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Spec Tech: Here Be Dragons – A Brief Look at Sea Monsters

August 11, 2011

On certain medieval charts, dragons or some form of sea monster appear on the margins of the parchment, in territories and oceans as yet unexplored. They served as a reminder of how little we knew and perhaps, how little we still know. While the images of dragons are not uncommon, historically, there is only one case where the warning is literally spelled out. On the Hunt-Lenox Globe dating from the early 1500s, there is a notation near the East coast of China that reads “HC SUNT DRACONES” – Here are Dragons.

The edge of the chart is where folklore begins. It is likewise the starting point for much of what we think of as science fiction and fantasy. The edge of the chart is where we can give our imaginations free rein, where we can imagine whole worlds beyond our sphere, in waters where dragons and monsters swim in endless darkness.

The corollary to this, is that we assume that when we are comfortably within the bounds of the chart, we need not imagine, for these regions are ones we know. If the margin says in prose or by image, “here be dragons,” then, by implication, the center of the chart is where dragons are not. That is the reason we have charts – to show us the routes to safety, to allow us to plot courses from known port to known port. As long as we hold a true course, we can shut down our darker imaginings, for the dragons are far away.

The problem is, that it is a lie, a convenient and comfortable lie that sailors tell themselves What we know of the sea is entirely superficial. We traverse the surface without ever understanding too much of what lies beneath. We claim to know the sea because otherwise it could be too frightening to sail. When faced by the vastness of the oceans and the limits of our knowledge, perhaps shutting down our imagination is the most sane course of action available to us.

Are there dragons in the sea or are they just the mirror of our own fears?

Well, if not necessarily dragons, then there certainly monsters of the deep that we have only recently come to know. We have come to understand that the dreaded kraken closely resembles the colossal squid  (the larger cousin to the merely giant squid.) Fortunately unlike the kraken, these monster squids are not ship eaters.

The most durable of monster of the deep, the sea serpent remains unproven yet continues to refuse to go away. In 2009, a tuna fisherman in Alaska video taped a half dozen of what some believe are Cadborosaurus, the legendary sea serpent of the Pacific Coast. There have been more than 300 claimed Cadborosaurus sightings over the past 200 years.

On the Atlantic coast, the “Great New England Sea Sea Serpent”has been sighted more than 200 times, including a remarkable run of sightings in August of 1817 when the serpent appeared in Gloucester harbor nearly every day for a month. The “serpent “ was reported to be roughly 60 feet in length.

In August of 1848 a “sea serpent” of around the same size was sighted from the deck of the HMS Daedalus.

“The vessel sighted what they named as an enormous serpent between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena. The Serpent was witnessed to have been swimming with four feet of its head above the water and they believed that there was another sixty feet of the creature in the sea. Captain McQuahoe also said that “[The creature] passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily have recognised his features with the naked eye.” According to seven members of the crew it remained in view for around twenty minutes. Another officer wrote that the creature was more of a lizard than a serpent.”

Unfortunately digital cameras or camera phones were not widely available in the 19th century.

We are all well aware of the Loch Ness monster.  At least a half dozen other lakes claim lake monsters. In Lake Champlain, the legendary serpent nicknamed “Champ” has been reported over the last few hundred years. One interesting bit of documentation is a recording from 2003 of what appears to be echolocation in an area near where “Champ“ has been sighted. The recording is similar to, but different from, the echolcation used by beluga whales or orcas.   Numerous beluga whale fossils have been found near Lake Champlain.  One hydrophone recording does not constitute proof, but it is intriguing.

One of the more interesting bits of acoustic evidence of something that we do not understand was the so called “Bloop,” an ultra-low frequency and extremely powerful underwater sound detected by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1997. The sounds was detected by sensors up to 4,800 km apart. It resembled the sound made but an underwater living creature but the sound was simply too loud, several times louder than the loudest known animal, the blue whale.

Ironically, the colossal squid and the reports of less well documented “sea monsters” have all proven to be benign to ships and sailors. There is one very real sea monster, however, if we allow ourselves to broaden the term a bit, which has been crushing ships for all of history, yet was only documented a relatively few years ago.

Ship’s captains have long reported the existence of monster or rogue waves that were three or four time larger and much much steeper than other waves.  Based on these descriptions, it is likely that many of the ships that encountered such waves would not survive the rushing walls of water.  These accounts weren’t all subjective observations either. In 1861, the Eagle Island Light house in Ireland had its windows, 130 feet above the level of the sea, broken by a wave. Likewise, ships’ officers had used triangulation to measure waves over 100 feet high.

Scientists, however, knew better. They had a perfectly functional model of wave formation that agreed well with observations of sea states on an open ocean. The waves described by the ship’s captain simply didn’t agree with the model, so they couldn’t exist and therefore they didn’t. Case closed. The ship’s captains were telling sea stories, nothing more.

That was, at least, until January 1st, 1995 when a massive wave struck the Draupner platform in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. What was different this time was that a downwards-pointing laser sensor had been installed to measure wave heights on the platform. The recorded wave looked just like the monster or rogue waves described for centuries by ship’s captains.  Now that a rogue wave  had been accurately documented, it could no longer be dismissed. Rogue waves have turned out to be the real monsters of the sea, capable of swallowing ships whole like the dragons or kraken drawn on the old charts.

What if anything do these sea monsters; real, imagined and denied; tell us about our relationship with the sea and with the universe?  To m,e they suggest that we should keep in mind just how little we really know. Our knowledge may spread across the globe but it is only an inch deep, while the oceans depths extend down for miles.  As writers, particularly of speculative fiction, an awareness of our own limitations coupled with a sense of wonder about the range of possibilities and potentials, just might be our greatest tool in imagining worlds and oceans far beyond our own where there may indeed be dragons.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    August 11, 2011 11:56 am

    What do you speculate could possibly cause a wave like that? Wouldn’t it have to be initiated by something, like an earthquake or perhaps a GIANT SEA MONSTER? :)

  2. Rick Spilman permalink
    August 11, 2011 12:34 pm

    It all appears to be a quirk of non-linear quantum mechanics where a wave absorbs energy from adjacent waves. Versions of the nonlinear Schrödinger equations have been used to model the waves on computers. Within the last few months, researchers have created a rogue wave in a laboratory for the first time.

    http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-05-rogue-recreated-laboratory-tank.html

  3. August 11, 2011 1:23 pm

    @Rick: Non-linear quantum mechanics may be the precise and ultimate answer for the cause of rogue/monster waves, but I will maintain that Giant Sea Monsters is the more fun answer. That’s just because I’m more of a “let’s-imagine-something-that-probably-isn’t-real” kind of person than a science person. I plan, however, to try to absorb some of the information in the link you put with your comment.

    I don’t find many maps or charts that are labeled on the edge with dragons or serpents. Does anyone else miss seeing maps/charts that have images of dragons/serpents?

  4. August 11, 2011 9:23 pm

    I’ve read some quantum mechanics, and I have a friend (and a brother for that matter…different people) who are very engineering/science oriented. I still maintain the Arthur Waite’s occult theory makes more sense than quantum mechanics…and is more believable than string theory.

  5. Rick Spilman permalink
    August 12, 2011 6:13 pm

    I find the quantum mechanics of rogue waves to be scarier than sea monsters. Even putting aside that portion of the theories which even the physicists refer to as “quantum weirdness,” so much of what ship’s captains rely upon is the liner Newtonian clockwork universe. Introducing dangerous non-linearity to that world is quite disturbing.

  6. August 27, 2011 1:22 pm

    It’s disappointing, but predictable, that scientists ignore eye-witness reports until a laser scanner confirms them. Scientists are supposed to be skeptical, even of their own assumptions.

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