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.
A mysterious carcass washed ashore in New Zealand last week, fueling speculation about sea monsters and dinosaurs. The rotting animal was discovered by a group on four-wheel vehicles speeding along the beach in Bay of Plenty.
According to a story in New Zealand’s Sun Live newspaper, “beachgoers were stumped when they came across what they thought was a prehistoric creature on the shore … stretching about 9 meters (30 feet) in length with large teeth and rudimentary flippers.”
Video of the fearsome-looking animal was soon posted to YouTube, asking the public for help in figuring out what it was.
A marine biologist soon identified the remains as a killer whale, in part because of its distinctive flipper. The mystery was solved, but it’s not the first time an animal’s carcass has been mistaken for a monster. In fact, New Zealand is one of the most common places in the world — along with Newfoundland, Canada and Florida — for such “sea monsters” to appear.
The Science of Sea Monsters
Over the past centuries mysterious masses of marine flesh have occasionally washed ashore on beaches around the world. Dubbed “blobsters” (or simply “blobs”) these large carcasses are so badly decomposed there’s not enough material to make a definitive identification. To many people, the huge creatures — looking unlike any known animal — may seem like strong evidence for sea monsters or even existing dinosaurs.
In 1896, giant waves tossed a massive fleshy corpse on a beach at St. Augustine, Fla. The rubbery, 6-foot-high blob was examined by a local naturalist, who decided it was likely from a giant octopus far larger than any known type. Many other such blobs have been found, including the horror-film inspired “Chilean blob” (found in July 2003), a few “Bermuda blobs,” and another in Newfoundland in 2001.
Controversy and mystery surrounded the creatures for decades. In 2004, a team of biologists led by Sidney Pierce examined all available blobster materials using electron microscopes, and applied biochemical, molecular and DNA analysis. The conclusion: The strange specimens were actually various species of great whales.
Though the identities of these mysterious monster carcasses are now known, marine mystery lovers need not fret. The oceans have not been fully explored, and it’s certain that the sea has not revealed all its secrets.
Image: YouTube Screen capture