Scientists researching famous historical sightings of sea serpents have uncovered more than they bargained for when they realised that one sighting was more likely to have been an amorous whale.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews made the revealing finding during a new analysis of a famous 18th century sighting of a ‘most dreadful’ monster off Greenland. By investigating existing animals in the region and comparing their features to the descriptions of the ‘monster’, the investigators believe they have a more plausible explanation.
Drs Charles Paxton and Sharon Hedley, of the University’s Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, looked at four original reports of a 1734 sighting by missionary Poul Egede. They report their novel interpretation in the latest issue of ‘Archives of Natural History’, the scholarly journal published by the Society for the History of Natural History.
Dr Paxton, an expert in sea monsters, collaborated with Dr Hedley and Norwegian Erik Knatterud, a retired teacher. They considered a number of possible explanations for this enigmatic encounter before coming to the conclusion that what Egede saw could have been a whale in a state of arousal.
The authors observed the fact that witness reports described the ‘most dreadful sea monster’ (in the words of the original 18th century English translation) as ‘blowing like a whale’ and having huge flippers. Egede, sailing on route to Nuuk, described the beast as having a serpent like tail covered in “shell-work”. Previous researchers have suggested the curious animal could have been a giant squid, a giant marine otter or a giant long-necked seal, but the St Andrews team believe Poul may simply have confused a rare species of whale for a monster and its genitalia for a tail.
They explained: “Most of the features mentioned in the reports could apply to a cetacean – they mention flippers, ‘shellwork’ (possibly barnacles) and other similarities to whales such as blowing and breaching. Our re- evaluation suggests that Poul probably saw an unfamiliar cetacean.
“The species seen was likely to have been a humpback whale, a North Atlantic right whale or one of the last remaining Atlantic grey whales either without flukes (the triangular bits of the tail) or possibly a male in a state of arousal. The grey whale is possible since it would have been quite rare and may not have been recognised by the witness as a whale.”
The authors do not believe that all other sightings of sea serpents have been whales but one other sighting, from 1875, appears to be the same case of mistaken identity. First hand sea serpent and freshwater creature (such as the Loch Ness Monster) sightings have been reported since the 16th century with several hundred detailed sightings since then, mostly in the last two centuries.
The 1734 sighting is renowned mostly because Poul’s father, Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede, was a famous figure in history known as the ‘Apostle of Greenland’. It was Hans who first reported his son’s sighting second- hand in 1741 and the famous account is regularly featured in sea monster books. In his account, he reports an ‘extraordinarily horrible creature’, three to four times the length of Poul’s boat, which rose high above the water before throwing itself backwards and raising its tail.
Dr Paxton, who is writing a book on the science behind sea serpent sightings, commented:
“It is important to consider all possible alternative ‘non- monstrous’ explanations to a sea monster sighting. Known animals can look strange, quite unlike how they appear in books, and be mistaken for unknown ones.¿ The researchers concluded: “Ultimately we will never know for certain. Whatever it was Poul Egede saw that day, whether it be an amorous wandering grey, humpback or North Atlantic right whale, a flukeless whale or an unknown species, it was a most unusual sight both at the time and now.”
The paper ‘Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster¿ seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734’ by C. G. M. Paxton, E. Knatterud & S. L. Hedley is published in ‘Archives of Natural History’ (32, 1-9).
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