Saturday, 4 January 2020

Forgotten Sea Serpents, 1900 to 1902

     Would you believe it? I thought I had finished my cataloguing of forgotten sea serpents, but it turns out that I had overlooked a heap from the early days of the twentieth century. Again, these are cases which have never been published in book form before; they escaped the eagle eyes of such investigators as Oudemans, Gould, and Heuvelmans. As before, they are cases which had been picked up by Australian newspapers, although most would have originally been published overseas. As before, I have chosen the earliest and/or most detailed report, but the events themselves may have occurred a few weeks or even a few months before.

Northumberland, England, 1900. This brief story comes from the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Queensland), Monday 17 September 1900, on page 3.
      The "sea serpent" has again made its appearance, this time off he coast of Northumberland. The skipper and crew of the trawler Maggie Comb saw the "immense monster" at about 200 yards distance. It seemed to be more than 120ft. [36½ metres] long, but no head or tail was visible. It lashed the water into foam, and then disappeared!
     At first I wondered whether this might not have been a blue whale, its size greatly overestimated. Nevertheless, the distance was fairly close, and although blue whales can reach 30 metres, they would certainly appear much shorter if the head and tail were not visible. It is also unlikely they would remain invisible it was were lashing the water to foam.

Near Hong Kong, 1901. This time we have a very detailed account, published in the Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA), Wednesday 6 November 1901, on page 3. The approximate site, Boddam Cove, lies on the northeast side of Tungho Island, at 22° 02' N, 113° 43' E.


(From our Special Correspondent.)
             London, October 4, 1901
     Our old friend the sea serpent has made his appearance again, this time in troubled Chinese waters. The monster, whose existence there appears no reason to doubt, has been the subject of an official report by Mr. Wolfe, who has been in the Chinese Maritime Customs service for nine years, and is in charge of the armed revenue launch Lungting, a vessel of 100 tons, with a speed of 14 knots [26 kph]. Mr. Wolfe is certified by one of the Customs authorities to be a steady, trustworthy, and credible man, and his evidence is confirmed by his second officer and all the Chinese crew. Here is Mr. Wolfe's narrative, which speaks for itself:-
     "On Sunday, August 18, 1901, at 11.20 a.m., as the launch Lungting was steaming at half-speed, heading for Boddam Cove, Tungho Island, at about 10 cables' length [1.85 km] from the Chuk Chao Island, I sighted a dark object on the surface of the water one point on the starboard bow, which looked to me like a rock. I at once gave an order 'Full speed astern,' and the vessel passed about 30 ft. [9 m] clear of the object, which, to my surprise, was a large serpent, lying in a round coil, with its head raised 2 or 3 ft. [60 or 90 cm], and slightly moving. Stopped engines and lowered starboard gig. I dispatched Mr. Kuster, second officer, in gig, with orders to kill the monster, if possible. Mr. Kuster stood in the bow of the gig with a boathook ready to strike. The serpent had now lowered its head again, but on approach of the gig suddenly struck out, hitting the blade of one of the oars, turning the sailor turtle-back. In then raised its head to a level of the launch davit, about 15 ft. [4½ m], at a distance of not more than 10 ft. [3 m] from the gig and 30 ft. from the launch, where I stood. The crew of the gig were scared, and prepared to jumped overboard. Mr. Kuster, still standing in the bow of the gig, prepared to strike with the boathook; but, before he could do so, the monster suddenly dived, and made off. Its actions in swimming was like that of an ordinary water-snake; the water being clear, the reptile could be plainly seen a few feet down. It dived very quickly, and made considerable disturbance of the water. We judged the serpent to be from 40 to 50 ft. [12 to 15 m] long and about a foot [30 cm] in diameter. It had a kind of crest on its head, and two fins high up on the neck, just behind the jaws. The thickest part of its body appeared to be about 15 ft. [4½ m] from the head, tapering both ways. Its head was as big as a Rugby football, with large eyes, and mouth opened wide when striking. It was of a very dark color on the back - striped and mottled, but lighter on the belly. As soon as the serpent disappeared, and we on the launch had recovered from our first surprise,  I ordered the ten-barrelled Nordenfeldt to be loaded and the launch moved round slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, in hopes that the reptile would reappear; but not doing so, the vessel proceeded on her way to Boddam Cove.
- (Signed) F. Wolfe, officer in charge C. L. Lungting, August 21, 1901. Witnesses - (Signed) V. Kuster, second officer, and 17 Chinese.
     This is very strange. At first glance, it sounds like genuine snake, despite the huge size, but the presence of two fins "high up on the neck" suggests some sort of eel. Similar sightings are rare, but have been recorded.

Indian Ocean, off South Africa, 1901. This appears to have been a very interesting voyage. The story comes from the Evening Telegraph (Charters Towers, Qld), of Tuesday 10 December 1901, on page 2.
     The steamer Heathdene, which has arrived at Wellington (N.Z.) from New York, had a sensational experience on the voyage out. A fire broke out in a part  of the vessel close to where 18,000 cases of petroleum were stored. After great effort on the part of the officers and crew, the flames were suppressed, but not before the steamer had been in imminent peril, for a wooden partition separating the petroleum from the spot where the fire was raging had been actually burned through. Whilst the captain and his men were below fighting the flames, the captain's wife (Mrs. Milburn), and her daughter steered the vessel, one keeping a look-out whilst the other controlled the helm. Miss Milburn (the captain's daughter), who is only 14 years of age, is said to be able to steer a ship as capably as any sailor. As if the fire on board did not comprise sensational incidents sufficient for one voyage, the crew of the steamer report also that when she was 10 miles [16 km] off Natal, an extraordinary sea monster was discovered, presumably the sea serpent again. This creature, while was of abnormal size, had a white fin, rising 10ft. [3 m] high from the water, and a long white streak running the length of its body, which otherwise was black in colour. An officer of the steamer, who has a fairly extensive knowledge of the varied species of fish in the ocean, declares that he has never seen anything like this monster.
Vancouver, Canada, 1902. Right up to the present day, the coast off British Columbia  and Oregon has been notorious for sightings of a mystery animal given the whimsical name of "Caborosaurus", However, it has normally been described as a long, sinuous body, not something towering in a vertical column like this one. The account comes from the World's News (Sydney) of Saturday 20 September 1902. Note that the story took 6½ weeks to arrive in Australia.

     A Vancouver, B.C., dispatch of August 5 says:
   - "The best sea serpent story that has been developed on the coast in years was brought to Vancouver to-day by the fishing steamer New England. A distinctive feature is that not one but 15 men claim to have seen the serpent for five minutes at a stretch, and these fishermen are willing to make affidavit that their statement is absolutely true.
     "The sea serpent incident occurred on Saturday [ie 2 August], off the northern end of Vancouver Island. The fishermen had gone out in the morning, and were at different distances from the steamer. There were many whales spouting around in the vicinity, and the halibut catch was large.
    "All at once an object arose out of the water a little to one side of us," said Alexander Easler, in describing the incident this morning. "I paid no attention at first, as we were busy in pulling in halibut, until my partner drew my attention to it. The fish, or whatever it was, pulled itself 30ft. [9 m] out of the water, and was almost as straight as if if had been a fixed column in the water. There must have been at least twice the same length under the water to support the immense weight of the body in the air. The fish moved at right angles to us, and left a distinct wake behind. It was very near, not more than a hundred yards away I should think, and the steamer was quite a distance away.
     "I called to my partner to look out, and he stood by to cut the gear clear from the boat, so that we could get away if the thing came towards us. It was in the air four or five minutes. and then gradually went out of sight. I have been to sea for 30 years, and I never saw anything like it before. We did not see the head plainly enough to tell what kind of mouth or eyes it had."
     It was a pity they were not able to provide more detail - even so much as the colour, or the thickness. In any case, it does appear to have been one of the "long necked" variety, but huge - even if the height was overestimated. Of course, it could not have been a fish. There is a common view that long necked sea serpents are mammals. In that case, it should be pointed out that, with only a few exceptions, mammals possess only seven neck vertebrae. There appears to be some sort of genetic restriction. Even a giraffe has only seven neck vertebrae. The implication is obvious: a mammalian neck 20 or 30 feet long would be too stiff to manoeuvre effectively in water.

Sardinia, 1902. I strongly suspect that this is a hoax, but it might as well be published, and left to the discernment of the reader. Here, Downunder, it was first picked up by an obscure rural journal, the Euroa Advertiser (Vic.) on Friday 7 November 1902, at page 2, and then exactly a week later in an equally obscure Victorian newspaper, the Horsham Times, also on page 2.
     The sea serpent is with us once more (says an Italian paper), in fact it generally comes to the surface at this season of the year. If we may believe what is stated, there is a remarkable creature disporting himself in the Adriatic, accompanied by all his family of eight members - sex not stated. A boatman named Bonifacino, sailing in a small boat with mail bags from one place to another in Sardinia, found himself suddenly in the midst of this terrible family party. There were three other persons in the boat at the time, and each of these is ready to attest the truth of Bonifacino's statement. As far as could be seen the creatures were fully 70 ft. [21.34 m] in length, with eyes about 7in. [17.8 cm] in diameter. They swam in a vertical position, raising their heads high above the water. Flaps hung over their mouth like ordinary doors, cavernous-sounding snorts were emitted from huge nostrils, and water spouted from deep cavities on the tops of their heads. They appear, however, to have been quite harmless, as the boatman and his passengers were able to part company with them without sustaining any injury. This seems to be the only occasion on which the sea serpent has brought his family out for an airing, which of itself is interesting; but an equally interesting ichthyological phenomenon is the selection of autumn by these queer fishes, or marine reptiles, as the only season in which they deign to reveal themselves to human gaze.
     It is, of course, perfectly correct that this is the only account of a school of sea serpents. All other reports indicate that they are solitary beasts. Likewise, spouting water from the head is, to say the least, a decidedly rare behaviour. The article also appears to be a paraphrase of a report in an Italian newspaper - and not a very good one, I would suggest. For a start, Sardinia is not in the Adriatic Sea; it is on the other side of Italy. Secondly, in place of my usual custom of making approximate translations of imperial measures into metric, I have cited them exactly to highlight another anomaly: Italians use the metric system. Surely an Italian boatman would have cited his estimates in round numbers, such as 20 metres and 20 centimetres?

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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.