Sunday 1 April 2018

The "Dimboola" Sea Serpent, 1913

     Dimboola is a town in Victoria, Australia. It is also the name of a play written in 1969 and a movie based on it, and filmed on location, in 1979, both of which depict the inhabitants as hicks. However, it was also the name of a steamship plying its trade between the southern capitals of the nation in 1913. The fat hit the fire on 20 May when it docked at Fremantle, W.A., and the skipper announced to the world the sea serpent he, the crew, and its passengers saw in the Great Australian Bight. Suddenly, the news was all over the country. You will find 144 separate references to it over the next three weeks. But none of this appears to have leaked out into the rest of the world, or to any of the sharp eyed researchers outside. You won't find this story anywhere else. It has been completely forgotten.

     As typical of the initial report, we shall cite the Sun (Sydney) of Tues 20 May 1913, on page 6.

 FREMANTLE, Tuesday.
    The sea serpent has at last made its appearance in Australian waters. It was seen pursuing its prey during the voyage from Adelaide to Fremantle of the well-known inter-State liner Dimboola.
    When the reports of the appearance of the sea monster were first made in Fremantle the captain and officers of the boat were subjected to a good deal of chaff, but there can be no doubt that something unusual in the way of sea fish has been sighted.
     On Wednesday morning last, when the vessel was about latitude 35deg. 29 south and longitude 134 east, a shout from some of the passengers on deck caused the third officer, who was on watch, to look over the starboard quarter. He was amazed to see within a distance of less than a quarter of a mile [400 metres] a school of porpoises and a whale fleeing from a tremendously large sinuous monster.
     Captain Miller, master of the Dimboola, and the Marconi operator had their attention drawn to the sight, and they at once turned their glasses on the remarkable spectacle. Captain Miller says the serpent was at least 50 feet [15 m] long, was of the color of a brown seal, and had a head between the size of a whale and a porpoise, and its tail was of the exaggerated fish variety. It alternately reared its head and ducked it under the waves. Presently the whole contingent of big fish was lost to view.
     Captain Millar has made a sketch of what he remembered of the sight, and he asked others of the passengers to do the same. It is remarkable how the sketches coincide. The serpent is revealed in much the same Chinese dragon form as we have been used to seeing it illustrated in other parts of the world.
    As the Federal trawler Endeavor has just finished trawling in those particular waters it is evident that the little vessel may have narrowly escaped making an unusual haul.
    Now, a quarter of a mile is quite a distance, but it must be remembered that nautical telescopes are designed to distinguish such things as flags at that distance. Judging distance and size is not easy on the open sea, but I presume the length of the "serpent" was estimated with reference to the nearby whale. Sea serpents are frequently described as undulating vertically, an indication that they are mammals. In this case, the references to a "sinuous" nature, the head rising and falling, and fishlike tail presumably appearing above the surface, tend to bear this out. It is not clear exactly what Captain Millar said, because each newspaper expressed it somewhat differently. For example, the Chronicle of Adelaide, reported on Sat 24 May, page 47:
Fully 50 ft. farther back [from the head] its tail could be seen occasionally thrashing the water, and at times it arched its body.
     However, the day after the news broke, a fisheries scientist was asked his opinion, which was then reported (among other places) in the Herald (Melbourne) of Wed 21 May on page 7. Note that the reference to the head being raised fully 50 feet out of the water was an incorrect statement in one newspaper
      "No," said Mr H. C. Dannevig, the Federal Fisheries Director, in emphatic tones, when asked to-day whether he believed the story telegraphed from Fremantle that a sea serpent had been seen by the captain, officers, and passengers on board the steamer Dimboola.
      Mr Dannevig said he desired to make quite clear that he did not doubt that those on the Dimboola thought they had seen a sea serpent, but he was quite sure that they were mistaken.
     One report, he remarked, was that the so-called serpent kept raising its head out of the water fully 50 ft. What sort of a body would an animal have that had a neck 50ft. long?
     "Of course, it is quite impossible  to say exactly what they have seen," said the fisheries expert, "but my belief is that they saw a fight between a large whale and a number of killers. These great ocean contests usually range outside of human ken, and when we do get a glimpse of one we are not even then permitted to know definitely what the combatants are. No doubt, titanic struggles take place, but I have no faith in any story that has to do with a sea serpent. If a number of killers, which may measure anything up to 20ft. [6 m] in length, get to work on a 90ft. whale, and a few other denizens of the deep decide to take part in the little mix-up, you are likely to see some strange evolutions. When the killers properly madden a whale by their repeated attacks, it would not be at all surprising if the whale shot itself clean out of the water. Porpoises following in the wake of the combat, and breaching as is their habit, might lead one to suppose that one was seeing the undulations of the sinuous body of a serpent.
     The following day another fisheries expert, David G. Stead voiced his opinion: it had been a giant squid. Mr Stead had a tendency to use this identification in later years as well. Suffice it is to say that I consider it the least likely explanation, for reasons I gave in an earlier article.
     One of the more frustrating aspect of this case was reading article after article mentioning the sketches, and thinking: Didn't anyone think to publish one of those blessed sketches? Well, it took five days, but eventually the Sunday Times of Perth published it on page 14 of its issue of Sunday 25 May 1913. Strictly speaking, however, it was not an original sketch, but a professional artist's redrawing of the captain's sketch. You will immediately notice something not mentioned in the initial report: some sort of serrated fin on the neck and back. In other parts of the world, many witnesses have described long necked sea serpents as bearing a mane, and I wonder if this was not the same thing.
     Of course, Fremantle, where the Dimboola docked, is the port of Perth, so they had a direct line to Captain Millar, and were actually able to obtain a signed statement from him - albeit in less detail than initially provided.
     While on this trip, from Adelaide to Fremantle, in lat. 35.30 S., lon. 133.40 E., at 11.15 a.m. on May 14, 1913, the weather was fine and the sea smooth. A large shoal of porpoises and young whales came from the N.W. towards the ship, which made the water disturbed (very). When, about half a mile from the ship [originally, he had said a quarter of a mile] a strange-looking fish, or sea monster, made its appearance in their midst, and rose several feet out of the water as if chasing the fish. The fish altered their point and made north. The monster fish was long enough in view for the Marconi operator and myself to sketch same, which, after comparing our ideas and drawing, were similar. The monster was seen by the man at the wheel, the third officer, the Marconi operator, several saloon passengers, and myself. No doubt this information will be ridiculed largely, but nevertheless the fact remains the fish and monster were very much in evidence. By publishing the enclosed sketch you would oblige. - Yours faithfully, WILLIAM MILLAR, Master s.s. Dimboola.
      The Daily Telegraph of Sydney then got Captain Millar to make a sketch for them, which was published on Saturday 31 May on page 15. I'm afraid this reproduction is not all that good, but you will notice that the fin is here limited to the neck, and something appears to be hanging from the front of the face.
     The captain of the Dimboola is a dangerous man to tackle nowadays. At the mention of the words "Sea serpent" a red gleam comes in his eye. The fact is that he has been very roughly handled by the press because he possessed the courage to speak of what he had actually seen. Many another man, if he saw a sea serpent, would preserve strict secrecy. But on this occasion, the sea serpent was seen by more than a score of people, and their sketches correspond in a wonderful degree. Our reporter, who is a member of the Amateur Fishermen's Association, persuaded Captain Millar that he could assimilate fish yarns of all descriptions, including sea serpent stories. The captain confided to him that one morning, they came across a school of thousands of porpoises coming down from the N.W., and also several young whales — grampuses and blackfish.  "They were all blowing and having a good time," said Captain Millar, "when suddenly this wonderful creature I have sketched rose up In the centre of them. I don't know whether it was a snake or a fish. I could clearly detect the head. At once I went and got a piece of paper and pencil and made a sketch of it. The Marconi operator did the same. Immediately this creature appeared all the fish changed their front and made for the north as fast as ever they could go. That was in latitude 35.30 south, and longitude 134 east. I have never seen so many fish together as on that day. Mr. Dannevig says that what we saw was a fight between a whale and a thresher. I have seen many threshers, and I have also witnessed 'good goes' between whales and thrashers, but this was nothing of the kind.
     Also included with the above article and sketch was this, admittedly poor, fascimile of a "certificate" of the "Fish Liars Association", which the captain had just received. But for the background we need to go to an earlier article in a different newspaper: the Melbourne Herald of Thursday 29 May, on page 8.
     Captain  W. Millar, of the Melbourne Steamship Company's steamer Dimboola, has had conferred upon him an "honor" which he received with more amusement than gratitude.
      On a recent voyage of the Dimboola Captain Millar and some of his officers and passengers saw what was afterwards described as a sea serpent.
     Captain Millar had never seen anything like the strange ocean inhabitant, and on arrival at Fremantle he mentioned the matter. He has now been presented with an illuminated certificate of membership of an apocryphal association, which confers honor upon those who are celebrated as narrators of "fish stories." He received the "union badge" by post at Adelaide. The certificate sets out that the Dimboola's master has been elected a life member of the association for maintaining the best traditions of the society. It is signed "Shovel Nose Shark," president and "Cloud Crayfish," hon. secretary.
     "I suppose I should feel angry at receiving this distinction," said Captain Millar, with a broad smile, referring to the presentation, "but I cannot. Like all Scotsmen I appreciate a joke even if it is against me. The newspapers have got me into this trouble. I did not say that it was a sea serpent or that it was at least 50ft. long. What I did say was that it was like a sea serpent, and that its head was visible 10ft. or 15ft. [3 or 4½ metres] above the water. The creature, whatever it was, had an appendage hanging from its chin like a goatee beard. Of course, it has been all fun to me."
     When asked whether he had read the views of Mr H. C. Dannevig, Director of Federal Fisheries, as to what they had seen, Captain Millar laughed heartily. "Mr Dannevig," said Captain Millar, "thinks that it was a fight between a large whale and a number of killers. I can assure him that it was not. It will be admitted that we, who were within a few hundred yards, and had good glasses, were in a better position to form an opinion than one several hundred miles away."
     One last episode remains. I shall take it again from the Melbourne Herald of Friday 20 June 1913, page 9.

     'The officers and crew of the Blue funnel steamer Alcinous, which has arrived here from Brisbane, tell a story which probably throws some light on the alleged sea serpent seen by the passengers and crew of the Dimboola last month, when steaming through the Australian Bight.
     It is stated that on the voyage through the Bight, the helmsman of the Alcinous saw a peculiar object in the distance. He called the attention of the officers to it, and at the time they felt convinced that they were watching a sea serpent. With the aid of glasses, they made out the object to be a huge fish, which appeared to be about 100 yards long. Those on board became greatly excited as the monster neared the steamer, but presently they were surprised to see that it was a large school of seals which was following each other in rows of about three deep. They were bobbing in and out of the water, and in the distance much resembled a huge fish.
     Dr. Montgomery, who is the surgeon on the Alcinous, said, "When we first saw the object we believed it to be the sea serpent seen by those on the Dimboola. That steamer did not get nearer than half a mile to it, and I can quite understand those on board believing it to be a sea serpent. At that distance it certainly did appear like one to us, and when the object came close to the ship's side we were surprised to find that the long, slimy thing was a shoal of seals."'
     Point taken. Of course, we can never know exactly what someone else saw, and shoals of seals or porpoises have certainly been responsible for some sea serpent reports. But for a shoal of seals to suddenly cause a larger shoal of porpoises and whales to change course, for the "head" to repeatedly bob high in the air and back again, and a fishlike tail to appear at the rear - I don't think so.

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