Few mysteries of the deep have endured like that of the sea serpent. From as least as far back
as the ninth century, Norse sailors spoke of Jörmungandr, the legendary Midgard serpent
that encircled the Earth, while maps of Scandinavia from the sixteenth century, such as Olaus
Magnus’ Carta marina, depicted ferocious serpents devouring vessels and crew.
But it was from the 1740s, when American whalers turned their harpoons to the deep
diving sperm whale, that sea serpent sightings really took off. The experienced sea captains,
military men, and even members of the clergy who staked their reputations on their accounts
would not fail to recognise cavorting whales or inanimate debris in the water, nor would they
suspect a combination of the two to give rise to a legend.
The harpooned sperm whale, having succeeded in overturning the wooden rowboat of
its pursuers like a beast from a Melville novel, would face a new torment as the boat, held
fast by the barbs and stout rope of the harpoon, continued gathering debris, fishing nets, and
clumps of seaweed at the surface. This ‘serpent’, sometimes stretching to hundreds of yards,
would appear to snake through the water by unknown means while remaining oblivious to all
Take the famous sighting by the British warship HMS Daedalus off the West African
coast in August of 1848. Captain M’Quhae described an eel-like creature of around sixty feet