Here Be Monsters

You know what I miss? Sea serpents.

There they were, on old maps of the world, corkscrewing through the waters of the Arctic and the South Atlantic, warning sailors, Keep Out. In the Bible, the world was encircled by a giant sea serpent, Leviathan. In Norse mythology, it was girdled by Jörmungandr. In both cases, the message was clear: The spine of the Earth is a monster. Don’t venture too deep.


Sea serpents have been largely forgotten by modern culture, but the ancients knew them by name: Scylla in The Odyssey, Labbu to the Babylonians. Aristotle included them in the world’s first field guide. The Saint of Greenland recorded one in 1794, and American sightings were so common in the 17th-19th centuries that the New England Linnaean Society actually classified a deformed terrestrial snake as a juvenile sea serpent. So, just one question: What is a sea serpent? Below the cut, a few of my favorite candidates for the honor, and my plea to save both the real animals and the myth.

All sharks are ancient, but the Frilled Shark is a living fossil. It has six gill slits (most sharks have five) and semi-external gills. It swims in the deepest waters of the ocean, is extremely rare, and has the longest gestation period of any animal alive: 3 and a half years. (Any mothers reading? Think about that.) And while not huge – the longest one caught was a mere 4’9″ – to see it move is to recognize something dragonine:

But something both serpent-like and enormous is the oarfish. Another rare, deep-sea fish, it is barely known to science, and was not filmed in situ until 2001. It is the longest bony fish in the world, regularly reaching over 50 feet in length. The few times it’s been observed, it’s been either in nets or washed up on the shore:

Though these plankton-eaters will occasionally come to the surface at night, when bright lights attract them, oscillating with their cilia-like dorsal and ventral fins. If you were a drunken pirate, and one of these came up to greet you in the dead of night, I’d dare you not to believe in sea serpents.

Of course, sea serpents can really be anything: whales, basking sharks, giant squid tentacles… hell, seaweed if you’ve had enough grog. But what I like about sea serpents, the imaginary kind, is that they teach you a certain respect for the ocean. The gnarly little steam-spewing worm in the corner of the map reminds you that there are still strange, inexplicable, perhaps dangerous creatures in the sea.

Unlike the whales who helped inspire it, the sea serpent wasn’t hunted near to extinction by ships; it was killed by airplanes. We rarely travel overseas by sea anymore, so the ocean seems to have considerably less mythology than it used to – less fascination, less respect. The ocean, to most of us, is a large, wet, useless abstract. Charted. Conquered.

But the fact is that the ocean is one of the least-explored areas of Earth, and new species are constantly being discovered there. So even if the sea serpent never existed, it hasn’t quite gone extinct, either. It is a composite of the frilled shark, the oarfish, the lampreys and hagfish and eels and uncounted other serpentine citizens of the uncharted depths. It encircles the world, coiling through the abysmal trenches and under Antarctic ices: the great, slithering mystery. And we should learn to respect it again. If we don’t, I think we’ll find ourselves pulled under by its jaws.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

One response to “Here Be Monsters

  • karen g

    I’m attracted to the huge Nessy myth, but repulsed by eels (it’s all The Tin Drum’s fault).I like that connection between mythology & warning, the grody fascinating and fearsome at the same time, fairytales rooted in the cautionary.

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