The Sea Monster.
"I see no reason why dogma and prejudice should blind scientists to the possible existence of the Great Sea Serpent. The great wastes of water which cover the surface of our planet are largely unsounded and unexplored. Who is to say that somewhere in those mysterious deeps there does not lurk the unknown animal which so many witnesses have claimed to see?"
--Antoon C. Oudemans, 1892.
The monster was secured along Monongahela’s starboard waist. The starboard side of all whaleships was where cutting-in took place. A removable section in the bulwark, flush to the deck, is where the blanket piece of blubber was raised and boarded. The huge cutting tackle with its blubber hook hung from the main crosstrees at this position to hoist the blanket by means of the ship’s windlass. After a short discussion all agreed that it would be impossible to get the monster into port as Seabury had originally planned. They would have to sail at least eight days to either Hawaii or Mexico to get the prize to land. Everyone agreed that Seabury would try to save the skin, head and bones if possible, and store them in casks of salt or liquor until they returned to New Bedford.
A Scotsman on Monongahela, unnamed, who was somewhat of an artist according to Seabury, was asked to sketch the monster before it was cut up. Some reports state that every man in the crew signed the drawing to verify that it agreed with the animal they had captured. This sketch apparently stayed with Seabury on Monongahela: the sketch has never been seen.
Jason Seabury described the details of the serpent and what he learned while cutting it in:
It was now quite calm and we could work to good advantage. 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 [approximately ten feet] and flat, with ridges; the bones of the lower jaw are separate; 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.
Captain Seabury decided to cut the scant blubber from the monster as he would a whale, and to boil the blubber down into oil in the trypots. He continued his description:
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 cleaning 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 [possibly due to the lancing]. 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 spout holes 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. We were nearly three days in getting the bones in, but they are now nearly clean, and are very porous and dark colored.
Although Jason Seabury often referred to the monster as "his snakeship" it was neither snake nor serpent. Many sightings of sea monsters describe the creature as a snake or snake-like, from traditional descriptions for hundreds of years. Old stories colored the expected description to be a snake or dragon, and many sightings were obscured by preconceived notions, and possibly to add credibility to their reports. The monster captured by Captain Seabury had two spouts or blow holes and breathed air. This means that it was a mammal. The description of a mammal in the sea with these features and size strongly points to a “most dreadful Monster” encountered more than 100 years earlier by Hans Egede in 1734. It also seems to be the same sort of monster encountered by Daedalus only a few years previously, in 1848.
The bones were cleaned, dried, tied in bundles and stowed in the hold. Note that Seabury was adding details as they worked. At this point, January 17, 1851, nearly three days had passed in examining the monster. As they had agreed, Jason Seabury would keep the remains of the sea serpent on Monongahela. Seabury continued:
The heart I was enabled to preserve in liquor, and one of the eyes, but the head, notwithstanding it is cool, begins to emit an offensive odour; but I am so near the coast now that I shall hold on to it as it is; unless it is likely to breed a distemper. Every man in the ship participates in my anxiety.
Every man on Monongahela must have thought often of the monster stowed below decks. Mystery surrounded it; letters from Jason to his brother Otis never mentioned the creature. An eerie silence seemed to surround the entire incident. No man had ever seen such a strange monster, unless he was witness to the marvels at the beginning spoken of in the Bible. This was an event of unthinkable magnitude. Was Jason concerned that he may be seen as perpetuating a hoax? Was he afraid of the ridicule endured by other men who reported sea serpents? Was the monster an omen, a warning of what would be yet to come? Was it yet to be feared? What was this huge sea monster, anyhow? The men on Monongahela would never know.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Thomas Lytle. All rights reserved.
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