Sunday, 20 March 2016

Another Trove of Sea Monsters

     When I originally decided to use the Australian National Library's Trove of digitalised newspapers to locate the original citation of old "sea serpent" reports, I didn't realise it was going to be almost open ended. Dr Heuvelmans quoted a number of cases from secondary sources. Some of these were mere summaries, but others appear to be more or less verbatim copies of the originals. However, these, as far as I can determine, were the original reports. So here goes.

Mid-Atlantic, 1877. Although the sighting by the crew of the Sacramento took place in the mid-Atlantic, it was not reported for another three months, when the ship reached port in Melbourne. It seems to have been reported in most of the major Australian newspapers, with varying degrees of accuracy and detail, but the earliest and best appears to have been in The Age (Melbourne), Monday 22 October 1877, on page 2.
     The great sea snake has again turned up, having been seen quite distinctly by the captain of the ship Sacramento, which arrived on Saturday from New York. The following is the extract concerning the sea monster from Captain Nelson's log-book:- 30 July, in 31.59 north and 37 west. Was called on deck by the man at the wheel, who stated that a great snake was passing a short distance from the vessel. On reaching the deck the monster was plainly visible, moving steadily through the water, propelling itself by two large flappers or fins, situated a short distance behind the head. It was about forty feet [12.2 m] long and the girth of a beef barrel, the color being yellow. The man at the wheel states that he distinctly saw the eyes of the animal when he first called the captain, who says that he did not hurry up when he was called, as he did not believe in the existence of such a creature; but when he did get on deck, he saw it clearly enough to be certain it was a living animal.
     Interestingly, the Australasian Sketcher got in contact with "the man at the wheel", and under his direction, produced a front page sketch of the animal in its issue of Saturday 24 November, 1877. Here is a copy of the front page.
    For those who can't read the text, it says:
"This is a correct sketch of the serpent seen by me while on board the ship Sacramento, on her passage from New York to Melbourne, I being at the wheel at the time. It had a body of a very large snake; its length appeared to me to be about 50ft. or 60ft. [15¼ - 18.3 m]. Its head was like an alligator's, with a pair of flippers about 10 ft. [3 m] from its head. The colour was of a reddish brown. At the time seen it was lying perfectly still, with its head raised about 3 ft. [90 cm] above the surface of the sea, and as it got 30 ft. or 40 ft. [9-12 m] astern it dropped its head. - JOHN HART."

Southern Ocean, 1877. This story does not appear to have been picked up by any book. However, it appeared in a great many newspapers on Tuesday 4 December 1877, but although the details were rather sparse, no-one seems to have asked for any more. This is quoted from The Evening News (Sydney), on page 2.
Sea Serpent off the Coast
     The chief officer of the Maid of Judah sends us the following memorandum: "Tuesday, November 20, 1877 - Longitude 121 deg 26 min E., Latitude 40 deg 2 min S., at 11 a.m., while some of the hands were aloft they saw a very large serpent on the weather bow. The vessel passed close to it, about forty yards off, and it appeared to be about the length of the vessel. The head of this object appeared to be sunk down out of sight, while a good part of the body and tail was to be seen quite plainly. It was of a browny green colour, and did not appear to have any motion at the time of the vessel passing. There was a fresh gale blowing at the time, and a good deal of sea on, yet the thing was broadside on to the sea in curves, as if it was swimming, but the vessel was going faster, and so I could not see if it had any motion."
     It appears to have quoted the officer directly, but some newspapers abbreviated and interpreted it. For example, on the same day, the Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser (Queensland) published on the latest Reuters' telegrams from Sydney dated 3 December, and the first one was:
    The chief officer of the ship Maid of Judah, just arrived from London, reports that on November 20th, in longitude 121° E and latitude 40° S., he saw a sea serpent one hundred and seventy feet in length. The head sunk out of sight, but the body and tail were plainly seen. [Emphasis in original. 170 ft = 52 metres.]
     Likewise, on the same day, on page 5, The South Australian Register (Adelaide) repeated the length of 170 feet, which presumably was that of the ship, and added that it had "the head of a snake and a slight body."
     As I explained in Bunyips and Bigfoots, my best guess is that it was a giant salp chain. Salps, or tunicates are extremely primitive precursors to the vertebrates, and tend to grow in elongated colonies, which can pulse in unison to produce a sort of lethargic, undirected swimming motion. Dr Roy Mackal devoted a whole chapter to them in his book, Searching for Hidden Animals (1980), because in cold waters such as these such colonies tend to grow quite large indeed. Needless to say, it would be extraordinarily unlikely that science has captured the largest chain ever grown, and he made the plausible suggestion that they might explain sightings such as this.

Eastern Victoria, 1902. This sighting occurred off the eastern coast of Victoria, but was not reported until the ship reached New Zealand 18 days later. The location is the far east stretch of Victorian coastline between two lighthouses. The New South Wales land border terminates at Cape Howe. Gabo Island is about 3 miles [5 km] away, and Cape Everard 44 miles or 70 km.
     I originally ran this story in an earlier post, but now I have found the original report, which is much more detailed. It was run in the Otago Daily Times of 25 July 1902 on page 5, and the Timaru Herald of the same date, page 3.
                                        (PER UNITED PRESS ASSOCIATION.)
                                             CHRISTCHURCH, July 24.
    The appearance of the sea serpent off the Australian coast has been further confirmed by an officer of the Union Steam Ship Company's, s.s. Whangape, which came to Lyttelton from Newcastle yesterday. Mr. Yeomans, the second officer of the steamer, is positive that he beheld the creature in broad daylight less than 100 yards from the steamer. He stated that about 3 p.m. on July 6, when the Whangape was going from Devonport to Sydney. and was between Cape Everard and Gabo Island, he was on the bridge. He saw in  the water, on the starboard side, about 80 yards from the steamer, a large snake-like creature swimming vigorously in a direction opposite to that in which the Whangape was proceeding. It appeared to be about 50 ft [15¼ m] long, and was black in colour, with a head resembling in size and shape that of a seal. It was furnished with large fin-like appendages, or flappers, of which there appeared to be two. Mr Yeomans watched it for a few minutes while it pursued its way with undulating motion. It was about seven miles [11¼ km] off shore. He scouted the idea that what he saw could have been floating logs or seaweed, because, as he says, the thing was plainly alive. The weather was fairly clear, and there was only a moderate sea running. On arriving at Newcastle shortly afterwards the officers of the Whangape learned that the serpent had been seen from the s.s. Chillagoe in the same vicinity as that in which it was seen by Mr Yeomans.
Ram Head, Victoria, 1902. The Chillagoe sighting was recorded by Heuvelmans on page 366, citing a London newspaper and a Belfast one. But their information came from the Australian press, of which one of the earliest, and most detailed accounts appeared on page 8 of the issue of Monday 14 July 1902 of The Sydney Morning Herald.
     Captain W. Firth, master of the steamer Chillagoe, writes: - "On the passage from Port Pirie to Sydney, and when off Ram Head, a monster serpent was seen by several members of the crew. Desiring to get a closer view of the monster, the ship's course was altered to obtain that effect. On closer inspection it proved to be a serpent of immense size. Length, as far as could be judged, from 30 ft. to 35 ft. [9.1 - 10.7 m]; four dorsal fins, standing about 4 ft. to 5ft. [1.2 - 1.5 m] high, and about 6ft. [1.8 m] apart. The head resembled that of a seal, only much larger, being about 2 ft. [61 cm] in diameter. When the ship approached to within 100 yards the monster raised its head out of the water, looked towards the ship, and then disappeared. It was seen by myself (W. Firth, master of the ship), Mr. Cooper (second officer), and several members of the crew, and all agreed that it resembled the serpent seen by those on board of the Princess, and as shown in the "Strand Magazine", the only difference being in the fins, those seen by the Chillagoe being more angular than those shown in the illustration. Its body did not show above the water, but must have been of enormous size."  
     To put this in perspective, the sea serpent reported by the Princess was unusual in having a double row of vertical, triangular fins, and was seen in the south Atlantic. This particular one appeared off Ram Head, which is a small promontory in eastern Victoria, situated almost exactly 20 miles [32 km] in a straight line from where the New South Wales border meets the sea. As far as can be determined from other papers, Captain Firth reported this when he arrived in Sydney on 13 July. The sighting must therefore have occurred a day or so beforehand. That would make it just under a week after the Whangape encounter with what may well have been the same beast in the same area (except that the earlier one did not appear to possess dorsal fins).

Western Tasmania, 1913. This sighting took place on land about 12 miles or 19 km north of Point Hibbs, which is itself located at  42° 44' S, 145° 17' E. Heuvelmans included it on page 391 of his book, citing The Books of Charles Fort, who himself cited two clippings from unidentified British newspapers. Well, the original was published in The Examiner (Launceston, Tasmania) on Saturday 24 May 1913 on page 9.

      Mr. Hartwell Conder has reported to the Secretary for Mines the discovery of an animal on the sea coast, about 12 [19 km]  miles north of Point Hibbs, of so strange a character that it is deserving of special mention. "It is so strange," writes Mr. Conder, "that both the men who saw it and I myself anticipate quite cheerfully the smiles and incredulity of those who read this account. No one is asked to believe it, but I have always held, with not a few others, that creatures exist in the sea which are only very rarely seen. In the belief that one of these creature has been encountered at close quarters, this description is offered, in full confidence that ultimately it will be found to be no fairy tale, but, a small addition to our knowledge of sea life.
     "The animal was seen by Mr. Oscar Davis, foreman prospector, and his mate, Mr. W. Harris, who are working under myself, State Mining Engineer for Tasmania. I have known both of them for a considerable number of years, and can guarantee absolutely their sobriety, intelligence and accuracy. I have no doubt myself that their statements represent what they really saw.
     "They were walking along the coast just before sundown on a calm day, with small waves rolling in and breaking on the shore. The coast here is low, with sand dunes rising above high-water mark. At a distance of about half a mile [0.8 km] they noticed a dark object under the dunes, which surprised them by showing sign of movement. They advanced towards it, and finally came within gunshot -  about 40 yards off. It then rose suddenly, and rushed down and into the sea. After getting out about 33 yards, it stopped and turned round, showing only head and some of its neck. It waited there for about five seconds, and then withdrew under the water, and disappeared.
    "The characteristics are summarised as follow:-
    "It was 15 feet [4.6 m] long. This measurement was checked by "stepping" the mark in the sand, where it had been lying. Davis has done much building and construction work, and knows what 15 ft. looks like. It had a very small head, only about the size of the head of a kangaroo dog. It had a thick arched neck passing gradually into the barrel of the body. It had no definite tail and no fins. It was furred, the coat in appearance resembling that of a horse of chestnut colour, well groomed and shining. It was attractive in appearance, and in no way repulsive-looking. It had four distinct legs. It travelled by bounding, i.e., by arching its back and gathering up its body, so that the footprints of the fore feet came down level, and also, those of the hind feet. It made definite footprints; these showed circular impressions, with a diameter (measured) of nine inches [23 cm], and the marks of four claws, about seven inches [18 cm] long, extending outwards from the impression and away from the body. There was no evidence for or against webbing. The footprints showed about 4ft. [122 cm] between the marks of the fore and hind feet, and then a gap of about 10ft. [3 m], making a total "spring" of 14ft [4¼ m]. Laterally they were 2 ft. 6 in. [76 cm] apart. It travelled very fast; a kangaroo dog followed it hard in its course to the water, a distance of about [indecipherable] yds., and in that distance gained about 30ft [9 m]. When first disturbed it reared up and turned on its hind legs. Its height standing on the four legs would be from 3ft. 6in, to 4ft [107 - 122 cm].
    "Both men are quite familiar with seals and so-called sea leopards that occur on this coast. They had also seen before and subsequently pictures of sea lions and other marine animals, and can find no resemblance whatever to the animal they saw.
     "Such are the details; when the humourists have enjoyed themselves at our expense, the men of science may be able to collate this account with others which have come forward from time to time of strange beasts in our oceans.
    "That no imprint was taken of the footprints and no marking out made of the form in the sand no one regrets more than we do. The next tide swept over them, and they are gone." 
    Mr. H. H. Scott, Curator of the Victoria Museum, has expressed the following views in regard to the discovery:-
    "To my mind, everything points to the specimen having been a seal or sea lion. This may of course be another instance of a true seal getting far out of its ordinary range, and it would therefore be an unknown animal to the men who supplied the information. For instance, if by any upsetting of common rules a 'Weddells' seal' suddenly landed on the coast of Tasmania, and started to bask in the sunshine, how few would recognise the animal at sight! If approached, the creature would turn its really small head towards the intruder, thus giving a fore shortened view of the muzzle, the effect being to reduce the head to a mere pimple upon an otherwise enormous body. If such a seal started to make for the water, its body would be thrown into a series of vertical loops, much after the fashion of certain caterpillars.
    "The sea lions of our own coasts can turn the limbs to a right angle, with the plain of the body, and in diving off rocks the hind limbs are thus turned, and when so seen in more or less edge section appear thinner and more leg-like than really obtains. As these seals have distinct fingers and nails, they would leave an impression in the sand, as noted in the present instance. So also would the Antarctic crab-eating seal, for the matter of that, or most of the true seals. The fingers, although distinct, are yet enclosed in membranes
     "As an instance of abnormal range, I may say that many years ago an Antarctic seal suddenly drew itself upon the strand of a tropical island, and was killed by the blacks, in the full belief that they had once and for all despatched the "Father of Lies" himself! 
     "From the evidence available it is impossible to suggest exact classification, but the above covers some of the observed facts. The question of length is of course open to debate, although the observations may have been made with all honest intent." 

     A later report, in The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times (Tasmania) of Monday 26 May 1913, at page 3, was more abbreviated, but gave the date of the encounter as 29 April.
     What can one say? Despite the rather unusual footprints, the animal was obviously a species of sea lion, the question being which? The distribution of the Weddell seal, Leptonychotes weddellii hugs the borders of Antarctica, where it tends to spend much of its waking hours, and often its sleeping hours, under the ice. But a specimen was caught in robbing a fishing net off Encounter Bay, South Australia on 15 April 1913, just two weeks before this encounter. This, along with its relatively small neck, is probably why the zoologist nominated it as a possibility. However, there are many problems with this identification. For a start, although its head is small for a seal, it is still of the same order of magnitude. By no means does it approach that of a kangaroo dog. Its colour is not chestnut, but dark grey with white blotches. Also, its maximum length is 3 metres or 10 feet. Admittedly, witnesses frequently overestimate size, but in this case, they paced out the impression it made in the sand. Also, Weddell's seal is not a sea lion, but a true seal. Its hind limbs point backwards, and cannot be used in the method described. None of the other seals or sea lions around or near Australia fit the bill, either.
     The relevance for this discussion is that Heuvelmans believed that the long-necked sea serpent is a species of long-necked sea lion, and that this might be a case of a half-grown one coming ashore. I beg to differ. I have previously explained why it is unlikely that any long-necked sea creature is a mammal. Apart from anything else, mammals have only seven neck vertebrae. Even a giraffe has only seven. That would not make it flexible enough to function in water, or to give the appearance described by witnesses. And in this case, there was no indication that the neck was in any way long or thin. The best we can say is that it was a sea lion of undetermined species.

Bateman's Bay, N.S.W., 1931. Bateman's Bay is located half way down the New South Wales coast from Sydney, at approximately 35° 45' S, 150° 13' E. This brief account comes from The Braidwood Review and District Advocate of Tuesday 21 July 1931, at page 6.
     Two fishermen, G. Patrech and Bill Lawler, declare that they saw a sea serpent a the mouth of Bateman's Bay at 8 a.m. on Friday. The creature broke the surface 8ft. [2.4 m] from their boat, and diving, appeared three more times before finally disappearing. Then men describe it as being 12 ft. [3.6 m] long and 2½ ft. [76 cm] in diameter, with a flat head with white jowls. The body was brown. The men made for the shore immediately. 
      Personally, I am far from convinced that this did not belong to a known species. The pygmy sperm whale, Kogia breviceps comes to mind, but some of the beaked whales, or Ziphiidae might fit the bill.

Devon, England, 1987. This one has nothing to do with old Australian newspapers. It was published in the Fortean Times Magbook, It Happened to Me!, vol. 1, pp 88-90 - in fact, right next to the Singapore sea serpent story quoted in an earlier post. The witness, a Mr Nick Johnson told the story in 2002. One Sunday morning in 1987 he and a friend were fishing off Devil's Point, a quay on the Plymouth side of narrowest point of the Tamar River, where the water was about 130 ft [40 m] deep and the current strong.
     A large head popped out of the water not 10 yards (9 m) from me, attached to a neck which rose out of the water by about 3 ft (90 cm). The head was covered with a fur-like, green-brown skin, had forwards facing, dark grey eyes (which looked directly at me) and was similar in shape to that of a large dog. It was not a seal, animals I have had much contact with as a diver. There were no ears but the top of the head was undulated with a high central ridge. It had a wide mouth and was obviously carnivorous from the shape of the powerful-looking jaw. Its forward facing eyes had fairly heavy brow ridges. From the size of the exposed neck and head, I would estimate the creature to be about twice the size of a horse.
     He said that the creature was obviously sizing him up. It looked at him for about 15 seconds, submerged vertically, and came up again a bit closer for another 5 to 10 seconds. I would have liked to know how thick the neck was with respect to the head. And I wonder what it was. 


  1. Great stories, I personally believe anything could be in the Sea. We will never know all animals or sea serpents, Cryptoids!😑

  2. On Youtube it is possible to access episodes of "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World" programme which was originally broadcast in the late '70s ~ early '80s. In the episode entitled "Monsters of the Deep", there is, among other things, a fascinating eyewitness interview with a local official who says that he was involved in the examination and disposal of the still fresh and totally intact carcass of very large unknown sea creature that was found washed up on the bank of the River Clyde, in Scotland, in 1942. Apparently, it being the war time the British Navy was especially keen, for some reason(?), to keep it quiet. The gentleman in question comes across as a very credible witness and gives a detailed description of the creature using a well drawn sketch. Well worth a look to anyone interested in this sort of thing.