Tuesday 7 November 2017

Sea Serpents Galore! (Australia, 19th Century)

     Take note! Most of what you are about to read in this post, and in those of the following months, have never been presented in any significant publication as a collection. In other words, they are new: unknown to the general public.
     I have been going through the digitalised Australian newspapers on Trove for the nineteenth century, and my system has been simple. I just used the advanced search option to look for the phrase, "sea serpent" for a particular year. Frequently what turned up was a flippant remark, and all too often a reference to a horse or a ship of that name. (I regret to say that the latter was never involved in an encounter. I would have loved to have read the headline, SEA SERPENT SEES SEA SERPENT.) Nevertheless, quite frequently I was met with a report of an actual (alleged) sea serpent sighting, which typically appeared in a large number of periodicals over a considerable period of time. If the story could not be found in Bernard Heuvelmans' comprehensive tome, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968), I have assumed it is unknown, and have copied what appears to be the earliest and/or most detailed account. I only wish the journalists had been prepared to ask questions. As if was, they normally recorded merely the information provided by the witness, without any attempt to obtain more details. But at least they took the subject seriously - which is more than they do today. In any case, this month's post shall deal with the Australian encounters. At this period, it is important to note, most trade between the Australian colonies was by sea.

     Keppel Bay, 1862-3.   Keppel Bay is essentially the place where the Tropic of Capricorn intersects the east coast. The 1870s was the decade in which the press really started taking sea serpents seriously. The result was the notification of Australia's first sighting more than a quarter of a century after the event, in the Evening News (Sydney), Friday 6 December 1889, page 5.
An Australian Sea Serpent
     An extract from the LONDON EVENING STANDARD entitled "Are there Monsters in the Sea?" was published in the EVENING NEWS of Tuesday. This morning we are informed by Mr. Francis Jones, newsagent, of North Shore, that in going from Sydney to Rockhampton during the Port Curtis rush in 1862 and 1863 he was a passenger by the steamer City of Sydney. When off Keppel Bay, owing to an accident, she was put at half speed, and while thus going slowly a monster of the deep as seen close to the ship. It was at least 40ft [12.2 metres] long, in shape like a snake, and very pretty, being striped like some species of the Australian snake. There were from 60 to 70 passengers on board, most, if not all, of whom, in addition to the crew, saw the Australian sea serpent. A good view was obtained owing to his snakeship for some time taking the same course as the steamer.
     It is not easy to tell what to make of this. Very few plausible sea serpents are described as striped, nor do they really look like snakes. Nevertheless, there are many species of genuine sea snakes in Australian waters, and most are striped. The trouble is, few are much more than a metre long. To be sure, some outsize individuals of the banded sea krait, Laticauda colubrina, which is marked with black stripes on vivid blue, have been known to reach 2.75 metres. Just the same, most are only half that length. Also, although a vagrant specimen might theoretically turn up in Keppel Bay, it really belongs to the waters of southeast Asia and Melanesia. Thus, even if we halve the length of Mr. Francis' specimen on the basis of exaggeration and faulty memory, it is still twice as long as the most outsized sea snake, of a species which does not belong anywhere near the area.

     Southern Ocean, 1877. I recorded the Maid of Judah sighting in my post of March 2016.

     Cape Howe, 1879.  Cape Howe is the point at which the Victorian-New South Welsh border meets the coast. It is very close to Gabo Island, which was the site of other sea serpent appearances in the 1960s. Indeed, this whole coast has more than its share of sea serpents. The initial report appeared on page 2 of The Wallaroo Times and Mining Journal (Port Wallaroo, SA) of Wed. 13 August 1879. However, in order to omit irrelevant material, I shall cite the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate of Sat. 30 August 1879, page 8.
The sea snake has turned up again. Captain Young, of the barque 'Bosphorus,' which arrived in Wallaroo Bay, on Sunday, August 10, from Newcastle, New South Wales, report that when off Cape Howe, on 27th July, a very strange fish was seen by all on board; but whether it was the celebrated sea serpent or not, Captain Young does not consider himself justified in stating. He says it had a head strongly resembling that of an ox, the likeness to which animal was somewhat increased by its having two protuberances resembling horns on its forehead; its length was about 30 feet [9 m], and its diameter about 3 feet, the body being brown, and apparently without scales. It remained near the vessel for a considerable time, and was the object of much interest and speculation to the crew of the 'Bosphorus'.
      No indication is given as to whether the head was raised above the water, but two small protuberances are a not uncommon feature of the "long necked" variety of sea serpent.

     Victoria, 1890. The following must have occurred off the east coast of Victoria, because it took place on Sunday afternoon, and the ship reached Melbourne the next morning. The initial report appeared on page 7 of The Australian Star (Sydney) of Tuesday 3 June 1890. However, it was picked up by other papers around the country with slightly different wording and occasionally extra information. This, presumably, reveals how the press operated, with dispatches from some major source spread widely and modified as the space and the editor required. I shall cite the Singleton Argus (NSW) of Wednesday 4 June, page 4.
A Sea Serpent

Captain Lockyer, of the steamer Victorian, which arrived at Melbourne on Monday morning from Sydney, reports that during Sunday afternoon, whilst the sea was as smooth as glass, he saw a monster a short distance from the ship, which had every appearance of a sea serpent. It was about 80ft [26 m] long and 6ft [1.8 m] in circumference, and jet black from end to end. All the passengers witnessed the gambols of the creature as it sported itself high above the steamer. The passengers requested the captain to make tracks and give the monster a wide berth, which he did. The captain said it is precisely similar to the sea serpent passed by him at the same place two years ago.
     I strongly suspect that "diameter" was intended, instead of "circumference", firstly, because people who see an elongated object normally note its width, rather than estimate its circumference, and secondly, because a circumference of just 6 feet would make it very thin indeed. If it sported itself high above the steamer, it would have been a typical "long necked" sea serpent. How interesting that he saw a similar sea serpent two years before! (The original report said that it happened 80 miles, or about 130 km to the south.)

     The Bishop and the Dead Sea Serpent, 1891. Readers of Heuvelmans' tome, along with The Case for the Sea-Serpent (1930) by R.T.Gould, there was a kerfuffle in the Britain press when The Times received a cablegram declaring:
     Faced with such an obscure report, the newspaper, in its edition of 6 November 1891, announced that the Bishop of Adelaide, the Rt. Rev. Dr. G.W. Kennion had been found dead, an announcement which the bishop himself immediately proclaimed to be premature. It was then determined that the cable really implied that the bishop had found a dead sea serpent at Coffin Bay. So farcical became the situation that, a few months after the event, some Australian newspapers provided humorous accounts for the way their English counterparts had performed. In passing, they noted the suggestion by one periodical that it might have been a Mr. Bishop who found the deceased monster, rather than the bishop. On page 574 of  Antoon Oudemans' book, The Great Sea-Serpent of 1892 (which can be read or downloaded here), it is recorded as a hoax because Mr. Gilbert Bogle of Newcastle-on-Tyne wrote to the bishop, who immediately replied that the story was untrue.
     Notably absent from all this was the initial report in the Australian press. The Times eventually referred to the Australian reports when they arrived, but no-one has actually cited any of them verbatim. It is about time this was rectified, so I shall hereby reproduce a typical article, that of the Evening News (Sydney), Friday 6 November 1891, on page 5. You will note that this was the same date as The Times' article.
The Sea Serpent Found at Last
     Adelaide, Friday.- A remarkable discovery of a sea serpent is reported. The Bishop of Adelaide, writing from Avoid Point, near Coffin Bay, to a friend here, says that while riding along the sea beach he came across a dead sea serpent. The animal was about 60 feet [18 m] long, and had a head 5 feet [1½ m] long, like that of an enormous snake, with two blowholes on the top. There were no teeth in the jaws. The body was round, and the tail resembled that of a whale. The bishop says it was the most extraordinary animal he ever beheld. As this discovery is vouched for by a bishop, there will be some inclination to believe that the sea serpent has been found at last.
     At once, you might notice a few things missing from the story:
  • the name of the bishop;
  • his denomination (he was always assumed to belong to the Church of England, but what about the Church of Rome?);
  • when this was supposed to have happened. Coffin Bay is a long way from Adelaide, near the southwest tip of the Eyre Peninsula, but not too far from the larger town of Port Lincoln. Still, a bishop might visit there as part of his circuit. I don't know what the mail system was like at the time, but it is possible a ship regularly plied between Port Lincoln and Adelaide, carrying the mail. However, the fact that the bishop allegedly wrote to his friend suggests he intended to stay on the peninsula for some time, yet he was easily contacted from England when the story broke.
  • Finally, the name of the friend who broke the story to the anonymous journalist. Did he show him the letter?
     Personally, I cannot see that there is any value in this story. It is known that the decaying carcass of a basking shark can look like a plesiosaur, but the fact that the bishop denied the story to Mr. Bogle suggests it was completely bogus - assuming he got the right bishop.

     1893 was the year of the Industry sighting at Montague Island, which I recorded earlier.

     Newcastle, 1894. I don't know what to make of this. It sounds unlikely, yet it was apparently witnessed by several people. On the other hand, the distance was considerable. The earliest report, and also the most detailed, was published on page 6 of the Evening News (Sydney) of Monday 27 August 1894.
A Sea Serpent
     Newcastle, Monday. - Several residents of the Hill allege that on Saturday they saw a sea serpent quite close in shore. It was observed from the old Gaol Hill in the direction of Redhead. Every now and again the object could be seen rising up and coming down with great force, splashing the water in all directions. The theory was then advanced that the commotion was caused by a fight between a whale and a thrasher or fox-shark. About 4 p.m. a large black object was observed moving swiftly along in the direction of Nobbys, and was quickly followed by another. The forward portion of the latter rose some 6ft. or 7ft [1.8 - 2.1 m] out of the water and bounded forward attacking the leader with its head. The chase became fast and furious, and as the objects came abreast of the old Gaol Hill they passed along within half a mile [800 metres] of the beach. It was then seen that the second monster was not a thrasher shark. The first was a whale, there could be little doubt, as it was large and bulky, and almost black in color. The second had a serpentine head with a brownish-colored back and silvery belly. This was distinctly seen when it raised part of its body out of the water. Great excitement prevailed till the monsters were out of sight, and the general impression by those who saw the combatants was that if the snake-like creature was not the great sea serpent it certainly resembled the description given by those who profess to have seen it.
       Off Western Australia, 1896. This is from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate (NSW) of Wednesday 14 October 1896, page 5.
     When the steamer Echuca was about 50 miles [80 km] off Fremantle on 3rd instant a sea serpent is reported to have been seen. The officers state that the monster was nearly 100 ft [30 m] in length, and was of great girth. It was close to the steamer, and was seen by several members of the ship's company. At first it was taken for a whale, but on closer inspection, when its head projected well above water, it could not be mistaken for the whale species, being almost a fac-simile of an abnormal cobra. The Echuca recently made a trip to India with a cargo of camels. Out of 540 shipped the steamer put ashore alive and well 538. The camel business has seen perhaps greater development than almost any other special live stock line in the import trade of Australia.
     Off Sydney, 1897.  The following comes from the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) of Wednesday 30 June 1897, on page 5.
     The sea serpent has once more been sighted. Captain H. Penner, master of the steam tug Hero, states that yesterday morning, when about 25 miles [40 km] east from Botany Heads, he saw a serpentine monster lying close to the vessel. It was coiled into a shape resembling the figure 8, and apparently asleep. When the vessel approached closer, the monster, which was between 30 and 40 feet [9 to 12 m] in length, uncoiled itself, and moved slowly away. It was then seen that the serpent was in the middle as big round as a man's thigh, tapering off towards the tail. Its head appeared to be about twice the width of  large human hand. Captain Penner states that, when first discovered, the monster seemed to be of various colours, and was apparently covered with scales. When at a distance of about half a mile from the tug it suddenly disappeared, and was not seen again.
      I find this rather puzzling, because the description is pretty obviously that of a snake, but much, much bigger than any sea snake. And, in case anyone asks, we do not have land pythons anywhere near that size, nor are they known for sleeping in the sea.

     Southern Tasmania, 1899. This rather scary encounter took place at the mouth of the Huon River, slightly north of tiny Huon Island, which is situated at 43° 17½' S, 147° 09' E. The original report appeared in The Mercury (Hobart) of Thursday 3 Aug 1899, on page 3. As an example of the way the press worked at the time, the story was picked up verbatim in other newspapers dated 4 August, 14 August, 24 August, and 1st September.

     A curious experience is related by Mr Robert Bowman, a fisherman, residing at Garden Island Creek (Tas.) He states that about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25, he was returning to Garden Island Creek from Huon Island in a small punt, and when off the north point of Charlotte Cove, about a mile [1.6 km] below the Garden Island Creek jetty, he heard a splashing noise in the water ahead of him. Upon looking round, he saw some creature in the water which was quite unknown to him. It had, when first seen, elevated a long neck about 20ft [6 m] out of the water, with a triangular-shaped flat head bent at right angles to the neck, and seemed, from its actions, to have been feeding on something. The long neck was very black, and rather shiny on the back part, but lighter underneath, and appeared to swell out rather suddenly where it reached the water. Mr Bowman says that he did not notice how long the head was, as his whole attention was concentrated upon getting away as fast as he could, but he thought it was about 3 ft [90 cm] broad. Watching the creature whilst rowing away from it, he noticed it bend down its neck, and protrude a small portion of its tail from the water, and then 'bend its body into a bow', as he describes. From the head to the end of the tail he estimates the creature as about 30ft [9 m] long as a rough guess, but thinks it might have been more. As soon as the creature caught sight of the punt it started to follow it, but Mr Bowman states that at the time he was close to land, and immediately pulled inside the heavy fringe of kelp that extends along the rocky shore, with a view to landing. He found, however, that the 'beast', as he calls it, would not venture the kelp. It tried several times and dived but always returned to the outside of the belt. It followed him for a quarter of a mile [400 metres] before giving up the chase. Mr Bowman states that when swimming after him it carried its head 4ft or 5ft  [1.2 to 1.5 metres] above the water, and made at times bursts of speed that sent the water flying from its neck like that from the bows of a fast steamer. He does not think it was capable of keeping up a high speed for any length of time. Mr Bowman was shown the pictures of some ancient saurians in the 'Century Magazine' of November, 1897, which a resident happened to possess, and immediately lighted on the representation of a 'plesiosaurus,' with the remark, 'That's the beast all right.' He stated, however, that he did not notice any paddles or fins, as the body was under water, but thinks that the neck and head, as shown in the picture, almost exactly represent the neck and head of the creature he saw. Having been a fisherman for many years, Mr Bowman says that he is familiar with all the whales, sharks, and seals found in these waters, and could not have mistaken one of them for a sea serpent. While swimming after him, it moved its head from side to side with a serpentine motion. With a companion he went on the following day to try if he could see it again, but failed to do so.
     On has to admire his courage in venturing out the following day to look for it. The description fits the "long necked" sea serpent very well. However, if the neck were really 20 feet long, with a swelling at the base where it joined the body, it is likely it was a lot longer than 30 feet. On the other hand, the fact that it was held only 4 to 5 feet out of the water when chasing him suggests that the original estimate was an exaggeration.

     Bass Strait, 1899. It is probable that, except for the publicity afforded the last encounter, the following one would not have been reported. It comes from the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) of Thursday 10 August 1899, on page 5.
      A few days ago a sensational story came from Hobart to the effect that a fisherman residing at Garden Island Creek, on the Huon River, while in his boat had been chased by a sea monster. According to his description it had a long neck lifted about 20 feet out of the water, carrying a triangular-shaped head bent at right angles to its neck, the entire length of the creature being perhaps 30 feet. Yesterday the ship Hampton arrived in port from Sharpness, and Captain M'Donald reported that when this side of Wilson's Promontory he saw a monster of the deep which is likened to a sea serpent. Captain M'Donald, when seen on board, stated: - "On August 1st, in latitude 30.50 degrees south, and longitude 148.23 degrees east, at 9.40 a.m., the ship, while close hauled on the starboard tack, with a moderate breeze, clear weather, and smooth sea, my attention was drawn by the chief officer and helmsman to a strange-looking creature in the water about 10 yards from the ship. It was 20 feet [6 metres] or, perhaps, more in length, and from four to five feet  [1.2 to 1.5 metres] in girth. It was a reddish brown color, with a head and body resembling a snake. No fins were visible. The monster was stationary at the time on the weather quarter, and did not attempt to move as the ship passed." The chief officer corroborated the captain's statement, and says that during his career at sea he has never seen anything like it. It appeared to be between two and three feet [60 and 90 cm] in width, and the head, he said, greatly resembled the fluke of a ship's anchor, while the tail tapered off to a fine point.
     It is a point in favour of the story that the two witnesses gave different estimates of the width, even if by "girth" is meant "circumference". The description does sound a lot like a snake, though it could be a very large eel.

     Well, folks, that about sews up the Australian data for the 19th century. In the next few months I shall relate the information from New Zealand, and then from the wider world. And remember: these are forgotten sea serpent reports. You won't read them anywhere but here. 

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