Friday, 22 September 2017

More Forgotten Sea Serpents

     Last month, when I was researching forgotten sea serpent reports from Australian newspapers of the 1930s, I discovered a number of reports of sightings in other parts of the world. This, of course, would be expected. However, when I cross-checked them against Bernard Heuvelmans' comprehensive work, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, I discovered some which had been missed by even his eagle eye. On the assumption that they are therefore largely unknown to the general public, I feel obliged to put them on record here. Some of them were no doubt reported in more detail in the newspapers of their countries of origin, but I do not have access to them.

     Newcastle, NSW, 1893. First of all, here is an old one from Australia itself. It is taken from The Age (Melbourne) of Monday 3 April 1893, page 6.
Once more we hear the great sea serpent has been disporting itself before the astonished gaze of a ship's company, this time on the Australian coast. The steamer Industry reached the Bay yesterday afternoon from Newcastle, and the officers related an account of how they saw this mysterious monster. "At 2.30 p.m. on the 25th ult.," runs the narrative, "when the ship was about 10 miles [16 km] north of Montague Island, and about 6 miles from the land, a sea serpent rose out of the water about 200 yards from the vessel, which was going at about 10 miles an hour. As it rose it caused a great commotion, and when about 15 feet  [4½ m] above the surface it commenced swinging its head about after the manner of the giants in a pantomime. The eyes and ears were very large, and the portion of the body out of the water was covered by large scales of a dirty brown and white color. Three times it rose in 10 minutes, and then swam away towards the shore, leaving a ripple behind it.
     SS Aro, 1911. This incident was published in The Times 22 years after the event, but was apparently written immediately after the event. I have taken the story from page 2 of the Kalgoorlie Miner, Thursday 2 February 1933.
    In a letter to 'The Times' Sir William Brandford Griffith writes : — In a leading article in your issue of October 30 you referred to the reticence of sailors on the subject of the sea serpent and the invariable ridicule the subject excites. I enclose a note made immediately after the occurrence of a well authenticated case. I was on deck at the time, and was called, but half asleep in a deck chair, I did not realise what was passing until too late. Mr. Punch, who made the note, is a trained botanist and a reliable observer; he tells me that he sent the note to Professor Ray Lankester, who treated it with scorn. When I asked the skipper if he proposed to enter the occurrence in the log the reply was, 'If I did I should lose my ship.' That explains a captain's reticence. 
    On Saturday, March 11, 1911, the s.s. Aro was proceeding homeward bound from Sierra Leone towards Las Palmas. At about 11.45 a.m. her position was about lat. 18.15 N.,long. 17.34 W. Captain Pooley was on deck and observed on the starboard bow a mass in the water, which at first he took to be seaweed. On approaching nearby he observed that it was moving, and then distinctly saw that it was a living creature. He called to a passenger, Mr. Punch, who was on deck, and directed his attention to the creature in the water, saying that it appeared to be a sea serpent. At the same time he saw the creature raise its head above the water. The head was shaped like that of a turtle, and immediately behind the head were a pair of diamond-shaped fins. The head, and fins were black or dark in colour. The creature lowered its head into the water, exposing a section of its body above the water. The section was round in shape, about 18 in. to 24 in.  [45 to 60 cm] in diameter, and of brownish-white colour on the side exposed to view. At some distance behind and submerged another light coloured section of the body could be seen. Captain Pooley estimated that the length of the creature would be not less than 40 ft. [12 metres] Its movements appeared to be sluggish. The steamer passed within 30 ft. to 40 ft. [9 to 12 metres] from it, and there was time to observe it carefully. 
    Mr. Punch, on hearing the call from Captain Pooley, saw plainly the two light-coloured masses in the water in front as the steamer approached. He did not see the head, but distinctly and plainly saw one section of the body about 10 ft. to 12 ft.  [3 - 3.6 m] in length exposed above the water, with the other light-coloured section some distance behind. He called to another passenger, Captain Craven, to come and observe the creature. Captain Craven came and distinctly saw the two light coloured masses in the water as the steamer passed at a distance of about 20 ft. to 30 ft. [6 to 9 metres] There was a strong head wind, and the creature passed astern somewhat slowing, so that there was time for careful observation. Messrs, Punch and Craven are clear that the body was round in shape and of about 18 in. to 24 in. in diameter. Captain Craven agrees with Captain Pooley that the length of the creature would not be less than 40 ft. The water was quite clear, and the body could be plainly seen under the water. 
    I hereby certify to the foregoing statement, and subscribe my signature.— Ric. Pooley, master, R.M.S. Aro. 
    The above statement is correct. — Cyril Punch, district commissioner, S. Nigeria; J. Craven, captain,West A.F.F.-, S. Leone.
     U28/Iberian Incident of 1915. This is a "classic" sighting which has been retold many times. Probably the best source is Mike Dash's article here. Essentially, in 1915, the British steamer, Iberian was sunk by the German submarine, U28. In 1933, when the Loch Ness Monster was in the news, the U-boat's captain, Baron von Forstner narrated in a German newspaper how, immediately after the sinking, an underwater explosion threw to the surface a lot of wreckage, plus a mysterious creature which resembled a crocodile 20 metres in length.
     A picture, of course, is worth a thousand words, and thus drawings of mystery animals have a tendency to become the popular perception of any sighting. In this case, Dash cites the opinion of zoologist, Dr Darren Naish that the sketch was copied from a stuffed specimen of a baby crocodile or caiman. I would agree. Whenever we see such an illustration, it is important to ask whether it was drawn by:
  • the witness himself,
  • a professional artist on the witness's instructions (an identikit, in other words), or
  • a professional artist producing his own impression of the sighting based on the text, without any input with the witness.
     Thus, R.T. Gould pointed out that, compared to the text, the classic illustration of the Daedalus sea serpent much shortened the animal to fit into the pages of the magazine. I myself noticed that the illustration of the Umfuli sea serpent doesn't quite match the text. As for Hans Egede's 1734 sighting, the illustration was drawn much later by a person who had never ever met the witness.
     All right, but the fact that a story is badly illustrated doesn't mean it is not true. However, Dash provides several lines of evidence for doubting von Forster's account: apart from the fundamental improbability of the event, it wasn't mentioned in the submarine's logbook, or von Forster's own 1917 memoires, and the multiple accounts of the sinking by the survivors failed to mention the explosion, let alone the monster.
     What has all this got to do with this blog? Just that The Western Australian (Perth) published, on page 6 of its issue of Saturday 28 September 1935, the following letter from a reader, Matthew A. Utting:
To the Editor.
Sir, — In Life and Letters on Saturday last appeared the review of a book, "Mysteries of the Great War," by Harata T. Wilkins, wherein the author mentions the appearance of a sea-serpent, as seen by the commander of a German submarine which torpedoed the ship Iberian. I think I can give a different view of the matter. I was a passenger on the Centaur some weeks ago, travelling north from Fremantle, and my cabin-mate was a German traveller going to Batavia [now Jakarta], a Mr. Wegener. During our conversations he told me the story of the sea-serpent. Wegener has a close friend, who during the war was the commander of a German submarine. This commander, while reading about the monster of Loch Ness recently, decided to play a joke on the German public. He wrote to the newspapers stating that during the war, just after the Iberian sank, she exploded under the water, and a sea-serpent was blown into the air. He wrote the description of this animal on a sheet of paper, which he placed in the log-book. As all the log-books are kept, a large number of people, on reading about the sea-serpent rushed to investigate. They found the log-book  page containing the report of the sinking of the Iberian, but no sheet of paper describing a sea-serpent. When they questioned the commander he said, "Well, it must have become lost," so that the public were nicely hoaxed. Evidently the author of the book has also been fooled, as he includes the story without any reservations. This story is vouched for by Mr. Wegener, and I feel sure that he would verify my statement. The submarine mentioned was the first one made by Germany. It was captured later by the Allies, but was returned to Germany after the war, and is now in a museum. [In fact, it was sunk. See Dash's article.]
 — Yours, etc., 
                        MATTHEW A. UTTING.
     Now, before we get carried away, remember that skepticism cuts both ways. Just as we should hesitate to accept a fantastic story at face value, we should not leap uncritically at any third hand tale which appears to explain it away. Nevertheless, I consider this one more large nail in the coffin of the U28/Iberian sea serpent account. Who would have thought that a tale in a German newspaper could be debunked by an obscure newspaper on the other side of the world?

     Aden, 1933. On page 432, Heuvelmans has a footnote:
In 1935 a dozen people again saw one [ie a sea serpent] in Largs Bay, also in the Gulf of Aden.
     Wrong on nearly all accounts. The event took place in 1933, not 1935. It did happen near Aden, but Larg's Bay (does it sound like an Arabic name?) is not there, but is next to Adelaide, South Australia.  More to the point, it was the name of a ship which docked at Southampton on approximately 22 May 1933, and presumably immediately told her story to the English press. This was subsequently picked up by a large number of Australian regional newspapers, with minimal verbal variation, over the following three months - proving that old news is not necessarily bad news. I shall take this one from the Cairns Post (Queensland) of Wednesday 24 May 1933, page 9.
(Australian Cable Service)
LONDON, May 23.
The s.s. Largs Bay, which has arrived at Southampton from Australia reports having sighted a sea serpent off Aden. It jumped partly out of the water about a cable's length from the ship. Eye-witnesses say that they saw about 20 feet [6 m] of the monster. It appeared like an elongated fish and reared itself twice from the sea. It had a bulging head,the circumference of which was greater than the body. A long spike or tongue projected from the snout.
     England, 1937. This was originally published in an English journal, the Daily Sketch, which I am unable to access. I shall therefore quote the first of the five Australian newspapers which picked it up over a period of two weeks. It was on page 8 of the Advocate of Burnie, Tasmania in the issue of Thursday 30 December 1937,
     A white sea serpent, humps and a face like a camel and eyes bigger than golf balls, has been seen by Mr. Harold Groves, head Gardener to Cyril Maude, the actor.  Mr. Groves is a steady man, says Mr. Maude, who accepts as fact what the gardener saw as he was fishing one evening in Redlap Cove, Dartmouth (Eng.).
     "I was looking out to sea," Groves said, "when I saw, about 50 yards away, a creature swimming in the water. "It had three humps, and there was at least 12 feet [3.6 m] of its body above the surface. I picked up my fishing gear to climb to the cliff-top for a better view, but when I raised my head again I was startled to see, right in front of me, the head of the monster. It was less than five yards away, and it stared at me for about 10 seconds before it submerged.
Tuft On The Top. 
      "The monster had a face like a camel. The head was about two feet [60 cm] long, and a tuft of hair on the top of the skull was quite thick. Otherwise the head was entirely hairless. The skin was almost white. It had large, unblinking eyes, bigger than golf balls, and it was very uncanny the way it stared at me. I have never credited stories of sea monsters, but there was no mistake about this one."
     Mr. Maude did not see the monster, but his comment to me was: "My gardener is a very steady and respectable fellow who has had a lot of experience of the sea. I am certain he did see the thing he has described to you."
 -"Daily Sketch."
     It would have been nice to have been told the time of the sighting, or at least the lighting conditions. At Darmouth in the last week of the year, sunset is about a quarter past four, and dusk just before five. However, it is unlikely he was fishing in total darkness, and the short distance lends credence to the sighting. Apart from the unusual paleness of the animal, which might have been a lighting effect, the description fits well with the "long necked" sea serpent, and it is unlikely Mr. Groves would have been familiar with that.

     South Africa, 1939
     This article is from the Sunday Times (Perth) of 30 July 1939, on page 9. It sounds like a pretty standard "long necked" sea serpent. Unfortunately, I have no information about the alleged sighting five years before.
(By Air Mail)
     Considerable excitement was prevalent at Umtentweni recently when a large sea serpent was seen by  a European and several natives a few hundred yards out to sea.  The serpent was moving towards the north. It was seen clearly.
      At times it reared its head about 10 feet [3 metres] out of the water and  then dived. Portions of its massive body were visible. The body appeared to be of a girth equal to that  of a bullock. Its length was estimated at more than 100 feet [30 metres].
     About five years ago two residents walking along the Umtentweni beach at dusk came upon a sea serpent in one of the large pools near the river mouth. In this case they were within a few feet of it. At the time this, discovery attracted a great deal of attention, especially as a few days later several other people saw the monster, which was estimated to be about 80 feet [24 metres] in length.
      It is interesting that I found these accounts almost by accident. I wonder how many others are "out there" if one does a bit of research. I shall let you know if I find any more.

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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.