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"Bring Me the Head of the Sea Serpent!"

by Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker

This article appeared in Strange Magazine #15, Spring 1995.

Oftenuttered with no less vehemence than Salome's demand for the head of John the Baptist, the title of this article succinctly reflects the response traditionally elicited from most zoologists when confronted with the suggestion that the vast oceans may contain notably large species of sea creatures still unknown to science--and that some such species could explain that most controversial maritime enigma "the great sea serpent."

Needless to say, fleeting glimpses of a head and neck (or sometimes merely an ill-defined series of humps) all-too-briefly surfacing before sinking back beneath the waves can hardly substitute for adequate physical evidence--a head, or a body!--that can be subjected to formal scientific analysis in order to determine categorically the taxonomic identity of its owner. One might assume, therefore, that if such evidence does come to hand, the end of the mystery must surely then be in sight--but as readily demonstrated by the following selection of cases, the course of true cryptozoology seldom runs quite as smoothly as that!

The Stronsay Beast

Possibly the most famous of these cases occurred at Stronsay, one of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. On September 26, 1808, John Peace was fishing east of Rothiesholm Point when he saw what seemed to be the carcass of a whale cast up onto the rocks, above which were flocks of circling seabirds. He rowed up to it in his boat and examined it, and found that it was a very peculiar-looking creature, which did not resemble anything known to him. At that same time, farmer George Sherar was watching Peace from the shore, and was able to confirm all of this. About 10 days later, moreover, he was able to see it for himself, because it was washed ashore on Stronsay, lying on its belly just below the high tide mark.

When Sherar discovered it there, he measured it, and found it to be 55 feet long. Others also measured it, and obtained the same result. It was very serpentine, almost eel-like in general build, but possessed a 15 ft. neck, a small head, and a long mane running along its back to the end of its tail. Most bizarre of all, however, was that it seemed to have three pairs of legs, and each foot had five or six toes. Sherar salvaged some vertebrae and the skull of this extraordinary creature--which became known as the Stronsay beast.

Details of its discovery and description ultimately reached Patrick Neill, secretary of Edinburgh's Wernerian Natural History Society, and at a meeting of the society on November 19, 1808, Neill released some details on this subject. At the next meeting, on January 14, 1809, he gave the Stronsay beast a formal scientific name--Halsydrus pontoppidani, "Pontoppidan's water snake of the sea" (after Eric Pontoppidan, an 18th Century Norwegian bishop who had collected many sea serpent reports).

At that same meeting, a Dr. John Barclay, who had examined some of the beast's remains in Orkney, presented a paper in which he described the vertebrae, skull, and one of the creature's legs. His paper, accompanied with detailed diagrams, was published in 1811, within the society's Memoirs, and attracted a great deal of attention. The vertebrae were very striking, resembling cotton reels, and were cartilaginous, but the leg was not a real, jointed leg at all; it was merely a fin.

To many people these features meant little, but they meant a great deal to the eminent naturalist Sir Everard Home, who was working on an exhaustive study of the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus--the world's second largest species of shark. When Home heard about the Stronsay beast, he felt sure that it must have been a shark. This is because the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae are sharks and rays, and the only creatures to have cartilaginous vertebrae with star-shaped calcification are sharks. Furthermore, when he compared the Stronsay beast's vertebrae and other remains with the corresponding portions of a known specimen of basking shark, they matched very closely.

But the long-necked, six-legged, mane-bearing Stronsay beast looked nothing like a basking shark--so how could this drastic difference in appearance be resolved? In fact, it was quite simple. When basking shark carcasses begin to decompose, the entire gill apparatus falls away, taking with it the shark's characteristic jaws, and leaving behind only its small cranium and its exposed backbone, which have the appearance of a small head and a long neck. The triangular dorsal fin also rots away, sometimes leaving behind the rays, which can look a little like a mane--especially when the fish's skin also decays, allowing the underlying muscle fibers and connective tissue to break up into hairlike growth. Additionally, the end of the backbone only runs into the top fluke of the tail, which means that during decomposition the lower tail fluke falls off, leaving behind what looks like a long slender tail. The pectoral and sometimes the pelvic fins remain attached, but become distorted, so that they can (with a little imagination!) look like legs with feet and toes, and male sharks have a pair of leglike copulatory organs called claspers, which would yield a third pair of legs. Suddenly, the basking shark has become a hairy six-legged sea serpent!

Over the years, almost all of the Stronsay beast's preserved remains have been lost or destroyed, but three vertebrae are retained in the Royal Museum of Scotland--the last remnants of the world-famous Stronsay sea serpent. The creature's mystery, conversely, continues to the present day, and for very good reason. The longest conclusively identified basking shark that has been accurately measured was a truly exceptional specimen caught in 1851 in Canada's Bay of Fundy. While the average length for its species is under 2612 ft., this veritable monster was a mighty 40 ft. 3 in. Yet even that is almost 15 ft. less than the Stronsay beast. Even the largest scientifically measured specimen of the world's biggest fish--the whale shark Rhincodon typus--was only (!) 4112 ft. long. So was the 55-ft. Stronsay beast really a basking shark, or could it have belonged to a still-unknown, giant relative?

Bearing in mind that one of the world's largest known sharks, the formidable megamouth Megachasma pelagios, remained wholly unknown to mankind until November 15, 1976, when the first recorded specimen was accidentally hauled up from the sea near the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the prospect of undiscovered species of giant sharks still eluding scientific discovery is far from being as unlikely as one might otherwise assume.

The Japanese Carcass Catch

Japanese Carcass Catch Further evidence for this came to light on April 25, 1977, when the decomposing carcass of a huge plesiosaurlike beast was caught in the nets of the Japanese fishing vessel Zuiyo Maru, trawling in waters about 30 miles east of Christchurch, New Zealand. The carcass, about one month dead, measuring roughly 33 ft. long, was in an extremely advanced state of decomposition--and smelled so awful that the crew very speedily cast it overboard, but fortunately not before its measurements were recorded, a few fibers were taken from its carcass, and some photographs were obtained of it.

Biologists were very perplexed by the photos, and all manner of identities were offered--ranging from a giant sea lion, or a huge marine turtle, to the popular plesiosaur identity, or a whale. For quite a time, its true identity remained undisclosed, until the fibers from it were meticulously analyzed by Tokyo University biochemist Dr. Shigeru Kilmora. During this research, he discovered that the samples contained a very special type of protein, known as elastodin, which is found only in sharks. Once again, the scientific world had been fooled by a deceptively shaped decomposing shark carcass--equally, however, it was a carcass of remarkable length. Just another exceptional basking shark?

The New Harbor "Sea Serpent"

In August 1880, a sea serpent of sorts was procured that apparently comprised a quite different but equally unknown species of shark. Captured dead by Captain S. W. Hanna at New Harbor in Maine, it was approximately 25 ft. long and 10 in. wide, and was shaped like an eel, with a flat head whose upper portion projected over its small mouth (containing sharp teeth, and positioned at the tip of its head), fine sharklike skin, an eel-like tail fin, a pair of small fins behind its head, a small triangular dorsal fin, and just three pairs of gills, which were not covered by a flap of skin.

Overall, therefore, it resembled an eel-like shark--in particular, a deepwater serpentine version called the frilled shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus ("snakelike shark with frills"), which, unlike most other species, does have a terminally sited mouth and a noticeably elongated body. However, the longest confirmed specimens of frilled shark do not exceed 7 ft. Moreover, the New Harbor fish was additionally distinguished via its paucity of gill pairs--all modern day sharks possess at least five pairs. Clearly, therefore, Hanna's catch was a most significant one--which makes it all the more tragic that although its appearance was ultimately documented by an eminent ichthyologist, Prof. Spencer Baird, by that time the body itself had been discarded. No comparable specimen has been recorded since.

Giant Eel Larva?

The case of the bottled sea serpent brings to attention another eel-shaped controversy. On January 31, 1930, while south of Africa's Cape of Good Hope, the Danish research vessel Dana captured what seemed to be an enormous leptocephalus (eel larva), which was duly preserved, bottled, and retained thereafter in Copenhagen University's Zoological Museum. It was a truly extraordinary specimen, for whereas the leptocephalus of the common eel Anguilla anguilla measures a diminutive 3 in. long and metamorphoses into an adult eel generally around 412 ft., the Dana's monstrous leptocephalus was already 6 ft. 112 in. long!

Accordingly, ichthyologists speculated that if its species' rate of growth equalled that of the common eel, the unknown adult form of the Dana larva might well attain incredible lengths of 108-180 ft.! The creature would be, in short, a super-eel, as postulated by cryptozoologist Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans when predicting identities for the types of beasts responsible for the voluminous collection of sea serpent reports on record. Sadly, however, it was not to be.

In 1970, University of Miami ichthyologist Dr. David G. Smith revealed that the Dana leptocephalus was not the larva of a true eel, but of a quite different eel-like fish known as a notacanthid or spiny eel. What makes this identification so devastating for its claim to fame as a bona fide sea serpent is that notacanthids undergo most of their growth before transformation of the larva into the adult, not after (as true eels do). That is to say, adult notacanthids are scarcely longer in length than their larvae--which means that the Dana larvae's length was nothing special at all, and would not have increased to any great extent if it had survived and transformed into an adult. Exit the bottled sea serpent!

The Baby Sea Serpent

Another potentially promising sea serpent corpse that suffered a humiliating demotion in status was the 3-ft.-long "baby sea serpent" captured in autumn 1817 in a field near the harbor of Cape Ann, north of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which had recently been the scene of numerous multiple-eyewitness sightings of an enormous snakelike sea monster that sometimes appeared humped. When the "baby" specimen was captured, it was deemed by a committee of scientists from the Linnaean Society of New England to be a young specimen of the monster that had lately visited Cape Ann, and was duly christened Scoliophis atlanticus ("Atlantic humped snake"). When dissected and examined by fish researcher Alexandra Lesueur, however, it was revealed to be nothing more dramatic than a deformed specimen of a common American snake called the black racer Coluber constrictor.

The Gourock Carcass

The history of cryptozoology is embarrassingly well-supplied with classic cases of lost opportunities, and the long-running saga of the sea serpents has provided quite a number of these over the years. One of the most notable instances took place on the shores of Gourock, on Scotland's River Clyde. This was where, in summer 1942, an intriguing (if odiferous) carcass was stranded that was closely observed by council officer Charles Rankin.

Measuring 27-28 ft. long, it had a lengthy neck, a relatively small flattened head with sharp muzzle and prominent eyebrow ridges, large pointed teeth in each jaw, rather large laterally sited eyes, a long rectangular tail that seemed to have been vertical in life, and two pairs of "L"-shaped flippers (of which the front pair were the larger, and the back pair the broader). Curiously, its body did not appear to contain any bones other than its spinal column, but its smooth skin bore many 6-inch-long, bristle-like "hairs"--resembling steel knitting needles in form and thickness but more flexible.

Rankin was naturally very curious to learn what this strange creature could be. In his opinion the remains resembled those of a huge lizard. But as World War II was well underway and this locality had been classed as a restricted area, he was not permitted to take any photographs of it, and scientists who might otherwise have shown an interest were presumably occupied with wartime work. Consequently, this mystery beast's carcass was summarily disposed of--hacked into pieces, and buried. All that remained to verify its onetime existence was one of its strange "knitting needle" bristles, which Rankin had pulled out of a flipper and kept in his desk, where it eventually shrivelled until it resembled a coiled spring.

When considered collectively, features such as these bristles, the carcass' lizardlike shape, vertical tail (characteristic of fishes), lack of body bones, and smooth skin suggest a decomposing shark as a plausible identity, but the large pointed teeth argue against the traditional basking shark explanation in favor of one of the large carnivorous species. However, if Rankin's estimate of its size was accurate, it must have been a veritable monster of a specimen--the world's largest known species of carnivorous shark, the notorious great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, rarely exceeding 20 ft. If only some taxonomically significant portion of the Gourock sea serpent's body could have been retained for formal examination--in particular its skull, a flipper, or at least some teeth. Instead, they have presumably been pounded ever deeper into the earth by the studs of a succession of soccer teams--oblivious to the cryptozoological treasure trove lying forgotten beneath their feet.

The Natal Carcass

No less frustrating is the lack of interest shown to an extraordinary carcass washed up onto the beach in Margate, Natal, on the evening of November 1, 1922. Measuring a colossal 47 ft. in total length, it was clothed in what resembled a pelt of 8-inch-long snow-white fur, and sported a 10-ft. tail. Although highly noteworthy, these features paled into insignificance compared to this carcass' most spectacular attribute--instead of possessing a distinct head, it bore a long trunklike appendage, roughly 5 ft. in length. Notwithstanding this latter anomaly, it would be tempting to discount the Natal corpse as the remains of yet another shark (albeit one of gargantuan proportions) by equating its "fur" with the exposed connective tissue typical of a decomposing shark carcass.

However, there is one very good reason why this explanation cannot be accepted here. On the morning of November 1, this selfsame beast, spectacularly clothed in its immaculate pelage, was witnessed alive by an appreciable crowd of observers, who watched in amazement as it fought with two whales at sea off Margate's beach. One witness, Hugh Ballance, told the press that he was amazed to see what appeared to be a "polar bear" of mammoth proportions. The animal reared a full 20 feet out of the water and seemed to have a tail which it struck the two whales with. The battle ended 3 hours later with the death of the strange creature, following which its body was washed ashore. Yet despite its presence on the beach for 10 days afterwards, not a single zoologist took the trouble to examine it. Unbelievably, it was left instead for the waves to carry it back out to sea, which they did, never to reveal it again. Another lost opportunity for cryptozoological discovery--certainly this trunked sea serpent bears no resemblance to any known animal, either from the present or the past.

The Gambian Sea Serpent

Another potentially significant carcass that did not receive scientific scrutiny was that of the Gambian sea serpent. On June 12, 1983, wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham, who has spent much of his life in West Africa, and is very familiar with its wildlife, discovered (in the presence of some members of his family) a very remarkable carcass on Gambia's Bungalow Beach. It measured 15-16 ft. long, had black upperparts and much paler underparts, a long pair of jaws containing 80 teeth, a pair of nostrils at the tip of the upper jaw, and two pairs of flippers. As whales and dolphins have dorsal blowholes rather than terminal nostrils, and only a front pair of flippers (they lost their hind pair during evolution), it could not have been any modern-day form of cetacean. What was truly exceptional concerning this carcass, however, was that it had not begun to decompose externally. Indeed, except for the fact that one hind flipper had almost been torn away, there was no outward sign of damage to it.

Owen Burnham has since corresponded with the present author in detail regarding this case, providing a great amount of information. The remarkable fact that emerges is that only two types of animal resemble the carcass he saw--both of which officially died out more than 60 million years ago! One is a pliosaur--a short-necked form of plesiosaur; the other is a sea crocodile or thallatosuchian. As Owen Burnham is an extremely reliable, knowledgeable eyewitness, and was not alone when he encountered and examined the carcass, the case of the Gambian sea serpent would seem to offer some of the most provocative evidence currently available in support of the scientifically undiscovered, modern-day existence of one group of prehistoric reptiles!

The Monongahela Monster

And finally, it would be quite unthinkable to end this article without discussing the highly controversial case of the Monongahela monster. For if the case is genuine (and not a hoax, as some authors have suggested), one ship successfully obeyed the imperious command of this article's title--by obtaining for scientific scrutiny the head of a sea serpent! On January 13, 1852, while in latitude 3° 10'S and longitude 131° 50'W the whaling ship Monongahela of New Bedford encountered an enormous serpentine creature longer than the 100-ft. ship itself, and just under 50 ft. in diameter, with a 10-ft.-long alligatorlike head whose jaws contained 94 teeth (each approximately 3 in. long and recurved like a snake's).

During a titanic struggle, the ship's sailors sought to capture their monstrous visitor by harpooning it; the next morning its lifeless carcass, brownish-yellow and 103 ft. 7 in. long, rose to the surface of the sea. Although giant snakes are not believed nowadays to be responsible for any of the various different types of sea serpent reported over the years, this particular specimen did possess some distinctly ophidian characteristics, including its recurved teeth, a lower jaw whose bones were separate, and two lungs of which one was notably larger than the other. However, it also exhibited some highly un-snakelike features, such as a pair of whale-like blowholes, and four paw-like projections of hard, loose flesh.

Taxonomic considerations notwithstanding, it was clearly impractical to attempt to preserve the gigantic creature's entire carcass--so the sailors hacked off its ferocious-looking head, for retention as absolute proof of this astonishing beast's reality. The Monongahela's master, Captain Charles Seabury, prepared a detailed account of the whole incident, including a full description of the creature itself; on February 6, the Monongahela encountered the brig Gipsy, journeying to Bridgeport, so Seabury handed his account to the Gipsy's master, Captain Sturges, who promised to hand it into Bridgeport's post office when the Gipsy arrived there. Presumably he kept his word, because newspaper accounts of Seabury's report appeared, including one in the London Times for March 10, 1852.

And this is where, for over a century, the story ended--because nothing more was heard of either the sea serpent head or the Monongahela carrying it. Accordingly, some cryptozoologists discounted the whole affair as an elaborate hoax--until 1959, which saw the publication of Frank Edwards' book Stranger Than Science. This revealed that the ship carrying back Seabury's account had actually been the Rebecca Sims, with a Captain Gavitt as its master, and that Seabury's Christian name was Jason, not Charles. In addition, Edwards had learned that many years after Seabury's account had hit the headlines, the name board of the Monongahela had been discovered on the shore of Umnak Island in the Aleutians. So what had happened to the ship? As no other trace of it has apparently been found, if the incident was indeed genuine did some catastrophe occur during its continuing voyage that consigned the Monongahela and its entire crew to the bottom of the sea--thereby returning its unique cryptozoological cargo from whence it had come, the unknown ocean depths?

As with so many other cases on record within the ever-increasing chronicles of the sea serpent, the chances are that we will simply never know.


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Dinsdale, Tim. The Leviathans, revised edition (London: Futura Publications, 1975).

Edwards, Frank. Stranger Than Science (New York: Ace Books, 1959).

Hanna, S.W. "Description of an Eel-like Creature Taken in a Net at New Harbor, Maine, in 1880," Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission (Vol. 3, 1883), pp. 407-410.

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McEwan, Graham J. Sea Serpents, Sailors and Sceptics (London: Routledge, 1978).

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Shuker, Karl P.N. "Rainbow Dragons and Marine Elephants," Fate (Vol. 45, January 1992), pp. 57-66.

Shuker, Karl P.N. "The Search for Monster Sharks," Fate (Vol. 44, March 1991), pp. 41-49.

Shuker, Karl P.N. "Gambo: The Beaked Beast of Bungalow Beach," Fortean Times (No. 67, Feb.-March 1993), pp. 35-37.

Shuker, Karl P.N. The Lost Ark (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

Welfare, Simon and Fairley, John. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (London: Collins, 1980).

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