Saturday, 1 August 2020

Lost 20th Century Sea Serpents

     Last month I ransacked the digitalised archives of Singaporean newspapers for sea serpent reports of the 19th century, checked them against cases recorded by earlier researchers, and published those previously unknown. This month I shall complete the process for 20th century reports. Again, we have the problem that the journalists asked no questions, but limited themselves to the information the witnesses volunteered.
      The first one occurred in Singapore Harbour itself. The report is taken from The Straits Times of 12 October 1903, on page 5.
THE SEA SERPENT IN SINGAPORE HARBOUR
     One of the Marine Police officers who was patrolling the harbour in the police launch on Saturday night [ie 10 October], alleges that he saw something in the water which he declares very closely resembled the Sea Serpent, or what the Sea Serpent is supposed to be. The monster was seen at Tanjong Pagar near the old hulks. It could not be seen plainly, owing to the dim light, but what appeared to be the head, which was black was raised about two feet [60 cm] above the water. It disappeared on the approach of the launch.
     Needless to say, this could have been anything.

Cornwall, 1907. This one had not gone completely unnoticed by earlier researchers; they just didn't have enough detail. On page 379 of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Dr. Heuvelmans refers simply to "the rather larger creature seen by two students off Tintagel Head in 1907." Tintagel, for those who are unaware, is supposed to have been the birthplace of King Arthur. Anyway, this detailed account of its sea serpent comes from The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 26 October 1907, on page 4, although the original encounter took place more than a month before.
THE SEA SERPENT
SEASONABLE REAPPEARANCE IN CORNWALL
    Amid the excitement of following ocean liners, test cricket matches, and the weather, it seemed probable that the sea serpent would not reappear this season. But apparently the monster has only been waiting for the sunshine and a favourable opportunity for a notice in the newspapers.
     It is not off the Scilly Islands or in the Pacific Ocean that it has raised its head on this occasion, and the authority for its reappearance is no ancient mariner. The information comes via Sheffield and Plymouth, that it has been seen off Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall. The Sheffield Telegraph startled its readers yesterday by the announcement that the Rev. T. C. Davies, of Sheffield, and Mr. E. Dodgson, of Jesus College, Oxford, had seen it, while the Western Morning News has published a letter from Mr. Dodgson, which will make the public thirst for more information on the subject,
    It was not late in the day when the monster is stated to have revealed its presence. "At 11.45 am I was seated with the Rev. T. C. Davies on the edge of the cliff of the Cove, known as Gulla Stem, at Tintagel," writes Mr Dodgson, "when he called my attention to a black object that was moving at a distance of about 200 yards very rapidly along the calms surface of the sea towards Tintagel Head. In about a minute it had disappeared behind the cliff that bounds the cove on the west."
     From the description that is given by Mr Dodgson it does not seem to have been the serpent that appeared off the Irish coast early this year, which was computed to have been 40 ft.[12 metres] long, or the serpent that was last year described by Dr. Raphael Blanchard, of the University of Paris, the flexible neck of which was ornamented with a fine moustache. Mr Dodgson says nothing about a moustache; but he states that it was a serpent at least 20ft. [6 m] long, "holding its large head with apparently some kind of crest or mane upon it, aloft." Unfortunately the visitors had no camera with which to take a photograph. It is to be hoped that the monster will not interfere with the Cornish pilchards. Perhaps the visitors who had such an interesting experience may add to the graphic details an illustration of the latest sea serpent. - (Tribune) Sept.17.
    From this you will gather that the witness provided only a very meagre description, and the journalist decided to fill in the blanks with a lot of irrelevant verbage. Just the same, it must be pointed out that there isn't any known marine species which goes around with its head held aloft in the manner described.

North Carolina, 1909. Here's another account which would really have benefited from a full description. This brief, untitled paragraph comes from page 6 of The Straits Times of 21 September 1909.
    The latest sea serpent, says Capt. Serenson of the little Norwegian fruiters' Simon Dumois of the Cuban Planters, Co., is a turbine model. Capt. Serenson says he fell in with the marvellous freak north of Cape Hatteras. It was about six feet [1.8 m] around the body and eighty feet [24 m] long, the skipper says. He didn't get near enough to measure it, but says his estimates are conservative. The most peculiar feature of the monster was the innumerable fangs which grew from the body like sickles.
England, 1911. I don't know how this got overlooked by earlier researchers. It was off the Royal Naval Dockyards on the River Medway, just before it joins the Thames estuary. This untitled paragraph comes from page 6 of The Straits Times of 24 October 1911.
     It is reported from Chatham that a "sea serpent" of huge proportions has been seen in the River Medway off the dockyard. It is described as 30ft. [9 m] in length, with bulging green eyes. Shots were fired at it by a fisherman, but he says it evidently had an ironlike carcass, as the bullets were seen to strike it and bound away. It was followed down the river, blowing and snorting.
    That last sentence suggests it was some sort of mammal. One wonders if it weren't a known species of whale.

Scotland, 1934. The final story comes from the most northwestly point of mainland Britain: Cape Wrath (59° N, 5° W). The animal appears to have been seen at close range - close enough, in fact, to allow a fuller description that was actually received. The report comes from the Malaya Tribune of 8 August 1934, page 13.
ANOTHER MONSTER
Giant Sea Serpent Off Cape Wrath
Stockholm.
     A sea monster 36 feet long and over 6 feet broad is reported to have been seen about 20 miles [32 km] from Cape Wrath by the crew of the Swedish steamer Nordia during a voyage from Finland to Liverpool. A letter from B. A. Berggren, steward of the Nordia, dated June 27, addressed to the Stockholm newspaper "Svenska Dagbladet," reads:-
    "Today at 2.35 we sighted ahead of us a formless mass which we first took to be a piece of wreckage, but as the ship slowed down we made out a big sea monster like a giant sea serpent. The beast broadened out at the middle. It had a long narrow tail, four great fins and head something like that of a bullhead, (a British fish known also as the miller's thumb from its broad, flattened head). It was not easy to estimate its size, but I reckon it was about 10 to 11 metres long and at least 2 metres broad.
    The first officer who rushed forward watched it glide alongside the ship and then when it was amidships it turned off and, plunging into the sea, disappeared. Eight persons saw the monster, including a passenger, the principal of a Malmo school.
    We are now lying 20 miles S.W. by W. of Cape Wrath, Scotland."
     And that, folks, is the end. Because five years later a war started, and people had more important things to think about. I noticed this when researching Australian sea serpents. Reports became far less common after the war. By the time the shooting stopped, people had forgotten that it was once acceptable for people to see sea serpents, and for newspapers to report them. Ironically, it is lake monsters which are now acceptable.

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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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