On our attention being called to… a sea serpent

This is not a fairy tale.

Once upon time, top scientists of the day expected to discover a genuine monstrous sea serpent that sailors said they saw with their own eyes. The ocean was and still is a source of rich stories of strange encounters with mysterious beasties.

There are hundreds and hundreds of “sea serpent” reports from around the world. (And, mind you, that’s just from the sea, not from lakes or rivers!) They originated with ancient sea-going cultures – Scandinavia, in particular – and the tales travelled around the world just as fast as people could travel.

One of the most famous sea serpent sightings given serious scientific inquiry has been that of the creature seen by the crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848 after they had rounded the southern end of Africa ( on the west side) in the South Atlantic. The Captain himself reported on the sighting to naturalists and the newspapers of the time:

On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and, as nearly as we could approximate, by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal à fleur d’eau, no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it had passed our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S. W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back. It was seen by the quartermaster, the boatswain’s mate, and the man at the wheel, in addition to myself and officers above-mentioned.

Did the reputable Captain and crew see an enormous sea-going snake? This is unlikely for several reasons.

The description as given is not of any known animal that has ever been discovered (not for lack of trying). There are no reptiles or fish that move this way in the water. Both snakes and fish are limited in their structure to only side to side movement. None hold themselves up out of water like this – there would be no support. Unless… it was only a rigid part of the animal and the rest is underneath.

Mammals, such as whales, move their spines vertically and will propel themselves forward in this way, sometimes with their heads, backs or tails rising from the surface and curving back down. Seals are even more flexible, but obviously, much smaller.

A drawing from a witness on the Daedalus, which has surfaced in the last few years from a journal,  reveals that the sighting was less “snake-like” than was rendered (and publicized). The new drawing shows a rigid “something” above the water leading to a new suggestion that the animal was the jaw of a whale skim feeding at the surface.

Here is a video of a right whale feeding at the surface. You can see that it is not obviously moving. Here is an overhead shot of a sei whale.

Add in the conditions of the Daedalus sighting – it was less than ideal viewing and this was not a whaling boat so the crew may not have been as familiar with all sorts of whale behavior – and we are left with a reasonable possibility to explain this particular sea serpent. The crew saw the jaw and the body of the creature was hidden under the water. This is what they interpreted as a mystery creature.

Check out more on the new proposed explanation here: Daedalus sea serpent may have been skimming whale | Doubtful News

Does this solve the mystery of the Daedalus? No. We will never be able to ascertain exactly what it was that they saw. But what a skeptic must do is follow where the best evidence leads. Prior to the latest information, there were no satisfying ideas as to what it could be, but a lot of speculation. The reasonable answer for what they saw was “We don’t know.”

Now, this latest idea, of a skim-feeding whale, is interesting and highly plausible, tipping the conclusion in this direction. Considering that we STILL have no one animal (or type of animal) to call the definitive sea-serpent, we can reasonably conclude that 1.) the hundreds of good sightings have various explanations, not just one, and 2.) there are probably no unknown giant sea serpents to be discovered in the oceans, and it is sound to assume the reports that are of living creatures are of animals we are already scientifically aware of. It’s NOT reasonable to say this is a conclusive new animal, or cryptid, waiting to be discovered. If such a new animal is discovered, then we can very well revisit the Daedalus and other reports in a new light. Until then, to assume a cryptid accounts for this sighting is wishful thinking, not a reasonable conclusion.

In response to this new idea of a skim-feeding whale as the best possible explanation for the historic sighting, some monster enthusiasts, or those that just love to maintain the mystery, will say this is not a good argument and not evidence. However, the evidence is what it is, to date. What we must do (other than to withhold a conclusion, which is an acceptable option) is to decide on the explanation that makes the most sense with the evidence we have without assuming too much. It’s not too much to assume that the crew was less than exact in their observations – humans are flawed observers – and they may have been influenced by stories of sea monsters. It IS a big stretch to assume that there is a giant sea serpent still out there to find to account for the Daedalus (and other) reports. It may be exciting to hope for a future monster find but it’s not a route that will likely bring results.


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