Saturday 5 October 2019

The Last (Forgotten) Sea Serpents of the 19th Century

     Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have been systematically seeking out and publishing reports in Australian newspapers of sea serpents witnessed in other parts of the world which have been missed by earlier investigators, in particular, Oudemans, Gould, and Heuvelmans. This post is the final in the series, and brings the story up to the last years of the nineteenth century. (Twentieth century sightings have been recorded in earlier posts.) Once more, I have chosen the earliest Australian report, but the original may have been taken from a foreign newspaper weeks, or sometimes months, beforehand.

South Atlantic, 1897
The following comes from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate of Monday 6 December 1897, page 8.
The sea serpent is to the fore again. This time the reptile was discovered by the crew of a cattle ship outward bound from Buenos Aires to Durban, when some of the hands observed what they thought a line of floating seaweed. A few days later the same object was seen a mile astern. The thing remained in sight for several days at varying distances and positions. Then the floating object disappeared for a week. One morning the look-out announced "some wreckage right ahead." The ship in a short time came to "three or four little whales with scaly backs, one behind the other" and "a long, snakey-looking thing with a mouth like a frog - about as long as two right whales, but a good bit thinner." It reminded one of a "monstrous conger eel, with scales like a tarpon." The creature, which was apparently asleep, awoke, and, after rushing through the waves several hundred yards, disappeared. It was seen many times afterwards. The "serpent" invariably dived soon after the carcass of any dead animal was thrown overboard. Two men on a Norwegian timber barque, which reached Durban soon after the steamer had sailed for South America, depose to having seen a similar monster when coming up the coast.
     "Two right whales" would imply a length of about 100 feet, or 30 metres. It is not often that a sea serpent has been described as having scales, but it is not unknown. It is also unusual for one to be observed on multiple occasions, or for it to essentially follow a ship. Under such circumstances, it is reasonably certain that the crew hadn't confused a known species with the legendary unknown. Considering the opportunity for lengthy examination, it is a pity that the journalist did not ask for more details.

West of Sumatra, 1899
And now for a real adventure! It was reported on page 2 of  the Launceston Examiner (Tas.) of Thursday 19 October 1899. Some other newspapers headlined it: "540 Miles in an Open Boat", but the story was the same.
     When the steamship Darius broke her shaft on the voyage to Calcutta, a boat's crew was despatched to Sumatra for assistance. Shortly afterwards the Darius was picked up by the steamer Gulf of Aneud, and towed to Colombo. The following account of the boat's experience (says the "Age") is now at hand:- "By H.M.S. Phoenix, arriving from Batavia, there came to Singapore Mr. Instone (the second officer of the Darius), Messrs. Wilson and Neeson (who were passengers on the vessel), and five of the native crew. When the vessel got into difficulties with her propeller on August 19 it was decided to dispatch one of the boats to make for Sumatra or get assistance from any passing vessel. Accordingly the second officer and a crew of five manned one of the ship's boats, and volunteers being called for, Messrs. Neeson and Wilson also offered to go in the boat. After she was manned and provisioned, she left on the evening of the 19th. A few extracts from the log will show that, although on the whole fine weather and a prosperous voyage were experienced. 12 days elapsed before they were picked up:-
          Then follows the boat's log, of which the relevant entries were:
August 30 - At 9.30 p.m. sighted Pulo Bojo light.    August 31 - At 6 a.m. sighted a steamer apparently bound south. At 10.30 we sighted a sea serpent about 30 yards from the boat, to all appearances 15ft. [4.6 m] in length, and 2ft.[60 cm] in girth. The colour of the animal was a dirty yellow, and in shape it was something like an eel. The serpent was right on top of the water, and swan along slowly across out stern.
     As an indication of where this took place, you will remember that they sighted the Pulau Bojo light the previous day. At 1 a.m. the following day they passed it. This lighthouse is approximately 200 km west north west of Padang, Sumatra, marking the passage between the Batu Islands and Siberut. It is situated on a small island just off the south tip of another island with the ominous name of Pulau Tanahbala, or "disaster land island".
     This is another of those very strange stories. The extreme proximity of the animal, in broad daylight, means the description, presumably written down immediately afterwards, must be pretty accurate. But what was it? The length doesn't sound very sea serpentish. It sounds more like some sort of large dolphin. There are a couple of species which reach that length, but none are anything like dirty yellow in colour, and all possess the sort of fin which observers would hardly fail to mention. We can just put this down as further evidence that the sea still holds rare species unknown to science.

Near Fraserburgh, Scotland, 1900
The following dramatic account should serve as a warning to leave well enough alone in the presence of large, unknown animals. The location appears to have been somewhere near the Rattray Head Lighthouse at 57° 36½' N, 1° 49' W, which is not far from Fraserburgh. The story comes from the Telegraph (Brisbane) of Saturday 1 December 1900, on page 3.
Sea Serpent Again 
Aberdeen Trawler    
    A terrible story is told by the captain and crew of  the steam trawler Craig-Gowan, of Aberdeen, which arrived in Fraserbugh recently, storm-bound. Having heard that the crew of the Craig-Gowan had seen some strange animal when a mile or so north of Rattray Head, a correspondent of the Aberdeen Journal  waited upon them and had an interview with the skipper, Captain J. Ballard.
    Captain Ballard said: "We left Aberdeen at 12 noon, and all went well, although the weather looked threatening, until off Rattray Head, when the wind freshened almost into a gale, and the sea rose very rapidly. We were steaming  10½ knots [19½ k.p.h.] when the gale burst. At this time we noticed a smack some distance off seaward. She had the smallest bit of sail set, and was heading southward. This might have been about 4.30 p.m. or thereby. I went below for some coffee, and had been down a few minutes when J. Watt, chief engineer, called me up, saying that a whale or some extraordinary large animal had been following in our wake.
    "On reaching the deck, I found several of the crew looking over the weather rail. On joining them I saw, greatly to my surprise, a very large animal of dark colour, which seemed racing with us, but which was about 50 feet [15 m] to windward. I had often seen whales, but I at once saw the animal was not a whale, but some sea monster, the like of which  had never seen in my life.
     "As it rose, several portions of the body were visible at the one time. It seemed to make its way through the water, showing repeated portions of a dark brown body. The men seemed very much struck by its strange appearance, and I suggested to try some plan to get rid of it, and no one seemed to grasp any plan likely to affect so huge an animal. We had left our deck hose at Aberdeen, but I asked Mr. Watt and his assistant, Dallas, to bring up a furnace rake. The animal was now uncomfortably near. We could see that the skin was covered by some substance like a rough coating of hair. Securing the furnace rake to a stout line, I threw it at the animal, but it fell short. I again tried; this time the rake landed across the animal's back, and we suddenly drew the line.
     "Judge our surprise and alarm when the monster raised its body (the fore part) clean out of the water, and made direct for the Craig-Gowan. Everyone rushed aft, some down the companion-way, and some down the engine-room stairs. I stood almost petrified with the sudden development of affairs. I plainly saw the monster rise up until its head was over our gaff peak, when it lowered itself with a motion as sudden as lightning, carrying away the peak halyards, and send the gaff, sail, and all down on deck. The utmost consternation amongst the crew ensued, and it was a time before we got matters squared up. The animal had then entirely disappeared, and we did not see it again.
     "We held on for Fraserburgh, where we arrived at 6 p.m., and being afraid that our story would be discredited, we have said nothing about it; at least as little as possible, until this account, which is a true one, was given as stated."
     The crew say they never even heard of such a monster, and that such a monster was until now quite unknown to any of them.
     Mr. Ballard lives in Torry, where also Mr. J. Watt, engineer, resides. Dallas, Collie, Fraser, and Mackay are the other members of the crew, and reside in Aberdeen.
     The Craig-Gowan has left for sea again, the weather moderating.
     Captain Ballard describes this experience as being one of the strangest in his lifetime, and says he would not again like to undergo another quarter of an hour's terror like that gone through for any money.
      "The animal's head," he added, "was long and flat, and I distinctly saw its eyes, and also saw its mouth open. Its body was long, and of a round shape on back, and flat below. Several large fin-like flippers played about rapidly, the sound of their flapping against the body being quite audible as it rose up out of the sea. It must have been of a great length; how long I cannot hazard an opinion."
    An internet search reveals that a succession of trawlers named Craig-Gowan operated in the same area under the ownership of the Craig Gowan Steam Fishing Co. Ltd. One of them was wrecked in 1896. The ship involved in the above adventure was presumably the one built in 1897, with a length of 95 ft. 6 in. [29.11 m], and a depth of 10 ft. 2 in. [3.10 m]. However, it is possible that it was its successor, from Yard No. A323, which had been constructed in 1899 under the name of Cortes, which was slightly bigger, and is shown on the photograph at left.
     On balance, however, I think the relevant ship was the 1896 version, because the 1899 version does not appear to carry sails. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find pictures of steam trawlers of a slightly earlier date equipped with sails in addition to engines. A peak halyard is a line close to the top of a mast. Therefore, for the sea serpent to have reached it, it must have raised its head at least 20 feet [6 metres] and more like 30 feet [9 metres] out of the water, leaving who know what length of body in the sea. Its movement, showing repeated sections of its body, suggests vertical undulations which, in addition to the appearance of hair, indicates a mammal of some description.

     And this brings us to an end of a long series of posts on previously undocumented sea serpents. If you go to the button at the top of the page marked "Index to This Site" you will be able to locate them easily. I intend to publish them in book form next year.

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