Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Sea Serpents Galore! (1869 to 1875)

     Once more we venture into sea serpent territory. As I have mentioned before, the digitalised copies of old Australian newspapers contain articles on alleged sea serpents reported from other parts of the world, which have apparently remained unknown to researchers to this present day. I hope, therefore, that serious researchers are bookmarking this site, because this latest installment contains three accounts: two from the New England area of the US, and one from Africa.

New England, 1869
The coasts of New England were famous for sea serpents in the late nineteenth century. They tended to be of the long-necked type, but this one is very unusual. For that reason, I suspect it is genuine. A hoaxer would be more likely to build on the more familiar theme, but go over the top with it (and I have read some which qualify). It was apparently originally published in the New York Sun of 30 November 1869, but it was not for another 2½ months that an Australian newspaper picked it up. This is from the Sydney Mail of Saturday 12 February 1870, page 15.
The Sea Serpent still lives, and has an heir for the perpetuation of his race. Captain Allen, of the ship Scottish Bride, which arrived at New York on Sunday, brings the latest intelligence from his marine snakeship, the captain having encountered the monster on the 23rd instant [ie 23 Nov 1869], in latitude 38°16', longitude 74°08'. The remarkable feature of the meeting was that the old, familiar serpent, fifteen or twenty feet [4½ to 6 metres] long, and as big around as a hogshead, was accompanied by a juvenile monster of the same species, only five feet [1½ metres] in length. This meeting, as will be seen by reference to the charts, was on the edge of the Gulf Stream, about 200 miles [320 km] off Delaware Bay, but as Captain Allen is a credible witness - favourably known by the shipping merchants of New York, and everywhere credited to be an intelligent man, his own narrative of the singular meeting will be read with greater interest than any more studied account : —
    Captain Allen is a thorough type of an American skipper, sharp, shrewd, bluff and honest, and has followed the ocean from boyhood, rising by his own energy and merit from a cabin boy to the command of one of the finest clippers sailing from this port.
   Captain Allen says that on the 23rd of this month he descended to his cabin after a fruitless effort to get a meridian observation, the sky being too much overcast. He was just about eating his dinner when his second mate descended the cabin stairs, and, in an excited manner, told him his presence was required on deck. Thinking the ship had sprung a leak, or that some other dire mishap had befallen them, he dropped the tempting morsel before him and rushed up. When he arrived on deck he found the crew assembled on the starboard side of the vessel, looking with awe-stricken countenances into the water. Not knowing the meaning of their strange conduct, he also went to the ships'e side, and a sight met his eyes the memory of which will never fade.
    The weather had been thick and nasty all the morning, the heavens heavily overcast, threatening to pour forth a deluge at any moment, and the wind blowing from all quarters at once. But now there was a dead calm, and the surface of the sea was undisturbed by a ripple. On approaching the side of the vessel, the captain saw in the water beneath a monster such as he had never seen before. It was about 25 feet [7½ m] in length, and proportionately thick. Its head was very large and flat, while at each side, on the extreme edge, were set two bright, scintillating eyes, which he says, looked dangerous and wicked. Its back was covered with huge scales, like the crocodile, about three inches [7½ cm] in length, which hooked together and formed an impenetrable armour. Its belly was of a tawny yellow colour, and altogether hideous. It was accompanied by a smaller specimen of its own species, and may have been its offspring. This was but a few feet in length, but in shape and colour closely resembled the larger one.
    All the efforts of the captain to have the sailors to make some attempt to capture it were abortive. They looked upon it as something supernatural, and were not disposed to meddle with it. The thing was about four feet [1.2 m] from the vessel, was lying but a few feet below the surface of the water, and was discernible to all on board. The captain gave orders to have a boat lowered to attack the monster, but in the meantime the attention of the smaller one was called to the presence of the vessel. It raised its head a few inches above the surface, and then went to its larger friend, and seemed to tell it of the circumstance ; but whatever transpired between them, the larger one raised its head, as though to investigate its surroundings, and then, with an easy motion, it dropped into the ocean. In disappearing, it went head downward, and its body described a circle like a hook, its tail raising out of the water, which, the captain says, tapered off to a sharp point.
     The calm that had beset the vessel in the morning now gave way to a strong northwest breeze, that as night closed around, burst into a storm, accompanied by vivid lightning and rolling thunder. The ship was tossed about by the waves, which ever and anon broke over her with relentless fury, and during the whole of this fearful night the sailors would not go on deck without lanterns, such was their fear of meeting the monster. Now and then they would go to the captain and ask his opinion on the probability of that occurrence ; but he being no wiser than themselves, would laugh at their fears and bid them go to their work. About morning the storm died away, but until the following day, when they came in sight of land, the brave men entertained an unexpressed dread of the reappearance of the monster.
     Captain Allen thinks that the monster came from the regions of Florida, where he has often heard of similar creatures from other shipmasters, and by following the warm current of the Gulf Stream it reached the position where he found it. In his opinion, it is a deep water animal; and he accounts for its appearance so near the surface by the fact of the dark day, and the monster not knowing now high up it was.— New York Sun, November 30.
     I have to warm to Capt. Allen because, in rising from cabin boy to captain, he paralleled the career of my own great-grandfather. I agree with him that the animals must have come from Florida, or rather, the Caribbean zone, but disagree that  they belonged to a deep water species. It is is far more likely they were lost - swept out to sea and caught up in the Gulf Stream. On the other side of the world, salt water crocodiles have been known to end up as far afield as Fiji. Although no limbs were mentioned - and it is hard to see how they could have been overlooked at such a short distance - the animals were clearly crocodilians (crocodiles, alligators, or caimans), of which the Caribbean coasts shelter several species. But which species?
     Judging size and distance at sea is tricky at best, and fear or astonishment tends to lead to over-estimations. Nevertheless, at the extreme close range in this case, one would tend to trust the witness's estimation. But even if we trim off 20% of the length from 7½ to 6 metres, we are still at a size which even a saltwater croc from southeast Asia or Australia rarely obtains. In the Caribbean, a big American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis might exceed 4 metres. Most other crocodilians in the region are no bigger. The Orinoco crocodile, Crocodylus intermedius, as its name implies, belongs the Orinoco River system more than the coast, and is now rare, but the large males can reach 4 or 5 metres, and one is reputed to have attained nearly 7 metres.
     Thus, we are left to hypothesize a combination of unlikely events: an exceptionally outsized male of a riverine species swept  a couple of thousand miles out into the ocean - and accompanied by a juvenile. Female crocodilians (not males) care for their hatchlings, but the young are on their own long before they reach this  intermediate size. Also, one wonders why the current failed to separate them.

West Africa, 1871
This sighting apparently took place in late October 1871, but was not reported until the captain was back in his home port on another ship. The news reached Australia on Saturday 17 August 1872, where it was published on page 3 of both the Evening News (Sydney) and the Age (Melbourne).
The Great Sea Serpent Again.
Captain M'Taggart, of the ship Kent, at present in Liverpool, reports that he left Liverpool for Benin, on the West Coast of Africa, in the brigantine Onward, on the 20th September last, and that when about 60 days out, and when he was between Cape Palmas and Grand Bassa, one night the vessel was surrounded with enormous shoals of fish of every description, including sharks, porpoises, &c., and although he had been trading on the coast for upwards of twenty years, he never saw such a sight before. Next morning, about eight o'clock, on going forward to take the sun, he observed something in the water, on the Starboard bow, and he at once called the attention of the crew to it, and they,and the officers of the Onward, at once pronounced it to be a sea serpent. As far as Captain M'Taggart could judge, the head, which was very broad, and surmounted by something shaped like a coronet, was about eight feet [2½ m] out of the water, and it was going through the water at a very rapid rate, knocking the sea-spray about like a ship. The strange fish went on rapidly for about two minutes, when it stopped and remained stationary. This gave the captain time to observe the fish more minutely. About ten feet [3 m] from the head there was a large fin about two feet [60 cm] out of the water, and further on there was another about one foot out of the water. The scales were large, and of a beautiful colour. From the head and shoulders, which were of immense width, the body of the fish tapered gradually away to an extent of about 180 to 200 feet [55 to 60 m], ending in a tail something like that of a mackerel. In fact, Captain M'Taggart says the colour of the fish clearly resembled a mackerel. After lying quiet for some time, the fish or serpent shot ahead  again at great speed, and was soon lost to view. The captain thinks that the presence of such vast shoals of fish on the night previous so far out to sea must have something to do with the presence of this monster on the African coast.
Maine, USA, 1875
This is another one from the coast of New England. It was first reported in Australia on page 27 of the Evening News (Sydney) on Wednesday 21 July 1875, so the incident may have take place the previous week.
A sea-serpent story that gets a little ahead of the ordinary run of such yarns comes from Portland. Captain Oliver, of the Path schooner Winslow Morse, relates that Thursday midnight, when off Cape Elizabeth, about 15 miles [24 km] south-east, while he was at the wheel and another man stood on deck, a great snake rose out of the water, about four feet [1.2 m] above the rail, and the body appeared about as large round as a hogshead. The man on deck picked up a long pole with a pike-head on the end, lying near by, and thrust it into the monster's body. The serpent immediately dived and came up on the other side of the vessel, a little distance off, and glided away, making but a slight ripple on the water. It appeared about 120 feet [36 m] long. The captain exhibits the pike covered with the blood and sinews of the monster — or some other animal.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.