Wednesday 6 December 2017

Sea Serpents Galore! (New Zealand, 19th Century)

     In my last post I said that I was in the process of searching the digitalised versions of old Australian newspapers for sea serpent reports which may have missed the eyes of earlier investigators. In other words, I have checked to see whether they were recorded in Bernard Heuvelmans' tome, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Last month I dealt with Australian sea serpents, but our neighbours across the Tasman also came in for their share of reports. It would have been great if a similar exercise were performed in New Zealand, because some of these accounts are short on detail, to say the least. At any rate, please pay heed, because these stories are NEW.

     Tasman Sea, 1877. This report appeared on page 4 of the Ballarat Courier (Vic) of Tuesday 11 December, 1877, and page 2 of the Avoca Mail of the same date. It should be noted, however, that the witness appears to have got the dates wrong. According to shipping reports, the Arawata sailed from Melbourne on 8th November, not the 7th. Also, the 15th was a Thursday, not a Wednesday. In fact, the 15th was a Wednesday on no other month except August. In any case, the sighting would have taken place on either 14 or 15 November, when it must have been pretty close to New Zealand.
     It appears that this monster of the deep is determined to thoroughly establish among men a belief in its existence, for accounts are continually coming in from persons to whom it has shown itself. Mr Howell, a Sandhurst gentleman, who left Melbourne for New Zealand by the Arawata on the 7th ultimo, writes as follows to a friend in the city: - "We had a splendid passage across, but met with no adventure worth recording till Wednesday, the 15th instant when we saw something that very much resembled the celebrated 'sea serpent,' about which there has been so much of late. It was about seven o'clock in the evening when the chief steward drew the attention of myself and two others to the monster, on the windward side of the vessel. Both he and the cook, who also witnessed it, have been to sea the greater portion of their lives, and state they never saw anything like it before. It rose about 4 or 5 feet [1.2 to 1.5 metres] out of the water, and enabled us to see about 20 feet [6 metres] of its back which was quite black, and covered with long horns or prongs, 2 or 3 feet [60 or 90 cm] in length. It rose five or six times. The steward ran down and called the captain, but when the latter came up, the brute did not rise again. The steward, Mr Taylor, gave me permission to use his name, and he is well known in Melbourne and all round the coast.
      This sounds like a form of the "long necked" sea serpent, but I don't know what it meant by "long horns or prongs", which appear to have been attached to the body of the animal.

     Poor Knights Islands, 1892. These lie about 50 km northeast of Whangarei. The largest is situated at about 35° 30' S, 174° 45' E. This account comes from the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) of Monday 9 May 1892, on page 5
     AUCKLAND, Saturday. - The Captain of the schooner Madora reports having seen a sea serpent off the Poor Knights. The schooner was within 12 ft. [3.65 m] of the monster, which the captain estimated had a length of 90 ft. [27.4 m]
He made a sketch of it. 
    That's not much to go on, and I hope the sketch, with a much more detailed description, was published in the New Zealand newspapers. Perhaps one of my trans-Tasman readers can check.

     Timaru, 1893. Timaru is a port halfway down the east coast of the South Island. This is another report cursed by a lack of details. It comes from page 3 of the Evening News (Sydney) of Monday 23 November 1893
Another Sea Serpent.
     AUCKLAND, Monday. - The officers of a steamer which arrived in port on Saturday, report having seen a huge sea serpent off the coast to the south of Timaru. They state that the monster lifted its head fully 15 feet [4.6 m] above the surface of the water. 
     Other reports stated 14 feet, rather than 15. In any case, it was obviously one of the "long necked" variety.

     Cook Strait, 1896. Cook Strait separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and the Brothers Lighthouse stands atop a rocky domed island in the middle of the strait at  approximately 41° S, 174½° E. This report comes from the Age (Melbourne), Thursday 18 June 1896, on page 6, though it was not the only Australian newspaper to carry it (of course!).
AUCKLAND, Wednesday.
     Tregurtha, keeper of the Brothers lighthouse, in Cook Strait, reports that on 29th May he saw seven strange marine monsters about three miles [5 km] off. At first he thought them whales, but he could not see any spouting, although there was plenty of water splashing. Three animals rose 15 to 20 feet [4½ to 6 metres] out of the water, remaining at that position half a minute, and afterwards a fourth appeared. The heads of the monsters were snakelike, and the necks much smaller than the heads, of greyish white color. Another monster like an enormous shark with two fins behind his head was seen by Tregurtha and another man called Butler.
    I'm assuming that Mr Tregurtha possessed a high magnitude telescope because, firstly, it is the sort of thing you would expect of a lighthouse keeper and, secondly, because he would not have been able to distinguish anything significant at that distance without one. Just the same, even with a good telescope, three miles is a long way to estimate the height of any moving object - or even to estimate the distance of three miles. That being said, it is hard to think of any known species which would appear as long necks rising from the water.

     Stephen's Island, 1896. This small island is located just north of the South Island at approximately 40° 40'S, 174° E. The account is taken from the Chronicle (Adelaide), Saturday 27 June 1896, page 23. Thus, the sighting was not far in time and place from the previous one.
Auckland, June 23.
     Another marine monster, 30 ft. [9 metres] long, is reported to have been seen by the officers of the steamer Mahinapua, off Stephen's Island. It was about a mile [1.6 km] from the steamer. Its head was snakelike and its color a greyish white.
     Other newspapers cited a length of 33 feet, but what is that at a distance of a mile? So what sort of sea creature looks greyish white, with a snakelike head, and appears to be 30, or 33 feet long? Almost anything! I can't see how a report of such brevity can be of any use whatsoever.

     Mangawhare, 1896. 1896 appears to have been a good year for sea serpents in New Zealand. Now we head up to the far northwest of the North Island, to a little village called Mangawhare, situated at the mouth of the North Wairoa River, on the west coast, just a few miles north of 36° S latitude. The initial report in the Australian press turned up on page 2 of The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) of Friday 4 September 1896.
The United Press Association of New Zealand has published the following telegram:-
"AUCKLAND, August 28.
 "A letter, dated Mangawhare, Northern Wairio [Wairoa], August 23, 1896, is published:- 'We, the undersigned, saw to-day on the west coast, at the back of Mangawhare, at about 12 o'clock, a very strange sea monster about half a mile [800 metres] outside of the breakers. It appeared to be the shape of an eel, and reared straight out of the water to a height of about 20ft [6 metres], and then fell like a tree, sending up spray to a height of about 40ft or 50ft [12 or 15 m]. We saw it rise about a dozen times, and the last time it rose it turned backwards, showing a tremendous open mouth as it fell. It was black on the back, and white underneath. It appeared to be about 4ft. or 5ft. [1.20 or 1.5 metres] thick. We watched for some time after, but saw no more of it. About a mile [1.6 km] further out we saw a large whale spouting at the same time. - We are, etc., JAMES EVANS, CHARLES FLAVELL, THOMAS BRYAN.'"
     It is hard to see how "a tremendous open mouth" could be recognized at that distance. Whales have been known to breech in such a fashion, and the black and white coloration is also typical of many whales. However, the apparent slimness of the animal involved, and the absence of flippers, would militate against such an identification.

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