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Sea Serpents: Ghosts Of Whaling's Past


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

it encountered.


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

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