Mar 19, 2023 I Brent Swancer

A Selection of Bizarre Early Accounts of Sea Serpents

The seas of our world have always had a bit of mystery to them. These vast expanses of ocean have calleed to us and brought out all manner of people penetrating into it, and while going out into that unknown expanse there have come some odd tales, to be sure. One of the most persistent mysteries of our oceans is the supposed existence of mysterious sea monsters prowling about past our understanding, and here we will look at a selection of some very early accounts of this phenomenon. 

Our earliest report comes from all the way back in 1583, from the cold seas of Newfoundland, Canada. On August 31 of that year, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was in the midst of a North Atlantic voyage, his expedition consisting of two vessels, the Golden Hind and the Squirrel. During the expedition, the explorers would encounter a strange beast out there, and although Gilbert would not survive to tell the tale, Edward Hayes, owner of the Golden Hind and chronicler of the journey, would report:

At which very instant, even in winding about, there passed along between us and towards the land which we now forsook a very lion to our seeming, in shape, hair, and colour, not swimming after the manner of a beast by moving of his feet, but rather sliding upon the water with his whole body, excepting the legs, in sight, neither yet diving under, and again rising above the water, as the manner is of whales, dolphins, tunnies, porpoises, and all other fish: but confidently showing himself above water without hiding: notwithstanding, we presented ourselves in open view and gesture to amaze him, as all creatures will be commonly at a sudden gaze and sight of men. Thus he passed along turning his head to and fro, yawing and gaping wide, with ugly demonstration of long teeth, and glaring eyes; and to bid us a farewell, coming right against the Hind, he sent forth a horrible voice, roaring or bellowing as doth a lion, which spectacle we all beheld so far as we were able to discern the same, as men prone to wonder at every strange thing, as this doubtless was, to see a lion in the ocean sea, or fish in shape of a lion. What opinion others had thereof, and chiefly the General himself, I forbear to deliver: but he took it for bonum omen, rejoicing that he was to war against such an enemy, if it were the devil.

It is thought that this could have merely been the sighting of a walrus, but it is hard to say for sure. What did they see out there? Moving into the 17th century, in June of 1635 Aberdeen historian John Spalding was at the River Don when he described a bizarre creature entering the river to loiter about the bridge at Aberdeen, which is located less than half a mile upriver from the Donmouth Estuary. The description of the beast is quite strange, indeed, and Spalding would say of it:

In the month of June there was seen in the river of Don a monster having a head like a great mastiff dog, and hand, arms, and paps like a man, and the paps seemed to be white: it had hair on the head, and its hinder parts was seen sometimes above the water, which seemed clubbish, short-legged, and short-footed, with a tail. This monster was seen body-like swimming above and beneath the bridge, without any fear. The town's people of both Aberdeens, came out in great multitudes to see this monster: some threw stones, some shot guns and pistols, and the salmon fishers rowed cables with nets to catch it, but all in vain. It never sinked nor feared, but would duck under water, snorting and bullering, terrible to the hearers. It remained two days and was seen no more; but it appears this monster came for no good token to noble Aberdeen, for sore was the same oppressed with great troubles that fell in the land.

From 1639 there is an account from Cape Ann, near the city of Gloucester, at the northern limit of Massachusetts Bay in what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The writer John Josselyn first heard this tale from the colonists, and although he never saw the creature himself, he would write of it in his An Account of the Voyages to New England:

At this time we had some neighboring Gentlemen in our house who came to welcome me into the Countrey; where amongst variety of discourse they told me ... of a Sea-Serpent or Snake, that lay quoiled up like a Cable upon a Rock at Cape-Ann; a Boat passing by with English aboard, and two Indians, they would have shot the Serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying, that if he were not kill'd outright, they would be all in danger of their lives.

Another account from Massachusetts Bay supposedly happened in September of 1641, and was written of by Obadiah Turner in his diaries. The encounter supposedly happened at the coast of Lynn, bordering Massachusetts Bay, and Turner would write of it:

Some being on ye great beache gathering of clams and seaweed wch had been cast thereon by ye mightie storm did spy a most wonderful serpent a shorte way off from ye shore. He was as big round in ye thickest part as a wine pipe; and they do affirm that he was fifteen fathoms or more in length. A most wonderful tale. But ye witnesses be credible, and it would be of no account to them to tell an untrue tale. Wee have likewise heard yt Cape Ann ye people have seene a monster like unto this, which did there come out of ye sea and code himself upon ye land mch to ye terror of them yt did see him.

From the Arctic waters off of Norway is a report from 1697, when an unnamed Norwegian reverend who in 1697 visited the Lofoten Archipelago and came back with quite the tale to tell. The 18th Century European polymath and traveler Johann Georg Keyssler would write of this account:

In the year 1700 a reverend ecclesiastic being upon his stated visitation, the people of Lofot acquainted him, that, in the year 1697, a like sea monster passed along their coasts towards Westforden, Lodingen, Senien and other parts, and that they had several times sight of it. Some have looked upon this as a fiction, but above twenty, I may say a hundred, good witnesses are living, who all agree, that they actually saw this vast monster for three weeks together, near Altvigen and Senien, in the middle of summer, when there's a continual light, the sun never setting; and the same credible inhabitants affirm of its length, that it reached from the river Erwig to Bagnaas church, near Altwige.

The 18th century brings with it another account from Norway, in which a sea serpent appears to have been trapped in a shallow inlet at a place called Kobbervig, and to have actually left physical evidence behind. The report was collected by the Danish author, Lutheran bishop of the Church of Norway, historian, and antiquarian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan by a witness named Thorlack Thorlacksen, who would write of it:

Thorlack Thorlacksen has told me that in 1720 a sea-serpent had been shut up a whole week in a little inlet, into which it came by high tide through a narrow entrance of seven or eight fathoms deep, and that eight days afterwards, when it had left the inlet, a skin of a snake or serpent was found. One end of the skin had enturely sunk into the water of the inlet, and no one could guess how long it was, the inlet in which the skin partly lay, being several fathoms deep. The other end of this skin was washed ashore by the current, where everybody could see it; apparently it could not be used, for it consisted of a soft, slimy mass. Thorlacksen was a native of the harbour of Kobbervueg.

What happened to this “skin”? It is very weird to be sure. Pontoppidan would give another report from 1744, when a man named Dagfind Korsbeck told him he had actually captured some sort of bizarre sea monster at a place now called Sundmöre, a branch of the larger fjord called Storfjorden. Pontoppidan said of this account:

Anno 1744 one Dagfind Korsbeck catched, in the parish of Sundelvems on Sundmoer, a monstrous Fish, which many people saw at his house. It's head was almost like the head of a cat; it had four paws, no tail, and about the body was a hard shell, like a Lobster's: it purred like a cat, and when they put a stick to it, it would snap at it. The peasants look'd upon it as a Trold, or ominous Fish, and were afraid to keep it; and, consequently, a few hours after they threw it into the sea again. According to the description, this might be called a Sea-Armadilla, by which name an American Land-animal is known, nearly of the same shape, excepting that it has a long tail.

Yet another report by Pontoppidan concerns the Royal Commander and Pilot-General of Bergen, Captain Lorenz von Ferry, who claimed in 1746 to have encountered a sea serpent near Julnæsset in the fjord called Romsdalsfjord, and to have actually fired on it. Ferry would claim that he had never believed in the existence of sea serpents before the dramatic incident, and the report is rather spectacular, reading:

The latter end of August, in the year 1746, as I was on a voyage, on my return from Trundhiem, on a very calm and hot day, having a mind to put in at Molde, it happened that when we were arrived with my vessel within six English miles of the aforesaid Molde, being at a place called Jule-Næss, as I was reading in a book, I heard a kind of a murmuring voice from amongst the men at the oars, who were eight in number, and observed that the man at the helm kept off from the land. Upon this I inquired what was the matter, and was informed that there was a sea-snake before us. I then ordered the man at the helm to keep to the land again, and to come up with this creature of which I had heard so many stories.

Though the fellows were under some apprehension, they were obliged to obey my orders. In the meantime the sea-snake passed by us, and we were obliged to tack the vessel about in order to get nearer to it. As the snake swam faster than we could row, I took my gun, that was ready charged, and fired at it; on this he immediately plunged under the water. We rowed to the place where it sunk down (which in the calm might be easily observed) and lay upon our oars, thinking it would come up again to the surface; however it did not. Where the snake plunged down, the water appeared thick and red; perhaps some of the shot might wound it, the distance being very little.

The head of this snake, which it held more than two feet above the surface of the water, resembled that of a horse. It was of a greyish colour, and the mouth was quite black, and very large. It had black eyes, and a long white mane, that hung down from the neck to the surface of the water. Besides the head and neck, we saw seven or eight folds, or coils, of this snake, which were very thick, and as far as we could guess there was about a fathom distance between each fold. I related this affair in a certain company, where there was a person of distinction present who desired that I would communicate to him an authentic detail of all that happened; and for this reason two of my sailors, who were present at the same time and place where I saw this monster, namely, Nicholas Pedersen Kopper, and Nicholas Nicholsen Anglewigen, shall appear in court, to declare on oath the truth of every particular herein set forth; and I desire the favour of an attested copy of the said descriptions.

What was this creature and did they actually manage to kill it or wound it? The witnesses would swear in court that it was all true and we are left to wonder. In 1769, British Naval officer Sir Charles Douglas was off Lapland and heard a tale from a Norwegian captain summoned by a local Danish missionary, and Douglas would say:

He said, that about six years before, he had seen three of them at once off Bergen, floating upon the surface of the sea, twelve parts of the back of the largest appearing above water; each part being in length about six feet, with the intervals of the same length, so that upon the whole he judged the animal could not be less than twenty-five fathoms long, and about one in thickness. He did not pretend to ascertain the dimensions of the other two, further than their being smaller than the one thus imperfectly described, and added, that four years before he saw those last, he had (near the same coast) seen a large one, but could say nothing particular as to its size. What degree of credit is due to this man’s account, I submit to the judgement of the learned Society.

A rather strange sighting was made in 1791 by American fur traders during the Pacific voyage of the Columbia Rediviva, under John Kendrick and Robert Gray. At the time they were at a lac called Clayoquot Sound, off Vancouver Island, Canada, and the report says of the incident:

The 16th I went out in a canoe which Captain Kendrick purchased of the natives and made me a present of shooting I left the ship [Columbia] early with an intention of seeing the village of Okerminna [in Clayoquot Sound] it was noon before I arrived at Inistuck ... before which is a clever snug cove in which there were many geese, ducks and teal sporting here I landed in order to get a shot at them one of the people that was with me who also landed in creeping along the edge of the bush saw an animal which I conceiv'd to be an alligator the man was so agitated as not to be able to give any description of what he had seen than that it was a huge animal very long with a large mouth and teeth the neck about as thick as his thigh and so tapered of to the tail with a black back and light yellow belly I immediately repaired to the place where this animal had been seen but could not get a sight of him from this circumstance I was induced to think it was only a burnt log (of which there are many about here) which the man's imagination had formed into a most frightful monster.

I have since informed the natives of what was seen who inform me there is an animal which from the description of them as they are painted on their canoes as also one they drew with chalk on board the ship as they are pretty good imitators can't be far from the thing and are very different from the alligators found in the southern parts of our side of America these having a long sharp head something like a hound with a good set of teeth the rest of the body in every other respect like a serpent it is called by the natives a Hieclick and by them much reverenced they tell me this animal is very scarce and seldom to be seen living principally in the woods they offered me twenty skins if I would procure them one for they have such a superstitious idea that if they should have but the least piece of this animal in their boat they are sure to kill a whale which among them is deemed one of the greatest honors indeed a piece of this magic animal insures success at all times and on all occasions.

Moving on to the 19th century is an account from 1817 from Russian pioneer Ivan Vasilevich Kriukov, who at the time he was kayaking off Bering Island and claimed he had actually been attacked and chased by a sea monster. He would tell of his report to the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, who wrote of the frightening encounter:

Kriukoff's description of a sea animal that pursued him at Beering's Island, where he had gone for the purpose of hunting, is very remarkable; several Aleutians affirm they have often seen this animal. It is of the shape of the red serpent, and is immensely long; the head resembles that of a sea-lion, and two disproportionately large eyes give it a frightful appearance. It was fortunate for us, said Kriukoff, that we were so near the land, or else the monster might have destroyed us; it stretched its head far above the water, looked about for its prey, and vanished. The head soon appeared again, and that considerably nearer; we rowed with all our might, and were very happy to have reached the shore in safety. If a sea-serpent has been really seen on the coast of North America, it may have been one of this frightful species.

Finally, we have a report from the 1830s, from the Gulf of California sometime between 1836 and 1840. The account comes from the explorer George Hope of the British ship “Fly,” who claimed to have seen a sea monster of some sort chasing prey in the depths. The English naturalist and writer Edward Newman would publish the account in his publication The Zoologist, and say of it:

The sea being perfectly calm, he saw at the bottom a large marine animal with the head and general figure of the alligator, except that the neck was much longer, and that instead of legs the creature had four large flappers, somewhat like those of turtles, the anterior pair being larger than the posterior: the creature was distinctly visible, and all its movements could be observed with ease: it appeared to be pursuing its prey at the bottom of the sea: its movements were somewhat serpentine, and an appearance of annulations or ring-like divisions of the body was distinctly perceptible.

What are we to make of all of these acounts? What is going on here and what did these people see? The oceans of our world are certainly vast, mostly little known places with their fair share of secrets, so is there something out there that remains evasive and undiscovered. For now these reports remain confined to forgotten history, but with the continued sightings of sea serpents into the modern day, it is perhaps best to keep them in mind. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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