Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Saltwater Serpents

The first sightings of the Gloucester Sea Serpent date from 1638. In 1817 hundreds more sightings were reported of the 40-foot, or 70-foot or even 100-foot creature. The New England Linnean Society of Boston commissioned a local Justice of the Peace to record the testimony of the witnesses and collect evidence. Newspapers had a field day with reports of the chocolate colored creature circling boats and sunning itself on the beach of Ten Pound Island. Sightings were again reported in 1884 and most recently, in 1975.

The powerful currents of the Gulf Stream carry life-giving warmth through the oceanic waters south of Florida. And its breezy trade winds have made the area a popular route for sailing vessels since man first figured out how to top a boat with billowing fabric. But the well-used route has claimed its share of casualties. The ancient coral reefs that surround the Florida Keys lie dotted with wrecks of ships large and small that succumbed over the ages to the ocean's perils: storms, pirates, and perhaps one danger a bit less known than the rest.

An unusual sight startled three scientists, all members of the British Zoological Society, one early December day in 1905, as they sailed in the yacht Valhalla somewhere south of Key West. The Valhalla, named after the mythic Norse hall of the gods, was a 17-ton cruise vessel owned by an aristocratic astronomer, Lord Lindsey, Earl of Crawford. He and his friends E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and M. J. Nicoll all witnessed a six-foot-long fin in a dull green "seaweed" color knife through the water's surface about 100 yards away. Lindsey described it as "somewhat crinkled at the edge," according to an account by James B. Sweeney in his book, Sea Monsters.

Lindsey probably almost dropped his binoculars when he saw what came next. He wrote to the respected Zoological Society that, "A great head and neck rose out of the water in front of the frill. The neck appeared about the thickness of a man's body. It was from seven to eight feet out of the water. The head and neck were all of about the same thickness."

Lindsey's companion M. J. Nicoll said the creature's head was like that of a turtle, that it had eyes, and that the head and neck swayed from side to side. Unfortunately, the yacht was traveling at high speeds and soon outdistanced the strange creature, ending the scientists' scrutiny. But a few hours later, two crewmen on the Valhalla also glimpsed a huge beast just below the surface of the water. They said they did not know what it was, but it had no blowhole and was not a whale.

The Valhalla sighting was widely reported, particularly since the witnesses were considered impeccable due to their scientific standing. But saltwater serpents had been in the news for many years by that time, especially along North America's eastern coastal waters. One of the most famous was the Gloucester serpent, which was sighted a bit farther north in the chillier waters off Massachusetts, in 1817.

The huge and mysterious marine beast was seen so many times, in fact, that a local scientific committee was formed to look into the matter. The group of three men devoted themselves to taking detailed statements from witnesses such as two women and a number of fishermen who all saw a large, unknown creature swim right into the harbor just north of Gloucester at Cape Ann in August of that year. (A similar creature had been sighted in Cape Ann as early as 1639.) Numerous sightings followed in the days and weeks after, including one simultaneous sighting by 20 people.

The investigative group interviewed a Gloucester man named Amos Story who swore that he saw a serpent-like animal in the middle of the day in Gloucester's harbor, and was able to watch it for over an hour as it darted about in the water. The turtle-like head poked about one foot above the water, said Story.  "On this day, I did not see more than ten or twelve feet of his body," he added.

Passengers and crew on many ships passing in or out of the harbor continued to see the monster until the end of August, when sightings curiously stopped. The creature returned in October, however, for a few final glimpses. By that time several hundred people had claimed sightings. Not all the reports agreed on the monster's size or appearance, but the general conclusion was that it had a smooth, snakelike body and a horse-sized head shaped like that of a turtle. Most people described the color as very dark brown, and many observed a row of humps following along behind the head. It was said to move its body like a caterpillar, hunching and straightening vertically.

Estimates of its speed varied, since some people observed it swimming rapidly and others saw it at rest. The committee was never able to come to a decision on exactly what the creature was-and indeed the few strange conclusions they did reach brought them only embarrassing, public scorn. For instance, they decided a three-foot blacksnake discovered near the harbor beach must be a "baby sea serpent," and solemnly named the new species Scoliophis atlanticus. To their dismay, a reptile specialist who correctly identified the specimen almost immediately proved them wrong.

Further difficulties were caused by the fact that, possibly due to differences in weather, light, and distance, many of the witness reports varied in their recollection of the creature's appearance. This also caused people to ridicule the committee's final report, as skeptics argued that a real creature should have produced more consistent reports. Most researchers today agree, however, that the committee did perform a valuable service in questioning so many witnesses and recording their accounts.

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