The Sea-serpent

Of the antiquity of the belief in the Sea-Serpent there can be no doubt,

for it is represented on the walls of the Assyrian palace at Khorsabad,

more than once, in the sculpture representing the voyage of Sargon to

Cyprus, thus giving it an authentic antiquity of over 2600 years: but as

its existence must then have been a matter of belief, it naturally comes

that it must be much older than that.

Aristotle, who wrote nearly 400 years later, speaks of them, and their

savage disposition:--"In Libya, the serpents, as it has been already

remarked, are very large. For some persons say that as they sailed along

the coast, they saw the bones of many oxen, and that it was evident to

them that they had been devoured by the serpents. And, as the ships

passed on, the serpents attacked the triremes, and some of them threw

themselves upon one of the triremes, and overturned it."

These, together with Sargon's Sea-Serpent, were doubtless marine snakes,

which are still in existence, and are found in the Indian Ocean, but the

larger ones seem to have been seen in more northern waters. It has been

the fashion to pooh-pooh the existence of this sea monster, but there

are many that still do believe in it most thoroughly; only, to express

that belief would be to certainly expose oneself to ridicule. No one

doubts the bona fides of those who narrate having seen them, but some

one is sure to come forward with his pet theory as to its being a school

of porpoises, or an enormous cuttle-fish, with its tentacles playing on

the surface of the water; so that no one likes to confess that he has

seen it.

Both Olaus Magnus and Gesner give illustrations of the Sea-Serpent of

Norway, and I give that of the latter, as it is the best. The former

says:--"They who Work of Navigation, on the Coasts of Norway, employ

themselves in fishing, or merchandize, do all agree in this strange

Story, that there is a Serpent there which is of a Vast Magnitude,

namely 200 feet long, and, moreover, 20 foot thick; and is wont to live

in Rocks and Caves toward the Sea Coast about Berge; which will go

alone from his holes in a clear night in Summer, and devour Calves,

Lambs, and Hogs, or else he goes into the Sea to feed on Polypus,

Locusts, and all sorts of Sea Crabs. He hath commonly hair hanging from

his neck a cubit long, and sharp Scales, and is black, and he hath

flaming shining eys. This Snake disquiets the Shippers, and he puts up

his head on high like a pillar, and catcheth away men, and he devours

them; and this hapneth not, but it signifies some wonderful change of

the Kingdom near at hand; namely, that the Princes shall die, or be

banished; or some Tumultuous Wars shall presently follow. There is also

another Serpent of an incredible magnitude in a town called Moos, of

the Diocess of Hammer; which, as a Comet portends a change in all the

World, so, that portends a change in the Kingdom of Norway, as it was

seen, Anno 1522, that lifts himself high above the Waters, and rouls

himself round like a sphere. This Serpent was thought to be fifty Cubits

long by conjecture, by sight afar off: there followed this the

banishment of King Christiernus, and a great persecution of the

Bishops; and it shew'd also the destruction of the Country."

Topsell, in his Historie of Serpents, 1608, does not add much to

Sea-Serpent lore, but he adds the picture of another kind of Serpent, as

does also Aldrovandus, whose illustration I give. (See p. 272.) Erik

Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, in his Natuerlichen Historie von

Norwegen, gives a picture of the Sea-Serpent, somewhat similar to that

previously given by Hans Egede, "the Apostle of Greenland." (See next

page.) Pontoppidan tried to sift the wheat from the chaff, in connection

with the Natural History of the North, but he was not always successful.

He gives several cases, one seemingly very well authenticated, of the

appearance of Sea-Serpents.

But possibly more credence may be given to more modern instances. Sir

Walter Scott, in the Notes to The Pirate, says (speaking of Shetland

and Orkney fishermen):--"The Sea-Snake was also known, which, arising

out of the depths of the ocean, stretches to the skies his enormous

neck, covered with a mane like that of a war-horse, and with his broad

glittering eyes, raised mast-head high, looks out, as it seems, for

plunder or for victims." "The author knew a mariner, of some reputation

in his class, vouch for having seen the celebrated Sea-Serpent. It

appeared, as far as could be guessed, to be about a hundred feet long,

with the wild mane and fiery eyes which old writers ascribe to the

monster; but it is not unlikely the spectator might, in the doubtful

light, be deceived by a good Norway log on the water."

Mr. Maclean, the pastor of Eigg, an island in the Small Isles parish,

Inverness-shire, wrote, in 1809, to Dr. Neill, the Secretary of the

Wernerian Society, that he had seen a Sea-Serpent, while he was in a

boat about two miles from land. The serpent followed the boat, and the

minister escaped by getting on to a rock. He described it as having a

large head and slender tail, with no fins, its body tapering to its

tail. It moved in undulations, and he thought its length might be

seventy to eighty feet. It was seen, also, by the crews of thirteen

fishing-boats, who, being frightened thereat, fled to the nearest creek

for safety.

A Sea-Serpent, judged to be of the length of about eighty feet, was seen

by a party of British officers, in Margaret's Bay, whilst crossing from

Halifax to Mahone Bay, on 15th May 1833.

In 1847 a Sea-Serpent was seen frequently, in the neighbourhood of

Christiansand and Molde, by many persons, and by one Lars Johnoeen,

fisherman at Smolen, especially. He said that one afternoon, in the

dog-days, when sitting in his boat, he saw it twice in the course of two

hours, and quite close to him. It came, indeed, to within six feet of

him, and, becoming alarmed, he commended his soul to God, and lay down

in the boat, only holding his head high enough to enable him to observe

the monster. It passed him, disappeared, and returned; but a breeze

springing up, it sank, and he saw it no more. He described it as being

about six fathoms (thirty-six feet) long, the body (which was as round

as a serpent's) two feet across, the head as long as a ten-gallon cask,

the eyes round, red, sparkling, and about five inches in diameter; close

behind the head, a mane, like a fin, commenced along the neck, and

spread itself out on both sides, right and left, when swimming. The

mane, as well as the head, was of the colour of mahogany. The body was

quite smooth, its movements occasionally fast and slow. It was

serpent-like, and moved up and down. The few undulations which those

parts of the body and tail that were out of water made, were scarce a

fathom in length. His account was confirmed by several people of

position, a Surgeon, a Rector, and a Curate, being among those who had

seen a Sea-Serpent.

But an appearance of the Sea-Serpent, without doubt, is most

satisfactorily attested by the captain and officers of H.M.S. Daedalus.

The first notice of it was in the Times of 10th October 1848, in which

was a paragraph, dated 7th October, from Plymouth:--

"When the Daedalus frigate, Captain M'Quhae, which arrived here on the

4th inst., was on her passage home from the East Indies, between the

Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena, her captain, and most of her officers

and crew, at four o'clock one afternoon, saw a Sea-Serpent. The creature

was twenty minutes in sight of the frigate, and passed under her

quarter. Its head appeared about four feet out of the water, and there

was about sixty feet of its body in a straight line on the surface. It

is calculated that there must have been under water a length of thirty

or forty feet more, by which it propelled itself at the rate of fifteen

miles an hour. The diameter of the exposed part of the body was about

sixteen inches; and when it extended its jaws, which were full of large

jagged teeth, they seemed sufficiently capacious to admit of a tall man

standing upright between them. The ship was sailing north at the rate of

eight miles an hour. The Daedalus left the Cape of Good Hope on the

30th of July, and reached St. Helena on the 16th of August."

Captain M'Quhae sent the following letter to Admiral Sir W. H. Gage,

G.C.H., at Devonport:--


Oct. 11, 1848.

"SIR,--In reply to your letter of this day's date, requiring

information as to the truth of a statement published in the Times

newspaper, of a Sea-Serpent of extraordinary dimensions having been

seen from Her Majesty's Ship Daedalus, under my command, on her

passage from the East Indies, I have the honour to acquaint you, for

the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that at

five o'clock P.M., on the 6th of August last, in latitude 24 deg. 44' S.

and longitude 9 deg. 22' E., the weather dark and cloudy, wind fresh

from the N.W., with a long ocean swell from the S.W., the ship on

the port tack heading N.E. by N., something very unusual was seen by

Mr. Sartoris, midshipman, rapidly approaching the ship from before

the beam. The circumstance was immediately reported by him to the

officer of the watch, Lieutenant Edgar Drummond, with whom, and Mr.

William Barrett, the master, I was at the time walking the

quarter-deck. The ship's company were at supper.

"On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to

be an enormous Serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet

constantly above the surface of the sea; and, as nearly as we could

approximate by comparing it with the length of what our

maintopsail-yard would show in the water, there was, at the very

least, sixty feet of the animal a fleur d'eau, no portion of which

was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water,

either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but

so close under our lee quarter that, had it been a man of my

acquaintance, I should have easily recognised his features with the

naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after

it had passed our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its

course to the S.W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to

fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

"The diameter of the Serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches

behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and

it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight

of our glasses, once below the surface of the water. Its colour, a

dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins,

but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of

seaweed, washed about its back. It was seen by the quartermaster,

the boatswain's mate, and the man at the wheel, in addition to

myself and officers above mentioned.

"I am having a drawing of the Serpent made from a sketch taken

immediately after it was seen, which I hope to have ready for

transmission to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty by

to-morrow's post.--I have, &c.,


Space will not allow me to chronicle all the other appearances of

Sea-Serpents from 1848 to the present time. Suffice it to say, they are

not very uncommon, and as for veracity, I will give another instance of

its being seen on board the Royal Yacht Osborne, on 2nd June 1877, off

Cape Vito, Sicily. Lieutenant Haynes made sketches, and wrote a

description, of it, which was confirmed by the Captain and several

officers. He wrote:--


June 6, 1877.

"On the evening of that day (June 2), the sea being perfectly

smooth, my attention was first called by seeing a ridge of fins

above the surface of the water extending about thirty feet, and

varying from five to six feet in height. On inspecting it by means

of a telescope, at about one and a half cable's distance, I

distinctly saw a head, two flappers, and about thirty feet of an

animal's shoulder.

"The head, as nearly as I could judge, was about six feet thick, the

neck narrower, about four or five feet, the shoulder about fifteen

feet across, and the flappers each about fifteen feet in length. The

movements of the flappers were those of a turtle, and the animal

resembled a huge seal, the resemblance being strongest about the

back of the head. I could not see the length of the head, but from

its crown or top to just below the shoulder (where it became

immersed) I should reckon about fifty feet. The tail end I did not

see, being under water, unless the ridge of fins to which my

attention was first attracted, and which had disappeared by the time

I got a telescope, were really the continuation of the shoulder to

the end of the object's body. The animal's head was not always above

water, but was thrown upwards, remaining above for a few seconds at

a time, and then disappearing. There was an entire absence of

'blowing' or 'spouting.'"

I think the verdict may be given that its existence, although belonging

to "Curious Zoology," is not impossible, and can hardly be branded as a