Friday, December 15, 2017

Anniversary: the strangest of "sea serpents"

The sea serpent doesn't get much respect anymore. It had its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a good number of ocean scientists thought there was something to it.  Now it's been forgotten by science and even largely by cryptozoology, which sometimes seems so Bigfoot-focused it might not pay attention if a sea serpent washed up in its collective front yard. Only Cadborosaurus, the reported denizen of the waters off the Canadian west coast, still draws any interest.
Still, it would be remiss not to note we just passed the 112th anniversary of a persistently odd event. In 1905, two  experienced British naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London, claimed a very good look at a species that doesn't fit in any neat "explainable" category. Indeed, I don't think it's been explained at all.  
Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo published, in  the Zoological Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist, account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" seen from the yacht Valhalla during a research cruise.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll  asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before theValhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
Meade-Waldo offered no theory as to the creature's zoological affinities.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation, and as time goes by and we find more plesiosaur bones and impressions, it grows less and less likely.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin. Still, it gets a little play in the pages of cryptozoological literature, and friendly skeptic Dr. Darren Naish (a paleozoologist) co-authored a paper suggesting that species discovery curves hinted we had a couple of seals out there yet to be classified.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, (A fossil ancestor did turn up, but it was only named in 2014:  this is Megachasma applegatei .)
When Loxton and Prothero in 2013 published their weighty tome Abominable Science, it was this case I wanted to read about more than any other.. Alas, it wasn't there.  The sea serpent chapter was the weakest of the book's dissections of "cryptids." I wrote in my review, "Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent....On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) told me they left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent." I said at the time that I could see the logic, but looking back, I don't: not treating the case was a major error.   
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in myth and hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two witnesses as good as anyone could ask for (all right, we'd prefer marine biologists, but these gentlemen were pretty solid)  described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   


MimiandMona said...

I believe!
I believe in giants, too. The Torah and the Bible reference giants.
I believe in things that others see and document; to me, it signifies their truthfulness. (sometimes, I get fooled.)
Thanks for sharing this.

Unknown said...

The Valhalla sighting was probably a baleen whale surface feeding and skimming for krill. The roughly rectangular shaped fin with the "crinkled edge" was one of the fins just breaking the surface. The Daedalus sighting was almost certainly the same. Surely two naturalists would be familiar with a whale swimming by but the feeding posture and behaviors of blue whales haven't been studied closely until recent decades. Something familiar to us might look alien to the most educated naturalist of 1905.

Dare_Devil said...

@Lance ; Perfect explanation albeit for the description of "a head
on a long neck". 😒 Reading comprehension much?

Matt Bille said...

Dare, no need to snark. That's my job :)

Lance, I think that's a possible explanation for the 1848 Daedalus sighting, which one of the Valhalla witnesses mentioned and thought was similar. The descriptions differ, though. I think with Valhalla, the fin shape doesn't match any baleen whale, and they were pretty certain they were looking at a head on a neck. I won't say your suggestion is not a possibility, given that even good witnesses can make surprising errors, but I have still have this one as "unexplained." Thanks for weighing in. .

Matt Bille said...

Mimi, thank you. I don't know exactly what the Bible meant in referring to "giants" - the linguists are key to figuring that out, and lingustics is definitely not my long suit. But there have been countless creatures on Earth we have yet to discover, and we might still find a few spectacular ones living and breathing. I hope so.