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Folklore of the Aquatic: Why We Should Study Sea Monsters

Interest in cryptozoology and related stories seems to come in waves these days, often of a variety similar to those we might imagine splashing off of gigantic, peculiar creatures swimming around out there in oceans around the globe. What I mean by this, specifically, is that that surges in interest in this subject can often tend to appear at random, and with little prior notice. Yet despite all this interest, as well as witness reports and numerous well-documented sightings occurring over the decades, sea serpents, like so many subjects in the realm of the Fortean, are often afforded little serious consideration beyond their relevance to folklore.

Naturally, we’re no stranger to such stories here at this site, especially with contributions such as Nick Redfern’s recent MU article on the subject. But the interest in cryptozoological monstrosities of the sea and, in particular, serious evidence suggesting the existence of things like giant eel-like creatures, abounds elsewhere too. Indeed, though it seems the age-old belief in sea serpents is making a splash yet again, recently more individuals within the scientific community have begun to express sentiments that, while not submitting to belief in such possibilities (and rightly so, in terms of maintaining scientific integrity), suggest nonetheless that we should be open to the possibility that there are indeed giant aquatic creatures that could exist.

Researcher Dale Drinnon has included an excellent series of articles that deal with the topic of sea serpents and giant eels in his recent trilogy of articles titled, “Cressie and Chessie: Giant Eels,” each of which pertains to eel-like beasts seen in various locales around the world. These stories, many of them classics, are often relegated to the fringe areas of zoology and Forteana (as suggested earlier), but there does indeed seem to be a bit of academic interest in the subject these days too.

At his website, researcher and open-minded skeptic Roy Stemman commented on a recent meeting of the Royal Society of Zoology in London that dealt at least in part with cryptozoology and the study of animals as-yet undiscovered. Stemman notes the following statement from Dr. Darren Naish, whose recent lecture, “Cryptozoology: Science or Pseudoscience?” on 12 July, 2011, was touched on again prior to the meeting with the following statement:

The huge number of ‘sea monster’ sightings now on record can’t all be explained away as mistakes, sightings of known animals or hoaxes. At least some of the better ones, some of them made by trained naturalists and such, probably are descriptions of encounters with real, unknown animals. And because new, large marine animals continue to be discovered – various new whale and shark species have been named in recent years – the idea that such a species might await discovery is, at the very least, plausible.

Charles Paxton from University of St Andrews also noted that “Cryptozoological reports can be analysed in a rigorous, statistical manner if the conclusions are restrained.” Paxton was also interviewed about this subject recently by Live Science (to read that interview and see Paxton’s feelings about “Why Scientists Should Study Sea Monsters,” click here). Indeed, setting a scientific precedent when exploring anything that presently falls withing the jusrisdiction of cryptozoology or the unexplained is a necessity, given not only the level of skepticism toward the subject on a large scale, but also the pseudo-scientific disgust these subjects are met with as a result of careless research and wild speculation being presented as fact.

On the other hand, wild speculation in measured doses (something I often engage in myself) shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing entirely, so long as the hypothetical nature of such speculation is understood and accepted. For instance, I’ve often guessed about some of the more obscure reports of translucent, “jelly-like” sea monsters representing some kind of larval form of another animal which, upon reaching maturity, could end up being very, very large. This might especially be the case if, as Drinnon has suggested already, some of these giant sea serpents are biologically similar to massive eels, since the larvae of known eel species (known as leptocephali) often resemble small, translucent fish. This see-through quality baby eels possess no doubt has evolutionary advantages, since being almost invisible helps you keep from being devoured by natural predators at an early age; later in life, of course, it becomes a necessity to take on a bit more distinctive colors and physical characteristics for mating purposes. Incidentally, one theory pertaining to why exactly sea serpents might surface in areas visible to sailing vessels and the like would have to do with coming into more shallow water f0r (you guessed it) breeding.

By taking into consideration not just eyewitness reports, but the behavior of known species (paired with the notion that some of the creatures we may witness from time to time swimming around out there are larger varieties of these same animals), we may indeed  reach a better understanding of the strange stories of sailors and the beasts that have described. Though seldom in occurrence, there do appear to be monsters of the deep that come to swim alongside these seagoing vessels on occasion, and the stories of their appearance will continue to fascinate us until, ultimately, we do determine once and for all whether they do exist.

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  • Jon

    As a marine biologist, I’m enjoying the deluge of marine monster-related articles, Micah.  The recent expedition to the Philippines that discovered over 300 new species just goes to show that, if you’re not looking for it, you’re not likely to find it.

  • rev. dave

    I’m curious about any difference in sighting quality, or frequencies, of ‘monsters’ by wind-powered vessels and motor powered vessels.  Presumably, any sea creature would be capable of hearing a motor running on an approaching vessel, while a sailing ship might be much less of a threat and may get much closer.  Anybody checked for this?