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Sea Serpents
By Emily Pritchard Cary

     Who doesn’t believe in sea serpents?  Since Biblical times, they have been rippling the waters and the minds of incredulous observers. Great Britain reveres its elusive “Nessie,” generator of a lucrative tourist trade. A similar monster achieved momentary notoriety in 1996 when a Norwegian TVG2 newscaster interviewed two fishermen who observed it surfacing in a fjord only 100 yards distant from their trawler.

     A strange “Creature of the Finny Tribe” was sighted along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in 1856, and a triple-humped serpent with a small head was observed during October and November of 1983 near California’s Stinson Beach by numerous onlookers. But few sea serpents have captured the imagination of the public like those sighted along the Atlantic Coast of North America.

     The sea monster mystery erupted in earnest during the early Nineteenth Century when extended sightings by mariners operating out of New England and Canadian ports prompted the pursuit of a creature dubbed “The Great Sea Serpent.” The creature’s antics were first publicized in a newspaper account, dateline Boston, May 14, 1818.

     Three days earlier, during a passage from Penobscot, Maine to Hingham, Massachusetts, Joseph Woodward, master of the schooner Adamant, was alerted at two o’clock in the afternoon by a crew member who observed something on the water’s surface that he presumed to be the wreck of a vessel.

     Woodward’s signed affidavit reads:  “…I made towards it and on approaching it, to my surprise and that of my crew, discovered it to be a monstrous sea serpent. As we approached him, he threw himself into a coil and came across our bow with amazing velocity. Having a gun charged with ball and shot, I discharged the contents at his head. The ball and shot were distinctly heard to strike him and rebound as though fired against a rock.

     “He, however, shook his head and tail most terribly. He again threw himself into a coil and came toward us with his mouth wide open. In the meantime, I had charged my gun again and intended to have discharged the content of it into his mouth, but he came so near us I was fearful of the consequences and withheld it. He came close under the bow of the schooner, and had she not been kept away, must have come on board. He sunk down under the vessel, his head a considerable distance on one side of the vessel and his tail on the other.

     “He played around us about five hours… I judge him to be, at the least, twice the length of my schooner, say one hundred thirty feet. His body below the neck is at least six feet in diameter. His head was large in proportion to his body. His tail was formed like a squid’s and his body was of a dark color and resembled the joints of a shark’s backbone. His gills were about 12 feet from the end of his head, and his whole appearance was most terrific. 

     His manner of throwing himself into a coil appeared to be done by contracting his body in a number of places…and placing his tail so as to throw himself forward with great force…with the greatest ease and most astonishing celerity.”

     Woodward’s affidavit is further substantiated by an addendum signed at Plymouth on the same date by Peter Holmes and John Mayo, crew members, in the presence of Jotham Lincoln, Justice of the Peace.
On August 21 that same year, various newspapers devoted space to Captain Richard Rich’s encounter with the serpent. His log, entered at 12 noon on August 20, dateline Squam River, reads as follows:

     “After several unsuccessful attempts, we at length fastened to this strange thing called the Sea Serpent…We struck him fairly, but he took from us about twenty fathoms of warp before we could wind the boat, and the harpoon soon drew out, to our sore disappointment…He has not been seen since, and I fear the wound he received will make him more cautious how he approaches these shores.”

     Captain Rich’s narrative is supported by a letter from Samuel Dexter of Gloucester detailing the adventure as seen through the eyes of his brother, a seaman on Rich’s vessel.

     The serpent is next showcased on September 6, 1818 in a blazing headline: “The Sea Serpent—Caught!” 
Captain Rich, undeterred by his earlier failure, overpowered the creature and bore him triumphantly into Boston Harbor. The Palladium reported: “Captain R. Rich, who caught him on Thursday off Squam Light House, arrived with the animal on Friday. He is only ten feet long and seven in circumference. His appearance is very different from what it was when alive and swimming.

     “His back for five or six feet from his head is of a hard scaly substance, which a harpoon cannot penetrate, and he has several bunches on his back. Captain Rich says he is convinced that it is the same animal which has been so often seen and described…The animal was to be dissected on Friday, by a jury of doctors and naturalists.”

     So much for the serpent—but was it? 

     On August 15, 1830, the Kennebunk Gazette reported: “The coast in our immediate vicinity has at last received a visit from the far famed Sea Serpent. He was seen by three men who were fishing a few miles distant from the shore. Two of the men were so alarmed at his nearness to the boat that they went below.
“The third, however, Mr. Gooch, a man whose statements can be relied on, remained on deck and returned the glances of the serpent for a considerable length of time…Mr. Gooch noticed him attentively and thinks he was sixty feet in length and about six feet in circumference. His head, he says, was about the size of a ten gallon keg, having long flaps, or ears, hanging down, and his eyes about the size of those of an ox, bright and projecting from his head. His skin was dark gray and covered with scales.

     “When he disappeared, he made no effort to swim, but sunk down, apparently without any exertion. Mr. Gooch says he could have struck the creature very easily with his oar but he ‘was willing to let the serpent alone, if it would not molest him.’

     “This goes to strengthen our belief that it was a sea serpent which destroyed Mr. Blaney of Lynn, an account of whose melancholy fate we lately published.”

     Was the Great Sea Serpent fact or fancy? Without radio, television, and film to corroborate these stories, early publishers relied upon written and oral accounts. The mere fact that some observers took the time and trouble to convey their experiences indicates a spark of truth, for publicity seekers in those days did not have the satisfaction of hearing themselves quoted over the airwaves or seeing their own faces on television screens during the evening news roundup. 

     It is conceivable that hundreds of witnesses truly saw something out there; it is equally possible that Loch Ness harbors an evasive relative of these creatures. If so, Lake Champlain, and the Chesapeake Bay are lively contenders for a similar honors.

     On July 7, 1982, ten YMCA counselors and 25 of their wide-eyed charges at Camp Greylock in Vermont saw something curious gliding in Lake Champlain. Intrigued by ripples on the water, they watched two brownish-colored humps surface about a half foot out of the water. 

     Is “Champ,” as they dubbed him, a descendant of The Great Sea Serpent that captured the fancy of New England whalers, or perhaps an offspring of the Sandy Hook Monster, a comparable creature seen by a life-saving crew off Sandy Hook, New Jersey in November of 1879?

     One hundred years later, early in June 1980, the Washington Star published an account of a monster sighted in the Potomac River near Oak Grove, by Virginia farmer Goodwin Muse and four friends. The creature observed through binoculars, they reported, looked like a snake from 10 to 14 feet in length.

     Muse’s sighting recalled those of a similar creature near the mouth of the Potomac the summer of 1978. Residents named that beast “Chessie.” They concluded that it was an anaconda descended from South American ancestors which were accidentally transported years ago in the wooden hulls of commercial sailing vessels. When the ships were left to rot in the Potomac and other estuaries of the Bay, the snakes escaped to roam the Atlantic waters off Virginia.

     A sighting off Kent Island, Maryland on May 31, 1982 is the first one documented by electronic age paraphernalia. Robert Frew, a computer salesman, captured the scene on a three-minute color videotape in the presence of house guests whose astonished screams were picked up by the audio.

     Succumbing to the subsequent media hype and public fervor, Smithsonian zoologist George Zug studied the tape in the hope of answering, once and for all, the burning question: Are sea serpents for real?
Although Zug’s findings were inconclusive, Roy Mackal, a professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the International Society of Crypto-Zoology, Robert Lazzara of Baltimore’s Enigma Project, and other students of the incredible are convinced that such creatures do exist.

     Wallace Cartwright, a lobsterman from Cape Breton Island, may have proof that they summer in northern waters. On June 25, 2003, he encountered what he first believed to be a floating log. A second glance revealed “…a head like a sea turtle…a body like a snake…about as big around as a five-gallon bucket.”

     Andrew Hebda, curator of zoology at the Nova Scotia Museum, thinks that Cartwright might have seen an oarfish, which is long, thin, and can grow to 40 feet in length, but he is open to more esoteric explanations.
Until Champ, Chessie, and contemporary Sea Serpent contenders are captured, examined, and disclaimed, their stories will continue to generate shivers on chill, starless nights at sea.

© 2003 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. 
Contact Emily Cary at


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