Tuesday, 4 February 2020

More Forgotten Sea Serpents, 1914 to 1926

     Once more, I present a collection of sea serpent reports which have appeared in Australian newspapers, having been obtained from foreign dailies, often some time previously.

Off Borneo, 1914
     Here we have what, in the Australian vernacular, would be called a "humdinger". It's a highly dramatic account of what appears to have been a hexed voyage. The highlight, sandwiched between a series of fatal accidents, was an encounter with a sea serpent which appeared to want to eat a fallen sailor. Since such behaviour has been so rarely reported, the truthfulness of the story must rest in doubt. (Then again, perhaps the rarity of such reports might be simply explained by the  extreme rarity of seaman falling overboard when a sea serpent is in the vicinity.) In any case, the story is too good to pass up. It comes from page 2 of the Express and Telegraph (Adelaide) of Saturday 8 August 1914.
WITH THE GHOST AT SEA.
THE SERPENT TERROR.
     More like chapter from a sensational novel than an incident in real life are the adventures of of the British tramp steamer Strathspey which arrived in New York on July 1, after a remarkable voyage of one hundred and fifty days from Glasgow to the Far East, via the Cape of Good Hope, and back to New York by way of the Suez Canal. Of her complement of 38 officers and men only eight are whites, the remainder being Chinese, Arabs, and Lascars, says the "Central News" in an account of the voyage. Off Port Natal a Chinese stoker was killed by falling into the hold, and for three days afterwards the steamer merely drifted, the other stokers refusing to work on the ground that the ghost of the dead man was prowling about the stokehold. In the Canton River one of the Chinese coolies working the cargo was knocked on the head by a heavy chain and instantly killed. Off Malta, the chief engineer, James McMurray, jumped overboard, and nothing was seen of him again, although a prolonged search was made.
     But the most remarkable adventure of the voyage occurred off the coast of Borneo. According to statements made to the New York newspaper reporters, Mohammed Singh, an Arab sailor, fell overboard from one of the boats, fell overboard from one of the boats he was cleaning. Singh, a powerful swimmer, was nearing the lifeboat when a commotion arose in his wake, and the crew of the boat saw a great green sea serpent raise its head several feet above the waves as if about to seize the Arab sailor in its capacious maw. Singh head the noise and felt the hot blast from the monster's lungs on the back of his bronze neck. He turned half round and then, with a cry of "Allah Kerim," he made a tremendous effort to reach the boat before the sea serpent could seize him.
     The Arab sailors on board the boat bent their backs double on the oars and gave a mighty pull, which enabled Singh to be hauled aboard breathless just as the serpent opened its mouth to grab him. Finding he was out of reach, the monster bit the rudder off the boat in its rage. Chowder Loll, who was steering at the time, fell in a faint from fright. The boat was steered back alongside the steamer with one of the oars over the stern. The sea-serpent evidently had been scared off, for he was seen in the distance steering due east at the rate of 30 knots an hour [55 kph].
    After the Strathspey left Port Said on June 18 for New York it was noticed that James McMurray, who was over 60 years old, was very melancholy and walked about the deck a good deal. He was very fond of the parrot, and after talking to him one morning when the steamer was off Malta, he fell overboard. The parrot, Toko, shrieked "eight bells" until the chief officer heard him and saw the chief engineer's coat and vest and cap by the rail. Then he realised what had happened. Captain Jones had the ship stopped and went back 14 miles, but could not see anything of the old man. The Strathspey is a steel screw steamer of 4,432 tons, built by the Grangemouth and Greenock Dockyard Company in 1906, and owned by the Strathspey S.S. Co. Ltd. (Messrs. Burrell & Son).
      A couple of trivial points. "Allah Kerim" is Arabic for "God is noble/generous", but Singh in an Indian name. I therefore conclude that, in this account, "Arab" meant "Muslim". As far the sea serpent goes, it is a pity that the journalist did not interview anyone with  a close up view of the animal in order to obtain more details, other than the fact that it was green (a very unusual colour) and that it had a "capacious maw". On the other hand, back in 1965 a skin diver described how, off the coast of Florida in 1962, his four companions were apparently killed and eaten by some sort of sea monster. The story was reprinted on pages of 524 - 5 of Heuvelmans' book. Although the tale sounded fantastic at the time, it does tend to corroborate the present account. It just goes to show that you should never discard any report, no matter how unlikely it appears.

Baltic Sea, 1917
     Here we have an example of the randomness in the way these stories are published. In this case, it was picked up by two obscure Australian country newspapers months apart. The first one was a short paragraph on page 35 of the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (NSW) of Friday 23 February 1917. It refers to a Swedish officer having lately written to the press. However, a more detailed citation of the officer's account was published in the Cobram Courier (Vic) of Thursday 3 May 1917, on page 7, so I shall provide this version. Here the officer is said to have written to Nature, which is a very prominent scientific journal, though I am unaware of which issue carried it.
SEA SERPENT SEEN IN THE SEA.
     Major O. Smith, an officer of the Swedish army, has described in "Nature" a sea serpent which he saw in the Baltic Sea, near Stockholm. "At 2.23 p.m." he writes, "we suddenly saw a movement of the water like the ripple of a wave less than 300 feet [90 metres] from us. The sea was calm and there was no boat or anything else that could cause such a movement. Looking more attentively, all of us saw very distinctly a head like that of an enormous serpent, larger than that of a man, slightly elongated, surmounting a serpentine body about seventy-five feet [23 m] long. The creature was undulating, making at least ten distinct curves, and a large part of its posterior region was above water. We watched this strange  creature for more than a minute swimming at a speed of about two knots [3½ kph]. I have seen many dolphins and whales and I know their movements. Those of this sea serpent were very different."
Atlantic side of South Africa, 1918
     This one comes from page 6 of the Darling Downs Gazette (Qld) of Monday 21 October 1918.
SEA SERPENT AGAIN
A STORY FROM AFRICA
     That old dear, the sea-serpent, has appeared again. Ethelbert G. Fotheringay says so, and as he is not a German his word is entitled to respectful consideration. In fact, he was loathe to tell the story, for he is hep to the merry ha-ha that usually greets sea-serpent tales. Of course, this is the open season, and they may be caught at any time now off seacoast summer resorts. But this serpent chose the coast of Africa for his appearance - probably he was disturbed in his deep-sea lair by a prowling submarine, and took it on the run for the south.
     Mr. Fotheringay has been in Africa for two years gathering rhinoceros hides and ivory for a Chicago firm. He saw the serpent three months ago while on the way from Swakopmund, formerly German South-west Africa, to Capetown, and this is the way he told the story to a New York 'Times' reporter, reluctantly as has been said.
     'I was on board the old African steamship Lum-Lum, which carried a Chinese crew with Dutch officer, and commanded by Captain Johann Van den Woof, one of the oldest skippers on the coast, a lifelong teetotaler, and a Baptist. There was only one other white passenger besides myself, Guy de Jolipas, the famous French gorilla-hunter, and about two hundred Hottentots and Kaffirs.
HEAD LIKE A PORK BARREL
     'It was a sweltering afternoon and the ship was about 150 miles [240 km] north west of Capetown. The temperature was 105 [40.5° C] in the shade, with a copper-coloured sky and the sea like boiled oil. Guy, the gorilla-hunter, had just thrown a chatty at the head of Oolu, the Hottentot cabin-boy, because he had brought him a bottle of beer without ice, when I heard a wild yell from deck and saw the panic-stricken natives trying to get down the after-hatch looking over the port side. I saw the weirdest monster that one could possibly imagine, afloat or ashore. When I tell you calmly that the head of the animal, which I realised at once was the sea-serpent, was as large as a good-sided pork-barrel, I do not exaggerate. I refer to the ordinary 500 [unclear] pound barrel and not the [?] tierce of beef which is usually 350 pounds [159 kg] or more.
     'The sea-serpent's head was about eight feet [2½ metres] above the surface of the sea, and about three feet [90 cm] across in the widest part. Its face was covered with bristly spikes which stuck out at angles, and the large, round eyes gazed curiously at the steamship in a reproachful manner, as if the noise of the propeller had disturbed its afternoon siesta.
     'The neck was no more than twelve inches [30 cm] in diameter, and was partly hidden by dark, hard-looking barnacles. I could not say exactly how long the sea-serpent was, but judging by the last ripple when it moved I think 150 feet [45 m] would be about the mark. Captain Van den Woof was very much excited as he stood with his big telescope on the bridge examining the marine monster. 'Gott fur dicker,' he shouted, 'this was the big sea-serpent the old Danish skipper Jensen reported three months ago at Capetown, and the people said he was crazy,'
SHIP DOES FIVE LAPS
     'The captain gave orders to the officer on watch to steam around the sea-serpent carefully and get as close as the ship could go without rushing into needless danger. Five times the Lum-Lum circumnavigated the sea-monster, which turned its massive head slowly, and regarded the vessel with a wistful look as if he wanted to speak to us and tell about its travels around the world. No-one had a camera on board, and the finest chance to snap the sea-serpent was lost. Guy, the hunter, had one when we left Swakopmund, but he broke it on Oolu's head two hours later and threw the debris over the side. He fired his express rifle at the monster several times, and the skipper peppered away from the bridge with an old Snider rifle, but the bullets glanced off its hide without having any perceptible effect.
     'Finally the captain gave orders to resume the course, and the Lum-Lum steamed away for Capetown. The last we saw of the sea-serpent astern was the great barrel-shaped head wagging slowly up and down, followed by a big commotion in the water, and then he disappeared beneath the surface. Judging by the course taken, the serpent was going an easy thirty-knot [55 kph] gait towards the Bight of Benin.'
Fiji, 1923
     To be fair, it took only a couple of weeks for this story to reach Australia, where it turned up in a couple of minor rural newspapers, but, for reasons explained in the second last paragraph, it took four months for the story to break. In other words, although it took place in 1923, it was not reported until 1924. This is taken from the Advocate (Burnie, Tas.) of Friday 8 February 1924, on page 5.
SEA SERPENT SEEN.
Mission Station Experience.
HEAD LIKE A HORSE.
     SUVA, January 25 - A remarkable story of a huge sea serpent having been seen comes from the Methodist Station on the island of Taveuni. Nurse Davis, who was on a professional visit to the Mission Stations, was looking out over the Some Somo Straits, which lie between the island of Taveuni and that of Vanua Levu, when she saw a huge head, which she describes as being something like that of a horse, rear itself out of the water. A thick body of a dull brown color, followed, until the head was reared above the waves to a height of 30 feet [9 metres], suggesting the huge length of the monster beneath the surface. Nurse Davis called out in horror, and her cries brought the Rev. Lelean to the scene. Through his field glass he had an excellent view of the sea serpent. For some time the head and neck of the thing swayed slowly in the air. Then it slid silently beneath the waves and disappeared. This happened on October 9, but shortly afterwards her professional work took Nurse Davis to the Lau Group, and she only recently returned to Suva with her story. The description of the sea serpent is very like that of a monster alleged to have been seen near Noumea by a sailing vessel recently.
     A neck 30 feet long is not unknown (they were reported, for example, off South Africa in 1901 and off New Zealand in 1932), but even if the length were overestimated, and it were only 20 feet, the implications are significant. As I have pointed out before, mammals - even giraffes - possess only seven neck vertebrae. Therefore, if the animal were a mammal, its neck would be too stiff to manoeuvre underwater.
     As for the Noumean monster, this also appears to be one which has slipped through the researchers' net. I have no record of it. The same goes for Captain Jensen's sea serpent, mentioned in the previous article.

Java Sea, ? before 1924
     Here is something which can only be described as an orphaned article.  It just happened to omit some cardinal features, such as the name of the witness, and the year. Although it was published in 1924, the reference to sailing vessels, and the phrase, "in those days" suggest it might have happened some time in the more or less distant part. I have no idea where the port of Angier Road might be, but I presume it is/was somewhere in the home countries, and nowhere near the site of the encounter: the Java Sea, between Java and Borneo. Anyway, for what it is worth, here is the story, which appeared on the front page of the Bathurst Times (NSW) of Tuesday 4 November 1924.
Another Sea-Serpent
     Some people still see sea-serpents. The appearance of such monsters used to be put down to the brand of whisky favored by the ship's passengers. But a seasoned tourist vouches for the following: - "In crossing the Javanese Sea, on the way to Angier Road, the great port of call for homeward-bound sailing vessels in those days, we saw, one forenoon, an enormous water serpent passing over the channel between two islands, just as we were emerging from it. It must have been nearly fifty feet [15 metres] long and as thick in width as the largest of our coir hawsers. It was holding its head some two feet [60 cm] or so above the water, and moving at a rapid rate."
British Columbia, Canada, 1926
     Here we have another of those huge 30-foot necks sticking out of the water. This time it was off British Columbia which, as we know, is the haunt of the famous "Cadborosaurus", which is usually described as short-necked, humped, and undulating. This caused Dr Heuvelmans to state in a footnote on page 473 of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents:
[I]t was certainly not Caddy that Captain House of the Canadian Government Fishery Patrol saw looking "like a 30 ft. telephone pole" near Hecate Strait between Queen Charlotte Islands and the mainland.
     Obviously, Heuvelmans was citing a brief reference in some secondary source. Well, here is the full story. I have taken it from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate (NSW) of Saturday 29 May 1926, on page 7. One only wishes that the three sketches provided by Captain House had been included. As far as the location goes, it was not, strictly speaking, in the wide Hecate Strait. Rather, it was in a very narrow passage between a group of small islands and the mainland. The Wikipedia gives the co-ordinates of Wright Sound as 53° 20' N, 129° 14' W.
SEA SERPENT AGAIN
     Seafaring men are already identifying the sea serpent reported to have been seen off the coast of British Columbia a fortnight ago with the one seen in the same vicinity eighteen months ago, says the Vancouver correspondent of the N.Z. "Herald," writing on April 7.
     Captain House, of the Canadian Government fishing patrol, was on his way north to Prince Rupert, and had reached a point near Hecate Straits, which separate Queen Charlotte Islands from the mainland, when he saw the monster. He is an officer in whom his fellows place high trust. They say, if Captain House said saw a sea serpent, he saw one; that is enough for them. He had plenty of time to observe the sea serpent, and made a drawing of it, in three positions - as it emerged from the water, when it was most out of the water, and when it was slipping back into the depths.
     The following signed statement from Captain House has appeared in the Vancouver Province newspaper: - "I have prepared three sketches of the sea serpent sighted off Cape Bridge, opposite Wight Sound, at 2.45 p.m. on March 16 [?], coming towards the south end of Grenville Channel. The head was about 18in. [45 cm] wide and possibly 2ft 6in [75 cm] long. The thing remained erect for about half a minute, and then disappeared spirally, as it had come. When submerged, it churned up the water, and left a wake for a long time, like a school of porpoises, moving outwards toward the sea, whence it had come."
     Captain House remarked that the sun was shining from the clouds at the time, and gave the monster a greenish-gold appearance. He said he was familiar with most sea creatures, and was positive it was nothing he had seen before. It had the appearance of a telephone pole, as it raised its head 30ft. [9 metres] above the water.
     The capture, last week, of a serpent-like fish at Powell River, lends colour to the belief that it is the young of Captain House's sea serpent. The Powell River Company have put it on ice, and are sending photographs to the Fisheries Department. It is five feet [1½ metres] long, with a head like that of a wolf, about the same size as an English pug-dog. The end of the body tapers to a point and skin-like fins at the side extend the entire length.

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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.

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