The Great Sea Serpent is surely one of the greatest enigmas of zoology. For as long as men have ventured out to sea there have been stories of sea monsters, and in 1968 the renowned Belgian zoologist Professor Bernard Heuvelmans wrote a classic book; In the Wake of the Sea Serpent on the subject. His thesis was that there was no single species of unknown animal responsible for the plethora of sea serpent reports. Instead, he suggested, there were at least eight unknown species of serpentine animal living in the world`s oceans. He hypothesised five unknown giant marine mammals, two unknown species of giant marine reptile and two new species of giant fish.
I had the privelige of knowing Bernard for ten years or so before his death last year and he was a fine zoologist. Recent advances in palaentology have cast doubts on some of his theorising, but is certain that he was spot on with at least one of his eight theorised sea serpent species.
Heuvelmans described how many of these mysterious creatures looked like gigantic eels, and he dubbed them `Super Eels`. He suggested that they may not all be of a single species, or indeed even belong to a single genus. However, there seems little doubt that such giant angilliformes do, indeed exist.
One of the most famous encounters with a super eel took place in 1848 when HMS Daedelus was on a voyage between the East Indies and Plymouth. She was in the Atlantic between St Helena and the western coast of Africa when they sighted a mighty fish. The subsequent report to The Admiralty read:
“Our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea and as nearly as we could approximate by comparing it with the length of what our main topsail yard would show in the water there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal `a fleur d,eau` no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintaince I should have easily recognised his features with the naked eye.”
The report continued…
“Its colour was a dark brown with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins but something like the mane of a horse or rather a bunch of seaweed washed about its back”.
Another famous encounter with a super eel took place in August 1872. A Norwegian barqye called the St Olaf was sailing between Newport and Texas and was two days off the Texas coast. The Captain later wrote:
“On nearer approach we saw an immense serpent with its head out of the water about two hundred feet from the vessel. He lay still on the surface of the water lifting his head up and moving his body in a serpentine manner. We could not see all of it but what we could see from after part of the head was about seventy feet long and the same thickness all the way excepting about the head and neck which were smaller and the former flat like the head of a serpent”…
Such giant creatures are still seen today, and for one of the best accounts of contemporary super eels I am indebted to the bloke who lives in my spare room. As a boy in the ‘70s, my colleague, friend and housemate Richard Freeman holidayed in Devon. One summer, when he was aged about 9 his grandfather got talking to a retired trawler man in Goodrington harbour. The old man recounted his life as a fisherman and one particular incident which had stuck in his mind. Some years previously he and his crew were trawling off Berry Head. The seas off this part of the coast are amongst the deepest waters around Britain. Such are the depths of this part of the English Channel that the area is commonly used to “scuttle” old ships. The drowned wrecks of these vessels has made an artificial “reef” that has attracted vast amounts of fish. Good catches were therefore almost guaranteed and the area has become a popular place to drop the nets,.
One night the crew had trouble lifting the nets and began to worry that they had got them entwined about a rotting mast. Soon though they felt some slack and began to haul the nets up. The men thought there catch must have been a particularly good one so heavy were their nets, but as their nets drew closer to the trawlers lights a frightening sight took shape. The crew had not caught hundreds of normal sized fish but one gigantic one.
“It was an eel, a giant eel. Its mouth was huge wide enough to have swallowed a man, the teeth were as long as my hand.” Even now Richard still remembers the words of the ancient fisherman and is convinced that this was not a tall story designed to entertain gullible tourists. “While it was still in the water it was buoyed up but as soon as we tried to pull it on board the nets snapped like cotton and it vanished back down. I was glad it went, I’ve been at sea all my life but I’ve never been as scared as I was that night .I can still see it’s eyes, huge, glassy.........”
The man couldn’t see what length the beast was as it had been coiled in the nets. We can however make a guess. We don’t know what the breaking strain is on the average trawlers’ net but logic dictates that it must be several tons, so this must have been a truly massive animal. In order to have a mouth wide enough to swallow a human, a standard conger eel would need to be scaled up to around 50 feet!.
This was only one of the legion of such tales from Devon’s rocky coastline. In the late 30s a creature described as a ”giant conger eel” terrorized the south coast of Devon, frightening fishermen and tourists from Berry Head to Plymouth. Events such as this clearly show we cannot confine monsters and dragons to story books and camp fire tales.