The Disgusting Truth Behind The Myth of Sea Serpents

What does this say about mermaids?
The Disgusting Truth Behind The Myth of Sea Serpents

Nowadays, "nautical adventure" just means your grandparents are going on a swinger's cruise. But the world's oceans used to be mysterious places full of terror and wonder. Explorers could encounter pirates, storms, uncharted islands, majestic whales, and even monstrous sea serpents. Or at least, what they thought were sea serpents.

Hans Egede and his son Poul wrote about a 1734 encounter with what they described as a "dreadful," "terribly big," and "wrinkled and rough" sea serpent. This thing was as big as their ship and spouted like a whale, but its back half was a giant serpentine tail. It was "an extraordinarily horrible creature," the kind of beast you'd expect The Rock to wrestle in the movie adaptation of Chutes And Ladders. Now, this was over a century before doubters could say "Daguerreotypes or it didn't happen." But the senior Edege was a skilled artist, so we have drawings from Hans and his contemporaries:

Via Wikimedia Commons
Well, "skilled artist" may be a little generous, but he was at least a "bored tenth-grader ignoring math class"-caliber artist.

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Much like there are currently a dozen different TV shows about dudes who have totally seen Bigfoot, most accounts of sea serpents can be dismissed as gossip, misinterpretation by laypeople, drunken exaggeration, or rambling nonsense. But Egede was a respected missionary who knew his whales, having accurately drawn and described a number of different species. They may have embellished this encounter a little, but his conviction that his son had spotted something monstrous led to centuries of speculation from scientists and cryptozoologists.

Wilder ideas suggest that Egede saw a giant otter, or maybe a whale species that was thought to be long extinct. While we like the image of an otter the size of a ship, the more reasonable theory from party-pooping scientists with their boring "facts" and "probabilities" is that they encountered a giant squid. But in 2005, Charles Paxton and Sharon Hedley of the University of St. Andrews teamed up with Norwegian cryptozoologist Erik Knatterud to offer an alternative theory, one based on a clearer modern translation of the Egedes' writings. They argue that what the duo really saw was a big ol' whale boner.

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If you Google "whale penis," as we so often suggest that you do, it really does look like a tail flopping around. And if a whale is both on its back and feeling a little lonely, the evidence of his arousal is going to be visible. The non-penisy parts of the description are a reasonable match for three different species of whale that weren't often seen in Egede's neck of the ocean. And in the confusion and excitement of spotting something new and weird in the water, well ...

Via Wikimedia Commons

We'll let you decide what all the water shooting from its mouth is supposed to represent.

Kaia Thomson
We were going to use a GIF to illustrate, but if you've stuck with us this long, you deserve to be spared that.

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Paxton and his colleagues don't claim that this explains away every befuddled sailor's account of beasts at sea. But in cases like Egede's, where witnesses describe a lot of whale-like tendencies, but are confused by some ... "peculiarities," well, the whole dong serpent theory seems like a reasonable (and hilarious) conclusion. Paxton's paper also points to an 1875 account of a sea serpent which describes it as a "whitish pillar" seen amid a pod of sperm whales "frantic with excitement." You know, like we were frequently "frantic with excitement" in middle school. These sightings are often connected to whales -- just more literally than people realized at the time.

Paxton's team won an Ig Nobel Prize, but their work only raises further questions. Is the Loch Ness monster really a monster dong? Is the key to finding the Ogopogo in the Ogopogo's Pogo Stick? Until someone is brave and weird enough to merge a more detailed study of historical accounts with the careful cataloging of aquatic genitalia, we can only speculate. But remember: If you ever think you've made a strange and terrible discovery, please first stop and account for huge animal dicks.

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