Photo manipulation by RKNTV - Sources: Flickr via creative commons

Olof’s eyes grew weary as he stopped what he was doing for a moment. Mapping the routes between Iceland and the Faroe Islands is tedious work. It had been a few days since they had set sail, and he had done nothing but continuously map out the routes they took with diligence.

It was time to take a break and head in for the night.

He stood to head back to his quarters when he heard something splashing along the waves ahead of their ship. Thinking it to be a whale, he turned his eyes back towards the darkening horizon. What he saw was something he’d only heard about, and dismissed as the ramblings of drunken sailors.

Not so far off into the distance, breaking through the waves in a vertical undulation rose a creature that he estimated to be around 50 cubits long (over 75 feet, or over 22 meters). And it was most assuredly not a whale!

It was a sea serpent.

Standing on the deck in sheer astonishment; Olof as agog at the size and terrifying magnificence of the creature that had scales as dark as onyx. Both man and the beast seemed to contemplate each other’s gaze for several untold moments, then it sank back into the waves.

The captain ordered a hasty exit as fast as possible before the creature decided to go after it.

Olof Månsson made a note of the creature in his incomplete map and headed back to his quarters knowing that he would not get that much sleep that night.

Details of the sighting would be published in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus under his Latinized name Olaus Magnus.

His experience joins the many such similar experiences for as long as there have been sailors.

Welcome to part ONE of the next installment of Folktails entitled “The Depths Below”, and today we talk about Sea Serpents.

Photo manipulation by RKNTV – sources: Flickr via Creative Commons.

The topic of sea serpents – or Sea Dragons – can be traced as far word-of-mouth retelling can go. That means you can “easily” find mentions of them among Greek, Norse, Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Asian mythologies.

But is there any truth to such “legends” that somehow permeate cultural divides before even encountering one another?

The one thing that does hold, even today, is the fact gigantism in marine creatures is real. One can simply look at the largest whales drifting all over the Earth’s oceans to know that size means NOTHING in its environs. So it’s not at all implausible that the “eyewitness” accounts through the millennia of people crossing the sea may hold a smidgen of truth.

But trying to prove it is another task entirely.

Sea Snakes

Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake – Source: Flickr via Creative CommonsSea S

The closest thing you can think of right away that may fit the bill are marine reptiles. Sea snakes are a good example. The difference between their land-based cousins lies in their flatter tails. They usually inhabit the tropical and subtropical parts of the oceans. There are roughly over 60 species of sea snakes alive to this day. The longest of them is the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake.

Clocking in at nearly 10 feet in length (over 3 meters), the Yellow sea snake mostly traverses over the muddy/sandy seafloors. They’re close, but not really growing to the size often reported throughout sea-faring sightings. Some variants are so venomous that even one bite can be fatal.

So if it isn’t a snake, what could be the next “contender”?

Giant Moray Eels

Giant Moray Eel – Source: YouTube screenshot

Eels are ray-finned fish with some variants of their species growing as long as 12 feet and are sometimes mistaken for sea snakes. They’re also one of the most dangerous fish out there. Right next to deadly sharks like the Great White, most eels in the oceans are predators. Unfortunately for the myths, most eels can only be found among shallower waters and reefs – so they don’t venture further. The Giant Moray Eel is one of them.

These eels can grow as long as 9.8 feet long (3 meters), and weigh around 66 (30 kg).  Its elongated body is brownish in color. Young morays are tan in color with large black spots, adults have black specks that grade into leopard-like spots behind the head. Their habitats include lagoons and on the outer slopes of coral reefs. During the day, it sits sheltered in crevices between 1 and 50 meters deep.

Eels of this type are found on the eastern coasts of Africa, the Red Sea, Hawaiian Islands, Polynesia, north to south Japan, south to New Caledonia, Fiji, and the Austral Islands.

It’s a good candidate for a sea serpent, but the fact that you don’t see them often in the deeper parts of the ocean rules them out.

So what could be the next best thing?

Let me posit one more strange creature that was “discovered” as early as 1772:

The Oarfish

United States Navy SEALS holding a 23-foot (7.0 m) giant oarfish, found washed up on the shore near San Diego, California, in September 1996 – The original photograph can be seen on page 20 of the April 1997 issue of All Hands.

If I had to bet a little money, I’d put it on the Oarfish being the most likely culprit of some of the Sea Serpent, or Sea Dragonlore. The oarfish is thought to inhabit the upper to lower ocean layers that receive less light. This means their habitat ranges from 660 feet to 3,300 feet under the ocean. They can be found in all temperate to tropical oceans so far.

They are a species of fish that are rarely seen, and the few have that been found are still barely alive. This is because when one usually floats to the surface, it dies. At the kinds of depths the oarfish live, there are few to no currents. As a result, they build little muscle mass and have to use their fins to move rapidly. They cannot survive in shallower turbulent water for very long.

Oarfish that washed ashore on a Bermuda beach in 1860: The fish was 16 ft (4.9 m) long and was originally described as a sea serpent. Source: Harper’s Weekly – Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale Ltd.

Little is known about these creatures, and studies into them are still ongoing. None survive captivity for long as they are too fragile when captured – even by accident. The longest ever recorded length of one of these oarfish is over 23 feet long (roughly 7 meters) that washed ashore in 1996. It is not known if they can grow longer, but there have been alleged reports of one longer than 25 feet in length.

There’s some video on the internet of these fish in their natural habitat, but the best one I can find is from Jeremy Wade’s video of him actively searching for these fishes at a depth that can be very dangerous to humans.

Magnificent creatures, aren’t they? They’re about as close to what we can get to sea serpents. So I guess actual sea serpents – or fossils of such, have yet to be found. For now, they’re just probably still Folktails…

Tune back next time for Part 2 of

“FolkTails: The Depths Below”

where we dive as deep as we can to find The Kraken…

For the beginning of this series, you can read “FolkTails: It Slithers

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