Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Sea Monster Files

The Royal Navy is not hiding any secret files on sea monsters - but crews who make unusual sightings may have recorded their experiences in ship logbooks. This revelation emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information request made by marine biologist Sebastian Darby. Darby’s request asked the MoD if there were “any abnormally large, or dangerous sea monsters hundreds of metres under the sea that haven’t been revealed to the public.” If such creatures did exist, he argued, it would be in the public interest to publish the facts as the lives of marine biologists could be at risk. The original request and response from the Navy FOI officer can seen on the helpful What Do They Know website here.

The response says MoD does not keep “any form of central repository of information purely devoted to sea monsters”. But the navy did encourage personnel to record sightings of marine mammals “and its possible this could include unusual sightings.” All such reports were sent to the UK Hydrographic Office in Somerset, but individual ship’s logs are retained until they are deposited at The National Archives after 30 years. But a search of thousands of ship’s logs for entries on sea monster sightings would exceed the cost limits allowed for a FOI request.

Nautical folklore is replete with such stories and first-hand accounts of sightings have been recorded in Atlantic waters since the Middle Ages. In more recent centuries, one of the most celebrated sea serpent reports was made by the captain and officers of the frigate HMS Daedalus off the Cape of Good Hope in the South Atlantic on 6 August 1848 (see image, right). On arrival in England the captain, Peter M’Quhae sent details to the Admiralty and to The Times newspaper. Later, he personally supervised a detailed drawing of the 60 ft long creature. But his story was rejected by palaeontologist Professor Richard Owen, who insisted the crew had seen a giant seal.

A number of other 19th century accounts have emerged in British Admiralty files deposited at The National Archives in Kew. One contains an account of a sea serpent written by Captain James Stockdale in May 1830. Stockdale and the crew of the barque Rob Roy were near the island of St Helena when they heard a scuffling noise in the water. As they turned to the port bow they were amazed to see the head of “a great thundering sea snake” whose head rose six feet out of the water “as square with our topsail [and] his tail was square with the foremast.” Stockdale said his ship was 171 feet long with the foremast 42 feet from the stern, which would make the monster 129 feet long. He reported to his masters in London:

“If I had not seen it I could not have believed it but there was no mistake or doubt of its length – for the brute was so close I could even smell his nasty fishy smell.”

Unusual reports like these appear to have been filed away without comment by the Admiralty, in much the same way that the Air Ministry dealt with reports of flying saucers and UFOs from RAF crews during the 20th century. Unless a clear threat was identified, either from sea monsters or aliens, sightings like these were classified as interesting but of “no defence significance.”


  1. I wanted to follow this up when I read an account in Philip Hoare's Leviathan, but unfortunately the ship's logs for the Daedalus are missing at TNA.

  2. Yes I checked this reference at Kew and came up with the same result. Clear evidence of a government cover-up of sea serpent reports!