Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Tall Tale of the Sicilian Sea Serpent

                                 In June 1877 the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty received official reports from the Royal Yacht Osborne, forwarded by Commander Pearson, regarding the sighting of an unidentified marine creature seen on the second day of that month off Cape Vito, Sicily. The documents were passed on to Right Hon. R. A. Cross, Secretary of State for the Home Department, who in turn sought the opinion of Frank Buckland in an attempt to identify whatever it was that had been seen and Buckland further consulted Professor Richard Owen, Mr. A. D. Bartlett of the Zoological Gardens, Captain David Gray of the whaling ship Eclipse and Mr. Henry Lee of the Brighton Aquarium on the matter. 

The Royal Yacht Osborne

Commander Pearson’s report read: - 
I myself saw the fish through a telescope, but at too great a distance (about 400 yards) to be able to give a detailed description; but I distinctly saw the seal-shaped head, of immense size, large flappers, and part of a huge body.” 
Lieutenant Douglas Forsyth’s report, written at sea on June 4th is as follows, 
At 5 p.m. on the 2nd inst., while passing Cape St. Vito, north coast of Sicily, I observed a large, black-looking object on the starboard quarter, distant about two cables [a cable is 240 yards]; and on examining it with a telescope, I found it to be a huge monster, having a head about fifteen to twenty feet in length. The breadth I could not observe. The head was round, and full at the crown. The animal was slowly swimming in a south-easterly direction, propelling itself by means of two large flappers or fins, somewhat in the manner of a seal. I also saw a portion of the body of the animal, and that part was certainly not under forty-five or fifty feet in length.” 

The 'Ridge of Fins' as seen from the Osborne

Another officer, Lieutenant Haynes, reported 
On the evening of June 2, the sea being perfectly smooth, my attention was first called by seeing a ridge of fins above the surface of the water, extending about thirty feet, and varying from five to six feet in height. On inspecting it by means of a telescope, at about one and a half cables' distance, I distinctly saw a head, two flappers, and about thirty feet of an animal's shoulder. The head, as nearly as I could judge, was about six feet thick, the neck narrower, about four to five feet, the shoulder about fifteen feet across, and the flappers each about fifteen feet in length. The movements of the flappers were those of a turtle, and the animal resembled a huge seal, the resemblance being strongest about the back of the head. I could not see the length of the head, but from its crown or top to just below the shoulder (where it became immersed) I should reckon about fifty feet. The tail end I did not see, it being under water unless the ridge of fins to which my attention was first attracted, and which had disappeared by the time   I got a telescope, was really the continuation of the shoulder to the end of the body. The animal's head was not always above water, but was thrown upwards, remaining above for a few seconds at a time, and then disappearing. There was an entire absence of ‘blowing’ or ‘spouting’.” 
Mr. Moore, engineer of the Osborne, writes, 
When looking over the starboard quarter of the ship, my attention was called by observing an uneven ridge of what appeared to me to  be the fins of a fish above the surface of the water, about a cable's length distance from the ship. They varied in height, as near as I can judge, from seven to eight feet above water, and extended about forty feet along the surface. Not having a telescope with me, I regret I am unable to give a further description.” 

Animal seen swimming away from the Osborne

Richard Owen commented that there are discrepancies between these accounts, explained by some using telescopes and some not, and by both subject and observers moving at unreported speeds, and in a typical Owenian gesture, commends that all involved should consult the chapter on zoology in the Admiralty Manual of Scientific Enquiry (written, surely by coincidence, by one Professor Richard Owen). In his opinion, the creature was probably some species of cetacean. 
Mr Bartlett of the Zoological Gardens reported back with his views, firstly pointing out that these gentlemen were officers of Her Majesty’s Navy whose word, by implication, is above suspicion, and who were perfectly acquainted with marine observations (a dig, maybe, at Owen). He rules out a serpent on the grounds of the ‘flappers’, and sea-lions or seals on the grounds that they do not use their front flippers when they swim. He puts Owen’s cetacean theory to one side – naval officers would have enough experience of whales to know one when they saw one; the ridge of fins makes a turtle unlikely. What was seen could have been a school of sharks swimming in tandem but he offers the opinion that the sighting was of an animal as yet unknown to science. He points to the large mammals that were still being found in the wild (he cites a rhinoceros discovered in 1868 at Chittagong), and that the depths of the seas were largely unexplored. Could they not, he posits, contain some form of large, fish-lizard like those so recently positioned at Sydenham, under the supervision of Prof. Owen? 

Whale and Sea Serpent - from Lee - Sea Monsters Unmasked - 1883

Mr Henry Lee’s thoughts ally very much with those of Mr Bartlett – Royal Navy officers would not lie, they are trained and highly competent observers with great experience of marine fauna, and the creature may be a new discovery, although he feels that it is most probably a species of giant squid, pointing to recent discoveries of gigantic decapods, some of which were over fifty feet in length. He refers to the case of the Pauline which had reported seeing a sea-serpent in 1875, and which could have been two whales rolling over together (mating or fighting), but settles on the Osborne’s beast as being of unknown origin. 

Banks's Oarfish - Couch - A History of Fishes of the British Isles - Vol 2 - 1868

Buckland himself adds Banks’s Oarfish into the mix, although, as Couch points out, very large specimens of the oarfish have not been seen, before adding that they fall 
… far short indeed of the famous Sea Serpent, but convey[ing] the impression that the latter is a species of the same order of fishes.”  
(J Couch A History of Fishes of the British Isles Vol 2 1868) 

Basking Shark - Couch - A History of Fishes of the British Isles - Vol 1 - 1868

After further consideration of the evidence, Buckland come to the conclusion that the Osborne monster was three or four basking sharks swimming together, which would explain the size, the fins and the flappers, adding that basking sharks were commonly seen in the Mediterranean. 

Basking Shark - Buckland - Notes and Jottings from Animal Life - 1886

Mr Henry Lee went on to write the marvellous Sea Monsters Unmasked (1883), a masterpiece of early cryptozoology, which is a companion volume to his equally splendid Sea Fables Explained.

Title Page - Henry Lee - Sea Monsters Unmasked 1883

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