In his memoirs Home from the Sea (pps 45-47) Commander Rostron tells how he was acting as Chief Officer on board the Campania [on April 26, 1907], when something remarkable happened -
So strange an animal was it that I remember crying out: ‘It's alive!’ One has heard such yarns about these monsters and cocked a speculative eye at the teller, that I wished as never before that I had a camera in my hands. Failing that, I did the next best thing and on the white dodger board in front of me I made sketches of the animal, full face and profile, for the thing was turning its head from side to side for all the world as a bird will on a lawn between its pecks. I was unable to get a clear view of the monster's features, but we were close enough to realise its head rose eight or nine feet out of the water, while the trunk of the neck was fully twelve inches thick.”
[This is the classic description of the forward part of the Longneck's neck; head two feet long, neck eight feet, together making ten feet, thickness a foot through, and pretty much the same thickness for all that ten feet, with the top and bottom outlines being almost parallel. Statistically this is backed up by the heavier part of the neck, another five feet or half again, but of a conical shape getting thicker towards the body. Together this makes the first 15 feet out of a typical 40-footer, and the proportions are remarkably consistent statistically at Loch Ness and the whole world over-DD]
The junior officer in question, who is not named by Rostron in his memoirs, was one H.C. Birnie, who would himself have a distinguished career, going on to win a DSO for sinking a U-boat during World War One when Captain of HMS P-57. Many years later Birnie confirmed the whole of Rostron’s story to researcher R.T. Gould. Birnie added that when he was a child in 1894 or 1895, he and his father had seen on the beach at New Aberdour, Aberdeenshire, ‘a long snake-like thing’ extending from the water's edge to a rock some distance away.
Nine months before Rostron and Birnie’s sighting, the Illustrated London News had published a full page photograph of ‘A Curious Creature Sighted by the Steam-Yacht Emerald Between Madeira and St Thomas.’ It was an enlargement of a snap by a Dr Bowdler Sharpe
[This is clearly a small whale similar to a Minke whale-DD]
Sea serpents had been a favourite lore of the sea since a famous encounter by the HMS Daedalus in 1848. The creature seen was ‘enormous,’ some 60ft long, and ‘something like seaweed washed about its back.’ Captain McQuhae had drawings made immediately after it was seen, including one of its head, carrying an expression of perfect innocence.
Below: Drawing by Captain McQuhae
A further sighting in South African waters may be cited, that of the Umfuli when nearing the Cape of Good Hope…
The year before Rostron’s apparition, the science of marine herpetology had taken a step forward when a meeting of the Zoological Society was told by Mr E.B. Meade Waldo and Mr M.J. Nicoll of a creature seen by them from the deck of the Earl of Crawford’s yacht, Valhalla.
Adverse winds caused the ship to beat about so that at midnight they were only twenty miles from the scene of the morning. This is noteworthy, because when Mr Nicoll came on deck after breakfast, one of the officers came up and reported that during the night he saw a strange commotion in the water. At first he thought it was a rock awash, but a most careful examination showed that it was a beast of some kind, travelling faster than the ship, which was then making only about eight-and-a-half knots. The officer hailed the deck and the lookout man, and thus got witnesses to this weird phenomenon. Thought the sea was calm, and there was a bright moon, nothing satisfactory could be made out due to the wash which the creature was making, but in its movements it resembled a submarine travelling just below the surface.’
Bernard Heuvelsmans’ book, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968), contains two representations of Arthur Rostron’s sketches, which he discussed when interviewed by the Daily Mail at the time of the sighting, wherein they were reproduced.
Rostron told the newspaper in 1907: ‘There were two protuberances where eyes might have been, but I could see no eyes... It had very small ears in comparison with its enormous bulk.’
On Rostron’s sketches, these very small ears look like snail’s horns, similar to many descriptions of plesiosaurs and lake and loch monsters. When the Captain of the Campania heard about the incident, he asked Rostron what he had drunk at dinner. Neither the sketches nor Birnie's corroboration convinced him. In due course the Campania docked at Liverpool.
After shore leave, the Captain called on Rostron and raised the matter again. ‘Did you see it, Rostron?’ he asked. ‘Yes Sir,’ replied the religious Rostron.
In his memoirs, Rostron adds:
He added: ‘The flabby monster seemed to leap out of the water as straight as an arrow for me. I hardly know what I did. I think I must have ducked and crashed the oar into the creature. At any rate I was flung violently into the water. When I regained the surface I managed to clamber into the boat. My terrible enemy was nowhere in sight.’
The incident appears to have happened only one or two days after and little more than 200 miles from Rostron’s encounter.
There was a small sequel that might be worth noting. When R.T. Gould, the researcher who much later quizzed Birnie on the incident, published an article on the sea serpent in The Times of London on December 9, 1933, a Mrs J.C. Adkins wrote in to say that she and her cousin had seen a sea monster at around the same time.
This beast, seen off Padstow on Cornwall's north coast, showed a long neck ending in a little head and a series of small humps above the waves. She could not recall the exact date, but remembered reading at the time of the sighting by Rostron and the Campania, which came hard on the heels of what she and her cousin had witnessed.
Just one month before Rostron's sighting - in March 1907 - the newspapers had reported that some Tenby fishermen trawling in the Channel saw ‘a monster fish, 200ft long, with four fins as big as sails,’ and that its ‘general appearance was that of a sea serpent.’
Even the North Atlantic provided sightings. A Dutch steamer, the Amsteldijk of the Holland America Line, met a strange animal in the summer of 1911. The location was noted as latitude 47° 30' N, longitude 27° 11' W. Second officer J.A. Liebau, noted in the log that the animal they saw on Saturday August 19 that year ‘was very probably a sea serpent.’
One doubter has written, however: ‘The sea serpent is a creature vainly imagined, a figment of the brain, a thing born of after-dinner orgies; it may even have a semblance of reality, but when analysed it proves to be nothing more than a school of porpoises playing at “follow-my-leader,” [or] a gigantic cuttlefish vainly waving its long arms in an endeavour to escape the grip of some hungry whale. On occasions, indeed, the sea serpent has turned out to be nothing more interesting than a floating spar decorated with a tangle of seaweed!’
The Times of London noted however in an Editorial in December 1933: ‘It is said that there exists a body of secret tradition among seafaring men, which by common consent they decline to communicate to outsiders, because of the contemptuous incredulity always shown by landsmen ignorant of the infinite potentialities of the sea. But sufficient instances of strange beasts seen on the high seas have been placed on record to make a formidable body of testimony.’
It is noteworthy, perhaps, that while Rostron told his tale to the Daily Mail in 1907 and gained worldwide fame half a decade later, he had no reservations about putting his reputation at risk when he wrote of the sea serpent again in his autobiography, bringing further such testimony home from the sea. Retailing the story, despite the high offices he subsequently held, including that of Aide-de-camp to the King, may even be a mark of the man’s essential humility.
Arthur Henry Rostron
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