Sea Serpents

A sea serpent from Olaus Magnus's book History of the Northern Peoples, 1555.
A sea serpent from Olaus Magnus's book
History of the Northern Peoples, 1555.

A sea serpent or sea dragon is a mythological sea monster either wholly or partly serpentine.

Sightings of sea serpents have been reported for hundreds of years, and continue to be claimed today. Cryptozoologist Bruce Champagne identified more than 1,200 purported sea serpent sightings.1 Despite these numerous sightings, no credible physical evidence has been recorded and it is currently believed that the sightings can be best explained as misidentification of known animals such as oarfish and whales. Some cryptozoologists have suggested that the sea serpents are relict plesiosaurs, mosasaurs or other Mesozoic marine reptiles, an idea often associated with lake monsters such as the Loch Ness Monster.

In Mythology

Olaus Magnus's Sea Orm, 1555.
Olaus Magnus's Sea Orm, 1555.

In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr, or "Midgårdsormen" was a sea serpent so long that it encircled the entire world, Midgard. Some stories report of sailors mistaking its back for a chain of islands. Sea serpents also appear frequently in later Scandinavian folklore, particularly in that of Norway.

In Swedish ecclesiastic and writer Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina, many marine monsters of varied form, including an immense sea serpent, appear. Moreover, in his 1555 work History of the Northern Peoples, Magnus gives the following description of a Norwegian sea serpent:

Those who sail up along the coast of Norway to trade or to fish, all tell the remarkable story of how a serpent of fearsome size, 200 feet long and 20 feet wide, resides in rifts and caves outside Bergen. On bright summer nights this serpent leaves the caves to eat calves, lambs and pigs, or it fares out to the sea and feeds on sea nettles, crabs and similar marine animals. It has ell-long hair hanging from its neck, sharp black scales and flaming red eyes. It attacks vessels, grabs and swallows people, as it lifts itself up like a column from the water.

Sea serpents were known to sea-faring cultures in the Mediterranean and Near East, appearing in both mythology (the Babylonian Labbu) and in apparent eye-witness accounts (Aristotle's Historia Animalium). Better known today are the Biblical references to Leviathan and Rahab, from the Hebrew Tanakh.

Historical and Notable Cases

Sea serpent reported by Hans Egede, Bishop of Greenland, in 1734.
Sea serpent reported by Hans Egede,
Bishop of Greenland, in 1734.

Hans Egede, the national saint of Greenland, gives an 18th century descriptions of a sea serpent. On July 6, 1734 his ship sailed past the coast of Greenland when suddenly those on board

…saw a most terrible creature, resembling nothing they saw before. The monster lifted its head so high that it seemed to be higher than the crow's nest on the mainmast. The head was small and the body short and wrinkled. The unknown creature was using giant fins which propelled it through the water. Later the sailors saw its tail as well. The monster was longer than our whole ship", wrote Egede.2

Sea serpent sightings on the coast of New England, are documented beginning in 1638. An incident in August 1817 spawned a rather silly mix-up when a committee of the New England Linnaean Society went so far as to give a deformed terrestrial snake the name Scoliophis atlanticus, believing it was the juvenile form of a sea serpent that had recently been reported in Gloucester Harbor. After the Linnaean Society's misidentification was discovered, it was frequently cited by debunkers as evidence that the creature did not exist.

Sightings of sea serpents in the British Isles reached their peak in the 19th century, many of which are noted by McEwan.3 Paul Lester believes that this upsurge in sightings signified the threat of the great unknown of science for the Victorians.4

The sea serpent spotted by the crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848.
The sea serpent spotted by the
crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848.

A particularly famous sea serpent sighting was made by the men and officers of HMS Daedalus in August 1848 during a voyage to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic; the creature they saw, some 60 feet long, held a peculiar maned head above the water. The sighting caused quite a stir in the London papers, and Sir Richard Owen, the famous English biologist, proclaimed the beast an elephant seal. Other explanations for the sighting proposed that it was actually an upside-down canoe, or a posing giant squid.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette, in 1876, reported a case in Bermuda, which had occurred in 1858:

…in the spring of 1858, when residing in Bermuda, a creature of the serpent species was stranded in a small sandy bay on the south side of the mainland. The serpent was supposed to have been in pursuit of its prey, when it suddenly found itself well up on the beach, and its efforts to get back into deep water being in the wrong direction only caused it to get higher up on the shore. A negro, gathering sea weed close by, witnessed all this, and having a strong iron rake in his hand, commenced an attack, and soon dispatched the serpent. It was dreadfully mangled, which was greatly regretted, as it was intended to put it up in spirits and to send it home to England, to convince the incredulous that the existence of sea serpents was beyond doubt. But, as I said, it was so dreadfully disfigured, and the heat of the climate acting rapidly upon the carcase, soon put it beyond preservation. A sketch and description was, however, made by a military officer on the spot, and forwarded to the now defunct Illustrated Times, and in which paper I believe it appeared in due course. Its length was about thirty feet, and it was pronounced to be a very young one. The only difference that I observe between the monster seen by the Pauline's crew and the Bermuda serpent is that the latter had a beautiful pinkish crest on the head, which it had the power of raising or depressing at will.5

On March 22, 1876 Matthew Strong, a missionary, and other passengers on a voyage from Bombay to Aden on the steamship Hydaspes reportedly witnessed a great mass of what looked like tangled seaweed, 20 or 30 feet in length and 10 feet in width and a still greater part below the water. From the centre of the mass was raised a great black head, with a flat top, in shape something like a monstrous toad, the eyes being at either end of the head, about 3 feet apart and with eyeballs 4 or 5 inches in diameter, constantly scintillating and of a burning bright copper hue. At the centre of its eyeballs was a mere speck of white light. It followed the ship for a while, until, in response to the shrill cries of the children on board, it raised its head, uttered a strange bellow, and came towards the ship. When a few feet from the stern it suddenly turned and came up close on the port side and raised itself until its head was 30 or 40 feet above the terrified witnesses, cried ever more loudly and made three blows at the mainmast, the last touching it and causing the ship to sway violently. The creature then disappeared.6

Another sighting took place in 1905 off the coast of Brazil. The crew of the Valhalla and two naturalists, Michael J Nicoll and E G B Meade-Waldo, saw a long-necked, turtle headed creature, with a large dorsal fin. Based on its dorsal fin and the shape of its head, some (such as Bernard Heuvelmans) have suggested that the animal was some sort of marine mammal. A skeptical suggestion is that the sighting was of a posing giant squid, but this is hard to accept given that squids do not swim with their fins or arms protruding from the water.

The Gloucester sea serpent of 1817.
The Gloucester sea serpent of 1817.

On April 25, 1977, the Japanese trawler Zuiyo Maru, sailing east of Christchurch, New Zealand, caught a strange, unknown creature in the trawl. Photographs and tissue specimens were taken. While initially identified as a prehistoric plesiosaur, analysis later indicated that the body was the carcass of a basking shark.


Skeptics and debunkers have questioned the interpretation of sea serpent sightings, suggesting that reports of serpents are misidentifications of things such as cetaceans (whales and dolphins), sea snakes, eels, basking sharks, baleen whales, oarfish, large pinnipeds, seaweed, driftwood, flocks of birds, and giant squid.

While most cryptozoologists recognize that at least some reports are simple misidentifications, they claim that many of the creatures described by those who have seen them look nothing like the known species put forward by skeptics and claim that certain reports stick out. For their part, the skeptics remain unconvinced, pointing out that even in the absence of out-right hoaxes (such as the infamous "Surgeon's Photo" of the Loch Ness Monster), imagination has a way of twisting and inflating the slightly out-of-the-ordinary until it becomes extraordinary.

Classification Systems

Cryptozoologists have argued for the existence of sea serpents by claiming that people report seeing similar things, and further arguing that it is possible to classify sightings into different "types". There have been different classification attempts with different results, although they share some common characteristics.

Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans

  • Megophias megophias: A large (200+ feet) sea lion-like creature with a long neck and long tail. Only the male has a mane. It is cosmopolitan.

Bernard Heuvelmans

  • Long Necked or Megalotaria longicollis: A 60 foot, long necked, short tailed sea lion. Hair and whiskers reported. Cosmopolitan.
  • Merhorse or Halshippus olai-magni: A 60 foot, medium necked, large eyed, horse-headed pinniped. Often has whiskers. It is also cosmopolitan.
  • Many-Humped or Plurigibbosus novae-angliae: A 60-100 foot, medium necked, long bodied archaeocete. It has a series of humps or a crest on the spine like a sperm whale's or grey whale's. It only lives in the North Atlantic.
  • Super Otter or Hyperhydra egedei: A 65-100 foot, medium necked, long bodied archeocete that resembles an otter. It moves in numerous vertical undulations (6-7). Lived near Norway and Greenland, and presumed to be extinct by Heuvelmans.
  • Many Finned or Cetioscolopendra aeliani: A 60-70 foot, short necked archeocete. It has a number of lateral projections that look like dorsal fins, but turned the incorrect way. Compare to the armor on Desmatosuchus, but much more prominent.
  • Super Eels: A group of large and possibly unrelated eels. Partially based on the Leptocephalus giganteus larvae, later shown to be normal sized. [This is a controversial identification of a larval specimen made without benefit of actually examining the specimen. This "identification" was done by the paperwork and the actual specimen was missing by then.] Heuvelmans theorized eel, synbranchid, and elasmobranch identities as being possible. Cosmopolitan.
  • Marine Saurian: A 50-60 foot crocodile, or crocodile-like animal (Mosasaur, Pliosaur, etc)
  • Yellow Belly: A very large (1-200 foot) yellow and black striped tadpole-shaped creature. Dropped.
  • Father-of-all-the-turtles: A giant turtle. Dropped
  • Giant Invertebrates: Giant Venus's girdle and salp colonies. Added. It is not clear if Heuvelmans intended them to be unknown species or extreme forms of known species.

Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe

  • Classic Sea Serpent: A quadrupedal, elongated animal with the appearance of many humps when swimming. Essentially a composite of the many humped, super otter, and super eels types. The authors suggest Basilosaurus as a candidate, or possibly Remingtoncetids.
  • Waterhorse: A large pinniped, similar to the long necked and merhorse. Only the males are maned, but females appear to have snorkels. Both of their eyes are rather small. They are noteworthy for being behind both salt and fresh water sightings.
  • Mystery Cetacean: A category of unknown whale species including double finned whales and dolphins, dorsal finned sperm whales, unknown beaked whales, an unknown orca, and others.
  • Giant Shark: A surviving Megalodon.
  • Mystery Manta: A small manta ray with dorsal markings.
  • Great Sea Centipede: Same as the many finned. The authors suggest the flippers may either be retractile, and the "scaly" appearance could be caused by parasites.
  • Mystery Saurian: Same as the marine saurian.
  • Cryptic Chelonian: A resurrection of the father-of-all-turtles.
  • Mystery Sirenian: Late surviving Steller's Sea Cow.
  • Giant Octopus, Octopus giganteus or Otoctopus giganteus: A large cephalopod living in the tropical Atlantic.

Bruce Champagne

  • 1A Long Necked: A 30 foot sea lion with a long neck and long tail. The neck is the same thickness or smaller than the head. Hair reported. It is capable of travel on land. Cosmopolitan.
  • 1B Long Necked: Similar to the above type but over 55 feet long and far more robust. The neck is of lesser thickness than the head. Only inhabits water near Great Britain and Denmark.
  • 2A Eel-Like: A 20-30 foot long heavily scaled or armored reptile. It is distinguished by a small square head with prominent tusks. "Motorboating" behavior on surface. Inhabits only the North Atlantic.
  • 2B Eel-Like: A 25-30 foot beaked whale. It is distinguished by a tapering head and a dorsal crest. "Motorboating" behavior engaged in. Inhabits the Atlantic and Pacific. Possibly extinct.
  • 2C Eel-Like: A 60-70 foot, elongated reptile with no appendages. The head is very large and cow-like or reptilian with teeth similar to a crabeater seal's. Also shares the "motorboating" behavior. Inhabits the Atlantic, Pacific, and South China Sea. Possibly extinct.
  • 3 Multi-Humped: 30-60 feet long. A possible reptile with a dorsal crest and the ability to move in several undulations. The head has a distinctive "cameloid" appearance. Identical with Cadborosaurus willsi.
  • 4A Sailfin: A 30 to 70 foot beaked whale. It is distinguished by a very small head and a very large dorsal fin. Only found in the North West Atlantic. Possibly extinct.
  • 4B Sailfin: An elongated animal of possible mammalian or reptilian identity reported from 12 to 85 feet long. It has a long neck with a turtle-like head and a long continuous dorsal fin. Cosmopolitan.
  • 5 Carapaced: A large turtle or turtle-like creature (mammal?) reported from 10 to 45 feet long. Carapace is described as jointed, segmented, and plated. May exhibit a dorsal crest of "quills" and a type of oily hair. Cosmopolitan.
  • 6 Saurian: A large and occasionally spotted crocodile or crocodile-like creature up to 65 feet long. Found in the Northern Atlantic and Mediterranean.
  • 7 Segmented/Multi limbed: An elongated mammalian creature up to 65 feet long with the appearance of segmentation and many fins. Found in the Western Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

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