Thursday 7 May 2020

The Amazing "Nestor" Sea Serpent of 1876

     Ah, the irony! I had started this blog intending to use it for translations of foreign language articles on cryptozoology, along with specific Australian reports which had come my way. These, of course, can still be found if you consult the Index. However, it seems that for the last couple of years it has been used to chronicle sea serpent reports overlooked by previous researchers. I had thought I had finished with it all, and had just published my two books, Australian Sea Serpents and Forgotten Sea Serpents, when I received a Facebook message from Paul Cropper. Our association went back 32 years, when we collaborated on a paper about Australian Sea Serpents, and now he suggested I check the digitalised newspapers of Singapore. Thank you, Paul! I have now done it, and this is the first installment. This is not an unknown case. Indeed it is one of most famous ones, because it is so unusual. My reason for citing it is that I now have some earlier information, and the descriptions differ somewhat.
     Malacca Straits, 1876
     The S.S. Nestor saw something very big, very sluggish, and very strange in the Straits of Malacca in September 1876. The most frequently cited report is the affidavit sworn by Captain Webster and Dr. James Anderson, ship's surgeon, before Donald Spence, the Acting  Law Secretary to the British Supreme Court in Shanghai, when the ship arrived at that port in October 1876.
      On September 11, at 10.30 a.m., fifteen miles [24 km] north-west of North Sand Lighthouse, in the Malacca Straits, the weather being fine and the sea smooth, the captain saw an object which had been pointed out by the third officer as 'a shoal!' Surprised at finding a shoal in such a well-known track, I watched the object, and found that it was in motion, keeping up the same speed with the ship, and retaining about the same distance as first seen. The shape of the creature I would compare to that of a gigantic frog. [Heuvelmans suggested he meant "tadpole".] The head, of a pale yellowish colour, was about twenty feet [6 metres] in length, and six feet [1.8 m] of the crown were above the water. I tried in vain to make out the eyes and mouth; the mouth may, however, have been below water. The head was immediately connected to the body, without any indication of a neck. The body was about forty-five or fifty feet [13.7 - 15.2 m] long, and of an oval shape, perfectly smooth, but there may have been a slight ridge along the spine. The back rose some five feet [1½ m] above the surface. An immense tail, fully one hundred and fifty feet [46 m] in length, rose a few inches above the water. This tail I saw distinctly from its junction with the body to its extremity; it seemed cylindrical, with a very slight taper, and I estimate its diameter at four feet [1.2 m]. The body and tail were marked with alternate bands of stripes, black and pale yellow in colour. The stripes were distinct to the very extremity of the tail. I cannot say whether the tail terminated in a fin or not. The creature possessed no fins or paddles so far as we could perceive. I cannot say if it had legs. It appeared to progress by means of an undulatory motion of the tail in a vertical plain (that is, up and down).
     Since a Fortean always gives his sources, here goes. The proximal source is pages 341-2 of The Great Sea-Serpent (1892) by A. C. Oudemans. He cites it from Wilson's Leisure Times Studies, which in turn quotes it from an article by R. A. Proctor in The Echo of 15 January 1877. While this might sound like an example of Chinese whispers, the report had been quoted verbatim in each, so it is unlikely anything got lost in transit.
     Proctor also stated that Mr. Anderson confirmed the captain's account. He considered the animal to be gelatinous or flabby, and although it was travelling at ten knots, or 18½ k.p.h., its movements appeared lethargic.
     The text was also copied verbatim on pages 269-270 of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, who also provided this sketch, "after Captain Webster". Unfortunately, he did not indicate the source, but he did refer to a number of other newspaper reports in his bibliography. It is not included in Oudemans' book.
     Of course, the affidavit would have been taken at least three weeks after the incident, which one would consider short enough for the memory to be still fresh. Just the same, we now have some earlier versions. The first is from the Straits Times Overland Journal of 18 September 1876, on page 10, which bears snippets of news in a column headed,
"Tuesday, 12th September" 
ie the day after the event.
     The O.S.S. Co's. steamer Nestor, Captain Webster, from Liverpool with dates to the 3rd ultimo, via Penang arrived alongside Tanjong Pagar wharf this morning, en route to Hongkong and Shanghai.
     Our friend, Mr. Henry Lee of Land and Water, who in his late work has taken so much trouble to enter into and describe the habits and peculiarities of the Sea Serpent, will be glad to hear that the passengers and officers of the S.S. Nestor which arrived here this morning are unanimous in the conclusion, and vouch for the fact, that an extraordinary Sea Serpent was seen by them between Malacca and Penang on their voyage to this Port on Monday about noon. It was about 250 feet [76 m] long, about 50 feet [15 m] broad, square headed, with black and yellow stripes closely resembling a Salamander.
    11th September was, indeed, a Monday. On 16 September the Straits Times published on page 5 a letter from Captain Webster, dated 13 September ie just two days after the event. Although he addressed it to the editor of the Daily Times, I wonder if her didn't mean the Straits Times. If so, I haven't been able to find the earlier report he referred to.
To the Editor of the Daily Times.
   SIR, - In reference to your paragraph in your yesterday's issue relating to our having seen a sea-monster answering to the popular notion of a Sea Serpent, I am prepared to vouch for the correctness of the statement already made to you by the doctor and a passenger by my ship. Being on the bridge at the time (about 10 A.M.) with the first and third officers, we were surprised by the appearance of an extraordinary monster going in  our course, at an equal speed with the vessel, at a distance from us of about 600 feet [180 m]. It had a square head, and a dragon black and white striped tail, and an immense body which was quite 50 [15 m] feet broad when the monster raised it. The head was about 12 feet [3.6 m] broad, and appeared to be occasionally at the extreme about 6 ft.[1.8 m] above the water. When the head was placed on a level with the water, the body was extended to its utmost limit to all appearance, and then the body rose out of the water about 2 feet [30 cm], and seemed quite 50 feet [15 m] broad at those times. The long dragon tail with black and white scales, afterwards rose, in an undulating motion in which at one time the head, at another the body, and eventually the tail formed in its turn, a prominent object above the water. The animal, or whatever it may be called, appeared careless of our proximity, and went our course for about six minutes, on our starboard side, and then finally worked round to our port side, and remained in view, to the delight of all on board, for about half an hour.
     His length was reckoned to be over 200 feet [60 m].
JOHN W. WEBSTER,          
Commander S. S. Nestor.
Singapore, 13th September, 1876
     As you can see, some slight differences in emphasis exist between the accounts. In the earlier (13 Sept.) one we are advised of the distance. Now, judging distance and size at sea is always difficult. However, it appears to have been close enough for the crew to compare it to the length of the ship, at least as far as order of magnitude goes. In the earlier one you might assume that the animal raised its head out of the water, and wonder why the shape wasn't mentioned. but it turns out all that happened was that the top of the front end was lifted above the water line. Also, not only was the length incredible, but so was the width. It also appears to have been swollen in the middle, the "body" being much wider than the "head".
     What on earth was it? It does not resemble anything known to science or any other "sea serpent". Dr. Roy (Searching for Hidden Animals, 1980) suggested it might have been a giant tunicate colony. Also known as sea squirts, or salps, these are very primitive invertebrates, some groups of which, such as the fire salps, form huge, elongated colonies up to 60 feet long and 3 or 4 feet across. You can see a startling photograph of one here. Nevertheless, this is much shorter, and much, much narrower than the thing observed from the Nestor, and without the swell in the middle. Also, I can't see such as giant colony possessing yellow and black bands, or swimming by vertical undulations.
     So what on earth was it?

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