“It is not down on any map; true places never are” – Herman Melville
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip, that started from a Bedford port aboard a tiny ship. The mate was a mighty sailin’ man, the skipper brave and sure. Those whaling men set sail that day for a three year tour. A three year tour. The weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Monongahela would be lost. The Monongahela would be lost. Okay, I’ve got that out of my system.
In 1852, the whaling ship Monongahela, under the command of Captain Jason Seabury, set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts in search of fruitful hunting grounds for sperm whales. By January 13th lookouts had spotted signs of a concentration of sea life activity, and Captain Seabury maneuvered the Monongahela into position to pursue what they hoped was their intended prey. The longboats were readied for launch. The lookouts kept a close eye on the “white water” that indicated something large was moving about just beneath the surface of the ocean, and the crew held their collective breath at the possibility of such a fortuitous discovery. A black patch of skin was visible briefly, but the creature dived back underwater – the flabbergasted lookout from his lofty position declared that what he was seeing could not possibly be a whale, as it was far too large and long. The creature, which now all recognized was likely a sea serpent resurfaced a mile distant. And the chase was on. Seabury recorded the event in a letter that he later entrusted to Captain Sturges of the brig Gypsy for delivery to New Bedford while he was still at sea.
I rushed on deck, and the first look, not a mile to leeward, rested on the strangest creature I had ever seen in the ocean. It was apparently still, but “shobbing” up and down, as we say of sperm whales. I knew it was not a whale. The head I could not see, but the body had a motion like the waving of a rope when shaken and held in the hand. Every eye in the ship regarded it attentively, and not a word was spoken or sound uttered. In a few minutes the whole length of the body rose and lay on the water; it was of an enormous length. Presently the extremity or tail moved or vibrated, agitating the water, and then the head rose entirely above the water, and moved sideways slowly, as if the monster was in agony or suffocating. “It is a sea-serpent” I exclaimed; “stand by the boats”. There was a hesitancy, and the mate said, “of what use is there lowering for him? We only lose time, and gain nothing besides” I abruptly checked him, and ordered all hand to be called aft. When they had mustered I told them I wished to “try” that fellow. I urged them with all the eloquence I possessed, telling them there were but few who believed in the existence of a sea-serpent, and that a wish had been expressed that a whale ship might fall in with one of them — that if we did not attack him, and should tell of seeing him when we got home, we should be laughed at and derided — and the very first question would be: “Why didn’t you try him?” I told them our courage was at stake — our manhood, and even the credit of the whole American whalefishery, and concluded by appealing to their cupidity — holding out that we might possibly get him into some southern port. “I do not order one of you to go in the boats”, I said “but who will volunteer?” Let me say to their credit, every American in the ship stepped out at once, followed by all but one native and two Englishmen (Oudemans, 1892, p43-44).
After an hour’s chase, Seabury had edged to within half a mile of the monster, and ordered the longboats launched. Seabury took the lead boat along with his harpooner James Whittemore of Vermont. As they closed, they sunk two harpoons deeply into the side of the creature, which seemed to take no notice of them at all, until suddenly its head and tail shot out of the water and it turned it’s mighty jaws towards the closest target, Seabury’s longboat.
The frightfulness of the head, as it approached the boat, filled the crew with terror, and three of them jumped overboard. I instinctively held out my lance, and its sharp point entered the eye. I was knocked over and felt a deep churning of the water around me. I rose to the surface and caught a glimpse of the writhing body, and was again struck and carried down. I partly lost my consciousness under water, but recovered it; when I rose again in the bloody foam, the snake had disappeared, and I shouted, “Pick up the line. The third mate, Mr. Benson, caught a bight at my line near the end, and bent on his, which in an instant began to be taken out rapidly. The mate picked me up as soon as I rose to the surface, and in a few minutes all were picked up—one was severely bruised and another insensible, but he recovered and both are now well. The snake had taken my line, the third mate’s, and was taking the second mate’s, when I ordered the mate to bend on and give his line to the ship. The snake was sounding, and I cautioned the officers not to hold on too hard for fear of drawing the irons. At first the line went our rapidly, but decreased gradually, nevertheless I was obliged to get up a spare line out of the fore hold and bend on. For fear that the ship would by its weight on the line draw the irons, I put on several drags and gave the line to the mate, when it became stationary. There were now out four boats’ lines, 225 fathoms in a boat, and two-thirds of another line, 100 fathoms more—in all 1,000 fathoms, six feet in a fathom—6,000 feet—better than one mile and an eighth, an enormous depth, and the pressure at that distance is inconceivable. It was now blowing furiously, and I scarcely dared to carry sail enough to keep the ship up, the boat was in peril, and I was obliged to take the line to the ship again, and run the risk of the irons drawing. I made the end of the line fast and took in all sail but enough to keep her steady, and waited in alarm the snake’s rising, the parting of the line, or the irons drawing. At 4 p.m. the wind began to shift, which favoured us a little; at 5 p.m. it, to our great joy, began to abate. At 8 p.m. a sudden lull; line taut (Seabury, 1852, p3425-2426).
Hours later the creature finally resurfaced, was summarily harpooned to death, and tied up alongside the Monongahela. A crewman sketched the creature, and all took note of the oddity that lay before them. Seabury quickly jotted down notes.
As I am preparing a minute description of the serpent, I will merely give you a few general points. It was a male; the length 103 feet 7 inches; 19 feet 1 inch around the neck; 24 feet 6 inches around the shoulders; and the largest part of the body, which appeared somewhat distended, 49 feet 4 inches. The head was long and flat, with ridges; the bones of the lower jaw are seperate; the tongue had its end like the head of a heart. The tail ran nearly to a point, on the end of which was a flat firm cartilage. The back was black, turning brown on the sides; then yellow, and on the centre of the belly a narrow white streak two-thirds of its length; there were also scattered over the body dark spots. On examining the skin we found, to our surprise, that the body was covered with blubber, like that of a whale, but it was only four inches thick. The oil was clear as water, and burnt nearly as fast as spirits of turpentine. We cut the snake up, but found great difficulty, and had to “flense” him, the body would not roll, and the blubber was so very elastic, that when stretched 20 feet by the blocks, it would, when cut off, shrink to 5 or 6 feet. We took in the head, a frightful object, and are endeavouring to preserve it with salt. We have saved all the bones, which the men are not done clearing yet. In cutting open the serpent we found pieces of squid and a large blackfish, the flesh of which dropped from the bones. One of the serpent’s lungs was three feet longer than the other. I should have observed that there were 94 teeth in the jaws, very sharp, all pointing backward and as large as one’s thumb at the gum, but deeply and firmly set. We found it had two spoutholes or spiracles, so it must breathe like a whale; it also had four swimming paws, or imitations of paws, for they were like hard, loose flesh. The joints of the back were loose, and it seemed as if, when it was swimming that it moved two ribs and a joint at a time, almost like feet. The muscular movement of the serpent after it was dead made the body look as if it were encircled by longitudinal ridges (Oudemans, 1892, p42).
Basically, the crew of the Monongahela went ahead and rendered the carcass down like they would any whale, but taking great care to preserve the head as evidence that they had indeed encountered a sea-serpent. Shortly thereafter the Monongahela stumbled upon the brig Gypsy, and Captain Seabury handed over a letter detailing the circumstances surrounding the battle with the sea monster to the Gypsy’s Captain Sturges, who eight days out from Ponce, Puerto Rico was headed for Bridegport. Seabury’s letter was delivered to New Bedford, and newspapers subsequently published the letter in its entirety. The Monongahela had been out of port for two years, and wasn’t expected to return for another year after the newspaper accounts were published, so no direct confirmation from Seabury was possible. Nor would it ever be. The Monongahela would never be seen again, although reports in 1855 from other whalers were that a small amount of wreckage clearly identifiable as being from the Monongahela were found in the Arctic Circle. Vengeance by angry compatriots of the slaughtered sea monster? We may never know. Echoes of Captain Ahab can be heard in Captain Seabury’s resolve to hunt, kill, and preserve evidence of his sea monster, as his primary concern was that nobody would believe their tale of an encounter with a great serpent unless they returned with undeniable proof. Did not Ahab also say, “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines”. Those folks out there hunting monsters should heed the obsessive lesson here. Your search for truth may seem to justify your pursuit of elusive critters and perhaps even bagging yourself a trophy head as testament to the existence of such beings seems reasonable, but tread carefully, as monsters have friends, too.
Oudemans, Anthonie Cornelis, 1831-1895. The Great Sea-serpent: An Historical And Critical Treatise. With the Reports of 187 Appearances … the Suppositions And Suggestions of Scientific And Non-scientific Persons, And the Author’s Conclusions. With 82 Illustrations. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892.
Seabury, Charles (letter). “Reported Capture of Sea Serpent”. The Zoologist 1:10. London, 1852.