not vertically. Nonetheless the Society investigators concluded that the animal, an enormous reptile, was appearing close to shore because it had laid its eggs there. No such eggs were found, despite repeated searches, but when a farmer killed a three-foot black snake in a field just off Cape Ann, he noticed it had a series of bumps along its back -just as the sea serpent was reported to have.

The Society foolishly endorsed the farmer's suggestion that this was a recently hatched baby sea serpent. Subsequently another scientist, Alexandre Lesuerur, showed that the specimen was no more than a deformed version of the common black snake. Though Lesuerur did not intend to debunk the sightings of the much larger New England sea serpents, his analysis was seized upon by skeptics and their journalistic allies, and the entire affair ended in derision.

The "great unknown"

No amount of laughter, however, could stop the sightings, which kept coming in from all over the world, though it could stop some people from reporting them. When the great American statesman Daniel Webster saw a sea serpent while on a fishing trip off the Massachusetts coast, he pleaded with his companion, according to Henry David Thoreau, "For God's sake never say a word about this to anyone, for if it should be known that I have seen the sea serpent, I should never hear the last of it."

For all the attempts to explain them conventionally--one scoffer averred that every sighting arose from "defective observation connected with an extravagant degree of fear--the sea serpent did not lose all its supporters in the ranks of the rational and the learned. Sightings saw print mostly in newspapers but also occasionally in scientific periodicals. In 1835 the American Journal of Science, after reporting one clear observation, remarked, "We must therefore consider this case as settling the question of the real existence of a Sea Serpent. The absence of paddles or arms forbids us from supposing that this was a swimming saurian."

Of course this did not settle the issue at all, and in 1837 a German zoologist, Hermann Schlegel, "proved" that sea-serpent sightings were caused by observations of rows of porpoises. The sea serpent was fortunate enough, however, to attract the attention of Zoologist editor Edward Newman, who in 1847 opened the pages of his journal to open-minded discussion of the subject. He was well aware, of course, that he was defying convention. In an editorial he noted, "It has been the fashion for ... many years to deride all records of this very celebrated monster." He went on to chide critics for a priori approaches which ignored "fact and observation" on the grounds that the sea serpent "ought not to be." "Fact-naturalists," on the other hand, "take a different road to knowledge, they enquire whether such things are, and whether such things are not."

The following year the most famous sea-serpent report of all time took place. It occurred on the late afternoon of August 6, 1848, and the witnesses were the captain and crew of the frigate Daedalus, on their way back to England from the Cape of Good Hope. Soon after its arrival at Plymouth on October 4, several newspapers reported rumors of a spectacular 20-minute sea-serpent sighting, and the Admiralty asked Peter M'Quhae, the captain, to supply a report either denying or detailing the incident. On the eleventh M'Quhae wrote Adm. Sir W. H. Gage a letter which the Times of London reprinted two days later. It reads in part:

The object ... was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and as nearly as we could approximate by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal [above water], no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it passed our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S.W., which it held on at the pace of from 12 to 15 miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

The diameter of the serpent was about 15 or 16 inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake, and it was never, during the 20 minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its color a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back. It was seen by the quartermaster, the boatswain's mate, and the man at the wheel, in addition to myself and officers above mentioned.

The Zoologist soon afterwards published the private notes of another witness, Lt. Edgar Drummond, who confirmed M'Quhae's account in all particulars but one. What M'Quhae had called a mane Drummond deemed a dorsal fin. Ten years later another officer recalled the incident in a letter to the Times. "My impression," he wrote, "was that it was rather of a lizard than a serpentine character, as its movement was steady and uniform, as if propelled by fins, not by any undulatory power."

These accounts sparked an uproar. Those who could not credit the sea serpent, even when reported by sane, sober, and experienced British officers, scrambled to concoct alternative explanations. One held that M'Quhae and the others had seen a patch of seaweed. Slightly less preposterous was a notion advanced by Sir Richard Owen, the great anatomist best remembered for his role, a few years in the future, as one of the most implacable foes of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Owen declared that the animal M'Quhae saw could not have been a reptile-here he was certainly correct-and so it must be a giant seal, with the witnesses' excitement and overwrought imagination supplying the unseallike details.

Writing in the November 28 issue of the Times, M'Quhae boldly took on the esteemed professor, who happened to be the Admiralty's consultant on sea serpents, whose existence he had pronounced less likely than ghosts'. The captain flatly rejected Owen's speculations, citing the quotations out of context and false conclusions the scientist had used to buttress his argument. "Finally, I deny the existence of excitement, or the possibility of optical illusion," he stated. "I adhere to the statement, as to form, color, and dimensions, contained in my official report to the Admiralty; and I leave them as data whereupon the learned and scientific may exercise the'pleasures of imagination' until some more fortunate opportunity shall occur of making a closer acquaintance with the 'great unknown'-in the present instance assuredly no ghost."

Though their contemporaries thought M'Quhae got the better of the argument and the sea serpent still had a few prominent champions (such as the famous naturalist Philip Gosse), the weight of scientific opinion continued its slide into negativism. Despite a multitude of reports by men and women of responsible position and impeccable reputation, despite sightings by whole ship crews, notwithstanding statements under oath, the creature was more and more viewed as an impossibility. The world was now too well explored for it to harbor unknown beasts of great size, the reasoning went. Moreover, if they existed, why did such creatures never get stranded on beaches, leaving carcasses which would settle the question for once and always? Of course the latter was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because prejudice against sea serpents had become so entrenched that when unusual carcasses were found, often scientists refused to examine them. On the other hand, when examinations were accomplished, the carcasses typically proved to be from known sea animals, notably the basking shark.

Final solutions to the sea-serpent mystery were regularly declared. One caustic observer of these attempts to bury the monster, Richard A. Proctor, wrote in 1885:

Because one captain has mistaken a lot of floating sea-wreck half a mile away for a sea monster, therefore the story of a sea creature seen swiftly advancing against wind and sea, at a distance of less than 200 yards, meant nothing more than misunderstood sea-weed. Another mistakes a flight of birds in the distance, or a shoal of porpoises, and even a range of hills beyond the horizon, for some seaserpentine monster, and forthwith other accounts, however manifestly inconsistent with such explanations, are regarded as explained away. Then, worst of all, some idiot invents a sea-serpent to beguile his time and find occupation for his shallow pate, and so soon as the story is shown to be only a story, men of sense and standing, as incapable of the idiocy of inventing sea-monsters as I am of inventing a planet, are supposed to have amused their leisure by sending grave reports of non-existent sea-monsters to men under whom they (the seamen, not the monsters) held office, or by taking oath before the magistrates that they had seen sea creatures which they had invented, and by parallel absurdities.

In 1892 A. C. Oudemans revived the question in a classic work, The Great Sea Serpent, which as a summary and analysis of the evidence would be unmatched until the publication in 1968 of Bernard Heuvelmans's In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. In 591 pages Oudemans, a respected Dutch zoologist, reviewed 187 cases and from them concluded that all sea-serpent sightings were of a single species of animal, a gigantic long-necked seal.

The twentieth-century Serpent

In 1933 reports of strange animals in a Scottish lake caused a sensation, and the legend of the Loch Ness monster entered international popular culture. Though within fairly short order Ness's alleged inhabitants would acquire a reputation, at least among those who had not bothered to pay attention to the evidence, as creatures in an absurd tall tale, for a period of time the Ness story reminded scientists and others of the still-unsolved mystery of the sea serpent. Oudemans for one assumed that one of the Ness animals would soon be caught or killed and the identity of the sea serpent would be known with certainty.

In 1933 there was a rash of reports of a sea serpent off the coast of British Columbia. Occasional sightings had occurred in the past, going back to at least 1897, but the Loch Ness uproar gave water monsters generally a new cachet. Soon the Canadian animal was given the name Cadborosaurus, which combined Cadboro Bay, on Victoria Island's southeast coast, and saurus. Cadborosaurus soon became "Caddy."

The first widely publicized sighting took place on October 8, 1933, and involved a witness of high repute: Maj. W. H. Langley, a barrister and clerk of the British Columbia legislature. Sailing his sloop past Chatham Island early in the afternoon, he spotted a greenish-brown-colored serpent with serrated body, "every bit as big as a whale but entirely different from a whale in many respects." He estimated its length at 80 feet.

In 1937, according to an account told to investigators years later, whalers killed a sperm whale off the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia. When they cut its stomach open, they found inside the semidigested remains of a 10-foot-long, snakelike creature with a horselike head and humped back. This remarkable specimen was returned to the ocean.

Two scientists, University of British Columbia oceanographer Paul LeBlond and Royal British Columbia Museum marine biologist Edward Bousfield, have spent some years investigating reports like these. By 1992 they were willing to endorse the reality of the animals in a formal lecture to a conference of the American Society of Zoologists.

Another much-publicized sea serpent is Chessie, the Chesapeake Bay monster. It got its name in 1982, following a number of sightings in the spring and summer. As with Caddy, these have attracted the attention of scientists with cryptozoological interests. Sightings include one made by Robert and Karen Frew on May 31, 1982. At 7 P.M., while entertaining guests outside their home overlooking the bay at Love Point on the northern tip of Kent Island, at the mouth of the Chester River, they saw a strange creature 200 feet from shore in calm water only five feet deep.

Robert Frew watched it through binoculars for a few minutes before securing his video camera and focusing on the enigmatic animal, which submerged and reappeared several times during the sighting. The closest the creature came was within 100 feet of shore and within 50 feet of some boys who were playing on a pile of submerged rocks. Though the Frews and their friends shouted to alert the boys (their cries and all other comments made during the event are recorded on the videotape), the boys never heard them and so apparently never saw the animal.

The witnesses estimated the animal to be 30 to 35 feet long but slightly less than a foot in diameter. Much of it remained under water, but as it surfaced repeatedly, more and more of it became visible. Frew said, "The first time up, we saw its head and about four feet [of back]. The next time about 12 feet, the next time about 20." The visible part of the back seemed to have humps. Its head was shaped like a football, only "a little more round." Observers could not discern eyes, ears, or mouth. It was the odd shape of the head more than anything else that led Frew to reject the idea that the animal was some kind of snake. The Frews, familiar with a wide variety of sea life, rejected theories that they had misperceived a conventional animal.

On August 20 seven scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, along with representatives of the National Aquarium and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, met at the Smithsonian to view and discuss the Frew videotape. In a subsequent report recounting the group's conclusions, George Zug of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History wrote, "All the viewers of the tape came away with a strong impression of an animate object.... We could not identify the object.... These sightings are not isolated phenomena, for they have been reported regularly for the past several years."

The twentieth century has seen no let-up in sea-serpent reports in the world's oceans. The presence of an organization like the International Society of Cryptozoology, whose board of directors and general membership include a surprising number of well-credentialed and impressively affiliated biologists, makes serious research both possible and at least quasi-respectable. Along with other books on a wide range of cryptozoological questions, the ISC's president, Bernard Heuvelmans, can claim credit for producing the most comprehensive volume ever written on the sea serpent. It is not likely that we will see anything to compare to In the Wake of the SeaSerpents in our time. Any private Princess Yacht owner today would be shocked to see anything that resembles a Sea Serpent in the water. They may decide to forgo sailing altogether, and place their Princess Yachts for sale if they experienced such a bizarre spectacle.

The varieties of Sea-Serpent Experience

In the last chapter of his book, at the end of a detailed recitation and searching analysis of every sea-serpent report, credible or otherwise, known through 1966 (587 in all, of which he judged 358 authentic observations of unknown animals), Heuvelmans parted company with nearly all of his predecessors: he bluntly acknowledged the futility of trying to forcefit from these a description of a single species of animal. Virtually every other commentator, including Oudemans and Rupert T. Gould (author of the important The Case for the Sea Serpent [1930]), had dismissed or rationalized away all discordant detail as due to error or invention. Heuvelmans found, however, that these supposedly anomalous features reappeared so often that they had to be taken into consideration. And if they were, they suggested that 11 sea serpent" is a generic term covering several unrecognized marine animals. Among them:

Long-necked (48 sightings). Description: A long neck, angled toward the head; hump or humps on the back; no tail; two horns, sometimes described as ears. Sample report: In the summer of 1950, John Handley, bathing in the surf on the Kent coast, saw a long-necked creature rise out of the water less than 100 yards away. It had ears and a horselike head more than two feet across. A woman also observed the creature. Classification: Almost certainly a pinniped. Range: Cosmopolitan.

Merhorse (37 sightings). Description: Floating mane, medium to long neck, big eyes, hair or whiskers on the face. Sample report: In November 1947 Vancouver Island fisherman George W. Saggers encountered a strange serpentlike animal in Ucluelet Harbor, at a distance of 150 feet. Its head and neck were four feet above the water; it had "two jet black eyes about three inches across and protruding from the head.... It appeared to have some sort of mane.... The color of the mane was dark brown," he wrote. Classification: Probably a pinniped. Range: Cosmopolitan.

Many-humped (33 sightings). Description: String of dorsal humps, slender neck of medium length, small but prominent eyes, striped dark on top of the body, white on underside, white stripes on neck.. Sample report: On June 20, 1815, Capt. Elkanah Finney focused a telescope on a sea serpent in Cape Cod Bay: "I then had a good view of him through my glass, at the distance of a quarter of a mile. His appearance in this situation was like a string of buoys. I saw perhaps thirty or forty of these protuberances or bunches, which were about the size of a barrel. The head [front part visible above water] appeared to be about six or eight feet long, and where it was connected with the body was a little larger than the body. His head tapered off to the size of a horse's head.... What I supposed to be his under jaw had a white stripe extending the whole length of the head, just above the water. While he lay in this situation, he appeared to be about a hundred or a hundred and twenty feet long." Classification: Cetacean. Range: North Atlantic.

Many-finned (20 sightings). Description: Triangular fins looking like a huge crest, short, slender neck. Sample report: In December 1878 an Englishwoman named Mrs. Turner was aboard the liner Poonah anchored off Suez or Aden; she could not remember which when she related her experience to Robert P. Greg, who subsequently wrote a letter to Oudemans. She observed an extraordinary animal motionless on the surface 150 feet away. Greg wrote, "She saw both the head and 7 or 8 fins of the back, all at the same time in a line. She cannot remember exactly how many dorsal fins there were, but they were large, slightly curved back and not all the same size.... The head looked 4-6 feet diameter, like a large tree trunk.... The color was nearly black like a whale. The whole length appeared considerable, perhaps as long as an ordinary tree, or moderate sized ship!" Classification: Cetacean. Range: Tropical waters.

Super-Otter (13 sightings). Description: Slender, medium-length neck and long, tapering tail, several vertical bends in the body. Sample report: Hans Egede, a Protestant missionary known as the Apostle of Greenland, recorded this 1734 manifestation, witnessed while he was on his second voyage to Greenland: "This Monster was of so huge a Size, that coming out of the Water, its Head reached as high as the Mast-Head; its Body was bulky as the Ship, and three or four times as long. It had a long pointed Snout, and spouted like a Whale-Fish; great broad Paws, and the Body seemed covered with shell-work, its skin very rugged and uneven. The under Part of its Body was shaped like an enormous huge Serpent, and when it dived again under Water, it plunged backwards into the Sea, and so raised its Tail aloft, which seemed a whole Ship's Length distant from the bulkiest part of its Body." Classification: Uncertain, but possibly a surviving form of primitive cetacean. Range: North Atlantic (possibly extinct; last known sighting in 1848).

Super-Eel (12 sightings). Description: Serpentine body, long tapering tail. Sample report: Two British naturalists aboard the yacht Valhalla, on a scientific cruise 15 miles off the mouth of the Parahiba in Brazil, spotted a strange animal in the water at mid-morning on December 7,1905. E.G.B. MeadeWaldo wrote: "I ... saw a large fin or frill sticking out of the water, dark seaweed-brown in color, somewhat crinkled at the edge. It was apparently about 6 feet in length, and projected from 18 inches to 2 feet from the water." After securing field glasses, he watched a "great head and neck [rise] out of the water in front of the frill; the neck did not touch the frill in the water, but came out of the water in front of it, at a distance of certainly not less than 18 inches, and from 7 to 8 feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness. The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as had also the eye.... It moved its head and side in a peculiar manner; the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below-almost white, I think." Classification: Fish. Range: Cosmopolitan.

Heuvelmans acknowledged, "I cannot claim to have entirely solved the problem of the great seaserpent, but I have cleared up a good deal of it. To solve the whole complex problem, without being able to examine the remains of the animals in question, we need many more detailed and exact reports." He noted that hoaxes and misidentifications of known marine animals have added no small measure of confusion. Aside from reports that had to be eliminated from the analysis because of lack of detail, Heuvelmans counted 49 hoaxes and 52 mistakes among the reports he collected.

(Some of the most spectacular hoaxes would be perpetrated in the decade after In the Wake saw print. They involved widely published photographs, allegedly taken by an untraceable "Mary F.," allegedly of the Cornish sea serpent Morgawr off Falmouth Bay. An account in Strange Magazine, the result of extensive inquiries conducted by Mark Chorvinsky, identifies the hoaxer as professional prankster Tony "Doc" Shiels. So far, however, Shiels admits nothing. Whoever the perpetrator may be, there is no doubt that the photographs are bogus. Shiels also has taken dubious-looking pictures of what he maintains is the Loch Ness monster.)

In common with every other twentieth-century commentator, Heuvelmans rejects the idea that sea serpents are serpents as such. All but one of the proposed candidates above are mammals. But he does leave the door open slightly for the possibility that an unknown reptile may have been observed on rare occasion. His collection includes a scant four reports of what he calls a "marine saurian," a huge lizard- or crocodile-shaped creature encountered in tropical waters. If it exists, it may be, in Heuvelmans's view, "a surviving thalattosuchian, in other words a true crocodile of an ancient group, a specifically and exclusively oceanic one, which flourished from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous periods. But it could also be a surviving mosasaur, a sea cousin of the monitors of today. It would not be surprising if it had survived for so long in the sea, since it is well designed to dive deep and remain unseen."

Interestingly enough, though Heuvelmans does not mention the fact, some witnesses claim to have sighted giant "crocodiles," "alligators," or "salamanders" in Loch Ness, though writers and investigators obsessed with the notion of the classic longnecked, plesiosaurlike Nessie have consistently ignored or downplayed such sightings.

To the most frequently stated objection to sea serpents-the absence of stranded carcassesHeuvelmans writes that the kinds of beasts responsible for such sightings "all belong by nature to the category of animals least likely to be stranded, and quite capable of getting off the shore again, if by misfortune they are." Apparently they die far out at sea.

From all indications the sea-serpent question is being resurrected. No doubt, however, it will take an actual specimen to silence all skeptics. Nonetheless, as the dimensions of our ignorance about the fauna and flora of the ocean depths become ever more apparent, a priori objections to the existence of gigantic unknown sea animals have fallen by the wayside. The sea serpent's time may at last have arrived.

News Contact Sky Pictures
Back to Top