This week the New York Times reported on a new archaeological discovery that might prove the ancient Romans hunted whales, and asked whether this might explain epic tales of the time about fishermen harpooning ‘sea monsters’:
There’s an ancient Greco-Roman poem that tells the tale of brave fishermen who harpooned a sea monster. Once they hooked the beast, the men reeled it in from their rowboats near the shore and hauled it onto the beach. The text, which is dated to the second or third century, describes one onlooker as standing on a cliff and beholding the “tremendous toil of the men in this warfare of the sea.”
But was this “sea monster,” or “cetus” as it is called in Latin, actually a whale?
While this new suggestion that ‘sea monsters’ of ancient tales might have actually been whales is an interesting one, there has previously been an association between whales and sea monsters, though one you might not see in the New York Times anytime soon.
In 2005, ecologist Dr. Charles Paxton co-authored a paper titled “Cetaceans, Sex, and Sea Serpents” (PDF), in which he and his co-researchers analysed the 1734 sighting of “a most dreadful monster” off the coast of Greenland.
The account, originally recorded in 1741 by the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede, has been a regular feature of sea-monster folklore ever since it was reproduced in Henry Lee’s 1883 book Sea Monsters Unmasked:
[A] terribly big sea creature which in 1734 was seen in the sea… It was a so enormously big creature, [that] its head reached the [ship’s] yard arm and the body was as thick as the ship and was 3 to 4 times as long. It had a long pointed nose, and blew like a whale, [it] had big broad flippers, and the body seemed to be covered with a carapace, and the skin was wrinkled and rough. It was otherwise created at the rear like a serpent and when it went under the water it lifted itself backwards and raised then the tail up from the water a ship’s length away from the body.
Over the years, a multitude of explanations had been offered, including that the sighting might have been of a giant squid, an (extinct) Basilosaurid whale, a giant marine otter, or a giant longnecked seal. But Paxton’s group had a more interesting solution: that the witnesses may have mistaken a whale penis as the serpent-like projections from the water:
Many of the large baleen whales have long, snake-like penises. If the animal did indeed fall on its back then its ventral surface would have been uppermost and, if the whale was aroused, the usually retracted penis would have been visible. The penises of the North Atlantic right whale and (Pacific) grey whale can be at least 1.8 metres long, and 1.7 metres long respectively, and could be taken by a naïve witness for a tail. That the tail was seen at one point a ship’s length from the body suggests the presence of more than one male whale.
In support of this hypothesis, the researchers point out another ‘sea serpent’ case that also sounds suspiciously like it might have been a whale penis: a sighting from the merchant vessel Pauline in 1875, “when a sea-serpent in the form of a “whitish pillar” was seen amongst a pod of sperm whales “frantic with excitement” (the sperm whale penis can be pale).
It’s difficult not to agree with Paxton’s suggestion, especially if we compare the contemporary illustrations of the ‘sea serpent’ with modern photos of whale penises emerging from the water (or, if you prefer video, go watch some Attenborough).
For those that might think this is the ultimate solution to the mystery of sea serpents however, note that the researchers make clear they are not completely confident in their identification, and “nor are we suggesting that whales’ penises are a universal source of sea-serpent sightings”.