This illustration appears in Oudemans' The Great Sea Serpent accompanying the report made by Marshall of the district James Prince in the 1819 series of reports in Massachussets Bay. Heuvelmans prints the report but with a different illustration. If this is the same report as made by James Prince and others in company, then it was leaving a prolonged wake on the surface, since Prince said the head was lifted a yard out of the water and that the whole length was in the vicinity of fifty feet. At that point the possibility that the length of the body might have been exaggerated by the wake was discussed. If the drawing goes with the sighting and the head is lifted up to three feet during the sighting, then the whole body was perhaps fifteen feet long; the rear two-thirds of the "Body" would have been past the tail in the drawing. However the drawing could have come from a separate report-there were many reports made at the time and James Prince was involved in recording several reports made by others also.
From the general prportions of the body and the distinct impression that we are dealing with a fish, I suspect we are looking at a slightly distorted depiction of an Atlantic sturgeon, of the same species that recently made news again as a "Sea Monster" washed up in South Carolina. The species has a record greatest length of fourteen feet and is also suspected as the culprit in some Loch Ness Monster sightings-probably even a few reported as much this size and shape. If the nose end was poked up free of the water at some time during swimming, it might have presented such an appearance and it could even have shown its pectoral fins in about the location where they are depicted in the drawing. Furthermore, it would have about a dozen small knobs on its back as described (although the drawing only shows six) and would give good reason to depict the body as being scaly over all.
In this case even if the exact report the drawing is meant to go with is not certain, it definitely solves another mystery. In 1833 Robert Bakewell, the British Geologist, suggested in the fourth edition of the Introduction to Geology that the sea-serpent might be a form of ichthyosaur, citing a report "by an American Captain" which said the Sea-serpent had a body as big around as a cask, paddles like a turtle and a head like a crocodile, which is a fair description of this picture. Heuvelmans says in a footnote that he does not know which report Bakewell refers to. (In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents p. 182) The drawing is credited to the journal Isis. That would also be why the subsequent report by the yacht Princess (1875, p265-266) identifies the creature observed as an "Ichthyosaur" although it is more likely a kind of a whale.
Rupert T Gould suggested that some of the Massachussets Bay Sea-Srpent reports might be mistaken views of a gigantic sturgeon, but he said that as a joke. It now seems likely that it was not so much of a joke after all.
Marine Monster Mystery on S.C. Beach
- Analysis by Benjamin Radford
Wed Mar 28, 2012 09:54 AM ET
Scientists, however, were somewhat more skeptical.
The marine monster was in fact an Atlantic sturgeon. Part of the reason the giant fish's identity was difficult to determine is that sturgeon are not normally the strange brownish tan color but instead lighter colored and silvery. The South Carolina monster's flesh color had changed as it baked in the sun. The dinosaur identification was actually pretty close to accurate; sturgeon are among the oldest bony fish in existence.
It's not surprising that the sturgeon scared and confused people; Atlantic sturgeon have been known to reach 15 feet long and weigh over 500 pounds; seeing the beasts close-up is not for the faint of heart.
Other normal fish besides the sturgeon have been mistaken for monsters, including oarfish and gar.
Oarfish, which are long, serpentine, nearly finless fish with large round eyes, often average 20 or 30 feet but have been reported over 50 feet long. Earlier this year, in January a huge ribbon-like monstrous fish that washed ashore in Delray Beach, Florida, was identified as an oarfish.
Though often claimed as an eyewitness report of "America’s Loch Ness Monster," his description is clearly that of a sturgeon-like gar fish.
Another reason that the sturgeon seemed monstrous was that it's an unusually large fish.
The fish most people (and certainly most urban dwellers) encounter are relatively small -- goldfish perhaps, or aquarium fish. Sport fishermen, butchers and marine biologists are far more likely to recognize large fish such as tuna, sturgeon and gar, for example, which often grow to surprising sizes.
Even seeing large fish on television, in aquariums or in photographs does not necessarily prepare city-dwelling beachgoers for real-life encounters with a beached, smelly giant.