Tuesday 13 August 2013

A Trove of Sea Serpents

     Last month I revealed how the digitalised newspapers of Trove can be used to research old "bunyip" stories. This month, I shall demonstrate its use with "sea serpents".

Eastern Victoria, 1902
     Although the sighting occurred next to the small stretch of Victorian coastline just west of the border with New South Wales, it was not reported until the ship reached New Zealand which, judging from its name, was its home country. The report is very brief, and was taken up in its entirety by a large number of Australian newspapers. I shall quote from what appears to have been the earliest: The Advertiser (South Australia) of 25 July 1902.
WELLINGTON, July 25. Mr. Yeomans, the second officer of the Whangape, is positive that he saw a sea serpent on July 6 between Cape Everard and Gabo Island. The creature, he says, was about 80 yards from the ship. It was snake-like in form, and was about 50 ft long. It had flappers like a seal, and swam vigourously with an undulatory motion. The weather was perfectly clear at the time.
     That doesn't represent much in the way of information, but it is not easily attributable to a known species. Long, serpentine, undulating "sea serpents" have been reported in many other parts of the world.

South Coast (New South Wales), 1930
     I've always been frustrated by these cases. They were mentioned in Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, and he quoted them from Giants and Pigmies of the Deep (1933) by the fisheries expert, David George Stead, but what did the primary sources say? It turns out the reports got picked up by quite a few regional newspapers, but I have attempted to cite what appear to be the earlier and/or most detailed. The area involved is the south coast between Sydney and the big industrial city of Wollongong. To be precise, Bellambi is just offshore from Bellambi Point, itself approximately 7 km in a direct line north of the centre of Wollongong, while Scarborough is about 12 km farther north. Both sites have now been taken over by the Wollongong urban sprawl.
     As far as I could discover, the first story initially appeared on Friday 13 June 1930 in, of all places, the Barrier Miner of Broken Hill, on page 4.
Bellambi Fishermen Report Seeing Sea Serpent
"Could Have Swallowed Boat"
                                                                                                                      Sydney, Friday
     Four men who were fishing off Bellambi on the south coast of New South Wales claim that they came in contact with a sea serpent 30 ft. long and with a mouth large enough to take in their boat and its occupants. When within about 20 ft. of the boat the monster raised its neck and head about six feet out of the water, and according to the fishermen roared something like a seal. The party then pulled away. The monster followed the boat for half a mile.    
     The following day, the Evening News (Sydney) carried a more detailed account on page 2.
Close Up of Bellambi Serpent As Fisherman Saw It.
Wollongong, Saturday
     One of the men who saw the sea-serpent off Bellambi, gives minute details of the queer monster.
     Roy Wiley is most emphatic that the monster was a sea serpent. "We have seen whales, sharks, and all kinds of sea monsters [!], during our several years fishing off the South Coast, and we have never seen anything that resembled a serpent more than this one.
     "Four of us got into Gay's boat about noon and were fishing about a mile off Bellambi jetty. It was about 2.30 when Richardson noticed the big dark object 80 yards off. He drew attention to it, and later expressed the opinion it was wreckage of some sort. Richardson said it appeared to him to be part of the back of a whale.
     "We decided to get a closer view and had pulled the boat to within 20 yards of the object, when the monster raised its head and about four feet of its neck out of the water. Its fins, which projected from its shoulders, were fully three feet high. The color was between brown and black, with white stomach. It had a beak, something like that of a pelican, and its mouth, when fully opened, was easily enough to swallow a man or a full-sized beast. When it rose out of the water it wriggled like a snake.
     "We got the wind up," declared Wiley, "and headed the boat for the beach. Turning, we saw the monster not far from us. It opened its mouth and roared something like a seal, only louder, and we saw for an instant about 25 ft of its body."
     Several men have announced their intention of taking a rifle in their boats in the hope that they will be fortunate enough to get a shot at the monster.
     I must agree with David Stead that this was most likely a rorqual (Balaenoptera sp.). The "fins" were presumably the front flippers, but what gives it away is the beak like a pelican and gigantic mouth. It is a feature of rorquals, of which the most famous is the blue whale, that they possess a large, distendible mouth with pleats. When Mr Wiley claimed to be familiar with whales, he probably had not witnessed any large baleen whale sounding ie rearing its head out of the water. At 20 yards, it must have presented an overwhelming spectacle. Stead's tentative identification was a piked rorqual (B. rostrata), which we tend these days to call a dwarf minke whale, B. acutorostrata. However, considering this whale doesn't grow much bigger than the 25 feet they claim to have seen, I am inclined to suspect something larger, such as the fin whale, B. physalus, which can be three times as long.

     What put in an appearance three weeks later is another matter. The next report is from The Register News-Pictorial of Adelaide, Thursday 3 July 1930, on page 3.

"Frightful Looking: 80 or 90 feet long"
Sydney, Wednesday, - It is claimed that the famous South Coast sea serpent was seen today by three people, who are staying at Scarborough. One woman said it was frightful looking, about 80 or 90 feet long, with an ugly head. It was a dark greyish colour.
     The next day we have a paragraph in the Northern Star (Lismore, NSW):

SYDNEY, Thursday.
     Three witnesses state that the sea serpent which was reported to have been seen by fishermen some weeks ago reappeared off Scarborough yesterday. It appeared to be about 200 yards from the shore and its head was high out of the water. Apparently, it is about 80 feet long.
Obviously, this refers to the same incident. On 10 July 1930, at page 31, The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton) carried a paragraph dated July 4, giving the name of the lady who provided the original report as Miss Amelia Rundle.

     Finally, we have an account of a separate sighting, this time reported on page 5 of the  issue of Evening News for Saturday 5 July 1930.

Under Observation for 15 Mins

     The existence of the South Coast "sea serpent", whatever it may be, is now apparently established beyond all doubt.
     The latest to see it was Mr. Heather, a Wollongong builder, who yesterday studied the monster closely through field glasses from a distance of not more than a quarter of a mile. "I was at lunch yesterday," he told the "News" over the 'phone to-day, while a boy sat in the car outside the house facing the sea, at about 20 yards from the cliff edge.
     "His attention was attracted by something he saw in the water, and when we turned the glasses onto it, I began to change my opinion regarding the previous reports of the presence of the thing.
     "For a quarter of an hour I had a grandstand view, as it swam leisurely over a radius of quarter of a mile. I could see the undulations it formed  moving through the water, but the head was not visible.
50 or 60 Feet Long
     "It appeared to be between 50 and 60 feet long, and probably a foot thick. I could not see any fins, and the best description I could give its colour would be a dark shade.
     "Then it showed that it could move very swiftly through the water. It disappeared, and a few minutes later, we picked it up again half a mile away, making out to sea.
     "Mr. Bert Packer, of Wollongong, then joined us, and he also had an excellent view of the stranger."
     These two sightings, just two days apart, almost certainly refer to the same animal, but one quite different from that seen off Bellambi. Significant, however, was what was not said. The journalists were very remiss in gathering details. We are not told, for example, whether the sea was smooth or rough on either occasion. Miss Rundle failed to provide even the most basic information. Mr Heather described it as undulating (? vertically), but there was no mention of how many humps were present, if any. Heuvelmans, in his summary, assumes that it bore "its head in the air at the end of a long snake's neck", but Miss Rundle didn't actually say that. She said - or rather the reporter summarised that she said - only that it was "high out of the water".
     David Stead identified it as a giant squid, so let us examine that proposition. The giant squid encompasses two species, one of which has been dubbed the colossal squid. Ever since its existence was established in the 19th century, it has captured the imagination of the world, so much so that humans encounter it far more often in literature than in the ocean. Even those who have never read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea know of the submariners' battle with a school of giant squid (which have never been known to school). Peter Benchley followed up Jaws with Beast, about a giant squid 100 feet long (!), with habits more consistent with science fiction than science. Although it is octopuses which lurk in crevices on the bottom, while squid swim free in the open sea, the movie, Reap the Wild Wind had John Wayne as a diver fighting a giant squid in an undersea wreck. Tarka the Otter encountered a giant squid under the same circumstances in the book of that title. In Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, the eponymous hero is attacked by a giant squid - in a lagoon! And in the most absurd scene in that absurd book, Dr No - sensibly omitted from the film - James Bond is dropped into an enclosure with a giant squid - as if you could just go out and collect such a monster of the deep for your aquarium! In The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, it was also the monster of the Cretan Labyrinth - another scene sensibly cut from the film.
     The fact is that the giant squid is an inhabitant of the abyss, seeking its prey hundreds of fathoms down in almost complete darkness, normally only coming to the surface to die. If it weren't for their habit of occasionally dying near the surface and being washed ashore, and for pieces of them to turn up in the stomachs of sperm whales, they would still be as legendary as sea serpents. They are certainly observed less frequently, and most of those seen on the surface have been moribund and dying. Yes, there are a few anecdotes of giant squid swimming healthily on the surface, but I think one of these krakens merrily cavorting in the same general region on two separate days is pushing the bounds of probability a bit.
     Now let us face the issue of size. Estimating size and distance on the featureless sea is always a bit of a long shot. People have a tendency to overestimate when they are frightened, or otherwise aroused - hence the estimate of 80 or 90 feet. Nevertheless, anything estimated at 60 feet when viewed through binoculars at a quarter of a mile is likely to be pretty big. Of course, the wake can sometimes be mistaken for the rear of the animal, but this assumes three things: (a) the water is reasonably calm, (b) the animal's speed is reasonably high, and (c) it has something like a tail in the rear to churn up the water. A squid has no tail; its propels itself by means of a siphon acting like a water jet, with its arms trailing behind.
    A squid has an elongated, bullet-like shape built for fast swimming, with a crown of eight arms surrounding its parrot-lie beak, their length being of a similar order of magnitude to the head and body. In addition, it possesses two very much longer, but thinner tentacles on either side, which can stretch like rubber bands. Cited lengths of giant squids usually include these tentacles. The largest specimen ever recorded was in Newfoundland in 1878, and had a head-body measurement of 20 feet, and tentacles 35 feet long. To illustrate the variability, another one had 42 foot tentacles attached to a 10 foot head and body.
     Now, it seems highly unlikely that the largest squid ever bred happened to come inshore for the benefit of scientists, so there must be a few larger ones out there. Also, there is some contestable evidence of squids much bigger than these, and being a natural romantic, I would like to believe it. But this is neither here nor there. The fact is that the vast majority of giant squids recorded have been much smaller. These creatures must continue growing at a steady pace throughout life. Although the adults of most animals tend to vary in size around a general mean, giant squids appear to exist on a continuum from small to medium to large to huge. Half the maximum size would be common.
     The point is that the two elongated tentacles would be next to invisible to an onlooker from the shore, and the other eight arms, flopping along behind, would not maintain a high profile. In other words, a real 55-foot squid would not appear 55 feet long, but more like 20 or 30 feet - and it is extremely unlikely that the individual would be that size in the first place.
     Furthermore, as mentioned before, a squid swims by a form of jet propulsion. This might result in a sort of jerky movement, but I doubt if Mr Heather would have called it undulating. Moreover, Miss Rundle referred to its "head" being held high. In a squid, this would mean that the tail, with its arrowhead-like side fins, was being held out of the water while it propelled itself along. I find that rather unlikely.
     No, whatever swam past the South Coast in July 1930, it was not a whale or a giant squid, but a true unknown.
     Finally, let me deplore the slackness of the agents of the press. All they did was take a statement, but asked no questions. What can you really do with a description as simple as "frightful looking" with an "ugly head"? If any of my readers are journalists, please take note: if someone reports a sighting of a sea serpent - or a yowie, black panther, flying saucer, ghost, or miracle - then you are either on to something big, or you are on to something stupid. So use your journalistic skills. Ask questions! Get details! There is a button at the top of this blog labelled, "How to report a sighting". Click on it, and it will tell you the sort of information you should be looking for. I suggest you read it now!


  1. the person who observed it for 15 minutes should have been able to create a pretty accurate drawing - maybe the book had it and you're not allowed to display it. Otherwise it's like a 70 yr old version of what is happening today - every person seemingly has a 12 megapixel camera yet no really convincing photos of cryptids have been forthcoming. I assume 70 yrs ago everyone had access to pencil and paper, yet no drawing.

    1. No, there was no drawing. I haven't read Stead's book - or been able to find it - but I am sure that, if he had included a drawing, Heuvelmans would have published it. It is a pretty good example of how slack the journalists were that no-one was asked for a drawing. Later on, I shall be doing a post on the multiple sea serpent sightings of 1934, but the only drawing was obtained because a non-journalist went out and asked for it.
      To give the modern journalists credit, things are a bit better these days.

  2. Saturday, August 17, 2013
    The Sea Dragon of Andalusia

    SPAIN. THURSDAY, Aug. 15 (2013), the lifeless body of a unidentified marine being, appeared on the sands of Playa Luis Siret - coastal, pueblo of Villaricos, Cuevas del Almanzora, Spanish municipality in the province of Almeria - in Andalucía.

    The animal, of fantastic appearance resembling a sea dragon, measuring about four meters long, had advanced signs of decomposition.
    MORE HERE http://brazilweirdnews.blogspot.com.br/2013/08/the-sea-dragon-of-andalusia.html