Historia Animalium, 2nd ed, 1604." />

Five “Real” Sea Monsters Brought to Life by Early Naturalists

From kraken to mermaids, some monsters are real—if you know how to look for them

A "Sea Devil" as depicted by Conrad Gessner in Historia Animalium, 2nd ed, 1604. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Sea Serpent on Deck

In the 16th century, people believed that a creature of unimaginable size and ferocity called Soe Orm stalked the waters. Olaus Magnus gave a gripping description of this sea serpent, accompanied by the equally formidable woodcut seen above, in the 1555 masterpiece Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. The beast is 200 feet long and 20 feet wide, he writes, with “a growth of hairs of two feet in length hanging from the neck, sharp scales of a dark brown color, and brilliant flaming eyes.” Magnus did not come up with the tale of Soe Orm on his own. The creature he describes was based on accounts from sailors and Scandinavian locals, which in turn were based on encounters with strange aquatic creatures that became immortalized as sea serpents.

Descriptions of sea serpents with manes or growths of hair about their necks are common amongst monster lore. This feature provides a clue to one of the animals often mistaken for a sea serpent: the oarfish. An enigmatic creature, the oarfish is the longest bony fish alive, possibly measuring as long as 45 to 50 feet. Human encounters with these fish are rare, but we know they do have a red cockscomb of spines on their head and a red dorsal fin running the length of their bodies. Fleeting glimpses of oarfish could easily be exaggerated into an encounter with a monstrous sea serpent, and, to an untrained eye, the remains of such a fish washed up on a beach could understandably resemble the sea serpent of legend.

Basking sharks, measuring up to 40 feet in length, have also been mistaken for sea serpents. In 1808, a badly decomposed carcass washed up on Stronsay. At a meeting of the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh, it was asserted that this carcass was the same creature described in accounts of sea serpents, and it was given the name Halsydrus (“sea water snake”). Later analysis of the skin and cartilage revealed that the “monster” was in fact a basking shark, and hardly a monster. These gentle giants are passive feeders with a diet of zooplankton and small fish and invertebrates.

One of the most infamous sea serpent episodes spanned decades. From 1817 to 1819, a mass of people, including fishermen, military personnel and pedestrians, reported seeing a sea monster at least 80 but perhaps 100 feet long, with a head resembling a horse, in the harbor off Gloucester, Massachusetts. There were so many eyewitness reports that the Linnaean Society of New England formed a special investigating committee to examine the possibility of such a creature. In October 1817, two young boys found a 3-foot-long serpent body with humps on a beach not far from where the sightings had occurred. The Linnaean Society declared that the Gloucester sea serpent had visited the harbor to lay eggs, and that the specimen the boys had found represented one of its young. They invented an entirely new genus and named it Scoliophis atlanticus (“Atlantic Humped Snake”). Shortly thereafter, naturalist Alexandre Lesueur examined the specimen and reported that it was, in fact, a deformed common blacksnake (Coluber constrictor).


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