As long as men have been going down to the sea in ships, they have reported encounters with gigantic marine monsters that have been universally referred to as Sea-Serpents. Cryptozoologist Bruce Champagne estimates that there have been 1,200 or more sightings throughout the seven seas, which have been recorded in the annals of maritime history. The mysterious creatures have been seen from shore as well as ship, and many sightings have involved dozens or even hundreds of witnesses observing them, sometimes over the course of several hours. Witnesses have included people from all walks of life, from sailors to professional scientists. Sightings continue to this day, with recent reports coming in from
and the Pacific Northwest. Such encounters have been
well-documented in newspapers, although many preceded the invention of
Descriptions of Sea-Serpents, however, do not present a single image. Some appear to be gigantic snakes, enormous eels, oversized seals, huge crocodilians, or even prehistoric creatures such as long-necked plesiosaurs. In his monumental work, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968), Bernard Heuvalmans (1916–2001), the father of cryptozoology, distinguishes seven varieties based on consistent descriptions. These are: Long-Necked, Merhorse, Many-Humped, Many-Finned, Super-Otter, Super-Eel, and Marine Saurian. But, despite many sightings, no confirmed specimens of truly unknown animals have yet been retrieved.
Sea-Serpents in Norse Legend
The earliest recorded accounts of Sea-Serpents come from the sailors of the
North Sea known as the
Vikings, who inhabited the countries now called Norway,
and Iceland. 1,000 years ago, these bold Norse seafarers carved the
prows of their oceangoing longships into images of a type of Sea-Serpent they
called Wave-Thrasher (Ythgewinnes in
Old English). The purpose was to ward off real Dragons.
Fig. 1. Dragon-prowed Viking longship
The Stoorworm (“great serpent”) is an immense Sea-Serpent that once dwelt in the area now known as the
North Sea. It was said to be so vast that
its body could cover all of northern Europe! It
threatened to flood all the lands of Britain unless it was appeased by human sacrifices. When the
King’s daughter was slated to be next, her father offered half his kingdom to
whomever would slay the Dragon. A youth named Assipattle volunteered. He
shoveled slow-burning peat into the worm’s mouth, which burned it up from
inside. Its death throes cut the between Skaggerak
Sea Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and its teeth became the Faroe, Orkney, and Shetland Islands. Its ever-burning body remains as volcanic Iceland.
This story may represent a memory of the submergence of all the lowlands between Britain, Scandinavia, and Europe (an area called “Doggerland,” for the Dogger Banks), which began 10,500 years ago at the end of the Ice Age, when the glacial ice melted and sea levels rose 400–600 feet. Around 6,200 BCE, a massive submarine landslide off the coast of
(called the Storegga Slide) caused a catastrophic tsunami which swept over
Doggerland and cut through the English Channel, severing
the British Isles from the European mainland. The hilly
Dogger Banks remained as an island until as late as 5,000 BCE, when it was
finally submerged by the Flandrian Transgression.
Fig. 2. Stoorworm
In Icelandic folklore, the Skrimsl is a gigantic Sea-Serpent that inhabited the sea around Lagarfljot, where it was seen during the Middle Ages and into the 18th century. However, it was considered harmless, as its power had been bound by St. Gudmund until Doomsday. In recent years, however, a bizarre, wormlike Lake-Monster has been reported in
(20.5 miles long and 367 feet deep), which some believe to be the
legendary Skrimsl. Lake Lögurinn
The Great Norway Serpent is an enormous Sea-Serpent reportedly dwelling in the
Sea. Black and scaly, with a long mane of hair, it is said to be
200 feet long and 20 feet thick. It inhabits coastal caves, emerging onto the
land on summer nights to feast on livestock. Other gigantic Sea-Serpents
of Norwegian legend are the Sjøorm
(“sea-worms”). They are hatched on land as little snakes,
but grow bigger and bigger as they eat ever-larger prey, until the land can no
longer support their vast bulk and they retreat to the sea, where they continue
Fig. 3. Norwegian Sjøorm
Swedish ecclesiastic and writer Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) depicted many marine monsters of varied forms, including immense Sea-Serpents attacking ships and devouring crewmen. In his 1555 work, History of the Northern Peoples, Magnus provides the following description of the Great Norwegian Sea-Serpent:
Those who sail up along the coast of
Norway to trade or to fish, all tell the
remarkable story of how a serpent of fearsome size, 200 feet long and 20 feet
wide, resides in rifts and caves outside Bergen. On bright summer nights this serpent
leaves the caves to eat calves, lambs and pigs, or it fares out to the sea and
feeds on sea nettles, crabs and similar marine animals. It has ell-long [45 inches]
hair hanging from its neck, sharp black scales and flaming red eyes. It attacks
vessels, grabs and swallows people, as it lifts itself up like a column from
Fig. 4. Great Norwegian Sea-Serpent in the
, by Olaus Magnus, Sea of Darkness
from his History of the Northern Peoples. (printed by J.M. de Viottio,
, 1555) Bologna
Legendary Sea-Serpents of Other Lands
Hedammu is the name of a vast, all-devouring Sea-Serpent in the mythology of the Hurrians of ancient
Mesopotamia. Similarly, Tannin is an enormous and powerful Sea-Serpent of Hebrew legend,
mentioned in the Bible. Referred to as a Dragon of primal chaos, it is probably
a version of Leviathan or Rahab.
In Scottish folklore, Cîrein Cròin (Gaelic, “grey crest”) is the most enormous Sea-Serpent that ever existed, able to swallow entire whales in a single gulp. Also called Curtag Mhòr a’ Chuain (“great whirlpool of the ocean”), Mial Mhòr a’ Chuain (“great beast of the ocean”) and Uile Bhéisd a’ Chuain (“monster of the ocean”), this is certainly a reference to the gigantic Corryvreckan whirlpool described in the 13th century Norse Eddas, and located on the edge of the Arctic Circle just off the coast of Norway, at Greenwich longitude 1° 15’ E, between the islands of Scarba and Jura in Argyll and Bute. At its wildest, this legendary Moskenstraumen or Maelstrom forms a vast swirling cauldron 300 feet wide and 100 feet deep, and has been known to suck ships to their doom—just like the monstrous whirlpool Charybdis in the Odyssey.
Fig. 5. Great Sea Serpent and the Maelstrom by Olaus Magnus, from his Carta Marina, 1539.
Olaus Magnus included the Moskenstraumen in his Carta Marina (“map of the sea”), printed in
in 1539. It was exaggerated by Edgar Allen Poe in his 1841 short story, “A
descent into the Maelstrom,” and in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It also
featured prominently in the 3rd Pirates
of the Caribbean movie. A complex system of tidal eddies and whirlpools,
one of the strongest in the world, this is the actual place where the “spindle”
of the ecliptic pole churns the Earthly waters of the cosmic mill.
The Bella Coola, Haida, and Kwakiutl Indians of Canada’s Pacific coast tell of the monstrous Sisiutl, variously described as a salmon-serpent, a horned serpent, or even as a two-headed serpent. Sometimes it is depicted with fins, four legs, and huge fangs, often with two serpentine bodies emerging from either side of an enormous head. Anyone who meets its gaze will be turned to stone. Sisiutl is an assistant to Winalagilis, the war-god, and its powers are sought by warriors.
Fig. 6. Sisiutl
Unhcegila is a huge female Water-Serpent with flaming eyes in the folklore of the Lakota Indians. Her scales were flint and her heart was a quartz crystal. She lived in the sea but periodically swam up into
Nebraska, bringing tidal waves that turned the water brackish and
unfit to drink. She was eventually slain by two heroes.
Raja Naga (“serpent king”) is an immense Sea-Serpent in the folklore of
Greatest of all the Sea-Dragons, he dwells in a splendid palace beneath the
waves, called the Pusat Tasik.
Ryujin is one of the Dragon-kings in Japanese mythology. Like Raja Naga, he dwells in a magickal jeweled palace at the bottom of the sea, from which he controls the tides passing through his vast mouth. His beautiful daughter was won by the hero Fire Fade, or Prince Hoori, and thus he became the legendary ancestor of the emperors of
Fig. 7. Ryujin in his underwater kingdom.
was a gigantic Sea-Serpent that, for decades, terrorized the fishing villages
Once a year, on the night of June 13, the monster had to be offered a maiden,
lest it raise up a terrible storm and destroy the fishing fleet. One year, a
young girl named Tokoyo volunteered for the sacrifice. But when the beast arose
from the foam to devour her, the courageous girl pulled a long knife and
slashed out its eyes. As the serpent reared back in pain and confusion, Tokoyo
impaled its exposed throat, thus ending its reign of terror. Oki Island
Fig. 8. Tokoyo slaying Yofune-Nushi, by Rebecca Carr.
Types of Sea-Serpents
The enormous variation in the descriptions of creatures reported as Sea-Serpents has always cast doubt on the credibility of witnesses, and few scientists have deigned to take such reports seriously. But starting around 200 years ago, a few researchers have attempted to compile and categorize reports of different sightings and create systems of classification. The story of the Sea-Serpent cannot be told without mentioning these pioneers in the field.
Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1783–1840) was the first naturalist to attempt to classify Sea-Serpents. In the November 1819 issue of Philosophical Magazine, he published an article titled “Dissertation on Water-Snakes, Sea Snakes, and Sea Serpents.” In addition to discussing numerous known species, he also categorized four different types of Sea-Serpent. These were each based on single sightings, and have been superseded by more extensive surveys. But at least this was a start.
Dutch scientist Antoon Cornelis Oudemans (1858–1943) was a doctor of zoology and director of the Royal Zoological Gardens at
The Hague. In The
Great Sea Serpent (1892), a
study of 166 Sea-Serpent reports, many of high quality, Oudemans concluded that
such sightings might be of a single previously unknown, enormous, sea-lion-like
creature with a long neck and long tail, which he dubbed Megophias megophias
(“great serpent”). He also
considered the possibility of an ancient whale called Zeuglodon
plesiosauroids, but later changed his mind. Although he ignored many
features and reports that did not fit these interpretations, Oudemans’s
suggestions that Sea-Serpents might be mammalian rather than reptilian had a
great influence on later researchers. Indeed, Heuvelmans maintained that The
Great Sea Serpent laid the foundational framework for all of modern cryptozoology.
Fig. 9. Oudemans’s Great Sea Serpent, 1892.
French scientist Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans (1916–2001) published the groundbreaking book On the Track of Unknown Animals in 1955. He followed this amazing compilation in 1968 with In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. Heuvelmans coined the word cryptozoology (“study of hidden animals”), and in 1975, he established the Center for Cryptozoology in
1982 he helped found the International Society for Cryptozoology, serving as
its first president. For these reasons, he is justly regarded as the father of
Here are the categories of Sea-Serpents proposed by Heuvelmans, incorporating some more recent analyses by Loren Coleman, Patrick Huyghe, and Bruce Champagne. My illustrations are based on those of Heuvelmans:
1. Long-Necked or Megalotaria longicollis (“giant sea lion with a long neck”)—A 15- to 65-foot-long, plesiosaur-like creature with a long neck, several humps, and the ability to move in vertical undulations. The head has a distinctive horse-like or “cameloid” appearance, and hair and whiskers have been reported. Believed to be a long-necked, short-tailed sea lion. Seen worldwide, with 82 reported sightings.
2. Merhorse or Halshippus olai-magni (“sea-horse of Olaus Magnus”)—A 30- to 60-foot-long, medium-necked, large-eyed, horse-headed pinniped. Often has whiskers. Only the males have manes, but females appear to have snorkels. In some reports, their eyes are rather small. They have been sighted in both salt and fresh water. Seen worldwide, with 71 reported sightings.
3. Many-Humped or Plurigibbosus novae-angliae (“many-humped thing from
15- to 65-foot-long, medium-necked, long-bodied archeocetacean (ancient whale) such as Zueglodon (Basilosaurus).
Found only in the North Atlantic, it has a series of
humps or a crest along the spine like that of a sperm or grey whale. 82
4. Super Otter or Hyperhydra egedei (“Egedi’s super otter”)—A 60- to 100-foot-long, medium-necked, long-bodied archeocete resembling an otter. It moves in six to seven vertical undulations. Once reported near
and Greenland, but now presumed to be extinct. 28
5. Many-Finned or Cetioscolpenda aelani (“Aelian’s cetacean centipede”)—An elongated creature up to 70 feet long, with the appearance of segments and many lateral projections that resemble dorsal fins, but turned backwards. Found in the western
Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, this
creature is also known as the Great Sea
Centipede. It may be an invertebrate.
26 reported sightings.
6. Super Eels—A group of large and possibly unrelated eels. Partially based on the Leptocephalus giganteus larvae, and later shown to be normal sized. Heuvelmans theorized eel, synbranchid, and elasmobranch identities as possibilities. Seen worldwide, with 23 reported sightings.
7. Marine Saurian—A 50- to 60-foot-long crocodile or crocodile-like animal (Mosasaur, Pliosaur, and so on). Found in the northern
Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean
Sea. Possibly an Estuarine
Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) a long way from its Indonesian
and Northern Australian habitat. Nine reported sightings.
Sightings According to Categories
Sailing off the west coast of
Africa in 1893, the steamship Umfili
had a famous encounter with a long-necked Sea-Serpent. According to Mate C.A.W.
Powell’s entry in the ship’s log, it was “of the Serpent shape, about 80 feet
long with slimy skin and short fins about 20 feet apart on the back and in
circumference about the same dimension of a full sized whale. I distinctly saw
the fish’s mouth open [and] shut with my glasses. The jaw appeared to me about
7 feet long with large teeth. In shape it was just like a Conger Eel.” Captain
R.J. Cringle added: “I saw full 15 feet of its head and neck on three several
occasions…. The body, from which the neck sprang, was much thicker than the
neck itself, and I should not, therefore, call it a serpent.”
Fig. 10. Umfili Sea-Serpent, 1893, after Captain Cringle.
“Colossal Claude” is the local name given to a Sea-Serpent first seen in 1934, cavorting near the mouth of the
River in Oregon.
According to L.A. Larson, mate of the Columbia River
lightship, “It was about 40 feet long. It had a neck some eight feet long, a
big round body, a mean looking tail and an evil, snaky look to its head.” Over the years Claude has been sighted
by other lightship crewmen and fishermen. In 1937, skipper Charles E. Graham of
the trawler Viv sighted a “long, hairy, tan-colored creature,
with the head of an overgrown horse, about 40 feet long, and with a four-foot
waist measure.” Captain Chris
Anderson of the schooner Arpo said he
said he got a close look at Claude: “His head was like a camel’s. His fur was
coarse and gray. He had glassy eyes and a bent snout that he used to push a
20-pound halibut off our lines and into his mouth.”
Similar Oregonian Sea-Monsters have been sighted off Bandon, Delake, Empire, Nelscott,
and Waldport; and also in Crescent and Crater lakes. They come in several
varieties and sizes. Some are shiny and some have scales. Some reportedly have
coarse fur. Their most common feature
is the shape of their heads, usually said to resemble that of a camel or horse.
Some of these blend into the next category.
A gigantic Sea-Serpent has been reported for more than 70 years off the coast of
Cadboro Bay, British
The first reported sighting was in 1933, by a Victoria
lawyer and his wife cruising in their yacht. It is consistently described as a
long, serpent-like beast with flippers, a horselike mane, and a camel-like
head. It ranges from 40 to 70 feet in length. In 1933, two fishermen saw two monsters
in the bay, one about 60 feet long and the other half that size. Another
sighting was made by two hunters trying to recover their wounded duck. The
monster rose out of the water, swallowed the duck, snapped at some gulls, and
then submerged. They noted a six-foot-long head with saw-like teeth. Following
in the tradition of Nessie, locals affectionately dubbed their local monster Cadborosaurus Willsi, or “Caddy.”
Fig. 11. Caddy sketched by eyewitnesses Osmond Ferguson and D. Mattison, 1897.
The first American Sea-Serpent was reported from
, in 1639. A similar creature,
reported from 1777 into the 1950s, was the Casco Bay Sea-Serpent of Cape Ann,
Massachusetts Maine, affectionately dubbed “Cassie.”
From 1817 to 1918, an enormous, serpentine marine animal was reported in the harbor off
, by numerous eyewitnesses.
Described as being 80–100 feet in length, with a broad, horselike head and a
hornlike appendage jutting from its skull, this scaly monstrosity was said by
some to resemble a “row of casks” upon the water. It became known as the
Gloucester Sea-Serpent or the Great New England Sea-Serpent,
and was officially named Scoliophis
Fig. 12. Gloucester Sea-Serpent.
A great many-humped Sea-Serpent was sighted off of
on July 29, 1862, according
to the following news item:
Captain Holdredge, of the ship Silas Richard, which arrived yesterday from
says that in passing George’s Banks five days since, he had a fair view of the
Serpent. It was about ten rods [175 feet] from the ship, the sea was perfectly
calm, and that part which appeared out of water was about 60 feet in length.
The head and protuberances of the Serpent were similar to the representations
which have frequently been given of him by persons who had seen him. He was
visible about seven minutes to the passengers and crew, who were on deck at the
time. A certificate has been drawn up and signed by the passengers which, with
a drawing made by one of the gentlemen, gives a minute description of the
Serpent as seen by them. The number and credibility of the witnesses place
beyond all doubt the existence of such an animal. (Zion’s Herald,
Boston, August 2, 1826)
Other very similar Sea Serpents were reported and drawn in the early 20th century:
Fig. 13. Three Many-Humped Sea Serpents: A. Cape Cod Sea Serpent, 1862,
seen from the Silas Richard. B. Ofotfjorden Sea Serpent, 1914,
after W.E. Parkin. C. Townsville Sea Serpent, 1934, after Oscar Swanson.
July 8, 1856,
the Princess, sailing off the cape of
Africa, encountered a “very large fish, with a head
like a walrus, and 12 fins, similar to those in a black fish, but turned the
contrary way. The back was from 20 to 30 feet long; also a great length of
tail.” (--Captain A.R.N. Tremearne). The good captain’s drawing was published
in the Illustrated London News:
Serpent, by Capt. Tremearne, 1865. Princess Sea
In 1883, Tan Van Con discovered an enormous, centipede-like creature washed up on the coast of
Called Con Rit (“centipede”), it was
60 feet long and 3 feet wide, dark brown on top and yellow underneath, and had
a segmented body comprised of three-by-two-foot chitinous
hexagonal segments. Filaments 28 inches long protruded from both sides of each
segment. Nothing else like it has ever been found, and its zoological identity
remains a mystery. Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker believes that the Con Rit may be
a gigantic isopod or an undiscovered form of aquatic chilopoda (centipede). The largest known centipede of all time was
the 11-foot-long Arthropleura of the
Carboniferous era. The biggest known living species is the Amazonian Giant
Centipede (Scolopendra gigantea),
which attains a more modest 14 inches in length. However, like all arthropods,
these giant centipedes are noted for their jointed legs, and the Con Rit
segments have no such features. But perhaps they are only the upper carapace of
whatever unknown creature they come from.
Fig. 15. Con Rit segments (1883) compared with reconstruction of Arthopleura.
An enormous, eel-like Sea-Serpent was seen by the crew of the British frigate Daedalus on her passage from the
Indies through the Cape of Good Hope in the
year 1848. About 300 miles off the coast of what is now Namibia,
a Sea-Serpent passed just 100 yards from the ship. In his log, Captain M’Quhae
described it thus:
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 it comparing with the length our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal á fleur d’eau, no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water…. The diameter of the serpent was about 15 or 16 inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake…its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat.
Fig. 16. Daedalus Sea-Serpent 1848.
In August of 1880, a 35-foot-long, eel-shaped fish was captured by Captain S.W. Hanna off the coast of
Called the New Harbor Sea-Serpent, its elongated body was only ten inches wide, and it had a pair of small fins behind its flat head.
The upper portion of the skull extended over its narrow mouth, which contained
two rows of sharp teeth. It had three sets of uncovered gills, a small,
triangular dorsal fin, and an eel-like tail. Its entire body was covered with skin
like a shark’s. Unfortunately, these amazing remains were inexplicably
discarded. According to eminent ichthyologist Spencer Baird, the description
of this fish closely resembles the serpentine Frilled Shark (Chlamydoselachus Anguineus, “snake-like
shark with frills”). However, the largest recorded specimen of a frilled shark
came to only seven feet long. (see Fig.33) New Harbor, Maine
A more likely candidate would be the ribbon-like Oarfish (Regalecus glesne), of which specimens up to 56 feet long have been confirmed. Even larger ones may exist. By any criteria, these rare and unusual fish would certainly qualify as genuine Sea Serpents!
Fig. 17. Oarfish.
In 1930, a six-foot-long eel larva (leptocephalus) was caught off the
Cape of Good , by
a trawler called the Dana. For a long
time, this find was believed to be the larval form of a Sea-Serpent. The
leptocephalus of a common eel (genus: Hope, South
measures only three inches long, and matures at about four feet long. Because
this leptocephalus was 24 times larger than that of an anguilla, estimates of
its adult length ranged from 20 to 180 feet long. However, several similarly shaped
leptocephali belong to the group called Spiny Eels (Notacanths and Halosaurs).
These larvae—called Leptocephalus giganteus—have been witnessed
transforming into their adult stages, during which they gain very little length
compared to true eels. The Dana
larvae is still bigger than any of the known ones; however, this specimen also
had an abnormally large number of vertebrae in its spine, a number which only a
Snipe Eel (Nemichthyidae) can match. But snipe eels reach only five feet
in length; therefore if the Dana
larvae was a post-larval snipe eel it was certainly of unusually large
Fig. 18. Giant Leptocephalus caught by the Dana, 1930.
A reptilian Sea-Serpent was reportedly encountered by a German submarine, the U-28 Schmidt, on
July 30, 1915.
After torpedoing the British steamer Iberian
in the North Atlantic, the submarine crew saw a gigantic
unknown aquatic animal thrown up by the explosion. According to Commander
Freiherr Georg Günther
von Forstner, “this wonder of the seas, which was writhing and struggling among
the debris…resembled an aquatic crocodile, which was about 60 feet long, with
four limbs resembling large webbed feet, a long, pointed tail and a head which
also tapered to a point.”
Fig. 19. U-28 abomination, 1915 (from Heuvelmans)
One would be tempted to identify this creature as a marine crocodile (which it probably was), but the largest size those are known to reach is under 30 feet. However, prehistoric crocodiles of the Cretaceous era, such as Deinosuchus (“terrible crocodile”) and Sarcosuchus, attained lengths of 40 feet or more, and were apex predators capable of killing and eating large dinosaurs. Other Mesozoic marine reptiles included the giant Mosasaurs, which were even longer, with more serpentine bodies, and actually appeared more like the U-28 monster:
Fig. 20. Mosasaurus and Ichthyosaurs.
Part of what has contributed to the legend of Sea-Serpents over the centuries has been the physical evidence of monstrous carcasses occasionally discovered washed up on beaches. Invariably in an advanced state of decay, they have appeared to resemble no known living animal. Many seem to have the long thin necks, wide bodies, and four flippers of Cretaceous-era plesiosaurs, thus supporting such a popular identification for sightings of both long-necked Sea-Serpents and Lake-Monsters.
Unfortunately for proponents of the plesiosaur hypothesis, the vast majority of such carcasses have turned out to be the decomposed remains of common Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus), of which the largest ever caught (in 1851) measured 40 feet long, although much larger ones have been reported. When a basking shark decays, its enormous jaws and gills drop away, leaving the relatively tiny skull at the end of what appears to be a long neck. The cartilage-supported lateral fins and upper tail remain, but the dorsal fin and ventral tail lobe break up into hair-like fibers. The final result does uncannily resemble the form of a plesiosaur, and it is easy to see how these could cause such confusion.
Fig. 21. Basking Shark to Plesiosaur by author.
A few other unusual carcasses have been identified as various species of beaked whales, such as the Giant Beaked Whale (Ziphiidae Berardius), which is known to reach 43 feet in length, or the rare Baird’s Beaked Whale (Berardius bairdi).
Here, in chronological order, are some of the more famous “curious carcasses”:
Stronsa Beast—A strange carcass discovered washed up on the rocky shores of Stronsa Island, one of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland, on September 26, 1808. The serpentine remains measured 55 feet long, with a 15-foot-long neck, a slightly broader torso, and a horselike mane along its spine. It also appeared to have three sets of legs, each with five to six toes. Local farmer George Sherar measured the carcass, and preserved a section of skin, a few vertebrae, and the skull. News of this discovery soon reached Patrick Neill, secretary of Edinburgh’s Wernerian Natural History Society, who presented the Stronsay Beast with the scientific name Halsydrus pontoppidani (“Pontoppidan's water snake of the sea”). But in 1811, Society member Dr. John Barclay, who had examined the remains in Orkney, published a paper describing them in which he noted that the so-called legs of the carcass had been misidentified, and were only fins. This paper attracted the attention of renowned naturalist Sir Everard Home, who had just completed a detailed study of basking sharks and was able to identify the Stronsa Beast as one of these great fish.
Fig. 22. Stronsa Beast carcass.
Suwarrow Island Devilfish—A gigantic carcass discovered by natives on the south Pacific atoll called Suwarrow Island, in the 19th century. An English trading steamer, the Emu, made a brief stop on the island, and the crew decided to investigate. The carcass was approximately 60 feet long and covered with brown hair. The captain estimated the creature’s weight at around 70 tons, and described the animal’s head as horselike, with two tusks at the end of its lower jaw. The captain had the 3-foot-long skull removed and stored in the ship’s hold. Upon reaching Australia, he presented the find to the Australian Museum, where it was determined that the skull belonged to a Giant Beaked Whale (Ziphiidae Berardius).
Fig. 23. Giant Beaked Whale (Ziphiidae Berardius).
Trunko—A bizarre, 45-foot-long carcass that washed ashore on November 1, 1922, on Margate Beach in Kwa
South Africa, after several people claimed to have witnessed an epic battle the
previous evening between three gigantic Sea-Monsters. Two of these beasts were
readily identified as whales, but the third was utterly unclassifiable. The
carcass that washed ashore that evening bore a five-foot-long headless neck or
trunk (hence the name), as well as a ten-foot-long, prawn-like tail, all of it
covered with a coat of eight-inch-long, snow-white hair. After rotting for ten
days with no scientific investigation, the carcass was washed back out to sea,
never to be seen again. This was certainly a rotting basking shark carcass, and
the witnesses had probably observed it being torn apart by Orcas.
Fig. 24. Trunko, as popularly reconstructed.Zuiyo-Maru Carcass—The badly decayed remains of a Sea-Monster hauled aboard in the nets of the Japanese fishing boat Zuiyo-Maru, on April 25, 1977, while trawling off the coast of New Zealand. Although the 33-foot-long, 4,000-pound carcass was widely reported to be that of a plesiosaur, subsequent tissue analysis determined that it was just a decomposed basking shark.
Fig. 25. Photo of
Zuiyo-Maru carcass by
Yano Michehiko, 1977.
Masbate Plesiosaur—Remains of an unidentified animal discovered on the beach of one of the Masbate Islands in the Philippines in the mid-1990s. It was reported as being approximately 40 feet in length, with dark and possibly scaly flesh, a long tail, and four flippers. The natives who discovered it sold the rotting carcass to a local butcher, who later described it on TV as being a cross between a small plesiosaur and a large tortoise pried from its shell. But of course it turned out to be yet one more decayed basking shark.
Fig. 26. Drawing of
compare with Fig. 21.
In 1892, when Oudemans conducted his analysis of 166 Sea-Serpent sightings, the sciences of both paleontology and marine biology were in their infancies, and many creatures now well-known had not yet been officially discovered or recognized by science. Some of these may be significant contributors to reports of then-unknown monsters, and I believe it is time to reevaluate some of these early categories and propose new identifications.
After we have done with the rotting carcasses, several likely contenders for the real identity or identities of Sea-Serpents are: seaweed masses; giant squids; oarfish; frilled sharks; huge crocodiles and lizards; and seals. But before we examine these possibilities, we have to address the matter of scale. Many written descriptions and drawings of Sea-Serpents match the proportions of known creatures, except for one glaring factor—their immense size. Witnesses often report creatures resembling eels, seals, or otters, but at exaggerated sizes many times greater than that which such animals are known to attain. How can we account for this discrepancy of scale?
In February of 1985, as our dive boat, the Reef Explorer, was crossing the Solomon Trench on the way from Australia to New Guinea in search of Mermaids (see my previous entry on “Merfolk”), we encountered a true monster of the deep. A huge whale shark appeared right beside our boat, just beneath the surface. I was the first to dive into the water and swim alongside this giant fish, until it eventually descended beyond my range, seeming to simply grow smaller and smaller in the crystal-clear water until it appeared to be but a tiny minnow. Back on the boat, we all compared impressions. There was no doubt in most of our minds that the immense creature must have been at least 40 feet long. Our skipper, however, had a bit more experience with such matters. He had noted the length of the shark in comparison to the boat, and he confirmed that it had been “only” about 20 feet long.
Fig. 27. Diagram: size perceived according to distance, by angles (author)
There are two perceptual factors at work here. The first is pretty straightforward: In the open ocean, as in the sky, there is little objective basis for comparison. Binocular vision only works over short distances. A creature flying overhead could, for all you know, be 100 feet above and have a five-foot wingspan; or, it could be 1,000 feet above and have a 50-foot wingspan. If the air is clear, there is almost no way to know. The same thing is true on the ocean. In the absence of some object of known dimensions at the same distance, a shape in the water could be of any size, depending on how far away you estimate it to be. Moreover, a swimming creature may leave a long wake, which would create the added semblance of a greatly extended tail.
The second factor is even more interesting, in that it has more to do with our emotional reactions than to what we actually see. It seems we have a kind of built-in “zoom lens” in our brains that automatically responds to anything visually alarming or potentially threatening by zooming in to enlarge it, and simultaneously blanking out everything else. The effect of this tunnel vision is that such things are suddenly perceived as being much bigger than their actual size. I used to encounter this all the time when I lived in a wilderness homesteading community. Rattlesnakes were fairly common on the land, and whenever there was one spotted in an area where children might encounter it, someone would call me to come and remove it, as I knew how to handle them safely. Every time, I would be told about some “huge snake—at least six feet long!”—only to discover it was just a little guy, at most half that size. In fact, the snakes even grew larger with each retelling of the story, which greatly enhanced my reputation as a snake handler!
This is just the way our minds work, after millions of years of evolution, to draw our attention to anything that might threaten our survival. And I am certain that the same perceptual distortion plays a large part in reported sightings of oversize monsters.
With such considerations in mind, let’s now consider these candidates in order.
It may seem unlikely, but long masses of seaweed certainly account for some important sightings, especially of incredibly long “serpents” 100–300 feet in length. As the following report attests, these masses can be uncannily convincing. In 1848, a “Mr. Smith” was making a voyage in his father’s ship, the Pekin, when he recorded this remarkable encounter:
When near Moulmein [Burma], in calm weather I saw at a certain distance something extraordinary, balancing itself on the waves, and which appeared to be an animal of immeasurable length. With our telescopes we could perfectly distinguish an enormous head, and a neck of monstrous size covered with a mane, which alternately appeared and disappeared. This appearance was likewise seen by all our crew, and everybody agreed that it must be the great sea-serpent. I…immediately ordered a boat to be lowered…the monster did not seem to be disturbed by their approach…. I saw them busily uncoiling the rope with which they were provided, while the monster continued to raise its head and unfold its enormous length….
Fig. 28. The great Sea-Serpent as it appeared to Mr. Smith on the Pekin (1848).
In less than half an hour the formidable monster was hauled on board. The body appeared to be endowed with a certain suppleness so long as it remained suspended. But it was so covered with marine parasites of every species that it was not until some time had elapsed we arrived at the discovery that this terrible animal was neither more nor less than a monstrous algae, upwards of one hundred feet long and four feet in diameter, whose root at a distance had represented its head, while the motion communicated to it by the waves had given it the semblance of life.
Fig. 29. The gigantic seaweed serpent as it turned out to be.
Immediately after my arrival in London, the Daedalus reported its encounter with the great serpent in nearly the same parts, and I cannot doubt but that it was only the floating wreck of the algae whose history I have just related. Nevertheless, the illusion is rendered so justifiable by the appearance of the object, that if I had been unable to dispatch the boat at the moment I did, I should have remained all my life in the conviction that I had seen the great serpent of the sea. (--James William Buel, Sea and Land, 1887)
Although the form of a Giant Squid (Architeuthis) may not seem particularly serpentine, there is little doubt that many early sightings of Sea-Serpents can be so identified. While this true monster of the deep seems well-documented today, it was not always so. As recently as 1958, when Heuvelmans wrote The Kraken and the Giant Squid, the very existence of this mythic beast was considered highly controversial. Numerous old drawings, supposedly depicting huge Sea-Serpents in pitched battles to the death with Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus), fairly accurately illustrate the feeding of such whales upon giant squid.
Fig. 30. The Pauline Sea-Serpent of 1875, after Rev. D.L. Penny.
Another classic image in the annals of Sea-Serpent sightings is based on a report by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede (1696-1758). On a voyage to Greenland, he reported a personal encounter he had in July of 1734:
On the 6th appeared a very terrible Monster of so huge a Size, that coming out of the Water, its Head reached above our Mast-Head; its Body was as 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 Flappers, 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. (--Hans Egede, A Description of Greenland, 1745)
Fig. 31. Sea-Serpent seen by Hans Egede off the south coast of Greenland, 1734
Cryptozoologists have remarked that the accompanying illustration, drawn from this description by one of Egede’s fellow missionaries, bears too great a resemblance to the thrashing back and tail of a giant squid, along with one of its waving tentacles, for it be a coincidence. This resemblance was first noted by Henry Lee, curator of the Brighton Aquarium, in his Sea Monsters Unmasked (1883). (Fig. 32). I concur that this seems the likeliest identification, and it demonstrates that, as with an iceberg, what may be observed above the surface does not necessarily give an accurate impression of what lies beneath and out of view.
Fig. 32. How Henry Lee proposed the giant squid to explain both
Egede’s Sea-Monster (A) and the Daedalus sighting (B).
The most likely candidate for many sightings of long serpentine Sea-Monsters is the Oarfish (Regalecus glesne, also called the Ribbonfish)—the longest living bony fish. In 1808, a 56-foot-long specimen washed ashore in Scotland. With their bright silvery bodies, dramatic, scarlet, cockatoo-like head crests, attenuated, paddle-tipped pectoral fins, and long dorsal fin, they seem to me to qualify perfectly well as genuine Sea-Serpents, with no embellishments needed whatsoever.
Fig. 33. 18-foot-long Oarfish found in Toyon Bay, CA Oct. 18, 2013.
Often called a “living fossil” because its characteristics have changed very little in 350 million years, the Frilled Shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) is long and slender like an eel, and takes its name from its six pairs of fringed gills, one set more than most sharks. It has 25 rows of sharp teeth, some of which protrude from the sides of its jaws like those of a crocodile. It was discovered in Japanese waters in the 19th century.
Fig. 34. Frilled shark.
On January 23, 2007, a specimen was captured alive off the coast of Japan, but it died shortly thereafter from the change of pressure. Sometimes caught in the nets of trawlers, their range is worldwide, but they dwell at depths of 2,000–3,300 feet, where they are the only predators of giant squids, other than sperm whales. Although none of those caught has been more than seven feet long, much larger specimens may exist in the abyssal depths. If so, these could certainly account for reports of Sea-Monsters resembling zueglodons, as they closely match the common reconstructions of archaeoceti.
Fig. 35. Zueglodon (Basilosaurus).
Crocodiles and Giant Lizards
Heuvelmans’ Marine Saurians have been reported only nine times, and I think that so few sightings can surely be accounted for by known reptiles. The Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) of Indonesia and northern Australia is the largest of all living reptiles. Also called marine crocodiles for their penchant for swimming freely in the open sea, they are known to reach nearly 30 feet in length. Even larger specimens have been reported.
The same region is the habitat of the largest lizards on Earth—the Komodo dragons, which grow up to ten feet long and have been seen swimming between islands. But a prehistoric cousin, Megalania (Varanus prisca), was much larger, attaining lengths of 15-20 feet and weighing 1,000-1,300 pounds. Although believed to have been extinct for 40,000 years, sightings of living specimens are occasionally reported from Australia and New Guinea. Recently, part of a Megalania hipbone only 100-200 years old was discovered in a subfossil state.
Fig. 36. Komodo Dragon swimming in open sea.
Even though the Daedalus sighting (see above) is traditionally listed as a Super-Eel, I am certain from the illustration (Fig 15) that this creature was in reality a Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), especially as it was encountered near Antarctic waters. A ferocious and terrifying predator, the leopard seal is characterized by its long streamlined body, a long neck, and an almost reptilian head with a flat forehead. The nostrils are positioned on top of the muzzle, and the animal has a massive lower jaw with a huge gape. Males can be as long as ten feet and weigh 1,000 pounds. These seals are silvery dark-grey on top and somewhat lighter on the bottom, with speckled counter-shading. They have long fore flippers (about one-third of their body length), and their hind flippers resemble double fish tails.
Fig. 37. Leopard seal.
Leopard seals inhabit Antarctic waters, feeding on fish and penguins. Swimming at the surface, they hold their heads high and parallel to the surface, with their long, straight backs showing; sometimes front or rear flippers may be seen. As it is in all mammals, their spinal flexion is vertical. At times their insulating blubber undulates in the rolling waves of choppy seas, giving the appearance of moving humps along their bodies.
It seems to me very likely that leopard seals might also account for other sightings as well. Compare the image of a leopard seal with Heuvelmans’ drawing of the many-humped Sea-Serpent with one flipper raised out of the water (a common thermoregulatory behavior for seals and sea lions, called “flipper fanning.”)
Fig. 38. Many-humped Sea-Serpent by Heuvelmans.
Descriptions and depictions of the Merhorse, with its mammalian whiskers and large, friendly eyes, can be matched with only one known class of animals: seals and sea lions—particularly the Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) and the Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus). These animals frequently adopt a distinctive “periscope” posture, in which they rise vertically as far as possible out of the water, holding their front flippers tightly against their sides and keeping their heads at a 90-degree angle so as to obtain a maximum view over the waves. The effect looks uncannily like the head and neck of a horse, dominated by the enormous eyes of these pinnipeds. The analogy is further enhanced when the animal rises up through a mat of seaweed, which then falls about its head and neck like the mane of a horse (or the hair of a Mermaid…).
Fig. 39. Seal in “periscope” position.
However, it would not be prudent to consign all sightings of “horse-headed” monsters of seas, lakes, lochs, or bogs to sightings of seals. Many of these—especially when they are equipped with several prominent humps—appear to be something else entirely, and are thus more properly referred to as long-necked Sea-Serpents (or Lake-Monsters).
The Great Mystery Remains
Although I believe that the categories of living animals enumerated above may satisfactorily account for many sightings of the great Sea-Serpent, they also serve to clear the decks for the remaining true unknown monster of the sea—namely, the long-necked Sea- Serpent. I cannot accept the proposal by Oudemans and Heuvelmans, and the other cryptozoologists who have followed them, that these creatures are some sort of gigantic, long-necked, benthic pinnipeds. Although I too found the idea appealing when I first read In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents over 40 years ago, I eventually had to conclude that this explanation really didn’t work. After all, pinnipeds are air-breathers that spend a good part of their lives out of the water. Unlike cetaceans or even sirenians, which are fully adapted to an aquatic life and cannot return to land, all pinnipeds congregate conspicuously in coastal colonies to bask, breed, and nurse their young on rocky shores and beaches. Thus, no species of pinniped—known or unknown—could remain hidden today. I have come to believe that long-necked Sea-Serpents are not mammals at all, nor plesiosaurs, nor even vertebrates. Despite his charming reconstruction of a long-necked seal, Heuvelmans’ silhouette drawings based on actual eyewitness descriptions do not exhibit the proportions of his model, nor do they support his pinniped hypothesis, any more than they resemble a plesiosaur; against which identification all the arguments in the previous paragraph also apply.
Fig. 40. Three giant slug Sea Serpents: A. Ingoy Sea-Serpent, 1910, by R. Eliassen;
B. Ingöy Sea Serpent, 1910, after H. Hodgson;C. Two views of the Cuba Sea-Serpent, after Capt. P. Maguerez, 1934.
Rather, the common description of the reported Long-Necked Sea-Serpents seems exactly similar to that of the classic Lake-Monsters I examined in a previous entry in this series, and I believe them to be a larger marine variant of these same creatures. That is, some sort of enormous aquatic slug, characterized by a long, extensible neck with diamond-shaped “fins” at its base, and a large, bulky body topped with a series of keeled humps, whose number increases with the size of the animal itself. The proportions of the head and neck are similar to those of a horse, camel, or giraffe, and the hornlike projections atop the head are certainly the eyes and feelers common to all snails and slugs. The rear parts and tail are seldom seen, and thus are poorly described. Probably there are parapodia—fleshy growths resembling wings that are used as fins in swimming. These appendages occur in several known Opisthobranch suborders, such as the Thecosomata and Gymnosomata, and would seem to fit the few observations of the hind parts of Long-Necked Sea-Serpents.
Fig. 41. Reconstruction of Sea-Serpent as giant marine slug, by author.
I think that the best evidence in favor of this hypothesis is the remarkable pair of photographs of Morgawr, the Cornish Sea-Serpent, taken by “Mary F.” in February of 1976, from Rosemullion Head near Falmouth Bay. (Fig. 42) In her letter to the Falmouth Packet, which published the photos, Mary F. said that the monster was only visible for a few seconds, and that the part she could see was about 15–18 feet long: “It looked like an elephant waving its trunk, but the trunk was a long neck with a small head on the end, like a snake’s head. It had humps on the back which moved in a funny way. The color was black or very dark brown, and the skin seemed to be like a sealion’s…the animal frightened me. I would not like to see it any closer. I do not like the way it moved when swimming.”
Fig. 42. Morgawr, the Cornish Sea-Serpent, photographed by “Mary F.”
in February, 1976, from Rosemullion Head near Falmouth Bay.
In December of 2006, a giant squid was captured alive and videotaped as it thrashed about at the surface. Prior to that moment, no living specimen of the legendary Kraken had been witnessed in modern times, and all we knew of them was from rotting carcasses washed up on beaches. Perhaps someday a living long-necked Sea-Serpent will also be captured in a net or on video, and we’ll finally know for certain what they are.
Meanwhile, it’s good to know that there still remain some unsolved mysteries of the deep.
Postscript:On March 27, 2007, on a dolphin-watching cruise off the coast of South Africa, 13 crew members of the Ocean Safari vessel Dolphin and volunteers from the Centre for Dolphin Studies took numerous photographs of an unknown marine invertebrate, which to me looks exactly like a small version of the long-necked sea slug I have postulated. Miss Gwenith Penry posted photos and a detailed description to teuthiologist Steve O’Shea’s TONMO.com (The Octopus News Magazine Online).
Fig. 43: Unidentified sea-creature photographed by Gwenith Penry on March 27, 2007.
Penry reported that the creature was 12–16 inches long. At its anterior end was a “very distinctive ‘nose’/trunk like protrusion which appeared to be able to move independently of the rest of the body…. There was a notable inflation of the ‘melon’ as the animal surfaced and this then deflated as it dived.” There appeared to be a membranous “skirt,” or parapodia, “on the posterior end of the body, mostly grey but with banding around the edges…. This looks like a thin layer of ‘skin’ that ‘flaps’ like a ray. The banded area looks like two separate appendages that do not join, but the ends meet.” It was “first spotted just below the surface (~30 cm), it then surfaced and swam towards the boat, stopped and lifted the ‘nose’ towards us as if sensing something in front of it.”
In the four excellent photos Penry posted, the extensible neck, inflatable hump, and parapodia are clearly visible. After the posting, heated discussion ensued, but ultimately, no conclusive identification could be made. I believe it may have been a larval long-necked Sea-Serpent as a giant marine slug, and I eagerly await further sightings.
Sea Serpents in the Movies
There have been quite a few movies made featuring Sea Serpents. Most of these have been rather cheesy. In order of release, I know of the following:
Viking Women & the Sea Serpent (1957)
The Giant Behemoth (1959)
The Sea Serpent (1984)
Erik the Viking (1989)
The Chronicles of Narnia 3: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Fig. 44. Viking Women & the Sea Serpent movie poster (1957).