Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The "Nemesis" Sea Serpent of 1900

     In In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans mentioned two alleged sea serpent sightings reported in The Wide World Magazine which he declared to be bogus. One was the Tresco sighting, which  I dealt with in my October post. The second was described on p 366 of his book.
     I shall therefore deal only very briefly with the dramatic tale of Captain Laurence Thomson of the steamer Nemesis published in Wide World Magazine, which specialized in 'true adventure' stories. In 1900 he saw what he called a sea-serpent off Cape Naturaliste. There is a photograph of the sailor and his ship to convince us they existed - but one still cannot believe in the truth of his story for a moment, nor in the drawing in the magazine. It was a rubbery worm-like animal some 300 feet long and 3 feet in diameter, which rose out of the water in three huge arches in a way that was both mechanically and dynamically utterly impossible. In front of these arches a head rose on the end of a long neck, and on the spine was a sort of high soft fin that could fold up like a parasol.

     Let us start with a newspaper report. It appears that stories of this nature got disseminated far and wide, to be picked up or rejected as the editors saw fit. The result is that the earliest, or best, reports were often published in minor local papers hundreds of miles from the original site. In this case, the earliest appeared in The Manning River Times and Advocate of Wednesday 17 October 1900, on page 2.
The Sea Serpent Again
DESCRIBED AS 200 FEET LONG
Perth, Thursday [ie the report arrived 6 days before]
Captain Thomson, of the steamer Nemesis, which is now on its way to the eastern colonies, reported to the harbor-master at Bunbury, Captain Abrahams, that on his way from the eastern colonies to Freemantle, and when between Vasse and Cape Naturaliste, he saw a sea serpent, which he described as resembling a huge snake about 200 ft. long. It had a fin about 30 ft. long, with which it continuously lashed the water. The fin seemed to be very flexible. The monster moved along the surface of the sea as a snake progresses on land. Captain Thomson says he did not get a very clear view of the serpent, which was making in the direction of Cape Naturaliste, and travelling fast. Captain Thomson had an interview with Captain Campbell, of the steamer Perth, who saw the serpent some time ago. Captain Campbell, interviewed said he and Captain Thomson compared notes, and he believed the serpent seen by the latter was the same monster as was noticed by him previously near Fremantle, going in a southerly direction.
     I'm surprised at Captain Campbell's endorsement because the thing he saw was quite different, as you will recall if you read last month's post. Perhaps he felt he ought to support a fellow captain regardless.
     It was in the March 1901 edition of The Wide World Magazine that Captain Thomson really went to town. He apparently wrote it, or at least mailed it, as soon as he arrived in Sydney, on the other side of the continent. The story was also contained in bound volume no. 6, which can be read here. The article in on pp 566-9, but for those who do not wish to follow the link, here is the full text:

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How We Saw the ''Sea-Serpent.''

 BY CAPTAIN LAURENCE THOMSON

      The monster that has so long been familiar under this name, and which has so often been scoffed at, is, of course, nothing more than the gigantic octopus — a creature now enjoying a well-established scientific reputation. Our readers are referred to the illustrated narrative of Dr. Harvey, of St. John's, Newfoundland (see No. 12), dealing with the large octopus which the doctor secured, photographed, and dissected. In the case here related, captain, officers, and passengers watched the monster for a long while, and it was even carefully measured by means of the ship itself.

 Ss. Nemesis, Sydney, October 25th, 1900. 
          The Editor of THE WIDE WORLD MAGAZINE,
     DEAR SIR, — The inclosed is an exact account of what I saw recently off Cape Naturaliste, West Australia. I am well aware of what some thoughtless people will think regarding it, and, therefore, give the names of several others who also saw the monster and discussed it together as it lay beneath their own eyes: Captain Campbell, of the ss. Perth, of the Melbourne Steamship Company, together with his officers, passengers, and crew, saw the same huge creature next day off Rottnest Island, near Fremantle. I have not attempted to do more than give the bare, hard facts about the monster, as I am not used to writing anything other than mere reports for my owners. The facts given, i.e., length, diameter, movements, and peculiarities, I guarantee absolutely, and have been very careful not to mention anything that I did not directly see myself; although others on board claim to have seen a few more details. I have sailed on every sea on this Globe from the Golden Gate, by the East to China again; and from whale fishing almost as near the North Pole as Nansen was; southwards to the " Icy Barrier" in the Antarctic. I inclose my photograph, some rough outlines of the serpent as it appeared to me, and a snap-shot of the Nemesis taken by an amateur as she lay in Grafton Wharf, Sydney.
              I remain, faithfully yours, (Signed) LAURENCE THOMSON.
                     (Home Address) c/o Mrs. Macdonald, Strathtay, Chatswood, Sydney, N.S.W.

      I AM Captain Laurence Thomson, of the ss. Nemesis, which is one of Hubbart, Parker, and Co.'s line of Intercolonial steamers; she trades between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and the West Australian ports. While on our last trip, off Cape Naturaliste (115deg. E. and 34deg. 20min. S.) I was called to the bridge by my third officer, Mr. Perry, who was on watch at the time.
      As that part of the world is considered by all Australian coasting officers to be the worst on the Continent if not in the whole world (there are five vessels going to pieces there just now), I lost no time in answering, and in a fraction of a minute stood by the third on the bridge. He was evidently restraining his excitement, or trying to; and as the third is a genuine Australian it is, perhaps, needless to say that he suffered greatly through having to restrain himself.
      "Look, captain!" he said. "What sort of craft is that over there? " I looked as directed away to starboard, and then, seizing my glasses, I looked again. About half a mile off, between us and the rocky shore-line which ran parallel to our course, and of which the dreaded Cape Leewin [ie Leeuwin] was the southern boundary and Cape Naturaliste, round which our course was, the northern termination, were two large objects— or, rather, I thought they were two. I took them to be enormous whales, as that spot is a great haunt of theirs during the season. They did not blow, however, and seemed to move in a very peculiar manner, the one about 50ft. behind the other. Suddenly a black, cylindrical body emerged from the space between the two, and, with a convulsive jerk, the second, or now, as it appeared, the third, body shot forward to wards it.
     The middle section continued rising above the water in an ever-extending arch until, to my amazement, it resolved itself into a connecting part between what I had taken to be two separate bodies, and I now saw that the whole was some enormous monster, longer than the Nemesis herself, and as flexible as a piece of rubber.
      Slowly and gracefully the curve was transmitted down its entire length, exactly like a wave rolling to the shore. I could see through the arch formed by the strange thing, but just then did not make any careful observations as to its size and so on.
      Fascinated, I watched the round, glistening body as it emerged from the sea at the tail-end and, after traversing the curve like a huge cable going round a wheel, plunged into the sea only to come to the surface again a few yards farther on and add itself to the comparatively straight "line of life" towards the head.
     At length the end appeared and, rising swiftly on the curve, straightened itself out with a jerk and fell back in the water again, just as another spiral formed itself behind where the head should be, and began receding to the stern as the former one had done.
     A slight wash of foam was evident where the tail had re-entered the water, but otherwise it appeared to propel itself without any effort.
     The body generally was of a greyish-black colour; but where the Western sun shone on the under-side of the moving, dripping arch it sent out a curious dancing, dazzling reflection. In serious doubts as to the reliability of my senses, I struck the rail with my fist to see if my physical powers still remained.
     I turned to my third officer; but from the remarks he was dropping unconsciously I gathered that he, too, was thinking hard.
     The steersman, like all good sailors, was looking straight ahead, while I was looking at him.
     "Well, Mr. Perry," I said, "we are unfortunate indeed."
     "How so, sir ? " he asked.
     "Why, in seeing this monstrous creature which has all the qualifications necessary for a sea-serpent and we won't be able to prove it."
     "Well, I reckon the man that doubts me had better for his own good be three or four stone heavier than I am," said he, resolutely, and I thought the same.
      Desirous that as many witnesses as possible should be got, I deliberately rang up the chief engineer, Mr. Blair, who I knew was utterly void of imagination. He was Scotch, and allowed for no laws on earth other than those of cause and effect.
      Just then excited voices from the after-deck told me that the passengers and all officers who were not on duty had assembled there and were watching, with various comments, the movements of the "Switch-backed Freak," while sundry sounds that reached us from forward, but which, alas, I dare not repeat, indicated that the crew were intelligently speculating on the identity of the extraordinary monster.
     "What do you make it to be, Mr. Blair?" I said.
     "A dinna ken; but look ! look at it, noo!"
      A very powerful and expressive observation from Mr. Perry, in conjunction with a still more forcible and sulphurous remark from the steers man, added emphasis to Mr. Blair's words; and turning again to starboard— I could indeed hardly believe my own eyesight.
      The creature had reared its head high above  the waters, and was gently swaying it backwards, forwards, and round about, as if its body were composed of innumerable ball-joints.
      A huge fin or flap now shot out from behind the head, and circling in the air threw itself over the head and then back at right angles to the still vertical neck ! An instant later and it shaped itself into all sorts of fantastic forms, the under part being almost a pure white in colour. Soon, however, the tentacle began to beat the waters and the head to move more violently.
      With the glasses I could make out a darker shade of skin about where one would expect to find eyes; but in my opinion the creature had no eyes, and only at that moment had become aware of our presence by some other sense. The stewardess says she heard a sound like stones rattling inside a very resonant wooden box; but Mac says she only heard the pumps drawing air. At any rate, I myself heard nothing, and in another second the enormous monster was down in the water again. Its length became corrugated, and, like a rope when shaken, the corrugations sped to the stern and dissolved.
     When the sun did not shine on them the curves looked oily, and suggested, from the semi-transparent skin, that the creature must be built of soft, pulpy material.
      It turned to cross our bows and go seawards, so I instantly ordered the Nemesis to be laid round to intercept it. Meanwhile Mr. Blair (whom we call "Mac" for reasons that will be known to most people) had gone below, and soon the funnel belched forth a cloud of heavy smoke, which hung over the deck and made everyone as black as the stokers. A faint vibration now ran through the Nemesis and Mac came up again, saying, "She's gaun sixty-nine noo" — referring, of course, to the revolutions of the engines. The monster, however, was now just crossing only a short distance ahead ; and recognising that the Nemesis was not "Clyde-built " — although her chief engineer was —and not caring that my owners should think I altered the ship's course to chase a mysterious monster of the deep, I turned the ship round to be parallel once more and then ordered every one to take notes as to the immense creature's size, etc.
      I had only two passengers on board, one a Mr. Johnston, owner of the Shamrock Hotel, at Geraldton, West Australia, and the other a Mr. Macrae, of Sydney. Both were on deck with the chief officer. Mr. Johnston was greatly excited, but Mr. Macrae took it all as a matter of course, and calmly sketched the now swiftly moving creature whom we had watched so long and so attentively.
     I laid the Nemesis in line myself, the chief officer and Mr. Johnston "marking off" at the bows, while Mac, Mr. Macrae, and the third engineer took their observations at the stern.
     The chief steward and an assistant, together with all the crew, save the firemen on duty, were also watching.
     When the first officer signalled to me that our bows were abreast I repeated to Mac, who instantly "sighted," and reported that about 20ft. of the monster still projected past the Nemesis's stern. The Nemesis is 273ft. in length.
     We all gathered on the forepeak then and estimated carefully the height of the arches, which was easily proved, as they were short a foot of the deck on which we stood; and this was 16ft. above water.
     Comparing it, then, with a log of "Jarrah" wood, with which all on board were familiar, we agreed that it was about 3ft. 6in. in diameter, so as the creature was now increasing its speed, and the spirals rolling off quicker than the eye could follow them without getting dazed, I reluctantly ordered our course to be set round Cape Naturaliste, and in due course we entered Vasse Harbour.
     Eventually we arrived at Fremantle, where as soon as we got tied up a young fellow from the Perth Morning  Herald boarded us and asked: —
     "Have you seen anything unusual this side of Leewin, Captain Thomson?"
     "Why do you ask?" I said, for I cannot stand chaff, and could not under stand how news could come quicker than we did ourselves.
    "Oh, well, you see, Captain Campbell, of the ss. Perth, has just got in, and he reports having seen a sea-serpent, off Rottnest Island, so I thought you might have seen it too. Of course, it all depends on what brand of whisky you use on board."
      I went over to the Perth, of the Melbourne Steamship Company, and saw my friend Captain Campbell. I gradually induced him to talk of what he had seen. To cut it short, we compared notes and found that our observations agreed in every detail. He, his officers, passengers, and crew had also seen the extraordinary monster off Rottnest Island, about eighty miles north of Vasse, twelve hours after we had seen it, and while we were in Vasse Harbour. Captain Campbell is one of the best-known skippers on this coast, and, as he sorrowfully told me, his word had never been doubted before.
     He thinks the creature must have been thrown up from some great depth by one of those sub-marine eruptions which, round the Leewin," are pretty frequent — as we coasters know.
     I have not the ability to handle words as I should like — and therefore request any curious or doubting ones to refer to any of the persons mentioned in the article.

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Comment: This is a good example of what happens when journalists don't do their duty. In those days, it seems, when sea serpents were reported, the newspapermen printed only what the witness said, without asking further questions. It should have been obvious that there must have been more than one witness. The journalist could have asked for their names, and then interviewed them while their memories were still fresh - assuming that it really happened. Passengers would have been particularly useful, because of their independence from the captain. Even so, it would have been interesting if any reader of this article had thought to write to Mr Johnston at the Shamrock Hotel. As it is, we shall simply have to analyse the account by itself.
     Once more, I need to remind you that the illustration was drawn by an artist who had never seen the animal. Although it appears to be reasonably consistent with the description, we can rely only on the text. What on earth could it have been?
     First of all, we can dispose of the editor's misidentification as a "giant octopus" ie a giant squid. Giant squids possess a bullet-shaped body with eight tentacles, plus two sessile arms as long as the rest of the body and tentacles combined, but even in the largest specimens no thicker than a man's arm. The longest recorded was 57 feet [17.4 m]. Now, birds and mammals are exceptional in that they cease growing at maturity. Most other animals continue to grow, albeit very slowly, throughout life. Nevertheless, adults normally settle down somewhere around what might be called a typical adult size. However, giant squid are an exception. There does not appear to be any typical adult size, and the vast majority of those measured have been much smaller than the maximum. Also, giant squid live hundreds of feet down, in the semidarkness, and normally appear on the surface only when dying. Yes, there is reason to believe in the existence of squid much bigger than the recorded maximum, but the idea of one six times as long, with arms 3½ feet [a metre] thick, coming to the surface and waving one of these arms in the fashion described, without any other part of the body being visible (Captain Thomson said that the "tail-end" came out of the water) is too ridiculous to consider. Also, the end of a squid's arm bears no "fin" or "flap" as described.
     So what was it? Many readers will remember Heuvelmans' dictum that only mammals undulate vertically, but probably do not know why. It is Zoology 101. All of us are evolved from worm-like creatures which lived on the bottom of the sea or river. Lateral undulations are the natural method of propulsion for such animals, and when they took to swimming, it was natural that the same method would continue. The basic vertebrate shape is an elongated form with vertical bands of muscles called "myotomes" which pull against each other. This is still the case in the human embryo. Indeed, our ribs mark the spaces between the original myotomes.
     When vertebrates took to the land, they continued this body plan. If you watch a lizard walking, you will see that it swings its body laterally, with its legs sprawled out at right angles to the body. This is a very inefficient mode of locomotion. Therefore, two groups - the dinosaurs and the mammals - managed to tuck their legs in under the body. A mammal moves its legs directly forwards, and flexes its spine vertically. When mammals swim, they therefore flex their bodies vertically. Thus, a whale has a horizontal tail fluke, while a fish has a vertical one. Most of the spinal flexibility remains in the tail, and in the lumbar region ie between the ribs and pelvis. With a whale's pelvis being vestigial, an elongated whale would have much scope for vertical undulations.
     Nevertheless, undulations such as described would be out of the question for anything with a backbone. Also, it would be physically impossible to raise the loops 15 feet [4½ metres] out of the waters. Besides which, a mammal as long and as thin as that would be extraordinary, to say the least.
     An invertebrate? Like what? It doesn't appear to fit any known group of invertebrates, and the enormous length would be hard to manage without a backbone. And the problem of lifting the loops 4½ metres out of the water still applies.
     Finally, nothing like this has ever been reported before or since.
     I have to agree with Heuvelmans; it's a load of old rubbish. Captain Thomson was probably inspired to make it all up by the young reporter asking what he had seen. He had a good imagination, but not much knowledge of zoology.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.

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