Friday, 14 February 2014

The Year of the Sea Serpents, 1934

     1934 was a very good year for sea serpents. Over a period of three months, they put in appearances all up and down the east coast of Australia. Much of the information has been published before, but now Trove has made it easier to uncover the original articles and provide full details. So let us start in chronological order.

     Orpheus Island is an elongated island due east of Ingham at approximately 18° 40' S, 146° 30' E, and separated by a very narrow channel from Fantome Island. On 4 August 1934, the Brisbane Courier Mail reported that Robert F. Steele had returned the day before from a film-making expedition, and particularly mentioned his near encounter with a shark at Orpheus Island. I therefore conclude that the following episode occurred in the same time frame, most likely in July. The original article appeared on page 8 of the Telegraph (Brisbane) on Tuesday 14 August 1934. This was an evening newspaper, and he was probably inspired to report the sighting by the report on the Mourilyan Harbour sea serpent (see below) published in the Courier-Mail in Brisbane on the morning of the same day.
Mr Steele's drawing

     Twenty-five feet long, a snake-like head with fins on either side, very small eyes, a tail more like an eel than a snake, the body about 12 inches in diameter, no particular fangs or tongue showing, and the body an impressive lime green tinged with brown about the fins. That is a detailed description of a sea serpent Mr Robert F. Steele, producer for Australian Travel Pictures, and co-director, Mr Pierce Mack, declare they saw, while they were in North Queensland waters recently.
     An impression of Australia's own "Loch Ness" monster, as drawn by Mr Steele, accompanies this article.
     When the big serpent made its appearance Mr Steele and his co-director were en route from Orpheus Island, where they had been shooting scenes for their picture "Australia Today", a full-length travel feature. Unfortunately their cameras were in another boat, Mr Steele said, and therefore they were unable to take a film of the monster. The serpent came quite close to their boat, and on occasions it raised its head three or four feet out of the water. But most of the time its head was level with the surface of the water. The serpent followed the boat for about a quarter of a mile, keeping up with the craft with effortless propulsion.
     "I had always thought that monster sea-serpents were legendary until I saw this," said Mr Steele. "It also has been seen by the chief medical officer at Fantome Island, Mr. Julian."
     He then discusses Australian sea snakes, but they never go beyond a length of 190 cm [6 ft 3 in], and so are not relevant to the issue.

     North Reef (23° 11' S', 151° 54 E) is a tiny reef in the Capricorn Group, notable only for its lighthouse. Apparently, the witness was inspired by the other reports to tell the story when his boat finally returned to port. The Townsville Daily Bulletin carried the story on page 7 on Thursday 4 October 1934. You will note that a scientist. A. H. Mattingley was asked to comment, but you should disregard his reference to the Moha Moha. This was a famous hoax based on Fraser Island in 1890.
When Trailing Off Barrier Reef
    A graphic story of having seen at close quarters the sea monster which has been sighted several times recently by fishermen and sailors was told to a "Bulletin" representative on Wednesday afternoon, by Mr. H. Mills, one of the principals of Yeppoon Deep Sea Fisheries (Rockhampton), who, with the fishing vessel Rahata has been operating in Townsville during the King Fish season.
     The incident occurred during the first week in August, said Mr Mills when, after four or five days of trailing, the boat had anchored off North Reef about 75 miles [actually 120 km] from Yeppoon. There was a dead calm that day, with hardly a ripple on the surface, and it was about midday that the monster, which has been stated by Mr. A. H. Mattingley, leader of a party of scientists at present visiting the Barrier Reef, to be named Chelo Sauria Lovelli, or amongst the natives Moha Moha, appeared.
     "I was seated on the deck making dumplings for a stew," continued Mr. Mills, "and was accompanied by a lad of 12 years, who suddenly exclaimed, "Look at that great snake!" I turned round, and was amazed to see within ten yards of the boat two huge lengths of the body protruding above the surface of the water. I did not see either the head, the middle or the tail, but there were two great curves, each about 10 feet, showing. They were practically as round as a 40 gallons fuel drum, of a brownish green color, with scales as big as my hand glinting in the sun.
     Mr. Mills called for other members of the crew to see the phenomenon, but, before they could reach the deck, the creature had gone, leaving a great swirl on the surface of the water. 'Like many others,' said Mr. Mills, 'I had always taken stories of such monsters with a grain of salt, but my experience has convinced me of their reality.' And', interrupted a member of the crew, 'you might mention that the demijohn was dry.'
    Mourilyan Harbour (17° 34'S, 146° 07' E) in north Queensland, is not far south of the larger town of Innisfail. The initial report, which was taken up by several newspapers, appeared in the Courier-Mail (Brisbane) on Tuesday 14 August 1934, page 13. It was actually the first "sea monster" story to be published.
Launch Party Tells of "Sea Serpent" INNISFAIL, Monday August 13. 
     A fishing party of Innisfail residents is discussing whether the sea monster which created a sensation at Loch Ness, Scotland, has migrated to Australia's warmer waters for the winter months, or whether the Queensland coast has a serpent of its own. The members of the party who returned to Innisfail this morning say they sighted a sea monster early on Sunday morning between Mourilyan Harbour and Barnard Islands. The strange visitor, they declare, was nearly 50ft. long, and measured at least 8ft. across the back just below its head, which was shaped like that of a turtle, with small eyes and protruding teeth. There were large fins on the back, and the tail appeared to be serrated, and covered with large spikes. The back possessed what were apparently scars of old wounds. The fishing party comprised W. Chung, E. How Kee, B. Clark, P. Ogden, and R. Kimlin, the majority of whom are engaged in business in Innisfail. Leaving Innisfail late on Saturday night the party reached at dawn a spot known as "The Deep Hole," which is about 3½ miles from Mourilyan Harbour, and eight miles from Flying Fish Point. The sea was then as smooth as glass. 

The monster, they say, appeared suddenly about 30 yards from the launch, the long, snake-like head protruding several feet above the surface across which it gazed at the launch while its 40ft to 50ft body was easily discernible on top of the water. It then began to swim slowly away, and when about 100 yards from the boat it submerged completely. Three minutes later it again appeared, much closer to the boat, and began to approach, but came to a standstill 30 ft distant, swimming around in circles and emitting a peculiar half gasping and half-whistling sound. It remained in the vicinity for 20 minutes, on top of the water, practically motionless. Then it began to make slowly seawards, following the channel from Mourilyan Harbour, and within 15 minutes was lost to sight. 

No fish had been caught for some time before the appearance of the monster, and none were caught later. A description has been sent to the president of the Cairns Naturalists' Club (Dr. Elecker), who is an authority on fish.
     It is easy enough to read something like this, and just pass over it, but stop and think. Did these five people just decide to make up such as story and, if so, for what purpose? Potentially making yourself a laughing stock is not a good way to gain your 15 minutes of fame. Or did they merely misconstrue some more mundane denizen of the deep? If so, perhaps some marine biologist can inform us about what sort of marine animal of comparative size has a long, serpentine neck with a head like a turtle's because, offhand, I can't think of any.
     There is another point to remember. The distance was Mourilyan Harbour is at least 900 km. I suppose, theoretically, a sea serpent could get from one site to the other in a week to ten days if it were flat out, but I wouldn't bet on it. The following sites are in much closer proximity.

     Townsville (19° 15½' S, 146° 49' E) is the largest city in North Queensland. It is approximately 192 km from Mourilyan Harbour as the crow flies, and much farther as the sea serpent swims, but I suppose one of them could easily cross the distance in seven days. The following was reported on page 5 of the Townsville Daily Bulletin on Monday 20 August 1934.
Head Like Huge Turtle
     Has the strange monster of the sea which was sighted by a party of fishermen off Mourilyan Harbor a week ago moved south?
     A little group of Townsvilleites - two men and a nine year old boy - who went out into Cleveland Bay on Sunday believe that it has; otherwise they declare, there is another weird denizen of the deep which they have seen.
     The Townsville party set out on Sunday morning in a 14 foot motor launch intending to drop anchor and fish at the Fairway Beacon, at the entrance of the Platypus Channel, which is about four miles from the breakwater heads. When nearing the beacon, the boy drew attention to a dark object which was to be seen about 100 yards to the eastwards of the beacon. It was taken to be a whale, of which a number have been seen lately in our waters.
     The launch continued on its journey, and a little later the anchor was thrown out a short way out from the beacon. The object still remained above water, standing possibly eight feet out. It was clearly a head, resembling more that of a huge turtle than anything else, and slightly arched. Further along three smaller dark objects were seen, probably a boat's length apart, giving the appearance of a 'monster' of the sea with a series of humps. The object was seen for about 20 minutes, then it submerged, and, soon after, rose again. The party watched it for a little longer, and then decided to return to town, to land the boy, and endeavour to secure a camera.
    "It looked as if it might remain there all day," one of the men said, "and there was only one way to convince anybody of what we had seen, and that was to photograph it."
    "Are you sure it was not a whale?" he was asked.
    "A whale? No. There was one a couple of miles over, and there were four in the bay yesterday, but this was not a whale."
    Two pressmen, armed with cameras, promptly joined the fishermen, and the launch returned to the bay. The boat cruised about in the vicinity in which the monster was seen, and remained there for some hours, but without catching a glimpse of it.
     When the launch was returning into the bay, the steamer Marella steamed in and anchored outside the Fairway. Perhaps it disturbed the creature.
     The very next day the same newspaper ran the following paragraph:
Seen Three Times On Sunday
The fishermen who saw the sea monster near the Fairway Beacon at midday on Sunday were not the only persons to sight it that day. At a quarter to seven in the morning a party aboard a yacht sighted it between Cockle and Bolger's Bay just off Magnetic Island. It lifted its tail out of the water several times and dropped it . The tail was not the fluke tail of a whale, but more that of a huge eel. On the third occasion when the sea monster was seen it was by some men engaged in fishing just outside the eastern breakwater. That was about 3.30 in the afternoon.
     Magnetic Island is just off the coast of Townsville. It is a pity the journalist failed to ply the witnesses with more questions to elucidate exactly what was seen, at what distance, and for how long - or even mention the number of witnesses.
     But back to the original story, you will note that the names of the witnesses were missing. Nevertheless, we do know them, because one of them, Oscar Swanson wrote to the scientist, A. H. E. Mattingley, and the latter had the letter published in the Victorian Naturalist vol. 52 (1935), pp 74-5.
     On Sunday, August 18, 1934 [the Sunday was actually August 19 that year], a party consisting of a William Quinn, my son, Harold, and myself, were out in a small motor launch, intending to fish near the Fairway Beacon, at the end of the Platypus Channel, four miles from Townsville. The previous day I sighted four whales in the bay, and was anxious for my lad to get a close-up view of a whale, so, on leaving the Breakwater, we were on the lookout for them. Shortly after, the lad drew our attention to four dark objects on the water, past the Fairway Beacon, and about three miles from us. We kept looking at these objects, and they had us puzzled. We could hardly believe our eyes when we got close enough to discern a Sea Monster. We were so interested in it that we did not realize what might happen if it came at us, and got within 150 yards, when it submerged, going down like a submarine, sinking slowly. Then we thought it would come at us, and we turned to make for the Beacon, which has a ladder to the top on which a lamp is lit.
     We were wishing that we were in a speed boat. We stowed the little fellow up forward under the bit of decking we had, and hoped for the best. I might mention that the sea at this time was as smooth as glass. After about five minutes the monster rose again in the same place (coming up just like a submarine). We were about three-quarters of a mile past the Beacon; on reaching it we caught hold of the ladder and watched to see what movements the monster would make. After waiting half an hour and seeing no movements, excepting the head swaying from side to side, as if watching us, we decided to make back to town, get rid of the boy, and get a camera, as it looked as though the monster would stop there all day. On reaching the jetty wharf, I rang Mr. Jim Gibbard, sub-editor of the Townsville Bulletin, who picked up a press photographer, Mr. Ellis, and, armed with two cameras, we once more set out (without the boy).
     As the pressmen were getting into the boat, we noticed the S.S. Marella coming around Magnetic Island, and making for the spot where the monster was, and our hopes of seeing it on the surface grew faint, as the noise of our little boat had made it submerge, while the noise from the steamer would be more likely to make it disappear. It took us half an hour to get to the spot where it was last seen, but the steamer had frightened it. On the way out, Mr. Ellis thought he saw two dark objects about 20 feet apart, deep down, and this may have been the monster, as it put its head up near a man fishing in a small dinghy just outside the breakwater, at 3.30 p.m.; and he lost no time in getting home.
     You will see, by the rough sketch submitted, what the monster was like. The head rose about 8 feet out of the water, and resembled a huge turtle's head; the mouth remaining close. The head was about 8 feet from the back of the head to the front of the mouth, and the neck was arched. The colour was greyish-green. The eye (we could see only one, being side on) was small in comparison to the rest of the monster. The other part in view was three curved humps about 20 feet apart, and each one rose from 6 feet in the front to a little less at the rear. They were covered with huge scales about the size of saucers, and also covered in barnacles. We could not get a glimpse of the tail, as it was under water.

        Mattingley apparently communicated with Swanson after he received the letter, because he added:
     Mr. Swanson further stated that there was no sign of fins and that there was a dark line along the back, but as the monster was motionless he could not discern what power it used to swim. It had no mane or sign of legs, as far as he could make out. The scales were shiny in the sun and seemed to be butted and perpendicular. There were many barnacles on the body, some the size of soup plates, whilst the scales were the size of saucers.
     Based on his description, the head should have been drawn longer. Nevertheless, it appears the visible part of the animal must have been in the vicinity of 60 feet [18 metres] in length. Bernard Heuvelmans, in his book, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents makes a couple of points. The first is that barnacles are seldom more than 2 inches across. I presume, therefore, that the "barnacles" were some sort of natural growths or protuberances. The second is that scales overlapping vertically would be a hindrance in swimming but, he points out, this is probably a sign of his lack of artistic skill. It should be noted, however, that Heuvelmans made the mistake of assuming that Swanson's sighting was separate from that of the anonymous party of three mentioned in the original report. This was the result of an unavoidable reliance on secondary sources.
     Be that as it may, Swanson finished his signed letter with the following paragraph:
     A week before, a monster was seen at Mourilyan Harbour by a fishing party in  large launch, and the description given by them tallied with what we saw, only the creature made a loud noise as it swam around their boat, about 50 yards away. A week later, it was seen around Bowen, and the account in the North Queensland Register describes what was seen there. A week later, the M.V. Trentbank, on her way to Canada with a shipment of sugar, sent a wireless to Townsville that they had sighted the sea monster off Mackay. Some weeks later, when a motor boat, the Rahata, was coming north from Brisbane (to fish for the kingfish season off Palm Islands); one of the crew, a man named Mills, was on deck, when he saw the monster a few feet off the boat. This was further south, near the Barrier Reef. He described in our paper that he saw two big humps about 25 feet apart, of a grey-greenish colour, covered with scales the size of saucers. He did not see the head or tail. He said that when he had read of the monster, that, like a lot of others, he thought we had too much rum aboard (as it happens, we are teetotallers),  but was quite convinced that the sea monster existed after what he saw.
     Well, we've already looked at the Mourilyan Harbour monster, so let's examine the others.

     Bowen (20° 01' S, 146° 14' E). On Saturday 25 August 1934, the following story appeared in various newspapers, the most detailed, by a whisker, being on page 7 of the Townsville Daily Bulletin.
Seen at Bowen
Fisherman's Report
     A sea monster appeared in the Bowen Harbor this week.
     Mr. H. Hurst, a very well known local fisherman, was making his way towards Bowen when he saw a dark object floating on the surface of the water about 200 yards away. The area was dead calm at the time. He pointed it out to his two mates, J. Hurst and J. Ayles. At first they thought it was a whale, as these have been fairly plentiful in these waters lately, but whilst they were approaching it suddenly lifted its head about 8 feet out of the water, and the launch party called a halt. It appeared to be about 30 feet long, and had a head like a large turtle, just as has been described further north, and a body like a huge armored hose, so they decided not to stop any longer, as they had no rifle on board, but went on to town.
     Mr. Hurst did not mention the incident at first for fear of being disbelieved.
     When first seen the monster was between Sinclair Bay and Gloucester Passage and was heading in the direction of Sinclair Bay.
      It is interesting that, on 30 August, the Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton) printed a much abbreviated version of the story on page 38, but gave the date as August 23, and stated that Sinclair Bay is at the opposite end of the harbour from Bowen, 16 miles [25½ km] away.

Trentbank. On Saturday 1st September 1934, the Townsville Daily Bulletin carried the following report on page 7.
Mariner's Wireless Report.
     There is apparently no need to lean on the liquids of Barleycorn for sighting the monster reported at Townsville about a fortnight ago. The reports of innocent fishermen who have been chided for saying they saw a sea monster, have been confirmed by a master of the motor ship, Tentbank, who wirelessed on Friday afternoon that he had seen the object off Penrith Island.
     The Trentbank left Townsville at mid-day on Thursday, en route for Montreal (Canada) with a full cargo of sugar. The vessel's master (Captain Porter) had no doubt read of the published reports, and what he saw off Penrith Island influenced him to wireless Messrs. Howard Smith Limited at 2.31 p.m. on Friday: "Sighted monster off Penrith Island."
     The mysterious sea giant has done fairly well under its own speed since its presence was reported in Townsville last Sunday week. Penrith Island is situated 37 miles, East North East of Mackay.
     That was all it said. One presumes the captain was able to recognize a whale, but apart from that, nothing more can be said. Penrith Island is a small island bearing a lighthouse in the Great Barrier Reef at 21° S, 149° 54'' E).

     The last one occurred much farther south - at Coffs Harbour (31° 18' S, 153° 8' E) in northern New South Wales. On Friday 14 September 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald carried the following article on page 11.
Reported by Fishermen
     COFF'S HARBOUR, Thursday
     Charles Blanche and Alfred Jackson, of Coff's Harbour, two well-known deep-sea fishermen, report that about four miles from the entrance to Coff's Harbour they saw from their launch yesterday what they at first took to be a log. Then they saw two legs, which were about a foot in diameter, and were about 20 feet apart. They turned their craft about to make a closer inspection, but, when nearing the object, they saw it roll over, and a head, which both men declared resembled that of a horse, appeared. With a snort the creature plunged down to the depths, disappearing in a cloud of spray.
     Blanche and Jackson declare that the monster was up to 40 feet in length, and that in all their years of the sea they had never seen before such a weird-looking sea dweller.
     You will note that, as usual, the journalists apparently did not attempt to elicit any further information from the witnesses than what they volunteered. Nevertheless, they did go further than all the others: they consulted an expert. (In defense of the others, it should be pointed out that, in this period, experts tended to be concentrated in the capital cities, telephones were far from common, and long distance calls expensive. Journalists in such places as Townsville might have difficulty contacting an expert at short notice.) At any rate, immediately below the report came the following paragraph:
     Mr. G. D. Stead, the well-known marine zoologist, said last night that he had no doubt the fishermen in question, one of whom he knew very well, had seen a giant calamary or cuttle, which, in some waters, grow to a length of 80 to 100 feet, possibly longer. One specimen, washed up on a New Zealand beach, was 56 feet long. The greater part of the length of the calamary was taken up by tentacles, which the creature trailed behind as it swam along, but which in the water appeared to be part of the body. There were ten such tentacles, eight comparatively short ones, and two very large ones. This strange denizen of the sea had a habit of lying on the surface of the sea, basking in the sun. When it moved, it propelled itself backwards, with its strange, flat, diamond-shaped tail carried just a little out of the water. What had given rise to the suggestion that the creature had a head like a horse was probably the lifting of one of the large tentacles momentarily out of the water. Attached to each of the tentacles were a row of suckers, which, on being raised suddenly, would hang down and give the appearance of a horse's mane. The snorting sound that had been remarked upon was probably caused by the action of the giant syphon [sic] by which the creature propelled itself along.  This was the same action as that employed by the octopus, and was similar to the rocket system of propulsion which many engineers had attempted to use in the operation of aeroplanes and boats.
     Readers might remember from my post of August 2013 that this was the same explanation the same zoologist gave for the Scarborough sea serpent of 1930. I mean no disrespect, but this sounded more convincing then than it does now. Giant squids do not sun bathe on the surface; they are creatures of the abyss, and normally rise to the surface, and in particular come inshore, only when dying or very sick. While this specimen might theoretically fall into that category, as I mentioned before, the vast majority of giant squids are much smaller than the maximum size. Also, the quoted length always includes the two long, sessile arms, which are at least as long as the rest of the body combined, and would hardly be noticed by somebody approaching. There is no way a giant squid lying on the surface would appear 40 feet [12 metres] long when viewed at a distance. Furthermore, the only part of the body which would resemble a horse's head would be the swollen portion at the end of the sessile arm, which is highly unlikely to rise out of the water and, if it did so, would appear a body length away from the rest of the body, not to mention the "snorting" siphon. Finally, it doesn't explain the two legs a foot in diameter and 20 feet [6 metres] apart.

    So, what can we learn from all these accounts? For a start, the journalists were woefully inadequate to their task. The reported only what information was volunteered; they did not ask for any more. Apart from that, were all these "sea monsters", some of which were observed at very close quarters, the same species? Were they the same individual? The answer to the last question is: unlikely - unless it was very fast and liked doubling back on itself.
     Let us take the Townsville sea serpent, because its description was the most detailed. Followers of the sea serpent scene will be aware that elongated animals with several humps and a long neck are fairly common. However, by and large, they do not  have scales. The visitors to North Reef and Bowen might have been the same species; there were the same scales and the same colour and, when it was visible, the same neck. One would be inclined to add the Mourilyan Harbour beast to the list, except for the fins on the back. However, the creature seen at Orpheus Island was very different; it sounds like a gigantic sea snake or eel. And the Coff's Harbour animal was something quite different again. All very strange!
     There is one other point to ponder. The journalists, to their credit, took the reports seriously, and they were published in several capital city and regional papers. The initial report almost certainly inspired the other witnesses to come forth. But 1934 was also the year after the publicity storm of the Loch Ness monster. Probably that also encouraged witnesses to speak up, and journalists to take them seriously. So the question remains: was 1934 unique in the number of sea serpent sightings, or merely in the reporting of them? How many sightings go unreported in normal years?

Note: I have now completed a new blog, Riverina Girl, which you may wish to check out if you are interested in what life was like 90 years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Nice sightings. The first creature I agree, might be of ophidian nature, a true sea serpent at last. The second one drawn by Swanson might indeed be some kind of giant turtle, the famous "floating islands" or aspidochelone encountered by sailors, among them Sinbad for instance and later by the SS umfuli with a sketch done and with no really discernible shell, just like the leatherback:
    I guess it is a worldwide distributed critter which may have entered the Loch times to times, after all a bottlenose whale did so !