Friday, 28 September 2018

Forgotten Sea Serpents of 1879

     I am about to travel overseas, but first I might as well return to chronicling past sea serpent reports which have apparently remained unnoticed by former compilers. As explained in earlier posts, they were published in various newspapers around the world, then picked up by the press in Australia. Again, I have chosen what appear to be the earliest and fullest accounts, but it is possible that the original reports appeared a couple of months before. In the late nineteenth century the world press took sea serpent sightings seriously - sometimes too seriously. I have omitted some too outrageous to be true, including some in which the animal was alleged to have been captured, or at least a specimen taken, then never heard of again. Anyway, we shall start with the first of 1879.

? Ryukyu Islands, Feb/March 1879. I have no idea what site was called Rock Island in 1879, but since it was located on the route from Hong Kong to Japan, I suspect it was part of the Ryukyu chain. This report is taken from the The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA) of Wed 21 May 1879, on page 2.
The sea serpent is continually turning up. No sooner does the interest excited by the tale of his having been sighted begin to die away,than, like the clown in the circus,"Here we are again." The following is an account of his latest appearance, taken from the Japan Herald of March 4, and furnished by a correspondent to that paper :- "While proceeding from Hongkong to your coast on board the steamer Radnorshire, when about eight miles W.S.W. of Rock Island, I saw what was undoubtedly a veritable sea serpent. We were proceeding at from ten to eleven knots an hour. Whilst standing on the quarter-deck I observed on the port beam, about a ship's length off, what appeared to be a long whitish-brown sack floating near the surface, parallel with the ship. It first of all struck me it was a dead man sown up in a hammock, and having my binocular at hand I was not long in examining it. Just as I had got my glasses to bear on the object, it raised its head clear out of the water about six feet, evidently examining the vessel, and I at once saw it was a sea serpent. I ran forward to get one of the officers to verify the fact, and when I returned it had disappeared. The head and neck were dark, and resembled a swan's neck gracefully arched, with an asp's head tapering to the mouth; the body was of a whitish color, and the diameter must have been at least 12 inches; the length I cannot vouch for, further than it seemed to be quite 20 feet. The animal was heading aft, and on enquiry I found that one of the seamen had seen it an hour previously on the starboard side, which implied that it had been cruising round us from curiosity, whilst it was evident that its propelling power much exceeded ours. I don't believe any of the officers saw the animal a second time but myself; however, an intelligent Japanese did do so, for he was loud in his description of the extraordinary fish after it had disappeared."
     You will note how the sighting is related without much drama. The colour scheme seems unusual, but readers will be aware of the many, many cases of a thin neck being raised above the surface. There is no known marine animal capable of doing this.

Fiji, August 1879. This took place off the small island of Cikobia, located at 15° 44' S, 179° 55' W. It is pronounced "thee-kom-bee-a", because Fijian orthography was created by missionaries for the use of Fijian speakers rather than English speakers. The sound of "the" in "thee" or "there" is represented by c because why use two letters when one will do? and c is otherwise unused. Also, because "b" is always pre-nasalised ie it always has an "m" in front of it, the letter b is used for the combination, "mb". This report is taken from The Sydney Morning Herald of Wed 27 August 1879, page 6.
     We have Fiji papers to the 16th instant, from which we extract the following: - Some strange monsters are heard of round our coasts (says the Times). In the neighbourhood of Cikobia, we are informed, the natives have seen a fish with long eel-like head, of great length, and with a thickness of body larger than the largest post ever put in a native house. This would seem to point to a possibility of solving the mystery of the sea serpent in these waters. At all events this dark animal must have a wide range of habitat, since it has been seen by the wonder-loving fishers of the wintry coast of Gailway, as by the no less passionately fond-of-marvellous story-telling-natives of these sunny isles. Nor is the sea serpent the only marvel, the cuttle-fish has shown itself therein all its giant strength with head of prodigious size, and arms of enormous length and power, a dangerous follow to meet in sailing some hooker among these reefs. And one more sea monster the shape of a crab, of the size of a turtle, from whose terrible claws the spectator fled in dire fear. Naturalists had better send a Commission to Vanua Levu.
   That doesn't appear to be much in the way of details.

Near New York, September 1879. The following comes from the Evening News (Sydney), Thursday 30 October 1879, on page 3.

That Sea Serpent
He has been seen again, and this time so near New York as to cause serious alarm among the shore dwellers on Long Island and New Jersey. His presence on the bounding blue ocean was regarded with only a curious interest, but now that he is "in shore" the matter becomes serious. When he gets down to latitude 30deg 35min, longitude 71deg 21min, the thing begins to look serious, and it would not be astonishing in a few days to hear from the gallant crew of one of New York's garbage scows of his presence in the lower bay. There can be no doubt of his having been seen this time, for the official log of the barquentine Falmouth, arrived here from Dundalk, Ireland, on the 3rd instant, contains mention of him. The mate, who saw him, is a man of steady habits, and is "never, never drunk at sea." The captain is also a sober man and he saw the serpent, and so is the cook, who also saw tho monster. He is stigmatised in the log as "a snake", and this fact induced the reporter, who was sent to glean some information of the horrid thing, to ask the mate if he might not have been in his boots instead of the sea. The mate, who is a matter-of-fact seaman, whose mental habits tolerate no metaphors or hyperboles, when asked if the snake might not have been in his boots, declared that such a thing was impossible, for, at the time the "snake" was seen he was in his bare feet. The log of the Falmouth narrates that about 4 o'clock on the afternoon of September 2, in longitude 39deg 35min, the ship passed within 20 feet of a snake, which was seen about 5ft or 6ft below the surface of the water. It appeared to be about 20ft long, had a square-shaped head, and was covered with diamond-shaped scales. At its greatest diameter — just behind the head — it seemed to be about 6in. Remarking concerning the other reported sights of a sea monster, mate Cutting remarks that the mariners who report having seen 90ft and 100ft snakes must have had bad eyes. He says he has frequently seen snakes at the mouth of the Mississippi, but he never saw a snake in his life as long as this one. It is the first snake, too, he says, that he ever encountered in the open sea. He is inclined to think that the thing he saw is the identical serpent which has of late been reported so frequently. The snake did not seem to concern himself about the Falmouth at all, but continued to glide ahead as though nothing had happened. Its progress was very slow, and in a few minutes it was far astern.
    You will note that two figures are cited for the latitude. The second, 39 degrees is clearly the correct one, because it is close to New York, which the ship reached the following day. The New England sea serpent was famous during this period, but it typically presented as an elongated animal with a string of humps. On the other hand, this one was clearly a genuine snake. It sounds suspiciously like a python which had been swept well out to see. However, the problem is, it was too far out. Also, an air-breathing land reptile would hardly be swimming 5 or 6 feet below the surface. (It must be pointed out, of course, that real sea snakes occur only in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and are nowhere near as big.)

Prince Edward Island, Canada, 1879. This story sounds a bit dramatic, to say the least, and if it is genuine, then it is likely the length of the animal was grossly exaggerated due to the witnesses' fear. It allegedly took place near a small village on the western tip of Prince Edward Island. Although it was said to have occurred in August 1879, it was not for another five months before the Australian press picked it up, after which it did the circuit of various country newspapers (no big city dailies) for another four months. The earliest was on page 4 of The Ballarat Star (Vic) of Sat 17 January 1880.
      The Sumerside Journal (Newfoundland) publishes the following, received on the 23th. August, from a correspondent at Miminigash:—“At Miminigash, on the 16th of August, as Matthew M’Donald and James Doyle, two men in the employ of E. G. Fuller, were hauling their trawls, they observed an unusual commotion in the water near them. 'Is that a squall?’ said Doyle. ‘Great heavens!' exclaimed M’Donald, as the line he was hauling took a surge and parted a hook, tearing his hand from one  side to the other, and a huge form arose from the sea full 20 feet [6 m] out of the water.  'Quick with the sails, Jim,’ cried M'Donald, and the two-terrified men spread their canvass in a hurry. M’Donald gave the helm to Doyle, who, crouching down in the after-berth, barely showed his head, while Mac, rather the cooler of the two, quickly improvised a sort of spear out of a long knife, which he lashed to an oar. He described the fish as a sort of a snake, striped yellow and white, with a mouth as large as the opening of a puncheon, and each time it raised out of the water it uttered a sort of roar like the bellowing of a bull. As the boat, with twice as much sail as was consistent with safety, was flying before the stiff S.W. breeze, the monster followed in her wake. M'Donald thought to pacify it with fish, as it was doubtless enraged by being torn by the trawl hooks, so he commenced throwing hake, with which the boat was partly loaded, to the monster, who greedily devoured them. Nearing the shore they crossed a lobster trawl of Mr Belyea, and the monster fouled and parted it, half filling the boat at work on it with water. This seemed to infuriate it, and raising itself in the air, it made a rush for the boat. M’Donald says he thought all was up with him, but he kept cool, and raising his improvised harpoon, struck the monster in the eye, driving the oar clean into its head, and breaking the knife in the wound. With a roar of pain it sank out of sight, reddening the water around with its blood. Doyle says he counted twelve sharp fins on it, each surmounted with a sort of horn, and both men say the fish was 200 feet [60 m] long. To-day, while repairing their broken line, they took off one of the hooks a large tuft of yellowish hair attached to a piece of skin resembling pigskin, which may be seen at Mr Fuller’s establishment.

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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.