Sightings and the Cornish History of the Great Sea Serpent
Not published in the book "A history of Mullion Cove Cornwall" unless stated.
No reproduction of this article to be made without permission.
I have spent some time recently researching early written records of what is often headlined in the older Newspapers as "Sightings of the Sea Serpent",
The Victorian and often older Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic often featured so called "in depth" records of such sightings, usually made by crews of ships around the world.
The reported sighting by Capt. M`Quhae of the Daedalus for example, recieved extensive coverage, being a sighting by a Captain of an Admiralty Vessel.
Hampshire Telegraph 14.10.1848
The creature now believed to be responsible for some of the genuine sightings was a species of Oarfish, These creatures have been described for hundreds of years, but surprisingly little was known about them owing to the relatively few occasions when they were found close to the surface or were washed ashore, often in a state of decomposition.
What drew my attention to the subject was the sighting in calm weather in July 1878 on a smooth Atlantic Ocean. It was reported and recorded in their Log by the two Andrews brothers William and Asa Walter on their journey across the Atlantic in their tiny 19 foot long cedar boat called "Nautilus" in the summer of 1878.
They journeyed thousands of miles from Boston USA intending and finally achieving their goal of reaching the Great Paris Exhibition, in the smallest boat ever to cross the Atlantic at that time. It was a remarkable journey for sailors so inexperienced.
Their first landfall was on July 31st 1878 and it was at Mullion Cove Cornwall. They stayed there for 5 days, and the story, and their visit is recorded in my book "A history of Mullion Cove, Cornwall". pub. 2012
Sources include "A daring voyage across the Atlantic Ocean " pub. 1880,
Newspapers ( Includes their published Log), Newspapers include The Cornishman, Western Daily Press, Royal Cornwall Gazette and many others.
Evening Telegraph August 2nd 1878
I have discussed my results several times with a local fisherman and I was astounded to hear that there is a tale of a sighting on the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula, made since the last war.
He was initially reluctant to talk about the sighting, the person witnessing the event now being deceased, and he, being rather wary of introducing such a claim into the public domain without corroboration did not want to expose himself to the possibility of doubt. The witness lived close to Gunwalloe and regularly took walks along the cliffs.looking out to sea something caught his eye which made him stop. What he saw in the calm evening sea, not far from the cliffs was what he would later describe as a huge sea snake with undulating coils visible on the surface. There was definitely something which he could not explain in the water and it was not visible in a fleeting glance but for some time.The witness, however, was certain of what he saw on a calm summers evening whilst walking the cliff near to Gunwalloe.
What may not be well known is that CORNWALL may have played a larger part in unravelling the early history of the sea serpent than ever realised, being the first location in the UK where an Oarfish was found,and officially recorded by zoologists and naturalists. It came from Mounts Bay where it had been washed ashore.(see below)
Alexander Gordon Melville, 1819-1901, described as "a significant, independent and controversial Victorian Naturalist, comparative anatomist who went on to become the first professor of natural History at Queens College Galway" was quoted in a book called The Great Sea Serpent (an Historical and Critical Treatise) published by Dutch Zoologist A.C. Oudemans in 1892. It was dedicated to "Owners of ships and yachts and sea captains and zoologists"
" It is always unsafe to deny any phenomena that may be wholly or in part inexplicable, and hence I am content to believe the question will be satisfactorily resolved..."
Over 120 years on from the book and there have now been TV programmes which have highlighted the possible existence of such a living creature and recently articles in major newspapers, video media etc which reintroduces the possible existence of this creature as a "Living Fossil". it certainly appears to have been here for a very long time.!
The Oceans are an incredibly diverse environment and it is currently believed by scientists that we have only identified a small number of the millions of creatures which live in the sea.
The OARFISH (Regalecus)
A fish which has been so elusive for hundreds of years, the Oarfish, in early recorded history called the "King of the Herring" because it was often seen near to shoals of herring, appears now to be within the grasp of science and may well provide some answers to the questions about sightings of the so called "Great Sea Serpent".
In the 1700s and 1800s the records and sightings of sea serpents had already been subjected to trial by the Press as well as being researched by such scientific bodies as the Linnaean Society, as well as other zoological and scientific bodies.
I intend to add to this article information which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years yet has only been read by a small number of people today, but by thousands of people in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras ...
The officers and crew of some ships which reported sightings were often made to give sworn affidavits giving their accounts before magistrates.There were many consistencies and similarities in their stories which came from different parts of the world, but then there were no cameras to record what they saw, only their reports, their recollections and their drawings.
However it should be remembered that near Boston USA, where a number of sightings were recorded, the press offered a reward of $5000 (a huge sum in 1818 !) to the whalers, to secure or capture the "great sea serpent" and bring it home dead or alive.
Many reports from the 1800s and earlier may seem rather fanciful describing sea serpents as being over 200` long and wrapping themselves around large ships but who is to say that a species, possibly a giant Oarfish did not exist, or has been greatly reduced in numbers by mans activities or ecological pressures.
One of the first records was believed to have been made by a Norwegian Biologist and Geologist Peter Ascanius in 1772
In 1820 a book entitled "The History of Greenland" originally written in German by David Crantz in the 1760s was translated, updated and published. It contained the earliest recorded information about the geology, landscape, weather observations, flora and fauna, birds, fish, whales,seals, the life of the occupants, language religion, Missions,superstitions and many other aspects of life.
Amongst the descriptions was that of the sea snake or "Soe Ormen" (serpine marinus magnus) as it was called. It was known of in most Scandinavian Countries and seen regularly off the coast of Norway.
A description was given. " This creature, particularly in the North sea, continually keeps himself in the bottom of the sea, excepting in the months of July and August, which is their spawning time, and then they come to the surface in calm weather, but plunge into the water again so soon as the wind raises the least wave"
It goes on that " ... if it were not for this regulation, thus ordained by the wise creator for the safety of mankind, the reality of this snakes existence would be less questioned than it is at present, even here in Norway ..."
The infrequent sightings of the creature made it appear doubtful that it actually existed, but the authors doubt " ...was removed by full and sufficient evidence from creditable and experienced fishermen and sailors in Norway; of which there are hundreds who can testify that they have annually seen them..."
At that time the Norwegians considered that their coast was the only one in Europe visited by the creature and they were surprised by questions from visitors and crews of Trading ships whose men questioned the existence of it.
To put the creature into context the writer describes a meeting with a Capt. Lawrence de Ferry who begun by telling how he once doubted the creatures existence until he saw it in 1746 when in the company of two crew members saw and actually "... shot one of these monsters. from a rowing boat. Its blood was red and discoloured the water."
In January 1876 the Graphic produced an article about sea serpents. This was by no means the first or even an early attempt to write about the creature.There were two drawings reproduced with the article. One, sent to the Graphic by Rev. Bradshaw at Templeton nr. Tiverton, Somerset was taken from a book written in Latin by Konrad Gessner, a well known 16th century Swiss naturalist. It was supposedly taken from a book published in 1620 but Gessner was alive from 1516-1565, the book being in the hands of Rev. E. Pole. (Likely that this was a miss print in the article)
Gessner distinguished between 2 species of sea serpents.One species was found in the Baltic Sea and described as growing to 30 or 40 feet long being "harmless unless irritated". A second species was found off the Norwegian Coast and described as growing form 100-300 feet long and "... in calm weather will take a sailor from aboard his vessel and even throw his coils around the ship itself." (Graphic 29th January 1876)
Many descriptions now seem fanciful and were no doubt exaggerated leading to disbelief and along with the drawings there has no doubt been much artistic licence. This was discussed in depth by A.C. Oudemans and the reader should refer to this lengthy adjudication which is available to read on the net.
It may be that despite this, there were, ...or are ... more than one species which could account for some of the variations.
"Ciel Conin" Found in Mounts Bay in February 1791.
In Pre Victorian and Victorian times, examples of the Oarfish, Regalecus Glesne were well known and recorded.
An early example was recorded in January 1759 at Whitby where reference was made in a Paper by Albany Hancock Esquire but the description was too poor to recognise it as an Oarfish.
There is an article which recorded in the Caledonian Mercury of 9th October 1786 (Source British Newspaper Archive) which has relevence to the research.
Before the advent of the Telegraph, Newspaper articles tended to be passed up or down the country and appear in many newspapers as the story progressed in print.
The story is headed "The following comes authenticated from a gentleman of Morillian in Cornwall" (This may well be Mullion.)
" A just and particular description of a very rare and surprising sea monster driven on the shore at Portleaven Bay on the coast of Cornwall on 14th September 1786 by the strong west winds and tempestuous weather which continued to a violent dgree for several days successively and caused much damage at that place and neighbourhood."
Two men were out on the beach in the early morning as is the custom searching for wrecks soon after daybreak discovering the monster on the beach at a small sandy cove.Other men were told and went to the beach armed with sticks pokers and hatchets.As they approached they realised the monster was not dead and raised its head towards them. It crawled on its belly towards them, and they saw that it had no legs and raised its body slightly as it moved. The men killed the creature by stabbing it before examining it. It was found to be 48 feet 10 inches long, round bodied with a head which had greenish eyes.it had a hard back, a long tail which measured some 5 feet long and seven feet wide. Nothing like it had been seen before by those examining the creature.
It is easy to discount this story but it may be one of the earliest descriptions of something which could actually have been the "Great Sea Serpent".
The first example to be officially recorded in the UK was from Cornwall, and it came ashore in Mounts Bay in February 1791.
It was described and recorded by William Yarrell (1784- 1856) in his book 2nd Edition of British Fishes, vol 1 p.221 using work by the Cornish Naturalist Jonathan Couch (1789-1870),born Polperro which was entitled "A History of Cornish fishes" & published in 1836. (?)
(The full title is A History of the fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch Vol II 1863 where it is described as Banks` Oarfish) Couch provides the first collated record of specimens found or known from around the coast.
Jonathan Couch described two species of Fish in his book which may well be closely related, but at the time of their being recorded were not immediately linked.
2.BANKS ` OARFISH.
The description was " The body long and very thin, head compressed and sloped from the top to the mouth. A long dorsal fin, the first rays of which are much elevated. Distinct ventral fins, each formed of a long filament, no anal fin, the tail with scarcely the mark of a fin." (Couch)
According to Couch, after the Whitby record, the next recorded sighting was an example supposed to have come ashore with the tide at Newlyn in Mounts Bay Cornwall on 23rd February 1788, although the year is not subject to confirmation. A description of the Gymnetrus Hawkenii (Shaw), put the example at 6` 6" long, 6 inches in depth and almost 3" thick.
A record of Gymnetrus Hawkenii or Hawkins Gymnetrus was recorded in "A History of British Animals", by Jonathan Fleming.(1828)
The Mounts Bay example was also described as 8`6" long, 10.5" thick and 2.75" thick.The tail was missing. It weighed 40lbs and was gven the name of "Ciel Coning". It was believed to have come ashore with the tide at Newlyn, and likened to theRegalecus Glesne of the Northern Sea, recorded by Ascanius.
Here there is confusion about the examples, which Couch attempted to resolve. One observer and contributor to the history of the earlier records was John Hawkins Esq, a Cornish gentleman, brother of Sir Christopher Hawkins, Baronet, who was described as a competent naturalist but unskilled in his knowledge of fishes.
We might be able to assume that a number of people examined,described and became involved in describing this example in Mounts Bay and as there was no central organisation the descriptions found their way to multiple eminent authorities.
A further example, which cannot be verified authoritatvely, was believed to have come ashore in Mounts Bay in 1791 and was that which was drawn and given to William Rashleigh esq and was the one presented as an illustration in Yarrells Book.
Couch is of the opinion that there were definitely two Cornish strandings.
A later example, which was not drawn, came ashore on 18th March 1796 at Filey Bay which was 13` long,1` in depth and 3" thick.
Below- Link to Couch
( p204 Gymnetrus hawkenii)
By the mid 19th century other examples were being seen. On 26th March 1849 a specimen of Gymnetrus was captured by fishermen Bartholemew Taylor and his two sons who were from Cullercoats, Northumberland, 6 miles offshore and in 20-30 fathoms of water. It was seen lying on its side and when approached righted itself and came towards them in a lateral undulating motion showing its head and a portion of its crest, and quickly disappeared. A short time later it was found again lying on its side. Several times they threw a hook attached to a rod and line and eventually hooked it, damaging its soft flesh in the process.
It was found to measure 12` 3" long, 8 and a half " deep behind the gills extending to 11" further back. At the deepest point it measured 3". Its silvery colour quickly faded.It had a beautiful crest behind the eye. It is extensively described in Couch`s book.
In December 1853 another example was washed ashore at Keiss near to Wick, Caithness in Scotland. It recieved much interest from the Press including the Inverness Courier of December 29th 1853, and was widely reported, being likened to the "Great Sea Serpent". When brought ashore it was already cut into pieces and was put on display in the front garden of Dr. Sinclair and drawn by the Customs Controller Mr Peach.
The specimen was 15` 6" long from the eye to the tip of the tail, 1` 2" deep at its deepest and almost 4" thick, and weighed 182 lbs. The eyes were 1 and a half " across with a dark pupil and a silver iris. Damage was caused in its death which removed the crest but stumps of the crest were visible.
It had a cartilaginous vertebral column under 3/4" across and when cut through appeared to be a film filled with a jelly like substance.(Inverness Courier)
Amongst the many articles and sightings are those reported to have occurred here in Cornwall.
On the afternoon of 11th October 1883 the Rev. E Highton, the Vicar of Bude was on the Summerleaze, an open Down in Bude, with some friends where they observed about a mile and a half from shore a long low dark object skimming across the surface of the sea, the back of the creature skimming above the top of the water. Its speed was estimated at 25mph and never once disappeared entirely, and one one occasion a larger mass appeared for a few seconds at the tail end of the creature which seemed like a curl in a long thin monster. Its length was estimated to be 50-80 feet.
The description of what the party saw shows that not all things in the sea have obvious explanations and certainly there was a tendency to suggest that these sightings were that of the elusive sea serpent. There is of course, no mention of the weather at the time which might have helped, but it must have been fairly calm to have seen such a thing. We will never know.
In September 1907 the Aberdeen Journal reported a sighting of the sea serpent off Tintagel by the Rev.TC Davies of Sheffield and Mr E Dodgson, Chaplain at Jesus College Oxford about 11.45.am on September 12th. The report came in a letter to the Western Morning News. They were seated on the edge of the cliff at a cove called Gulla Stem when their attention was drawn to a black object moving very quickly along the surface about 200 yds away towards Tintagel Head. In view for about a minute the serpent was at least 20` long, and holding its head above the water with a large mane upon it aloft. They rued that they had not got a telescope or a "Kodak to take its likeness."
It was said that it was likely to be a Regalecus or ribbon fish of which 25 specimens have been found on British shores.(Aberdeen Journal 19.9.1907)
...... more to follow