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 California
and the Pacific Northwest. Such encounters have been
well-documented in newspapers, although many preceded the invention of
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
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 SkaggerakSea between 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 Norway
(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 Iceland’s
(20.5 miles long and 367 feet deep), which some believe to be the
The Great Norway Serpent is an enormous
Sea-Serpent reportedly dwelling in the North
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
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:
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 Sea of Darkness, by Olaus Magnus,
from his History
of the Northern Peoples. (printed by J.M. de
Viottio, Bologna, 1555)
of Other Lands
Hedammuis the name of a
vast, all-devouring Sea-Serpent in the mythology of the
Hurrians of ancient Mesopotamia. Similarly, Tanninis 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.
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 Venice
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 3rdPirates
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.
Naga (“serpent king”) is an immense Sea-Serpent in the folklore of West Malasia.
Greatest of all the Sea-Dragons, he dwells in a splendid palace beneath the
waves, called the Pusat Tasik.
Ryujinis 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 Japan.
Fig. 7. Ryujin in
his underwater kingdom.
in Japan, Yofune-Nushi
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.
Fig. 8. Tokoyo
slaying Yofune-Nushi, by Rebecca Carr.
Types of Sea-Serpents
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.
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 France. 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 New England”)—A
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 Norway
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
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 (Crocodylusporosus) a long way from its Indonesian
and Northern Australian habitat. Nine reported sightings.
Sightings According to
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 Columbia
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.”
Oregonian Sea-Monsters have been sighted off Bandon, Delake, Empire, Nelscott, Newport,
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.
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.
American Sea-Serpent was reported from Cape Ann,
Massachusetts, in 1639. A similar creature,
reported from 1777 into the 1950s, was the Casco Bay Sea-Serpent of Maine, affectionately dubbed “Cassie.”
to 1918, an enormous, serpentine marine animal was reported in the harbor off Gloucester,
Massachusetts, 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
A great many-humped Sea-Serpent was sighted off of Cape Cod
on July 29, 1862, according
to the following news item:
Holdredge, of the ship Silas Richard, which arrived yesterday from Liverpool,
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)
similar Sea Serpents were reported and drawn in the early 20th
Fig. 13. Three Many-Humped Sea Serpents: A. Cape
Cod Sea Serpent, 1862,
seen from the Silas Richard. B. Ofotfjorden Sea Serpent,
after W.E. Parkin. C. Townsville Sea Serpent, 1934, after Oscar Swanson.
On 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:
Fig.14. PrincessSea Serpent, by Capt. Tremearne, 1865.
In 1883, Tan Van Con discovered an
enormous, centipede-like creature washed up on the coast of Along
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.
enormous, eel-like Sea-Serpent was seen by the crew of the British frigate Daedalus on her passage from the East
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:
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
August of 1880, a 35-foot-long, eel-shaped fish was captured by Captain S.W.
Hanna off the coast of New Harbor, Maine.
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)
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
Fig. 17. Oarfish.
In 1930, a six-foot-long eel larva (leptocephalus) was caught off the Cape of GoodHope, South
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: Anguilla)
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
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
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.
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
Berardius), which is known to reach 43 feet in length, or the rare
Baird’s Beaked Whale (Berardius bairdi).
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
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
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 KwaZulu-Natal,
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
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 Zuiyo-Maru carcass;
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.
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?
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
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.
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!
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
such considerations in mind, let’s now consider these candidates in order.
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
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).
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.
18-foot-long Oarfish found in Toyon Bay, CA Oct. 18,
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.
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.
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 theGrey 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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).