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W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 53, No.4 (Jul 27, 1872)
p. 1

Is There a Sea Serpent?


      Who has not heard of the great sea serpent? the bugbear of our childhood, the joke and laughing stock of our mature age? who at one time was said to have taken up his cruising ground off Nahant, at another in the Gulf of Mexico, and is occasionally met with in more distant and less frequented parts of Nature's broad domain? Every now and then we have a now revelation on this subject from some astonished mariner; but it has come to be an old story, and creates no excitement now.

      Yet the mass of testimony from competent witnesses, honest too, withal, would seem to establish, almost beyond question, the existence of some great beast or sea reptile of serpentine form. But we have, spite of ourselves, a reverence and respect for the older stories on such subjects, while we laugh incredulously at the later ones, the authenticity of which is far lees questionable. It is easier for us to credit the marvellous tales of the Kraken than to read with patience the testimony of Captain Jones, backed by that of Mr. Smith, his first officer, who fell in with the sea serpent last week off the Capes of Delaware.

      Not that we swallow the Kraken as easily as he did our ancestors with their clumsy vessels. But if a story be, on its face, incredible, its chances of belief are certainly improved by age. We look into the mists of antiquity with doubts and mental reservations, of which we give the statement all the benefit; but we hold Jack Jones square up to his affidavit, and, if we catch him tripping in but a single word, we throw him and his story overboard without mercy.

      It is observable that we have from time immemorial, read, spoken and written on this monster as the serpent, taking it for granted that only one existed. No one has had the temerity to make use of the indefinite artiole. The animal has had neither class, genus nor species; it was but a specimen – an individual wonder, like the Lernaean hydra, or Sphynx.

      But according to the statement of the skipper of the good ship "Scottish Bride," which went the rounds of the newspapers a few months since, we need no longer fear to use either the indefinite prefix or a numeral to indicate plurality. Two sea serpents have been seen at once – a large and a small one.

      He reports that, while lying becalmed, near the edge of the Gulf Stream, about two hundred miles off the Capes of Delaware, they made their appearance, close alongside, a little beneath the surface of the sea, and remained for some time in full view. They had scale armor – a sort of deep-sea crocodiles – and their advent struck such a terror to the hearts of the crew, that no one ventured to attack them.

      The little one was first to take the alarm; and the old one, in the act of plunging downward, thew her tail up in the air, which is described as "tapering to a point."

      This specimen is roughly estimated to have been twenty-five feet long; the smaller one "a few feet."

      But what a falling off is here from the dimensions of the traditional monster, who was reported to be anywhere between sixty feet and a few hundreds! To say nothing of the great sea snake of the popular stage song, which most of us can remember, and which told us how a certain navigator took his departure from the head-land with a strong and favoring gale,

"And, sailing at ten knots an hour
 In six months came to his tail."

      That is what we always come to. That tail is always thrown up at us with an au revoir movement; and the tale is all that is left us. In six months, we shall, perhaps, come to another.

      It is much to be regretted that no attempt was made to snake one or both of them in on deck. The whaleman, who makes a point of attacking any living thing on the great highway that will tarry long enough for him to get fast," never falls in with the sea serpent. The proverbial wisdom and subtlety of animals of that class may have something to do with this curious fact.

      The captain of the "Scottish Bride" is of the opinion that the sea serpent must be a "deep-sea fish" Of course, he must of necessity, be often seen, if he had any affinity with amphibia or even cetacea. He is simply a gigantic eel; and may even possess the power of elongation at will, which would account for the great discrepancy in the estimates of his magnitude.

      Far down in his own element, he laughs at the researches of the naturalist, and the speculations of the savants. At long intervals, he permits Tom Harris, on the topsail yard, to gape with wonder at his undulations, or to catch a glimpse of his caudal extremity; but no Humboldt or Du Chaillu can track him to his lair.

      And as a consequence, we, who have heard Tom's homely story, are ready to encase ourselves in our armor of proof, and to reply, "we don't believe a word of it." We are so firmly determined not to be humbugged, that we run into the opposite extreme of incredulity. The old serpent has an evil reputation; but we are much wiser that our common mother; we are not to be beguiled.

      There can be no doubt that many of the sea monsters which have given rise to marvellous tales were inanimate floating objects. I well remember an instance in point, which occurred within my own experience.

      Our boats were lowered away, armed at all points, one fine day, while cruising in the Pacific Ocean, to attack what we supposed to be a sleeping whale of the sperm species. We advanced with the utmost caution, so as not to disturb the unconscious prey. We were almost within darting distance when we discovered our mistake. The supposed spermaceti was neither more or less than an old tree that had drifted away from some sea-girt island, shiny and worn by long attrition of the waves.

      Our disappointment, though severe, was the more endurable that there was so much of the ludicrous in it. The worthless log had exactly the form and apearance of a sperm whale's back, as it lay, gently tossing, flush with the surface. A bunch or excrescence was to be seen, in the very place where his hump should have been, while the stump end copied his head, even to a little cavity or "squirrel's nest" representing the spiracle.

      I can easily, imagine that a tree of more irregular form, with several protuberances, might be mistaken for a serpentine animal, especially if a ship were not steered off her course to examine it more closely, as merchant vessels seldom are.

      But old logs do not wear scale armor, nor has any known species of cetaceous animal a pointed tail. As every seaman knows, they all bear more resemblance to the wings of a windsail than to the taper of a flying-jibboom end. A fan, rather than a fid, is the comparative symbol.

      And though we may sneer at the mariner's rude log-book entries time and again, and term his verbal statement a "yarn," or a "fish story," he returns so often to the charge, that we are constrained to admit that there may be some "point to the tail" after all.

      We have, we confess, no direct argument to adduce against the probability of the existence of the great submarine anaconda. The teachings of analogy are certainly in its favor; and we may yet be forced to the conviction that "there are more things," not only "in heaven and earth," but in the waters under the earth, "than are dreamed of is our philosophy."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Is There a Sea Serpent?
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 53, No.4 (Jul 27, 1872)
Pages: 1