Summer has finally arrived, and crowds are headed to the beach to swim, fish, and enjoy the Gulf waters. Common advice is to be aware of rip tides, jellyfish, and over-exposure to the Texas sun, but if eye witnesses and newspaper accounts from years past are to be believed, there might be one more thing to be aware of…sea serpents!
The Loch Ness Monster of Scotland may come to mind when sea serpents are mentioned, but sightings of this type of unexplained creature have been spotted throughout the world, including along the Gulf Coast.
During the 19th and early-20th century, local newspapers such as the Galveston Daily News often reported sea serpent sightings shared by sailors arriving in port or by fellow papers along the coast. Even stories of sightings on the east coast caused excited speculation about what might lie beneath the waves of the Gulf.
During the Civil War, Union soldiers occupying Ship Island, Mississippi, on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, spotted “eight monster fish” swimming into the harbor during the summer of 1864. The men gave chase and harpooned one of the beasts, but it managed to drag the boat ten miles out to sea before dying.
After being towed back to shore, the men reported that it measured 18-feet-long, 15-feet-wide, six feet in diameter and weighed 1,800 pounds. It was said to be slimy and its meat was the consistency of “unrefined cod liver oil.”
It was one of a string of sightings of remarkable creatures in the area over the next two decades.
The sighting of a sea serpent spotted three days off Galveston’s shore on Valentine’s Day 1847, was recounted in a small Galveston newspaper named Flake’s Bulletin, and the story was picked up by papers around the country.
Upon arriving in Galveston, Captain A. Hassel and the crew of the Norwegian bark St. Olive shared that they saw a creature with a broad, snake-like head, large eyes, long narrow neck, and 70 feet in length—about two lengths from their vessel.
Hassel drew what he saw from memory, and his illustration was widely published. From the appearance of the drawing, modern day sailors speculate that the captain may have actually seen a line of cetaceans breaching the surface from a distance, and mistook the sight for a single creature.
Oddities of the seas could sometimes put a few dollars in the pockets of ingenious businessmen. Galveston saloonkeeper George Rains, of the notorious Last Chance Saloon, kept a museum of sorts at the back of his establishment. Visiting sailors would bring him oddities from around the world to add to his collection, and it was said to take a few cents and a “strong stomach” to view the display.
Claims of finding the remnants of gigantic beasts occasionally extended inland. In November 1878, the Brenham Weekly Banner declared that Dr. Wilson of Ellis County had discovered the petrified head and jaws of a sea serpent on the banks of Chambers Creek whose body was thought to have been a shocking 40 feet long. It was sensational news at the time, but that area is now known for the discovery of multiple fossils of identifiable marine dinosaurs.
In August 1892, dailies as far away as Minnesota spread the word that a sea serpent spotted on the Texas coast escaped after being shot at several times by T. L. Siegel, who described it as being about 12 feet long with an oval head, protruding snout, and a corrugated back.
Even The New York Times thrilled readers in July 1908, with the headline: “200-Foot Sea Serpent. Seen at 3 Bells in Gulf of Mexico–Enormous Rattles on Its Tail.”
The article stated: “What is confidently believed to be a sea serpent has been sighted and narrowly inspected by the officers, crew and fifteen passengers of the steamship Livingstone of the Texas-Mexican Line. All of the witnesses made a sworn affidavit to this effect.”
The affidavit described how Captain G. A. Olsen and the others aboard ship were bound from Galveston to Frontera, Mexico, in clear weather. At “three bells” (approximately 7:30pm) the dark brown serpent with rings around its tail was spotted off the port bow.
The ship was within 60 feet of the creature, and the group observed it for about 15 minutes through spyglasses. It was “apparently sleeping, and not less than 200 feet long, of about the diameter of a flour barrel in the center of the body.” Contemporary readers may safely assume that whatever they saw was more likely dead than “sleeping.”
Just one month later, The Daily News confirmed the existence of monstrous sea creatures for locals when C.D. Swan caught a 14-foot-long manta ray with a 2.5-foot-tall mouth off the North Jetties. The astonishing creature weighed an estimated 2,000 pounds, and exhibited at Pier 19 to allow Galvestonians to be photographed with the rarity.
Not everyone believed the numerous tales printed during the era. Professor A. Proctor issued a length statement in 1877 declaring that, although a few may be hoaxes, others may be the result of lack of information. It was his belief that the serpents were most likely either undiscovered species, or species from the dinosaur age thought long since vanished. He preferred to refer to the creatures as sea-saurians.
Regardless of the seeming voices of reason, appearances of a variety of sea serpents continue to be reported.
Another sighting occurred in New Orleans in 1934, and four years later, an immense creature off Port Isabel caused a fruitless hunt by avid fishermen.
More recently, a mysterious, fanged “sea monster” was beached in Texas City by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Discovered by Preeti Desai, a science communicator with the Audubon Society, it caused a flurry of excitement and speculation on Twitter. Most scientific authorities later identified the poor creature as a bloated fanged eel or snake eel.
The truth behind some appearances of some “water devils” can be disappointing, as described in a very brief story in the Galveston Daily News on April 24, 1868: “The sea serpent that appeared off Chicago a few months ago has been captured and put in a saw mill. It was a large pine tree.”
There are, of course, explanations offered by the scientific community for some of the beasts that witnesses have described over the years that are almost as terrifying in appearance as the folklore.
Alligator gars, with their long toothy snouts, can grow up to eight feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. Such a beast might easily be mistaken for something more legendary.
Other explanations include the deep-sea dwelling, snakelike oarfish, which can grow over 40 feet in length. They have occasionally been known to be pushed closer to the surface and even the beach by strong currents, and physically match many of the characteristics a classic sea serpent displayed.
Enormous basking sharks, with conical snouts and enormous mouths, easily offer another explanation.
The rediscovery of the coelacanth in 1938, previously thought to have been extinct for 70 million years, and a megamouth shark, in 1976, are enough to give most people pause about the existence of strange creatures below the waves. Perhaps Professor Proctor was not wrong after all.
It is not hard to believe that there might be nightmarish creatures existing in the deep that have yet to be discovered and identified.
Are sea serpents merely a part of sailors’ lore, a case of mistaken identity, or vivid imagination? Only you can judge for yourself…if you’re lucky enough to spot one.