Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cryptozoological Case File #0001 - The Valhalla Sea Serpent

This new featurette of The Lord Geekington will delve into the more compelling - and bizarre - eyewitness accounts of 'cryptids'. With the intent of having a great deal more to write about, I am going to broadly define cryptozoology as the 'study of unexpected animals'; that is, unusual forms of known animals (color, size, other morphology), occurrences in unexpected locations*, and of course potential undescribed species. In regards to the usage of anecdotal evidence, it is not so valueless that it should be dismissed out of hand, yet any sort of conclusions drawn from such information should be limited. 

The following sighting is remarkable for containing testimony from ornithologist E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and entomologist M. J. Nicoll during a scientific expedition on the vessel Valhalla. Despite the specializations of both men, Nicoll's book on the yacht's voyages suggests they were all-around competent naturalists with experience of viewing marine animals, making a report of an unidentifiable animal all the more fascinating.

Note: Conversions in brackets and hyperlinks are my own.

M. J. Nicoll in Nicoll (1908) (p. 21-26):
Before describing our doings at Bahia, I must refer in detail to an important incident which occurred on the high seas during our second voyage thither.
On the 7th December, 1905, when in latitude 7° 14' S., longitude 34° 25' W., and about fourteen miles [22 kilometers] from the coast of Brazil near Para, a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions was sighted by two of us. At the time we were under sail only, and were slowly making our way to Bahia. It was at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I was leaning on the rail of the poop deck, when a large fin suddenly appeared close to the ship at a distance of about fifty yards [46 m]. This fin resembled that of no fish I had previously seen, and I pointed it out immediately to Mr. E. G. B. Meade-Waldo, who was on deck with me at the time, and we watched it together for several minutes. As we passed slowly by, a long eel-like neck surmounted by a head, shaped somewhat like that of a turtle, rose out of the water in front of the fin. This creature remained in sight for a few minutes, but we soon drew ahead of it, and it became lost to view, owing to the ripple of the water. Owing to the fact that we were under sail at the time, it was not possible to go about and make a closer inspection, and with great regret we had to be content with the view we had had of this remarkable monster.

A full account of it was given at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London, on 19th June, 1906, and I quote below from the report which was printed in the "Proceedings" of that Society (10th October, 1906, p. 721): -
"At about 10.15 a.m., on Thursday, 7th December, 1905, when in lat. 7° 14' S., long. 34° 25' W., in a depth of from 322 to 1,340 fathoms [589-2451 m], Meade-Waldo and I saw a most extraordinary creature about 100 yards [91 m] from the ship, and moving in the same direction, but very much slower than we were going. At first all that we could see was a dorsal fin, about four feet [1.2 m] long, sticking up about 2 feet [0.6 m] from the water; this fin was of a brownish-black colour, and much resembled a gigantic piece of ribbon-seaweed. Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature. Every now and then the fin entirely disappeared below the water. Suddenly an eel-like neck, about six feet [1.8 m] long and of the thickness of a man's thigh, having a head shaped like that of a turtle, appeared in front of the fin. This head and neck, which were of the same colour above as the fin, but of a silvery-white below, lashed up the water with a curious wriggling movement. After this it was so far astern of us that we could make out nothing else.
" During the next fourteen hours we went about twice, and at about 2 a.m. the following day (8th December, in lat 7° 19' S., long. 34° 04' W., the first and third mates, Mr. Simmonds and Mr. Harley, who were on the bridge at the time, saw a great commotion in the water. At first they thought it was a rock a-wash about 100 to 150 yards [91-137 m] away on the port side, just aft of the bridge, but they soon made out that it was something moving and going slightly faster than the ship, which at that time was doing about 8 1/2 knots [15.7 km/h]. Mr. Simmonds hailed the deck, and one of the crew, who was on the look-out, saw it too. Although there was a bright moon at the time, they could not make out anything of the creature itself, owing to the amount of wash it was making, but they say that the commotion in the water it looked as if a submarine was going along just below the surface. They both say most emphatically that it was not a whale, and that it was not blowing, nor have they ever seen anything like it before. After they had watched it for several minutes, it 'sounded' off the port bow, and they saw no more of it."
The creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the "great sea-serpent." I feel sure, however, that it was not a reptile that we saw, but a mammal. It is, of course, impossible to be certain of this, but the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression. It is often said that, if there were such a monster, remains of it would have been found long ago, but this is not necessarily so. Supposing the "sea-serpent" lives in deep holes, such as there were in the spot where we saw out "monster," then there would be little chance of remains being washed ashore, and the amount of deep-sea dredging that has yet been done is very small, so that it is not surprising that no parts of this creature have been obtained in that way.
That it is not more often reported is not to be wondered at, when one realized how often it is that a ship may sail for says together without sighting another ship, even in seas where there is considerable traffic. Also it must be remembered that such ridicule is generally bestowed on the reports of sea-monsters that many persons hesitate to describe what they have seen. I know myself of several instances of unknown sea-monsters have been seen by reliable witnesses, who, to avoid the inevitable "chaff," would not publicly state their experiences. 

E. G. B. Meade-Waldo in Meade-Waldo and Nicoll (1906), from Heuvelmans (1968):
On Dec. 7th, 1905, at 10:15 A.M., I was on the poop of the 'Valhalla' with Mr. Nicoll, when he drew my attention to an object in the sea about 100 yards [91.4 meters] from the yacht; he said: 'Is that the fin of a great fish?'
I looked and immediately saw a large fin or frill sticking out of the water, dark seaweed-brown in colour, somewhat crinkled at the edge. It was apparently about 6 feet [1.8 m] in length, and projected from 18 inches to 2 feet [0.46 to 0.6 m] from the water.
I got my field-glasses on to it (a powerful pair of Goerz Triëder), and almost as soon as I had them on the frill, a great head and neck rose out of the water in front of the frill; the neck did not touch the frill in the water, but came out of the water in front of it, at a distance of certainly not less than 18 inches [0.46 m], probably more. The neck appeared about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from 7 to 8 feet [2.1 to 2.4 m] was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness.
 The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as had also the eye. I could see the line of the mouth, but we were sailing pretty fast, and quickly drew away from the object, which was going very slowly. It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the colour of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think.

Meade-Waldo, in a letter to R. T. Gould, from Heuvelmans (1968):
It made a wave as it went along, and under water behind the neck I could see a good-sized body. As we drew ahead we could see it swing its neck from side to side and it lashed the sea into foam.
The eye and the edge of the neck had a turtle-like appearance to us both. We were so astonished at the time that we could neither of us speak! We then visited (late) Lord Crawford, and he said he would stop the yacht if it was any use; but we decided as we were making about 14 knots it would not be much use.
The creature seen from H.M.S. Daedalus... and figured in the 'Illustrated London News'... might easily be the same...

So far as I can tell, the second Valhalla 'sighting' has yet to be brought up by any cryptozoologists. Unfortunately, there's no reason to think it is anything but a known animal, and that the men in question were over-excited from the prior day's event.

In the first Valhalla encounter, it is curious that Nicoll gives conflicting distances from the object, so it would be more prudent to assume ornithologist Meade-Waldo was more on the mark. His reported distance of only 300 feet/91 meters still seems remarkably close,  but surprisingly, over half of the 'sea serpent' sightings with a given distance were reportedly less than 100 meter from the observer, and few were over 200 m (Paxton 2009). The type of field-glasses (binoculars) used was not specified, but may have been similar to this model marketed towards naturalists with 9x magnification. While the speed of the craft and shake undoubtedly hampered visibility, the implied effective viewing distance of ~10 meters suggests Meade-Waldo got a very close look at what he was describing. While few traits were given, it is noteworthy that Nicoll was even able to get an impression of the "fin's" texture.

What could these men have possibly seen? It would be unlikely, if not physically impossible, for any serpentine fish to stick out 1.8-2.4 meters of its body at a 45 degree angle. A giant cephalopod at an angle could cover the appearance of the 'dorsal fin', but it seems unlikely that tentacles could function out of the water like that; the contrasting coloration, lack of suckers, and presence of an eye and mouth-line is problematic. Seaturtles have short necks, as does Podocnemis expansa, a large pleurodire in the same region which apparently can get washed out to sea*. Softshell turtles can get freakishly big, have freakishly long necks, and at least some species can tolerate marine conditions for extended periods of time, but none live in the region (next nearest in Florida), and their head shape probably wouldn't be described as turtle-like. Some pinnipeds can give the impression of being long-necked**, although the only candidates would be very out-of-place otariids or leopard seals, and even then the turtle-shaped head, extreme length of the neck, and rubbery dorsal appendage are difficult to explain. Marine birds are the only animals that can approximate the neck length and shape (albeit not size), but it would be comical for an ornithologist to make such a mistake with binoculars.

* Marine wanderings of freshwater turtles will also be covered later.
** Pinniped necks are roughly the same as those of terrestrial carnivorans. 

In short, I can't think of any known animal as a candidate that wouldn't require a great deal of poor observation skills to turn into the Valhalla object. Matt Bille calls this 'The Definitive Sea Serpent' and also had classification difficulties. Heuvelmans (1968) classified this encounter as a 'Super-Eel' on the basis of no head-neck differentiation, apparent dorsal fin, and the mouth-line not extending past the eye in Nicoll's drawing. The drawing is quite vague in this regard, and since the witnesses don't have anything to say on the matter, it is not a valid identification-worthy trait. Coleman and Huyghe (2003) for some reason state that the witnesses specified this trait, and use it to classify it as a mammalian 'waterhorse'. Champagne classified it as a 'Type 4B', a "transitional animal with reptilian and mammalian characteristic" using my nemesis, the P/A index.

My take on Champagne's 'Type 4B'.

In conclusion, I'm confused. It comes down to a question of - is there an extremely bizarre giant marine vertebrate out there with no obvious relatives, or did two naturalists get over-excited and imagine something mundane to be a sea serpent? They did appear to have some knowledge of sea serpent reports, which could have influenced their testimony, but at the same time, the reported distance and presence of binoculars must have meant this was one seriously strong belief.

Welcome to the world of cryptozoology!


Coleman, L., Huyghe P. (2003). Lake monsters, sea serpents, and other mystery denizens of the deep. Tarcher/Penguin: New York

Heuvelmans, B. (1968). In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang: New York.

Nicoll, M. J. (1908). Three voyages of a naturalist : being an account of many little-known islands in three oceans visited by the "Valhalla" R.Y.S. London: Witherby & Co. Available through Internet Archive.

Paxton, C. G. M. (2009). The plural of ‘anecdote’ can be ‘data’: statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified large marine animals 1758–2000. Journal of Zoology 279, 381-387. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00630.x


Allen Hazen said...

What do you know about the "Valhalla" herself?

The reports say she was under sail (so, assume a "yacht" with both sails and power, the power at the relevant time turned off), and mention speeds of 8.5 knots and 14 knots. These both seem high to me for a sailing vessel in winds light enough for passengers to be out on deck looking at things that only stuck two feet out of the water. Yes, you can go much faster in a racing catamaran, but in a turn of the century monohull? Those sound like the sort of speeds you'd get in a very large sailing ship rounding Cape Horn in a full gale! (Unless I've totally misremembered things...)

B.t.w.: best wishes on your plans for the blog: your posts are always interesting, and even if you don't manage to make DAILY posts, I anticipate reading you more than once a month!

Cameron McCormick said...

According to Nicoll's book the Valhalla could reach 10.5 to 11 knots with the screw and 16 knots under sail. She also came third in a yacht race despite being the largest vessel (1700 tons). It was apparently the only ship-rigged yacht at the time and the first ship to have an electrical steering system - by all means it was a very remarkable vessel.

Yeah... the daily thing didn't last too long.

Unknown said...

Has anyone considered the possibility that what Nicoll and Meade-Waldo saw belonged to an entirely unknown class of animals?

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Unknown said...

How about a sailfish being harassed by "spy-hopping" cetaceans, or sealions?