The Case for the Sea Serpent 1930
The Case for the Sea Serpent 1930
Abstract and Keywords
Of the many and varied scientific mysteries for which Cdr. R. T. Gould is known, the one subject for which he is, even today, most closely associated is the question of the existence of sea serpents. Gould's first paper on the subject was given to the Sette of Odd Volumes on 25 March 1925, in which he cites twelve cases of positive and well-documented sightings. Having thus prepared the ground for further research, and ‘staked his claim’ to the subject, he began planning a larger account in early 1929 and was ready to embark on writing immediately after the typescript for Enigmas was finished that summer. This chapter presents a short summary of the book's contents and Gould's conclusions, along with a few comments by others, better placed to judge the quality of Gould's work on the subject.
Of the many and varied scientific mysteries for which Cdr. R.T. Gould is known, the one subject for which he is, even today, most closely associated is the question of the existence of sea serpents. The term refers to an as-yet unidentified species of sea creature, by some accounts resembling the prehistoric plesiosaur, sighted occasionally, over the years, by mariners and sea-going passengers, but never yet captured nor clearly photographed.
In this most controversial of Gould’s scientific mysteries, he stepped down from his usual impartial look at the evidence and ‘nailed his colours firmly to the mast’. He was convinced some species of such creature did, and therefore perhaps still does, exist in the oceans of the world, and at least in one case, in a certain freshwater Scottish Loch.
In an impassioned note in the BBC publication The Listener, in 1937 (after two radio broadcasts on the subject) he speaks of the overwhelming evidence which should leave no doubt in any impartial and unprejudiced mind that something akin to sea serpents really do exist.
Given his naval schooling, the lore of sea monsters must have been introduced, in one form or another, at an early age, and in his usual methodical way Rupert was collecting notes on unexplained sightings from his teens. Though he never claimed to have sighted one himself, he had many first-hand accounts from those who did, including a colleague of his in the Hydrographic Department itself, one Captain F.E.B. Haselfoot.
As told in Chapter 9, Gould’s first paper on the subject was given to the Sette of Odd Volumes on 25 March 1925, in which he cites 12 cases of positive and well-documented sightings. Having thus prepared the ground for further research, and ‘staked his claim’ to the subject, he began planning a larger account in early 1929 and was ready to embark on writing immediately after the typescript for Enigmas was finished that summer.
The Case for the Sea Serpent
Given that so much has been written on the subject since Gould’s day, and given the controversial nature of the subject, on which the author (p.202) of this biography is wholly unqualified to express an opinion, it is best simply to put on record a short summary of the book’s contents and Gould’s conclusions, along with a few comments by others, better placed to judge the quality of Gould’s work on the subject.
This was not the first time the subject had been discussed in book form. One of Gould’s largest sources of material was A.C. Oudemans’ seminal work The Great Sea-Serpent,259 a work described by Gould as ‘monumental… a mine of curious facts and equally curious English’, and one of which he was also highly critical.
Stretching to 291 pages and 13 Chapters, including seven plates and 30 drawings (19 of them his own) The Case for the Sea Serpent is a thorough and, by all accounts, an even-handed discussion of the evidence available to Gould, covering sightings from the eighteenth century, many from the nineteenth century and several ‘post Oudemans’ from the twentieth century. In this work, Gould not only reported on cases that had been published before, he went back to the source of those cases, checking the facts for accuracy and often digging up new information which enabled the case to be seen in a wholly different light.
The Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, one of the most notable post-Gould authors on the subject, praises Gould’s work in his comprehensive work In the Wake of the Sea Serpents.260 In a brief biographical note on Gould he states
In the Introduction, Gould very sensibly tackles head-on the probability that many readers would already be sceptical, but urges them to keep an open mind. ‘I submit that when the case for the sea serpent’s existence is examined in detail one can scarcely fail to be struck with the consistent (p.203) and weighty character of the evidence, and the almost puerile nature of many of the numerous (and inconsistent) attempts to discredit and belittle it by applying some naturalistic explanation’.
Naturally enough the riddle of the sea-serpent attracted him greatly, and he attacked it with learning and care as no one had seriously done since Oudemans. It is no credit to zoology that the next in the list should be an amateur as regards that science, though he was an excellent mathematician, and The Case for the Sea-Serpent (1930) is a model of scientific rigour … Gould aimed at quality. He offered only a selection of reports, but they were all scrupulously authenticated and carefully checked by a man with an intimate knowledge of seamanship, and who had access to official papers and specialised libraries. Log-books, meteorological records, naval archives were all consulted to make sure the witness was telling he truth. We can therefore be virtually certain that the couple of dozen sightings … he cites in the book are genuine. Thus he greatly strengthens the case for the sea-serpent, though from a zoological point of view he has little new to add.
Noting however that some contemporary writers are attempting to keep an open mind, Gould quotes E.C. Boulenger, a friend and, as ‘Brother Shark’, a fellow member of the Sette of Odd Volumes who was Director of the Zoological Society’s Aquarium in Regent’s Park, London. Boulenger pointed out in 1926 that, as there were still many hundreds of square miles of unexplored ocean (to which Gould adds that this is itself enormously under-stated), we should at least give the sea serpent the benefit of the doubt. It would not be long though before Brother Shark was expressing rather different views on the whole question and would prove not such a close friend as Gould supposed.
Of the dozen or so cases cited by Gould (mostly sightings in the Atlantic, but one or two from across the world), the majority are entirely new and unpublished. Mike Dash has pointed out the importance of one in particular, the Mackintosh Bell sighting, as potentially the most important. He notes: ‘This case is unique in providing reasonably credible evidence of the overall appearance of a sea serpent’. The sightings of the animal (in the Orkneys) occurred repeatedly over a period of several years, the witness claiming to have been able to look down on it swimming beneath him through clear water, providing an exceedingly good view.
One of the arguments most frequently raised for the non-existence of Megophias Megophias (Oudemans’ Latin classification name) was the absence of any bodies of dead serpents. A whole chapter in the book discusses this question, pointing out that there have in fact been several cases of unidentified carcasses washed up on shore in various places across the world (though none positively ‘sea-serpentine’). However, Gould points out that one would not generally expect to encounter such things, as the bodies of marine animals do not normally float when dead, save for a short period during decomposition, when buoyed by gas.
In the final Chapter, ‘Theories versus Facts’, Gould summarizes the debate by producing a typically ordered classification for the various theories ascribed to answer these mysteries. Under ‘General theories’ he considers the possibility of ‘Deliberate deception’ and ‘Collective hallucination’. Then, assuming something was actually seen, a category (p.204) considers inanimate objects such as floating seaweed or tree trunks. Then, ‘Living oceanic creatures of known species’, either in groups or singly, are listed as possible contenders, followed by ‘Other living creatures of known species’, ‘Supposed gigantic examples of known species’ and ‘Supposed survivals of ‘extinct’ reptiles’.
In conclusion, Gould states his belief that the many and varied sightings he has quoted are not deceptions but are most probably explained by the existence of three different, shy and very rare, creatures, not yet scientifically described: a long-necked seal, a gigantic turtle-like creature and (the explanation for the majority of the reports), ‘a creature resembling in outline and structure the Plesiosaurus of Mesozoic times. I do not suggest that the last named is actually a Plesiosaurus, but that it is either one of its descendants or has evolved along similar lines’.
Writing on The Case for the Sea Serpent had begun in the autumn of 1929, but the continuation of H3’s restoration then intervened, and it was only in early 1930, with H3 still not finished, that Gould got down to it. As usual, he was leaving things until the last minute as he was contracted with Philip Allen’s to complete the typescript by the end of May. On 24 June 1930, Gould was attending the monthly OV dinner as usual. That occasion was Ladies Night however—Dodo was his guest—and Vyvyan Holland, David Low, Ralph Straus and he were billed ‘to amuse the company’. We are not told how, but no doubt Sea Serpents got a mention there somewhere.
Proofs for The Case for the Sea Serpent were checked while on Holiday at Sheringham in September, the final proofs being accepted by him on 2 October 1930. The book was sold with a dust jacket also illustrated by Gould, rather unwisely depicting a huge and apparently savage sea serpent attacking a modern battleship:261 hardly likely to induce an open mind in the serious reader! The book’s dedication would have been no more serious, had it not been for a tragedy that befell one of Gould’s close friends at the time.
Until a few months before publication, the book’s dedication page read: ‘This book is dedicated to my friend BILL, who will never read it (being a grey Russian cat) but who is very fond of fish’. A proof of this page survives in Gould’s own copy of the book (Gould was, needless to say, actually very fond of Bill; if one accepts that pet-owners often fall into one of two categories, ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’, Rupert was decidedly in the former group). However, in July, Armorel Heron-Allen, daughter of Gould’s fellow Sette brother and friend, Edward Heron-Allen, was killed in a car crash262 and, as a token of his condolences to the devastated father, Gould dedicated the book to her (p.205) memory ‘Armorel Daphne Heron-Allen 15 June 1908 to 3 July 1930′, though he had in fact only met her once.
The Times leader for 30 October dedicated a whole column to Gould’s work. Headed ‘The Amende Honorable’, the paper waxed lyrical: ‘To be big and splendid and yet to be ignored, is a poor life. Lovers of animals, whether they subscribe to the RSPCA or not, will hear with joy that the Sea Serpent has had a kind book written about him at last. It comes out today and, as an additional compliment, it is by a naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Gould’. The piece congratulates Gould on covering a subject well known to naval officers and seamen alike but which few of them care to discuss for fear of ridicule, ending: ‘If men do not see him very often it is perhaps because in his serpentine wisdom, not knowing what medicinal oil he may not contain, the sea serpent stays below, and prefers to be rare and semi-fabulous instead of being extinct’. The following day’s Times included the title in its list of new books, Philip Allen putting an advert in the same issue, headed ‘A Challenge to Public Opinion’, with the book marked at the usual 12/6.
There was no second edition, but in 1935 a German edition appeared, including text from The Case for the Sea Serpent, The Loch Ness Monster and Others (see Chapter 16) and some relevant new material added by the joint author, Georg-Gunther Freiherrn von Forstner, himself a sea serpent witness.
The Case for the Sea Serpent was reviewed, inter alia, in The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) on 8 January 1931, the reviewer describing Gould as ‘an extremely readable specialist on odd and exceptional things’. The review prompted a letter in the TLS263 from a distinguished geologist, Dr F.A. Bather. He refused to accept the Plesiosaur theory on the grounds that no fossil remains of Plesiosaurs had been found after Mesozoic and Secondary eras, and that the evidence was that they were definitely extinct. Gould replied264 that absence of fossil remains did not guarantee extinction, giving the examples of the Chimaera (a species offish), the long-necked river tortoise, and the iguana.
Gould also stated he was not saying these were Plesiosaurs, but descendants, or something evolved along similar lines. In a further reply265 Bather answered that in fact there is fossil evidence of all the three species Gould cites, and therefore his case stood that the sea serpent could not have evolved from a Plesiosaur. A final pair of letters (p.206) appeared,266 Gould citing a well-known zoologist as stating that absence of fossil evidence is not sufficient reason to assume a species is extinct, with Bather replying that he could not agree and, while wishing to point out that he is not saying there is no such thing as a sea serpent, he doubts it is even anything like a plesiosaur. The Editor then closed the correspondence. There were however other sceptics who would take the opportunity to criticize Gould’s work heavily in the years to come.
Man and the Natural World
Before leaving a discussion of Sea Serpents, this would be an appropriate place to mention another subject Gould felt passionately about: man’s poor treatment of his fellow animals. In one of his characteristic parting remarks in The Case for the Sea Serpent, Gould hoped that one day one of these creatures may be photographed and studied, but not captured. He reminds us that of the several enemies such an animal may have, by far the worst would be Man: ‘The list of creatures which Man has swept out of existence for no reason but his own greed and selfishness—the great auk, the dodo, Stellar’s sea-cow, the passenger pigeon and the like—is a pitiable one. Even his brother man has not escaped—witness the fate of the Tasmanian Bushmen, and the steady degeneration of savage communities under the influence of “civilised” man’s inseparable comrades—drink and disease’.
An inveterate misanthropist, over the years Gould took every opportunity he could to ram the message home in his publications about Man’s dreadful behaviour in the natural world. He even spoke to the Sette of Odd Volumes on it, giving a paper entitled ‘The Dodo and Other Creatures’, at the Sette’s ‘Extinction Night’, on 25 February 1930.
On the question of killing animals, it’s true that Gould joined his father in shooting rabbits and fishing when they were in Scotland, but this was for the table, and he had never been squeamish about killing for food (in fairness, neither should anyone be, who eats meat). Blood sports like foxhunting on the other hand—‘killing animals for fun’—was an entirely different matter and he was utterly opposed to it. On several other occasions Gould spoke out eloquently about man’s cruelty to his fellow animals.
As an aside in his chapter ‘The Auroras and other Doubtful Islands’ in Oddities, he commented on the result of the submergence of Garefowls Rock, an islet off the coast of Iceland. The inaccessible Garefowls Rock had harboured the last remaining colony of the famous sea bird, the Great Auk, (p.207) which, on the disappearance of the island, was obliged to adopt another refuge. This was the islet of Eldey, which was much nearer the Icelandic coast and more easily accessed by man. Speaking passionately of the now-extinct Great Auk, Gould rams home his misanthropic message sarcastically: ‘their numbers were rapidly depleted by the hardy Icelanders, who dared not only the perils of a six-mile voyage, but also the grave risk of getting quite a sharp nip in the slack of their trousers before they could safely knock their formidable quarry on the head. Rabbit-shooting itself could scarcely offer more thrills and dangers. It was on Eldey, in 1844, that the last known pair of Great Auks were murdered by two heroes named Jon Brandsson and Siguror Islefsson, both natives of Iceland. It is permissable to hope that by now they are experiencing a much hotter climate’.
In a similar vein, when describing the discovery, by a ‘sealer’, of the group of islands in the Antarctic (The South Shetlands), Gould took the opportunity to remind the reader what a cruel practice ‘sealing’ was.267 The ‘sealer’ itself was the ship, the crew of which made their living by ‘hunting’ (really just ‘finding’) and killing seals, selling the pelts for their fur.
When the South Shetlands were discovered, vast numbers of seals were found: ‘To the commercial eye, the spectacle was… much as if the shore had been carpeted with guineas’. The underlying story is a hideously cruel one from a modern perspective and, though only incidental to the main subject of the article (the sealers’ charting of the Antarctic), it was one Gould was determined not to underplay: ‘the seal were so tame that they would come placidly ashore right among the men who were slaying and skinning their companions. In the Antarctic Summer of 1820–21 there was a wild rush of sealers to the group from all parts of the world … An indiscriminate massacre followed. As fast as men could work, the seal—bulls, females and pups alike—were clubbed to death (not always even to death) and quickly flayed, the pelts being stowed in salt until the holds would take no more, while on the gory beaches a host of sea-birds pecked and tore at the naked carcasses, many still feebly moving. So it has always been … so, I suppose, it will always be. Of all animals, man is the cruellest and the greediest’.
At the beginning of 1931, with The Case for the Sea Serpent now launched, and no more commissions for ‘mystery books’ currently on the stocks, Gould turned his attention to Horology again. Finally he had time to pick up again on the extraordinary saga of the restoration of the Harrison timekeepers.
(259.) A. C. Oudemans, The Great Sea-Serpent, Leyden, 1892.
(260.) Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of Sea Serpents, translated by Richard Garnett, Hill& Wang, N. Y. 1968.
(261.) The ship is a careful drawing of a ‘Nelson’ class battleship, the most up- to-date at the time and the pride of the Royal Navy.
(262.) In the early 1930s road fatalities were proportionally 15 times higher than today. The heavy death toll on the roads at the time prompted the 1934 Road Traffic Bill, introducing speed limits and driving tests.
(263.) T. L. S. F. A. Bather, 15 January 1931.
(264.) T. L. S. Gould, 22 January 1931.
(265.) T. L. S. Bather, 5 February 1931.
(266.) T. L. S. Gould and Bather, 26 February 1931.