Thursday, April 21st, 2011
History’s Great Mythical Sea Monsters
Generally, the advancement of science leads to the dispelling of myth. It turns
out the Sun is not actually Apollo riding his chariot across the sky after all.
But it was only really in the 19th century that palaeontology took off and brought
the domain of the dinosaurs to public consciousness, many centuries after monster
sightings across the world and its history.
Knowledge that giants once existed fuels speculation that they may yet still. While
the lion’s share of Earth’s land has been seen and studied, the majority of the
ocean remains unexplored. We have rather literally only scratched the surface. There
is of course danger in the flagrant filling of the blanks of natural history, but
with so much unknown, inexistence is no more certain.
With not only better access tools but the advent of video recording equipment, humans
are now better equipped than ever to confirm or dispel our most enduring monster
myths. Technology and the knowledge it brings certainly have a sobering effect,
as most of our monster sightings have been reduced to misinterpretation and misdirection.
But sometimes science brings confirmation, and when misinterpretation turns out
to just be exaggeration, we can forgive and still be left with something that captures
Certainly one of the more celebrity monsters is the Kraken, which is essentially
thought to be a massive octopus that terrorized ships off the coast of Iceland and
Norway. Putting ships through the ultimate boat exam its tentacles could reach up and around the top of the tallest mast
and pull the ship under, equally dangerous was the large funnel it left behind as
it dove deep, leaving whatever remained of a ship to swirl and flush away.
Some seafarers speculated the width of the Kraken to be well over a mile. While
that’s certainly fun to imagine, even the blue whale, today’s biggest known animal,
has never been recorded over 110 feet long. But as monsters go, the Kraken has the
most likely real world cousin.
Some believe experiences of the Kraken to be not of an octopus, but of a giant squid,
which can grow to as much as 40 feet in length. The larger colossal squid can grow
to about 45 feet, but is generally restricted to Antarctic waters , and as such
is unlikely to have been the subject of a Kraken eye-witness account. Specimens
of giant squid have not only been recovered around the world, but there are confirmed
attacks by giant squid on ships, as they tend to be more aggressive than equivalent
45 feet is certainly far less than a mile, but also certainly quite monstrous. While
the Kraken itself may be pushing the boundaries of reality too far, the existence
of the giant squid, caught live on film for the first time as recently as 2006,
shows that the world’s creatures may be more monstrous than we think.
Equally slimy but far less satisfying on the existence front is the sea serpent,
which you have likely seen gracing the corner of an old map. As with the Kraken,
there are numerous tales of ship attacks, but they far less substantiated, not even
validated in a milder form as with the giant squid.
Rather, sea serpents are more often the subject of distant sightings of serpent-plausible
shapes on the water’s surface, namely in the form of a long, proportionally skinny
neck and reptilian head sticking out, with potential humps behind.
From a mythological standpoint, they are extremely popular, most famously in the
form of Jörmungandr, the serpent nemesis of Thor. The love-child of Thor’s brother
Loki and the jotun woman Angerboda, Jörmungandr was said to be long enough to encircle
The multi-headed Hydra of Greek myth can also be said to fall under this serpent
class. This monster, defeated by Hercules who buried its immortal head under a massive
rock, is potentially inspired by giant squid sightings.
The biblical Leviathan is also rather serpentine, with a Kraken-like size that is
said to be able to cause tsunamis. As with the Hydra, the Leviathan is placed firmly
in the realm of myth, and is often used as a catch-all term for any tremendously
massive sea creature.
While not strictly a serpent, plesiosaurs-like sea monsters like Nessie, the famous
Loch Ness Monster, create a similar spotting experience. The majority of its body
remains submerged, with only a neck above the water line, trailed by the curved
hump of its back.
There are have been many attempts throughout the 20th century to ascertain whether
or not Nessie exists, most conclusively in 2003 with the BBC’s “Searching for the
Loch Ness Monster”, which, using sonar and satellite technology capable of mapping
granularity at the level of a small buoy, conclusively demonstrated Nessie to be
Indeed, there are numerous ways to create the neck-and-hump(s) shape, including
- Basking sharks
- Floating debris
An entire class of sea monster is the half-person half-fish half-breed. These creatures
are often meant to symbolize the man/beast duality of a human being, and are typically
female, although mer-men grace the pages of myth as well. Charming as Disney’s Ariel
may have been, mermaids are frequently represented as manipulative and malicious.
At best, the mermaid forgets that humans can’t breathe underwater as they’re taken
below. At worst she intentionally drags men down and drowns them.
Closely related to mermaids are the three Sirens of Greek myth, whose songs control
the behavior of men to destructive ends. While typically bird-women and not so much
fish-women, many references to sirens in mythology are indeed aquatic.
Not surprisingly, these hybrid creatures are completely unsubstantiated, with explanations
for sightings sometimes being attributed, as in many monster-sighting cases, to
squid or squid-like creatures, for example, in the case of the sea monk.
Looking beyond the mythical archetypes, there is always the potential of seeing
something entirely new. The Montauk Monster of 2008 is a good example, as there
have been three sightings now of the beast - whatever it is. Unlikely to be “real”,
whatever that means, it is as of yet unconfirmed as a hoax of any kind.
Monster Hoaxing, Monster Hunting
Bottom line, monsters intrigue us, which is why so many tricksters are tempted to
produce headline-catching hoaxes. Nessie has been the target of numerous fakeries
herself, with carcass and bone planting and simulated footprints.
That said, with knowledge of dinosaurs that once were and creatures like the colossal
squid which remain, and with the invention and improvement of new tracking and recording
technologies, the evidential hunt for the sea monsters that have captured our imaginations
for centuries will likely continue for centuries more.