Sea Serpents Through History – Fact Or Imagination?

Who doesn’t believe in sea serpents? Since Biblical times, they have been rippling the waters and the minds of incredulous observers. Great Britain reveres its elusive “Nessie,” generator of a lucrative tourist trade. A similar monster achieved momentary notoriety in 1996 when a Norwegian TVG2 newscaster interviewed two fishermen who observed it surfacing in a fjord only hardware 100 yards distant from their trawler.

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A strange “Creature of the Finny Tribe” was sighted along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in 1856, and a triple-humped serpent with a small head was observed during October and November of 1983 near California’s Stinson Beach by numerous onlookers. But few sea serpents have captured the imagination of the public like those sighted along the Atlantic Coast of North America.

The sea monster mystery erupted in earnest during the early Nineteenth Century when extended sightings by mariners operating out of New England and Canadian ports prompted the pursuit of a creature dubbed “The Great Sea Serpent.” The creature’s antics were first publicized in a newspaper account, dateline Boston, May 14, 1818. Three days earlier, during a passage from Penobscot, Maine to Hingham, Massachusetts, Joseph Woodward, master of the schooner Adamant, was alerted at two o’clock in the afternoon by a crew member who observed something on the water’s surface that he presumed to be the wreck of a vessel.

In his affidavit, Woodward stated that he made toward it and discovered to his surprise and that of his crew that it was a monstrous sea serpent. As they approached it, the serpent threw itself into a coil and came across the bow with amazing velocity. Upon discharging the content of his gun at the beast’s head, he distinctly heard the ball and shot strike and rebound as though fired against a rock.

The serpent was unperturbed. He shook his head and tail “most terribly” and again threw himself into a coil and lunged toward the men on deck with his mouth wide open. Once again, Woodward discharged his gun. With that, the serpent sank down under the vessel so the men could see his head at a distance on one side of the vessel with his mouth wide open and the end of his tail on the other.

For five hours, the serpent played around the boat, allowing the men to assess his size. Woodward judged him to be at least twice the length of the schooner, about one hundred thirty feet. His body below the neck appeared to be about six feet in diameter and his head was large in proportion to his body. His tail was formed like a squid’s and his body of a dark color “resembled the joints of a shark’s backbone.” His gills were approximately twelve feet from the end of his head. He threw himself into a coil and, by contracting his body in a number of places, was able to propel himself forward with great force.

On August 21 that same year, various newspapers devoted space to Captain Richard Rich’s encounter with the serpent the previous day recorded in his log entered at 12 noon on August 20, dateline Squam River. Rich described several unsuccessful attempts before striking the sea serpent with a harpoon. Despite receiving a visible wound, the serpent sped away, taking with him a great length of rope before dislodging the harpoon from his back. Captain Rich’s narrative is supported by a letter from Samuel Dexter of Gloucester detailing the adventure as seen through the eyes of his brother, a seaman on Rich’s vessel.

The serpent is next showcased on September 6, 1818 in a blazing headline: “The Sea Serpent – Caught!” This time, undeterred by his earlier failure, Captain Rich overpowered the creature and bore him triumphantly into Boston Harbor. The Palladium reported: “Captain R. Rich, who caught him on Thursday off Squam Light House, arrived with the animal on Friday. He is only ten feet long and seven in circumference. His appearance is very different from what it was when alive and swimming.”

The account states that the serpent’s back, for five or six feet from his head, “is of a hard scaly substance that a harpoon cannot penetrate.” It also mentions several “bunches” on his back. These are not described in detail. Captain Rich told the reporter he was convinced that it was the same animal so often seen and described. Although the newspaper hinted that the creature would be dissected by a jury of doctors and naturalists during the next few days, no reports were forthcoming.

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