Tales of sea serpents and sea monsters have been around ever since humans climbed onto a log to float and decided there must be a better way to sail. They’ve been depicted in stories and movies, pictured on maps and gravitated to lakes, where a few have attained celebrity status (we’re looking at you, Nessie!). And yet … there has never been a plausible explanation for them, especially the massively long, multiple humped versions of lore that couldn’t be written off as giant squids, giant dinosaurs or giant anything else. That changed recently when one researchers studied hundreds of historical sea serpent reports around the British Isles and noticed something many of those multi-humped sea monsters had in common – something that could explain their existence, even in modern times. Was he looking at you too, Nessie?
Robert L. France, currently at the Department of Plants, Food and Environmental Science at Canada’s Dalhousie University, looked at over 200 sea serpent accounts between 1809-2000 from historical newspapers, scientific journals, natural history books, cryptozoology texts, and legally sworn testimonials. While most of the details of each differed greatly, he noticed some commonalities – the body was reported to be unnaturally long, often up to 100 meters (328 feet); each had many humps or coils that appeared simultaneously above the surface; most had hair or whiskers; their movement was either fast swimming or violent thrashing or both. All of this was enough to scare ancient mariners – and many modern sailors as well – but not France. He matched every single one of these actions and descriptions to one ‘creature’.
“The present study demonstrates that careful parsing of eyewitness accounts of unidentified marine objects which at the time were purported to be sea serpents—of the “many‐humped” or “string‐of‐buoys” typology—actually reveals that marine fauna in the British Isles have been victims of entanglement in fishing gear for a much longer period than is customarily assumed.”
Disappointed it wasn’t a prehistoric creature still roaming the seas today? We should be more upset that these marine entanglements still exist today in unacceptable numbers. In his study in the journal Fish and Fisheries, France shows that these sightings increased at about the same time as fishing crews switched from small rope nets and short lines to stronger, denser and bigger nets and longer lines attached to buoys to predominantly synthetic lines and nets. As Massive Science explains, abandoned or lost rope nets and lines caused marine entanglements, but they were smaller and sometimes easier for the many fish bound together to release themselves fairly quickly. With larger, stronger and eventually synthetic nets, quick release became nearly impossible without intervention, so sightings of long nets wrapped around hundreds of large fish and whales thrashing and dragging buoys could easily be mistaken for sea or lake monsters.
Could marine entanglement explain sea monsters prior to the 1800s? Definitely. Rope nets have been used for centuries (they're mentioned in the New Testament) and even the ancient ones could tie up fish, dragging logs along with them, and appear to be monsters from afar. Large lakes that report lake monsters also host large fishing industries with large nets and long lines.
What does all of this mean? Perhaps the best advice to come out of France’s study and analysis is that anyone spotting a sea serpent or lake monster should wait before calling a cryptid site and instead notify the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has an Office of Protected Resources that works with entanglement response and stranding network partners around the country to safely free marine mammals and sea turtles from life-threatening entanglements, along with gathering valuable information that can help reduce the frequency and effects of entanglements in the future.
As always seems to be the case, we have met the monster and it is us.