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.
The discovery in Fall 2013 of a monstrous fish off the Southern California coast had people buzzing. Photos of people holding a long piscine monster spread around the Internet; there are of course many fake “big fish” photos floating around, but this one was not a Photoshop job, nor a hoax.
As a Discovery News story noted, “The staff and kids at a Southern California educational facility got quite a surprise when an 18-foot-long (5.5 meters) serpentlike sea creature washed up near the shore. While swimming in about 20 feet (5 meters) of water, dive instructor Jasmine Santana saw a large, silvery, slender figure on the sandy bottom on Sunday.” It took 25 people to pull the bony monster with reddish fins out of the water and pose it for photographs.
The creature — not a true sea monster but as close to one as most people will ever, or would ever, want to get to one — was a rare animal called an oarfish. Because they typically live deep in the ocean, little is known about them, though scientists believe that they may grow to be twice as long as the most recent specimen.
Seeing the amazing photograph led many to wonder if these marine monsters might be mistaken for lake monsters or sea serpents. Could an oarfish (or, more realistically, a family of them) be responsible for sightings of Scotland’s famous Loch Ness monster over the years? It’s a tantalizing possibility, though scientifically unlikely.
For one thing, oarfish, whether small or huge, are not found in Loch Ness. Oarfish also tend live in temperate to tropical ocean waters and the most famous lake in the Scottish Highlands would likely be too cold for them. Furthermore, oarfish are saltwater fish, while Ness — fed by several large rivers — is freshwater. Though some marine animals, such as several species of dolphins, are known to have adapted to freshwater, oarfish are not among them.
Sharks as Monsters
If not an oarfish, then what? In 2012, a researcher offered a new theory about what real animal might be behind some of the Loch Ness reports. Bruce Wright, a senior scientist at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, wrote an article suggesting that Nessie sightings may in fact be sleeper sharks, which can reach 20 feet long and weigh more than 4 tons. Wright theorized that the sharks might enter Ness through rivers connected to the ocean.
The Daily Mail
While Wright’s hypothesis is interesting, there are several problems with his theory, including that Pacific sleeper sharks, like oarfish, inhabit saltwater oceans. Furthermore, despite Wright’s suggestion that the monsters’ shape and colors usually match that of sleeper sharks, in fact most descriptions of the unknown creatures in Loch Ness bear little resemblance to sleeper sharks. Instead many eyewitnesses suggest that the monster resembles a long-extinct, long-necked dinosaur-like marine reptile called the plesiosaur.
There are more plausible Nessie doppelgangers known to dwell in Loch Ness, including large, fish-like lamprey, European eel, pike and sturgeon. Though the oarfish-as-Nessie theory is dubious, the oarfish-as-sea serpent theory is more plausible. For centuries sailors have told stories of seeing giant marine creatures and oarfish are certainly among the real-life monsters (along with basking sharks, the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, and other animals) that may explain sea serpent sightings.
Perhaps the best-known monster of the deep is the giant squid. The animals were known to exist because dead ones occasionally wash up on beaches. The largest giant squid specimen, found in New Zealand, was estimated to be 65 feet long. Like the oarfish, because the elusive giant squid lives at great depths, no one had ever seen a living one in its environment until 2004, when two Japanese zoologists filmed a giant squid. The creature, about 26 feet long, was found nearly 3,000 feet below the surface.
As mysterious as the giant squid is, there is a still larger species of squid in the ocean. A 330-pound, 16-foot female colossal squid was caught in early April 2003 in the Ross Sea south of Wellington, New Zealand. It was dead when brought in and the remains are now in the New Zealand national museum. The body of the colossal squid is much bigger than its cousin the giant squid, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds when fully grown.
Strange-looking dead things wash up on beaches and fuel monster reports with regularity. A bizarre, fanged monster dubbed the “San Diego Demonoid” appeared on a California beach in February 2012, sparking national news — until it was identified as a decomposing opossum. Though the ocean surely holds many secrets, until hard evidence surfaces, truly unknown sea monsters will remain in the realm of fantasy and fiction.