Saturday, 25 January 2020

Forgotten Sea Serpents, 1905 to 1911

     Here is the next installment of reports of sea serpents which had apparently been missed by previous researchers.

Norfolk, England, 1905
This one comes from the Evening News (Sydney) of Monday 27 November 1905, page 3. Regrettably, the details are decidedly sketchy.
     The crew of a damaged vessel which was assisted into Great Yarmouth recently reported having seen a sea serpent off Hastborough Sand, a short distance from the Norfolk coast. It was sighted two miles [3 km] away, and the men at first thought that it was a mass of drifting wreckage. They soon became convinced, however, that the object was moving. Finally, it raised a gigantic head above the water, and dived out of sight. The serpent they declare was of immense length.
Kermadecs, 1906
The Kermadec Islands are situated approximately half way between New Zealand and Tonga, in the general region of 29° S, 178° E. This report comes from the Australasian (Melbourne) of Saturday 12 May 1906, at page 38. It is likewise very brief - something which turns out to be significant.
     The steamer Taviuni, which arrived at Auckland from the islands, reports having seen a "sea-serpent" about 60ft. [18 m] long, near the Kermadecs. Both on the outward and return voyage it approached close to the vessel, and remained visible for a considerable time. Observers describe the head as resembling that of a gurnet.
     Mr. Frank T. Bullen who is sceptical as to the existence of sea-serpents, considers that the monster was a hump-backed whale.
     A gurnet, gurnard, or sea robin is a fish with eyes close to the top of its head, which tapers forward like a triangle. But weren't any other details noticed, and what, in any case, is meant by "close" and "a considerable time"? Equally important, who was this Mr. Frank T. Bullen, and why was his opinion important? Well, a newspaper report of 7 May revealed that he had been lecturing on whales in Melbourne, and on 15 May 1906, his opinion on the Taviuni encounter was given in detail on page 3 of the Sydney Morning Herald.

     Mr. Frank T. Bullen, who has just completed his lecturing season in Melbourne, holds a brief against all sea serpents. A monster of the deep has only to lift his head above the water, and Mr. Bullen will assail with books of science in one hand and a portfolio of personal experiences in the other. A sea serpent must bring its birth certificate, its genealogical tree, and a plan of its anatomy before Mr. Bullen will grant it leave to exist. Last night, at Menzies' Hotel (says the "Argus" of May 11) he saw the telegram that a sea monster had been seen near the Kermadecs, and the sea serpent, (with its beholders) was at once under a fire of words, coming as sharp as a mate's commands.
     "Who saw it? Where was it? How far away was it? Was the sea smooth or rough? Was it day? Was it night? Was the weather clear or foggy? What else did the notice about it? What made it look like a gurnet? Did they know what a gurnet was like?"
     "They haven't told you much about that sea serpent," Mr. Bullen said. "Generally, a sea serpent has a beard. He raises his head out of the water, and stares at you. This fellow was a hump-backed whale. One of the most famous sea serpents that have been seen turned out to be a whale swallowing a cuttlefish. This was the old fellow himself, scooting along just at the surface, with his head out of the water. Scooting along, probably to meet his wife. So he'd be in a hurry."
      "A gurnet's got big eyes, of course, and a hump-backed whale has got small ones. But the people who saw this sea-serpent saw something they thought were eyes. As for his length - well, the old fellow's wake, as he scooted along, would look like enough to a continuation of himself to a sailor. Anyhow, when a sailor sees something he doesn't understand, it's easy enough to multiply the length of it by three or four. Or by 20, for that matter. I've got a book, as thick as your leg, by Professor von Somebody, a great zoologist. He proved the existence of a sea-serpent in a dozen ways - all mutually contradictory. One of his sea-serpents turned out to be a known creature, about 15ft. [4½ m] long - but with a longer mane. Never mind the name; is got its syllables, and I can't remember them all.
     "They saw this sea-serpent both going and coming to the islands. That makes it a whale story, too. 'Near the Kermadecs' is where the old fellow would live and hang about. I know the Kermadecs well; I've fished off Sunday Island, and caught all sorts of queer fish. A sailor's always finding things that he doesn't understand, and he generally puts it down to sea-serpents. I've caught flying gurnets in 14ft. of water in St. Vincent's Gulf, and I once caught a fish with purple tassels growing out of pink spots all over him. I kept him on board till everybody complained; then I threw him away. And none of the scientists at home would take my word for him. But I never saw or heard of a sea-serpent that could not be accounted for in some other way.
     "There's no sea-serpent," Mr. Bullen said. "Professor Owens settled that for me. Being an Ophidian, he would have to live at the surface, and some of his remains would be washed ashore; and they never have been. A man in the United States used to show a sea-serpent in a museum, till somebody found out he had dug up the pieces of it in Nebraska or somewhere, and 'faked' it. It was a mixture of a Plesiosaurus and a Pterodactyl, or something like that - a pre-historic land animal.
     "Take that sea-serpent away," Mr Bullen concluded, handing back the telegram. "He's the least healthy I've met for a long time."
     Personally, I consider the criticism quite valid, particularly the second paragraph. All of that information is essential to make a proper determination of the matter. In point of fact, in dealing with Australian cases, I have come across a number where a whale was mistaken for a sea serpent. In fact, the "sea serpent" off Montague Island, NSW was so well described it was easily recognizable as a hump back whale. Why Mr Bullen was so convinced the Kermadecs creature was a hump back and not some other species of whale is not clear. The details are simply inconclusive. Indeed, it is still theoretically possible that it really was a sea serpent, but the information is just not sufficient.

Scotland, 1906
     This event in fact took place in late September 1906, but it seems to have floated around in the ether for three and a half months before being printed in an Australian newspaper - in this case, the Chronicle of Adelaide, on Saturday 12 January 1907, at page 27. As was usual in such cases, it was simply reprinted from whatever original journal they took it from, without any attempt at explanation. In those days, of course, there was no internet, so probably none of its South Australian readers had any idea where Dunottar Castle was. It is, in fact, a ruined fortification overlooking the North Sea half way up the east coast of Scotland, at approximately 57° N, 2° W. You will note that,. although the witnesses were using field glasses,  the "monster" was quite a distance away, so you may draw your own conclusions.
A sea monster was observed off Stonehaven coast, near Dunottar Castle, on September 29. A party of Volunteers were having a shooting match, when one of their number observed a commotion in the otherwise calm sea. A huge body appeared above the surface, and as it was less than a mile [1.6 km] off, the Volunteers were able, by means of their field glasses, to make out that it was some sort of sea monster. As far as could be judged, its length was 50 yards [45 metres]. The body was narrow and of a dark color, and was surmounted by a number of short fins, with protuberances, probably two or three on each side of the main fin. The monster was going northward at the rate of six miles an hour [9½ kph]. It remained above water for half a minute at a time. It did not blow as it came to the surface, and those who saw it are quite convinced it was not a shoal of porpoises. The monster was sighted for half an hour and observed at half-past 10 on the same night about two hundred yards off Stonehaven beach by Sergeant Wright and Constable George. It was clear moonlight. The monster encountered a ledge of rocks called the Brachans and rose high in the air, but finding its way impaired fell back into the water. The police compared it to a large trawler getting on the rocks, and thinking it was coming ashore they were prepared to watch its movements from behind a boat.
North of Borneo, 1907
     This story was two months old by the time it was picked up by an Australian newspaper - in this case, on page 4 of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate of Thursday 18 July 1907. it is interesting that it took place not far from the city of Labuan, which also gave its name to the ship involved. Note that it was apparently recorded in the ship's log.
     The "North Borneo Herald" states that at noon on May 14, lat. 7.5 N., long. 117.5 E, a sea serpent was seen from the deck of the steamer Labuan by the engineer in charge, a passenger, and a native serang. It appeared to be "at least 50ft [15 metres] long, and moved in a wriggling motion on the surface of the water" in an opposite direction to the ship about 200ft [60 m] distant. It was visible for about four minutes, concludes the log entry, which was signed by the three witnesses of the gruesome spectacle.
Off Banks Peninsula, New Zealand, 1907
     This story originally appeared in the Canterbury Times of New Zealand, which dated the event as "Saturday", but since it was not reported in Australia until late March, it is uncertain which Saturday was intended. As for the site, the Banks Peninsula is just south of Christchurch, on the South Island, and Akaroa is situated in a deep inlet in that peninsula. However, I have been unable to locate Goashore Bay, and the Ninety Mile Beach is now on the North Island. However, I am assuming that in 1907 the name was applied to the beach of Canterbury Bight, stretching southwest from the Banks Peninsula. In any case, the first report in Australia was on The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser of Friday 29 March 1907, on page 5.
Another Sea Serpent Yarn
A Lincoln correspondent writes as follows:- "On Saturday a remarkable sight was witnessed by a party of Lincoln residents, Messrs. A. Bartram, C. Howell, W. Bartram, R. Bartram, and H. Howell, who were crossing the hill which divides the Ninety-Mile Beach from Goashore Bay, Banks Peninsula. About two miles [3 km] out a large, dark object, at first thought to be a whale, was sighted. Presently, what looked like a line of large birds appeared above the water, followed by an enormous snake-like body, fully 100ft. [30 metres] long. The bird-like objects were now seen to be a series of large fins or humps along the entire length of the creature's back. The serpent, or whatever it was, was plainly visible for about half an hour, in which time it travelled a distance of about four miles [6½ km]. Unfortunately, it was too far distant for detail examination with the naked eye, as it did not approach within a mile. Being observed, however, from a height of about 300ft. [90 m], its movements could be plainly seen as it swam rapidly along, with a winding, eel-like motion. At times it raised its head and neck several feet above the water, the head appearing to be about the same thickness as the neck. When last seen it was making in the direction of Akaroa, and was about half a mile [800 m] from land. During the whole half-hour it was plainly visible considering the distance, and remained most of the time on the surface, but sometimes just beneath it. As the sea was very calm, there was no possibility of having mistaken a large whale, a piece of wreckage, or anything else for what was really seen, moreover in swimming about it was frequently going against wind and swell." - "Canterbury Times"
South Atlantic, 1909
     This report was originally published in the Boston Herald, on who knows what date, and was taken up by the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW) on Tuesday 21 September 1909, on page 6. As is often the case, the reader is simply expected to know the places referred to. Thus, the event took place on a voyage from Penarth to Santos. Since the ship was British, and the name sounds Welsh, I presume the city of origin was the original Penarth in Wales, rather than its namesake in Delaware, USA. Likewise, by Santos is probably meant the big port in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. However, the story didn't come out until the ship docked at Boston, which implies a three cornered voyage. The huge size of the creature, and its description as like a giant lizard with huge horny scales, appear to be unique - which makes me doubt its veracity.
     Entered in the permanent log of the British steamship Mereddlo, Captain Clark, is a record of a sea monster sighted while the ship was on a passage between Penarth and Santos. Chief Officer Neal S. Murray was in charge of the bridge at the time, and a Greek quartermaster was at the wheel. The quartermaster, who first sighted the monster, was almost petrified with fear, and was at the point of permitting the big freighter to take her own course.
     "It was like this," explained the chief officer when the Mereddlo docked in East Boston. "The ship was 500 miles [800 km] from Santos. I saw the Greek acting strangely, and followed the direction he was looking.
     "My hair nearly stood on end at the sight. Swimming parallel to the ship was a monster lizard. It was as big as a whale. The ocean fairly seethed as it propelled itself with enormous dragon's claws. A head as big as a pilot house and one coil of the beast's neck were above water.
     "For a distance of nearly 300 feet [90 metres] the sea heaved and was lashed into foam. I think the lizard was fully the Mereddlo's length, and I feared for the safety of the steamship, as the creature,  mailed in huge horny scales of a dark green colour, swerved as if to come alongside. It had a saw-like ridge on its back, and its girth was fully as great as that of a whale.
     "After the serpent had raced the ship several minutes it humped its back and sounded. The was from its commotion shook the ship and sent spray over the starboard rail.
     "I have followed the sea many years and, mind you, I m not given to fancies. That creature so impressed me that I entered he incident in the gerap [?] log, and later made a permanent record of it."
     The Mereddlo's crew substantiate Officer Murray, while the Greek quartermaster admits he did not recover from the shock for several days. - "Boston Herald"
Tasman Sea, 1911
     This report comes from the Age (Melbourne) of Friday 22 December 1911, on page 7.

SYDNEY, Thursday.
     The sea serpent has turned up again - this time in the Tasman Sea. Officers of the cargo steamer Strathardle, which arrived to-day from New Zealand, report having seen "the monster". It appeared about a quarter of a mile [400 metres] from the ship on Sunday afternoon last. The lookout on the bridge suddenly reported a strange looking object ahead, and all eyes were turned in the direction. The wind was blowing strong from the westward at the time, and the steamer, in consequence, could not get very close to it. Examination was made with the aid of glasses. One of the officers described it as being some 200 feet [60 metres] in length, with a head like that of a crocodile. A large fin showed out of the water, and the body, which appeared to be of bright colors, tapered away considerably at the tail. When seen the serpent was travelling very slowly, and it was soon lost to sight as the steamer forged ahead. The position of the Strathardle at the time "the monster" was passed was about 200 miles [320 km] off the New Zealand coast.

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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.