We all enjoy a tall tale. Cultures with seafaring traditions are especially ripe in what seem like the tallest sea monster tales of all: hydra, kraken, sirens, scylla, leviathans, assorted serpents and mermaids. Usually the stories are never confirmed and usually baseless.
Then again, some of the tales are based on something, or so we are learning as marine scientists plumb the depths and discover some pretty weird creatures. The bottom line: There really are bizarre, unexpected, totally startling monsters found in the seas. And the very worst of these is the most unexpected.
Sea monsters are truly global. This one from Japan serves as the villain for the classic maiden in distress, who awaits rescue by her hero. The poor monsters are almost always cast as the bad guys. And so they usually end hacked to pieces; fish food.
But is there any truth behind these sea serpent tales?
Credit: NOAA/ Bloodydecks.com
Improbable, But True
Maybe it's the oarfish. It looks too monstrous to be true. It can grow many meters long, has strikingly bright silver scales, scarlet fins and some ornate headgear that more than explains why some call it a roosterfish. If only it were a reptile, it'd be a true sea serpent.
Alas. It is a fish. A very weird and beautiful fish, but still a fish.
Largest Serpent of All
There are also other, newfound "sea serpents" our sea-going ancestors never imagined. This one was spotted by a satellite coiling off the south coast of Japan's Hokkaido island.
What do we know about it? 1) It's arguably one of the largest organisms on Earth, 2) It swallows ships, engulfs islands and generally does what it wants, and 3) We're darned lucky it's made of plankton.
Research into such massive blooms and the individual plankton cells that comprise them has revealed surprising cooperation among the microorganisms. They appear to operate like more than just floating individual cells. They live and die for the greater good, it seems. So they may be, in fact, a gigantic watery superorganism.
Now that's a cool monster for you: You can swim in it and never know you've been in the belly of a beast.
The Hokey Hybrids
Mermaids and mermen have always been the stuff of fantasy. Where did the fantasies come from? There are some standard answers to this question, which have always seemed rather inadequate. For instance ... (next slide, if you please) ...
Credit: Getty Images
The manatee has often been called the source of mermaid myths. It's a mammal, so it breathes air. But who would ever mistake a manatee for a sleek and beautiful mermaid?
Could it be love-starved sailors with poor eyesight? There was no shortage of these fellows in the days before optometrists.
Credit: beats me
Another possibility is that merfolk were inspired by fish with roughly human-looking faces, like this fellow. Some fish can look humanoid. That would be enough to get superstitious sailors started.
The Kraken Strikes
How about giant, ship-destroying squid and octopi? These monsters were old hat even to the easily freaked-out. Most folks figured they were historical exaggerations.
That's until some very large and unusual squids started washing up or being hauled in by marine biologists in recent years. Colossal squid are meters long, pretty amazing beasts. Still, they have never been known to lift ships out of the water.
And since were on the topic of squids ...
Spider + Bat + Squid = Sea Monster
Do you remember when this one hit the headlines? It's not so gigantic, at four meters long, but it was observed 3,380 meters down in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu. It's pretty big to have gone unseen before its May 2001 discovery.
So what else is out there? It's pretty clear marine biologists have only just begun discovering what lives in the deep sea. The more time they spend searching, the more they will find. But none would dispute that the nastiest sea monster to ever rise out of the sea is ... (drum roll please) ...
Deadliest Sea Monster Ever
You might have guessed it: Human garbage. Yep. It's the ugliest, most alien-looking, fatal and pervasive monster in the seas. Garbage patches have been getting a lot of attention lately. These are areas on the seas where currents and winds tend to concentrate floating garbage.
Ask geophysicist Guust Nolet of the University of Nice in France if mermaids exist and he will tell you “Yes! And I love them!” He admits they are, of course, a rarity in the ocean. He’s currently tracking two in the Mediterranean and four in the Indian Ocean. And if you want to hear them sing, you’ll have to wait 10 days for them to come to the surface, unless there’s been an earthquake.
Yep, these mermaids are seismically sensitive and Nolet and his team of oceanographers from the United States and France have deployed everyone of them.
For the first time oceanographers have a fleet of floating seismic detectors cruising the seas. The Mermaids (Mobile Earthquake Recording in Marine Areas by Independent Divers), provide seismic coverage of a large swath of Earth that is mostly invisible to seismologists: the oceanic crust. Unlike ocean bottom seismometers that are stuck on the seafloor for sometimes a year or more at a time, and have to be retrieved using expensive ship time expeditions to learn what data they have recorded, Mermaids will pop to the surface and transmit their data whenever they receive a signal that has a 90 percent chance of being an earthquake.
Turns out most magnitude 6.5 earthquakes can trigger enough commotion, in the form of bubbles and seafloor rumbling, to rise above the din of the regular ocean noise. “We’ve seen magnitudes as low as 5.5 as far away as Mexico,” Nolet told reporters at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco today.
They track the earthquakes in a similar fashion to land seismometers, only their mobility also gives the Mermaids an advantage for recording additional details from any large aftershocks from an earthquake. For example, during a seismic swarm in the Indian Ocean on Nov. 25, 2013, seismic stations on land captured only two events, whereas one of the Mermaids recorded nearly 200 “triggers” in 13 seismograms.
They can also speak whale. Of course you’d expect mermaids to do so. The noise signatures for whale songs are distinct for each species. Nolet and his team are recommending other scientists take advantage of their Mermaids by including biological and meteorological sensors onto their divers. Each Mermaid can dive down to as far as 2,000 meters.
Next year the team plans to deploy 10 Mermaids around the Galapagos Islands to monitor the seismic signatures from the volcanic magma plume that feeds the islands.