Sea Serpents or Crytid Whales?
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Sea Serpents, or Cryptid Whales?

Historic Maine Sightings Lead to Unusual Conclusions

Zeugladon-GraphicBy Greg Latimer
MysteriousDestinationsMagazine.com Research Director

There have been a number of sightings of strange sea creatures off the coast of Maine (which was originally all part of the Massachusetts colony).

According to Loren Coleman of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland (Maine): “Seventeenth-century Americans in the Massachusetts colony wrote about the Sea Serpents they saw from ship and shore. The first known printed reference appears in 1674, in John Josselyn's ‘An Account of Two Voyages to England’, which recalls conversations with locals in 1639 who spoke of ‘a Sea-Serpent or snake that lay coiled upon a rock at Cape Ann’” (located in present day Massachusetts).

“During the Revolutionary War in 1779, Commander Edward Preble and the crew of the American gunship Protector spotted and fired upon a sea serpent, which apparently escaped unharmed, according to the 1846 biography of Preble by James Fenimore Cooper,” Coleman said.

Two of the sightings, both in Maine, stand out because of the number of witnesses and the duration and clarity of the sightings.

According to Coleman, the first incident was in May 1780 when Captain George Little of the frigate Boston reported the following experience while in Broad Bay off the Maine coast (near present day Bremen).

Coleman quotes renowned fellow crytozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans' description of the incident in his book “In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents” based on Capt. Little's testimony.

“At sunrise, I discovered a huge Serpent, or monster, coming down the Bay, on the surface of the water. The cutter was manned and armed. I went myself to the boat, and proceeded after the Serpent. When within a hundred feet, the mariners were ordered to fire on him, but before they could make ready, the Serpent dove. He was not less than from 45 to 50 feet in length; the largest diameter of his body, I should judge, 15 inches; his head nearly the size of that of a man, which he carried four or five feet above the water. He wore every appearance of a common black snake,” Capt. Little later wrote of his observations.

Of note, there were three previous sightings in the same area circa 1751, 1773 and 1776 of the same type of creature, but these descriptions were less compelling and sometimes second or third hand, according to “The Great New England Sea Serpent” by J.P. O’Neill.

The second set of sightings were made by numerous witnesses at Boothbay Harbor in June of 1831, according to O’Neill. This creature was described as 150 to 200 feet long and snake-like, moving in the same manner as the 1780 sighting. At the time, a local newspaper mentioned that the 1831 sighting may have been “the same monster, probably, that visited the same harbor last year about this time”, so it seems like the visits may have been seasonal. It may be noteworthy that, especially in times past, massive runs of fish move up Maine rivers to spawn in fresh water during latter part of May and through June. This run would have provided a tempting treat for such large animals as the sea serpents described. The Damariscotta River passes by Boothbay Harbor and the Medomak River empties into Broad Bay. Both of these rivers still have healthy spring season fish runs.

The earlier sighting in 1830 mentioned by the newspaper cannot be confirmed. The closest sighting that year was in the mouth of the Kennebec River, not too far south of Boothbay, according to O’Neill. This creature was also described as snake-like, however, despite the snake-like body build the descriptions of how the animals move through the water are distinctly not “snake-like”.

Anyone who has witnessed a snake swim has seen them move from side to side to propel themselves through the water. Not so with the witness descriptions of the Maine (and many other) sea serpents. These are described as moving up and down, sometimes with the body rising in and out of the water in arcs. In the Kennebec River sighting the fisherman describes the creature swimming slowly up to the boat with its head some 4 feet out of the water, a behavior a snake is incapable of. It appeared to the witness that the animal was investigating the inside of the boat. When it submerged, it “made no effort to swim, but sank down apparently without exertion,” according to the witness, a fisherman named Gooch as quoted by O’Neill.

This lack of snake-like propulsion has become a common enough factor that cyptozoologists like Coleman have been developing a theory about so-called sea serpents… That they’re not “serpents” (as in reptile) but actually marine mammals.

“Rejecting the popular notion that these creatures were giant snakes, Dutch zoologist Antoon Cornelis Oudemans had proposed in his 1892 book ‘The Great Sea Serpent’ that these sea serpents might be ancient whales or Zeuglodons, which disappeared from the fossil record some 20 million years ago,” Coleman said.

While Oudemans later turned his back on the idea, cryptozoologists Ivan T. Sanderson and Heuvelmans brought Zeuglodons back into the debate in the 1960s, according to Coleman. And by the 1970s, University of Chicago biologist Roy Mackal had become a strong proponent that some forms of sea serpents were most likely Zeuglodons, according to Coleman.

Zeuglodons (of the genus Basilosaurus) certainly come close to matching many of the sea serpent descriptions, including locomotion.

“There is much to recommend the Zeuglodon hypothesis,” Coleman said.

“Many of the reports describe animals that at least look like Zeuglodons. Moreover, the undulating motion widely noted in the sightings is characteristic of mammals, not of reptiles. Like whales, the classic sea serpent has lateral, horizontal rather than vertical, tails,” Coleman said.

According to Wikipedia, Zeuglodon “was highly elongated due to the unparalleled elongation of its vertebrae. The skeletal anatomy of the tail suggests that a small fluke was probably present, which would have aided only vertical motion” adding that “the vertebrae imply that it moved in an anguilliform (eel-like) fashion, but predominantly in the vertical plane”.

This would create the type of movement described by the witnesses, with the Zeuglodon not looking like a common marine mammal but exceptionally elongated, making for the serpentine body description. Fossil remains of Zeuglodon have reached a length of 166-feet, which also matches witness descriptions of sea serpents.

It should be noted that one Maine historian interviewed about these sightings abruptly discounted them as oarfish, a known species that is long and ribbon-like (and actually does look like a sea monster). However, a subsequent check with the Maine Department of Marine Resources revealed that there is no current or historic presence of oarfish in Maine.

The Zeuglodon and sea serpents in general will be discussed again in the September edition of MysteriousDestinationsMagazine.com when we explore sightings of a serpentine sea monster in San Francisco Bay.

Loren Coleman and the International Cryptozoology Museum are also featured in this issue of MysteriousDestinationsMagazine.com. For a link to that article, click here.
For a link to the International Cryptozoology Museum website, click here.