1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sea-Serpent

SEA-SERPENT. The belief in enormous serpents, both terrestrial and marine, dates from very early times. Pliny (H.N. viii. 14), following Livy (Epit. xviii.), tells us of a land serpent 120 ft. long, which Regulus and his army besieged with balistae, as though it had been a city, and this story is repeated by several other writers (Florus ii. 2; Val. Max. i. 8; Gellius vi. 3). The most prolific in accounts of the sea-serpent, however, are the early Norse writers, to whom the “ Sö-Orm ” was a subject both for prose and verse. Olaus Magnus (Hist. gent. sept. xxi. 24) describes it as 200 ft. long and 20 ft. round, and states that it not only ate calves, sheep and swine, but also “ disturbs ships, rising up like a mast, and sometimes snaps some of the men from the deck,” illustrating his account with a vivid representation of the animal in the very act. Pontoppidan, in his Natural History (Eng. trans., 1755, pp. 195 seq.), says that its existence was generally believed in by the sailors and fishermen of his time, and he recounts the means they adopted to escape it, as well as many details regarding its habits. The more circumstantial records of comparatively modern times may be conveniently grouped according to the causes which presumably gave rise to the phenomena described. (1) A number of porpoises swimming one behind another may, by their characteristic mode of half emerging from and then re-entering the water during respiration, produce the appearance of a single animal showing a succession of snake-like undulations. The figure given by Pontoppidan was very likely suggested by such an appearance, and a sketch of an animal seen off Llandudno by several observers[1] looks as though it might have had a similar origin, notwithstanding that this hypothesis was rejected by them. (2) A flight of sea-fowl on one occasion recorded by Professor Aldis[2] produced the appearance of a snake swimming at the surface of the water. (3) A large mass of seaweed has on more than one occasion been cautiously approached and even harpooned under the impression that it was such a monster.[3] (4) A pair of basking sharks (Selache maxima) furnish an explanation of some of the recorded observations, as was first pointed out by Frank Buckland. These fish have a habit of swimming in pairs, one following the other with the dorsal fin and the upper lobe of the tail just appearing above the water, and, as each animal is fully 30 ft. long, the effect of a body of 60 or more ft. long moving through the water is readily produced. To this category belongs the famous serpent cast up on Stronsay, one of the Orkneys, of which an account was read to the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh;[4] some of its vertebrae were preserved in the Royal College of Surgeons of London, and identified as those of Selache maxima by both Home and Owen.[5] There is also evidence to show that specimens of Carcharodon must have existed more than 100 ft. long.[6] (5) Ribbon-fish (Regalecus), from their snake-like form and great length (sometimes as much as 20 ft.), have been suggested as the origin of so-called “ sea serpents," amongst others by Dr Andrew Wilson[7]; but Dr Gunther[8] from what is known regarding the habits of these fish, does not regard the theory as tenable. (6) A gigantic squid (Architeuthis) was most likely the foundation of the old Norse accounts,[9] and also of those which in the early part of the 19th century came so frequently from the United States as to gain for the animal the sobriquet of “American sea-serpent.”[10] These stories were so circumstantial, so consistent, and vouched for by persons of such eminence, that no doubt was possible (notwithstanding the cavilling of Mitchell)[11] as to the existence of a strange marine monster of very definite character in those regions. The description commonly given of it has been summed up by Gosse[12] somewhat thus:—(i.) general form that of a serpent; (ii.) length averaging 60 ft.; (iii.) head flattened, eye generally not mentioned, some distinctly stating that it was not seen; (iv.) neck 12 to 16 in. in diameter; (v.) appendages on the head, neck or back (accounts here variable); (vi.) colour dark, lighter below; (vii.) swims at the surface, head thrown forward and slightly elevated; (viii.) progression steady and uniform, body straight but capable of being bent; (ix.) water spouting from

Fig. 1.—Sea-serpent, as seen from H.M.S. “ Daedalus.”

it; (X.) in shape like a “ nun buoy.” The annexed figure (fig. 1) represents one which was seen from H.M.S. “ Daedalus.”[13] To show the reasonableness of this hypothesis, it may be added that gigantic Cephalopods are not infrequent on the shores of Newfoundland,[14] and are occasionally met with on the coasts of Scandinavia,[15] Denmark and the British Isles,[16] and their extreme size seems to be above 60 ft., and, furthermore, that their mode of progression is by means of a jet of water forcibly expelled from the siphon, which would impart that equable motion to which several observers allude as being evidently not produced by any serpentine bending of the body. A very

Fig. 2.—Sea-serpent, as observed by Hans Egede.

interesting account of a monster almost certainly originating in one of these squids is that of Hans Egede,[17] the well known missionary to Greenland; the drawing by Bing, given in his work, is reproduced here (fig. 2), with a sketch of a squid in the act of rearing itself out from the water (fig. 3), an action which they have been observed in aquaria habitually to perform. Numerous other accounts seem to be explicable by this hypothesis,[18] among them may be mentioned that of a huge “ snake ” seen by certain of the crew of the “ Pauline ” in the South Atlantic Ocean, which was said to be coiled twice round a large sperm whale, and then towered up many feet into the air and finally dragged the whale to the bottom. It is now well-known that the sperm whale kills and devours Architeuthis and other large oceanic Cephalopods, and no one who has read Bullen's vivid

Fig. 3.—Squid, rearing itself out of the water.

description, in The Cruise of the Cachalot, of the struggle between a cachalot and a giant squid, can doubt that it was a combat of this kind which was thus erroneously described. The immensely long arms of Architeuthis would not unnaturally be mistaken for a snake by sailors, and instead of being dragged to the bottom the whale doubtless sounded of its own accord as whales usually do (see Cuttle-fish). (7) A sea-lion, or “ Anson's seal ” (Morunga elephantina), was suggested by Owen[19] as a possible explanation of the serpent seen from H.M.S. “ Daedalus ”; but as this was afterwards rejected by Captain M'Quahae,[20] who stated that it could not have been any animal of the seal kind, it seems better to refer the appearance to a squid. (8) A plesiosaurus, or some other of the huge marine reptiles usually believed to be extinct, might certainly have produced the phenomena described, granting the possibility of one having survived to the present time. Newman[21] and Gosse[22] have both supported this theory, the former citing as evidence in its favour the report of a creature with the body of an alligator, a long neck and four paddles having been seen by Captain Hope of H.M.S. “ Fly ” in the Gulf of California.[23] (9) No satisfactory explanation has yet been given of certain descriptions of the sea-serpent. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is Lieutenant Hayne's[24] account of a creature seen from H.M. yacht “Osborne.” Two different aspects were recorded-the first being a ridge, 30 ft. in length, of triangular fins, each rising 5 to 6 ft. above the water, while the second view showed a large round head 6 ft. in diameter, with huge flappers, which moved like those of a turtle.

A more recent record of the appearance of a mysterious sea-monster is that of Messrs Meade-Waldo and Nicoll, both fellows of the Zoological Society, in the Proceedings of that Society for 1906, p. 719. These two gentlemen on the 7th of December 1905 were on board the yacht “ Valhalla ” off the coast of Brazil when at 10.15 A.M. they saw, 100 yds. from the ship, a large fin projecting above the water to a height of 18 in. or 2 ft., and 6 ft. in length. Under the water to the rear of the fin was the shade of a considerable body. When Mr Meade-Waldo directed his field-glasses upon the object he saw a great head and neck rise out of the water in front of the fin. The neck appeared about the thickness of a man's body, and 7 to 8 ft. in length. The head was of the same thickness and had a very turtle-like appearance, eye and mouth being distinctly seen. The object was going very slowly and shortly disappeared from view. In this case as in others the objects seen were not sufficient to identify the nature of the animal. It is difficult to attribute such a head and neck to any known fish, and turtles have no dorsal fin. It would thus appear that, while, with very few exceptions, all the so-called “ sea-serpents ” can be explained by reference to some well-known animal or other natural object, there is still a residuum sufficient to prevent modern zoologists from denying the possibility that some such creature may after all exist.

Distinct in origin from the stories already touched on is the legend of the sea-serpent or tinnīn among the Arabs (Mas'ūdī. i. 266 seq.; Kazwīnī i. 132 seq.; Damiri i. 186 seq.), which is described in such a way as to leave no doubt that the waterspout is the phenomenon on which the fable rests. The tinnīn is the Hebrew tannīn (E.V. “whale," “dragon "), which in Ps. cxiviii. 7 might in the context be appropriately rendered “ waterspout."

In addition to the sources already cited, the reader may consult Blackwood's Magazine, vol. iii. (1818); Lee, Sea Monsters Unmasked (International Fisheries Exhibition Handbook, London, 1883); Cogswell, Zoologist, pp. 1841, 1911 (1847); and Hoyle, Proc. Roy. Phys. Soc. Edin. vol. ix. (W. E. Ho.; J. T. C.)

  1. Mott, Nature, xxvii, pp. 293, 315, 338; also Land and Water (September 1872).
  2. Nature, ibid.: also Drew, in vol. xviii. p. 489; Bird, tom. cit. p. 519; Ingleby, tom. cit p. 541.
  3. F. Smith, Times (February 1858); Herriman, quoted by Gosse, op. cit. postea, p. 338; Pringle, Nature, xviii. p. 519 (1878).
  4. Mem. Wern. Soc. Edin. vol. i. pp. 418-444, pls. ix.-xi. (1811).
  5. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. ser. 2, vol. ii. p. 461 (1848); for a criticism of these views, see Traill, Proc. Roy. Soc. Edin. vol. iii. p. 208 (1857).
  6. Owen, Odontography, p. 30.
  7. Leisure Time Studies, p. 115 (London, 1879), containing a readable essay on the subject; Scotsman (6th September 1878); Nature, loc. cit.
  8. Study of Fishes, p. 521 (Edinburgh, 1880).
  9. See note 2; also Deinbolt, quoted in Zoologist, p. 1604 (1847).
  10. Bigelow, Amer. Journ. Sci. vol. ii. pp. 147-165 (1820); Warburton, ibid. vol. xu. p. 375 (1823); Zoologist, p. 1714 (1847).
  11. Amer. Jour. Sci. vol. xv. p. 351 (1829).
  12. Romance of Natural History, p. 345 (London, 1859).
  13. M'Quahae, Times (October 1848); Ill. Lond. News (October 1848).
  14. A. E. Verrill, Trans. Connect. Acad. vol. v. part i. (1880), containing an account of all authenticated specimens of gigantic squids.
  15. Steenstrup, Forhandl. Skand. Naturf., 7de Möde, pp. 182-185 (Christiania, 1857).
  16. Saville Kent, Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. p. 178 (1874); More, Zoologist, p. 4526 (1875); also Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. ser. 4, vol. vi. p. 123.
  17. " Det gamle Grönlands nye Perlustration (Copenhagen, 1741; Eng. trans., A Description of Greenland, London, 1745, pp. 86-89); also Paul Egede, Efterretninger om Grönland, Copenhagen, n.d., pp. 45, 46.
  18. L. de Ferry, quoted by Pontoppidan, op. cit.; Davidson and Sandford, quoted in Zoologist, p. 2459 (1849); Senior, Graphic (19th April 1879); Barnett, Nature, vo xx. p. 289 (1879); Penny, Ill. Lond. News, vol. lxvii. p. 515 (20th November 1875).
  19. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. ser. 2, vol. ii. p. 461 (1848).
  20. Times (21st November 1848).
  21. Zoologist, p. 2395.
  22. Op. cit., p. 358.
  23. Op. cit., p. 2356 (1849).
  24. Graphic (30th June 1877).