Here be Dragons - An Unnatural History of the Menai Sea Serpent

by R. S. Pyne

 


Sea monsters commonly appear on early European maps. Unknown territory was marked ‘Here Be Dragones’ but thousands of years earlier, the ancient Greeks told tales of the Kraken. This terrifying monster attacked ships, devoured sailors and ate whales for breakfast. It was still active in the nineteenth century when whaling crews returned to British and American ports with stories of sea serpents. US shipping lines produced color posters to advertise sailings complete with a fantastic beast rising from the waves. The stories were all dismissed as fiction but the relatively new discipline of Cryptozoology asks if they are rooted in fact. In the case of some sightings the answer is yes, other stories are hoaxes or honest misinterpretations. Some will never be explained.


In 1854, the celebrated travel writer George Borrow visited Port Dinorwic and quickly found a public house. This appears to have been one of his talents and he never wastes an opportunity to tell the reader how well he speaks Welsh. A group of sailors were already there discussing sea serpents. Some were sure they existed and others said they did not; the group asked Borrow what he thought. Always ready with an opinion, he replied that he believed in them and tells of one seen in the Menai Straits in October 1805 by the crew of the Robert Ellis.


According to Borrow, the men on board saw: “a strange creature like an immense worm swimming after them. It soon overtook them, climbed on board through the tiller hole, and coiled itself on the deck under the mast – the people at first were dreadfully frightened, but taking courage they attacked it with an oar and drove it overboard; it followed the vessel for some time, but a breeze springing up they lost sight of it.”

 

The French Cryptozoologist Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans lists nine basic types in his 1968 classic book ‘In the Wake of the Sea Serpent’. The Loch Ness Monster is a classic type, thought by some to be a surviving plesiosaur. The earliest reported encounter was by the Irish Saint Columba in a book about his life written in the seventh century AD. There have been more than a thousand sightings but other people believe that the monster is a giant sturgeon. This prehistoric looking fish is a more plausible explanation than a long extinct creature. It should be mentioned at this point that “Nessie” became more plesiosaur-like after Mary Anning found the first fossils at Lyme Regis, Dorset in 1824. The large marine reptiles called plesiosaurs were extremely common in Jurassic and Cretaceous British seas but they died out before or at the same time as the dinosaurs (65 million years ago). Loch Ness was fully glaciated during the last ice age and is fresh water. Although it is nearly 25 miles long and nine hundred to a thousand feet deep, the space and food resources are surely too small to support a breeding population.

The Menai Serpent falls into the seventh category: “Super Eel” – a twenty to one hundred foot long, eel like fish. HMS Daedalus, a 19 gun frigate between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena on the 6th of August 1848 also saw a type 2C Super Eel. This sighting was reported in The Times and The Illustrated London News and lampooned by Punch Magazine. The Captain’s report to the Admiralty estimated a length of sixty feet and said that the creature was traveling quickly “apparently on some determined purpose.” Illustrations show a large, broad and snake-like head kept high above the water and distinct eyes.


Native Americans had many legends of evil water monsters called Unktehila, almost certainly based on early fossil discoveries. Some were very serpentine but, unlike plesiosaurs and the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, there is no evidence that super-eels ever existed. Many reports of Kraken and Sea Serpent sightings are now attributed to Giant Squid, themselves thought apocryphal until specimens washed up on beaches or were caught on lines by fishermen. Basking Sharks or their decaying carcasses may account for other encounters.

 

The creature encountered by the crew of the Robert Ellis, if not just a salty sea story, was a very different beast. The crew were able to drive it overboard again with an oar and it did not attack them. From the description – a huge worm and coiling – it may have been an abnormally large Conger Eel. Conger eels (Conger conger) are powerful predators more common on the south and western coasts of England, Wales and Scotland than on the east coast. They also occur on the Atlantic coast of North America and stay alive out of water for long periods. They are inactive during the day but are nocturnal hunters in shallow waters where they are gray blue or gray brown with a white or pale golden belly. In deeper waters, they hunt at any time and have a light brown back with grayish flanks and belly. Adults are 20 to 40 lbs in weight and up to 2 metres (7 ft) long, although weights up to 70 lbs are not uncommon. Specimens have been recorded up to 2.75 – 3 metres. The world record was set in 1995: 133lbs 4oz, caught on a wreck six miles off Brixham, Devon. A picture can be found on the British Conger Club website:http://www.britishcongerclub.org.uk/album/index.htmBoat

Readers can refer to A. Reeve, 2007 ‘Conger conger. Conger eel. Marine Life Information Network. Biology and sensitivity key information: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom [http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/congerconger.html]


There are eight distinct conger species in the Atlantic Ocean with the American Conger Eel (Conger oceanicus) being the largest and most common. The highest recorded weight for this species is 250 lbs! Returning briefly to the HMS Daedalus sighting in 1848, it is possible that this is what the captain and crew saw.


Another eel-like creature thought to have been responsible for many sightings is a rare visitor from the ocean depths. A sixteen feet long specimen beached in Bermuda in 1860 was originally described as a sea serpent but later identified as an Oar Fish. This bizarre looking fish, Regalecus glesneto use its scientific name, has a silvery ribbon-like body, large, saucer eyes and a raised red dorsal fin. Specimens have been documented at nine metres (30.5 ft), reported 17 m) and weigh upwards of four hundred pounds. They range throughout the deep sea of the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. The first published account is that of a Danish Naturalist, writing about a specimen found on a Norwegian beach in 1771. An 1891 report by H. O. Forbes & J. T. Meeson in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Vol 24, pp 192-198) notes that “not more than twenty captures having been recorded from England” in 150 years.


Whether the Menai Serpent was an oversized conger eel or a dying oarfish, it seems to have been a harmless if rather frightening encounter. On reflection, if their story is not just a sailor’s tall tale, the crew of the Robert Ellis was very lucky to have met such an inoffensive sea monster.


REFERENCES:
 

1862 George Borrow, ‘Wild Wales – Its people, language and scenery [The author referred to the Collins Souvenir Edition, published in 1964, London – see pp 226-227 for the reference to the Menai sea serpent]

 

1891   H. O. Forbes & J. T. Meeson ‘On a species of Regalecus or Great Oarfish caught in Okain’s Bay’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 24: 192-8 [available: http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume./rsnz_24_00_001250.html]

 

1930 Rupert T. Gould. ‘The Case for the Sea Serpent’

 

1968. Bernard Heuvelmans, ‘In the Wake of the Sea Serpent’ published by Robin Hart Davies, first edition.  [The masterwork on sea serpents – 645 pages, >100 illustrations]

 

1968. John L. Taylor & Carl H. Saloman, ‘The Oarfish, Regalecus glesne: A New Occurrence and Previous Records from the Gulf of Mexico. Copeia, Vol. 1968, No. 2 (Jun. 5, 1968), pp. 404-405

 

1978    McEwan, G. J. ‘Sea Serpents, Sailors & Sceptics’, published by Routledge.

 

1984          Jonathan Mullard, ‘Phenomenal Borrow’, Earth Lines 3: 29-30

 

1989    D. G. Smith. ‘Observations on a female oar fish,’ Florida Scientist 36: 187-189

 

1991     Michael Haigh, ‘The sea-worm of the Solway’, Northern Earth Mysteries 45: 10 – [A dragon swam up the Solway Firth, until impaled on sharp stakes driven into river at low tide.]

 

2001    Paul Harrison. ‘Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles’, published by Robert Hale.

 

2005 Virginia Morell, ‘Beyond Nessie’, National Geographic, Dec 2005, p. 58-88

 

For more information on the Conger eel, the following websites were consulted:

http://web.ukonline.co.uk/aquarium/pages/conger.html

http://www.britishcongerclub.org.uk/album/index.htmBoat[133lb 4oz world record]

 

2007   A. Reeve, ‘Conger conger. Conger eel. Marine Life Information Network. Biology and sensitivity key information sub programme [online] Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (cited 21/02/2007) available from: http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/congerconger.html