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Friday, December 11, 2009

LINDSAY SELBY: 1856 sea monster

A story of a sea monster washed up in 1856.

Close Encounter With a Creature "of the Finny Tribe": Louisiana's Sea Monster Sighting of 1856 by Carl A. Brasseaux and H. Dickson Hoese

A HUGE FISH. Mr. Martial Ogeron gives us the following description of a monster of the finny tribe lately killed by him off the mouth of the Lafourche in the breakers: Length of the body frm point of nose to the tail, 14 ft; length of tail, 6 ft; extreme width on the back, 20 ft; thickness from top of back to bottom of belly, 7 feet; width of mouth 3 feet 6 inches, with horns on either side, 3 feet long; cavity of brain, 9 by 16 inches. This huge monster, when killed, was lying with his month open catching small fish, on which it is supposed to subsist. It was shot through the head at the distance of about five paces, and immediately sunk to the bottom. It was then fastened to, and towed in to shore, where it was dissected for the purpose of being converted to oil; but a storm arising, the captor waw forced to abandon the project and fly for safety. Its liver, was the size of a rice cask. The exterior of this fish was covered with a skin resembling more that of an elephant than anything else to which we can compare it.

Mr. Ogeron is a seafaring man, and says he has never before seen a fish of this discription in our waters. What kind of a fish is it, and where did it come from? Let us hear fom you, naturalists! [From the Thibodaux Minerva] We have not a doubt but this is the veritable devil fish, so common on the shores of our southern Atlantic States, and noted for his devlish [sic] pranks with boats' anchors, etc. There is a book somewhere entitled, we believe, "Devil Fishing on the Coast of the Carolinas." If you can find it, Miss Minerva, you may be, thoroughly enlightened. [Ed. Ceres] There is circumstantial evidence that the sighting described above resulted, at least in part, from two major hurricanes in eastern Gulf of Mexico during the late summer and fall of 1856. The first and most famous of these storms was the so-called Last Island storm of August 9-10, 1856. It apparently formed in the extreme southeastern Gulf of Mexico sometime between July 31 and August 8 and subsequently moved steadily toward the northwest. The storm veered due west and gained speed as it approached the Alabama coastline on Saturday, August 9. Striking a glancing blow at Mobile, the hurricane moved directly toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, then turned westward, following the Louisiana coastline as far as Franklin, before turning north toward Vermilionville. After ravaging south-central Louisiana, it turned to the northeast causing considerable damage at Bayou Sara, then veered northward and struck Natchez, Mississippi, and New Carthage, Louisiana. The storm, characterized by eyewitnesses along the Louisiana coast as the most powerful hurricane in living memory, caused extensive property damage throughout the lower Mississippi Valley. Nowhere was the storm's fury felt more forcefully than at the Last Island resort off the coast of Terrebonne Parish. There during the afternoon of August 9, northerly gales inundated the resort with water from Lake Pelto, a coastal estuary north of the barrier island. Then, following a reversal of wind direction marking the storm's westerly passage, the island was submerged beneath a massive tidal surge. That surge carried many of the approximately 140 human victims at least six miles inland. The Storm'S wind and waves continued to pound the island well into the following day. The destructive effects of wind and surf were not confined to the Last Island area. Indeed the storm's fury was felt no less intensely at the nearby mouth of Bayou Lafourche, where Martial Ogeron's mysterious sea creature would later be found. (While many of the giant devil ray's features resemble those of the creature killed by Martial Ogeron, some important characteristics, such as the elephantine skin, do not.

The skin of a giant devil ray is covered with small tubercles and has a texture more reminiscent of sandpaper than of elephant skin. However, it is unlikely that anyone who saw the sea creature had ever seen an elephant and thus would hardly have known what an elephant's hide was like. Also, while it is possible that the 1856 storm caused a temporary incursion of so-called "blue [clear] water" from the deep regions of the Gulf large rays were rarely seen so close to the coast. By November the 1856 storm surge had long since passed and other lingering effects of the August storm had drastically abated. It is thus by no means certain that the necessary "blue water" conditions existed near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche three months later.

The identity of the creature killed by Ogeron consequently remains uncertain. It probably was a giant devil ray, but the elephant skin and thick body suggests the possibility of a West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), more commonly known as the sea cow. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, individual manatees have migrated periodically from their natural habitat in South Florida to coastal Louisiana. Like the beast killed in the breakers near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, they are covered with a thick, wrinkled skin resembling that of elephants.

Source and more on the story here :http://www.brownmarine.com/story06.htm


Dale Drinnon said...

We are talking about a body 14 feet long and 20 wide, with a distinct tail 6 feet long and a mouth 3 feet wide with yard-long hons on either side.

DEFINITELY a manta ray from those dimensions. Why somebody said "Skin like an elephant" is unknown, but it is a worthless and misleading description.

Retrieverman said...

West Indian Manatees often range well north of Florida during. The technical northern terminus of their range is in North Carolina:


Here's more (but it's hard to read--highlight it with your cursor!): http://www.ncaquariums.com/askaquarium/manatee.htm

Manatees have been spotted in Chesapeake Bay and one recently made it into New England waters:


The one found in CT was taken back to Florida. It was there in late September, just as the waters start to cool.

Here is another famous one that wandered up to Rhode Island: http://www.oceanicresearch.org/education/wonders/chessie.html

This particular one was an habitual offender, and he may yet be alive, just waiting to go on another tour of the Northeast Coast. I guess for him, it's the Maritimes or bust.