Daedalus sea serpent may have been skimming whale

39-5One of the most famous “sea serpent” cases, that of the sighting from the crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848, has long been cited as a mystery animal. Dr. Gary J. Galbreath, an evolutionary biologist, authored an article featured on the cover of the September/October 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer that makes an argument that the identity of the mysterious creature is now solved: it is a sei whale.

This claim by Galbreath is worth promoting for discussion, debate, or as the best settlement of the mystery so far, but this particular article has not been made available online to non-subscribers of SkepInq. I’ve repeatedly stated that cryptozoology sites SHOULD cite skeptical literature – it is more measured and reasonable, often done by qualified researchers, considers likely and plausible explanations, and is overall better referenced. But they often do not cite these sources because they are less sensational for those same reasons listed. Therefore, I’m calling this cryptid “news” and calling it to wider attention of audiences interested in claims of unknown creatures.

The eyewitness reports of the sighting by the captain and crew as well as the subsequent media accounts and correspondence with the leading naturalist of the day, Richard Owen, are included in the book by A.C. Oudemans (1892) entitled: The great sea-serpent. An historical and critical treatise. With the reports of 187 appearances…the suppositions and suggestions of scientific and non-scientific persons, and the author’s conclusions.

You can access it here.

Oudemans entry for the Daedalus sea serpent is no. 118:

1848, August 6.—No report of the sea-serpent has ever more shaken the incredulity of hundreds and thousands than that generally known as the account of the Daedalus, after the frigate from which the sea-serpent was seen.

The Times newspaper of October, 9, 1848, published the following paragraph:

Intelligence from Plymouth, dated 7 Oct.

When the Daedalus frigate, Captain M’Quhae, which arrived at Plymouth on the 4th. instant, was on her passage home from the East Indies, between the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena, her captain, and most of her officers and crew, at four o’clock one afternoon, saw a sea-serpent. The creature was twenty minutes in sight of the frigate, and passed under her quarter. Its head appeared to be about four feet out of the water, and there was about sixty feet of its body in a straight line on the surface. It is calculated that there must have been under water a length of thirty-three or forty feet more, by which it propelled itself at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. The diameter of the exposed part of the body was about sixteen inches; and when it extended its jaws, which were full of large jagged teeth, they seemed sufficiently capacious to admit of a tall man standing upright between them.

The Captain’s report:

On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and, as nearly as we could approximate, by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal à fleur d’eau *, no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it had passed our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S. W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back. It was seen by the quartermaster, the boatswain’s mate, and the man at the wheel, in addition to myself and officers above-mentioned.

I am having a drawing of the serpent made from a sketch taken immediately after it was seen, which I hope to have ready for transmission to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty by to-morrow’s post.

Peter M’Quhae, Captain.

* “the level of the water”

Illustration based on Captain's description in the Illustrated London News.

Illustration based on the Captain’s description appeared in the Illustrated London News.

After the Captain’s account was made public, Lt. Drummond, an officer of the watch, related his own description of the event that he recorded in his journal:

H. M. S. Daedalus, August, 6, 1848, lat. 25° S., long 9° 37′ E., St., Helena 1015 miles. In the 4 to 6 watch, at about five o’clock, we observed a most remarkable fish on our lee quarter, crossing the stern in a S. W. direction; the appearance of its head, which, with the back fin, was the only portion of the animal visible, was long, pointed, and flattened at the top, perhaps ten feet in length, the upper jaw projecting considerably; the fin was perhaps twenty feet in the rear of the head, and visible occasionally; the captain also asserted that he saw the tail, or another fin about the same distance behind it; the upper part of the head and shoulders appeared of a dark brown colour, and beneath the under jaw a brownish white. It pursued a steady undeviating course, keeping its head horizontal with the surface of the water, and in rather a raised position, disappearing occasionally beneath a wave for a very brief interval, and not apparently for purposes of respiration. It was going at the rate of perhaps from twelve to fourteen miles an hour, and when nearest, was perhaps one hundred yards distant. In fact it gave one quite the idea of a large snake or eel. No one in the ship has ever seen anything similar, so it is at least extraordinary. It was visible to the naked eye for five minutes, and with a glass for perhaps fifteen more. The weather was dark and squally at the time, with some sea running.

M’Quhae and crew were reputable sources and assumed to be able to distinguish between a non-animal bit of seaweed and a whale, fish or seal of the varieties they were used to encountering. This thing, they insisted, was snake-like. Their reports caused a stir. But, we must not overlook the inherent problems of eyewitnesses. No matter how experienced, observers can make errors and memory can be distorted or change over time.

Galbreath points out these problems with the sighting reports. It also occurred under conditions of poor visibility. There is disagreement about the presence of a dorsal fin, and conflicting reports of whether it went below surface periodically or not.

New drawings from Drummond’s account surfaced in 1997 that also are different than the depictions from those of an artist used by Capt. M’Quhae to illustrate his recollection of the animal. Drummond’s drawings are more suggestive of the conclusions that the animal was a sei whale skim feeding at the surface and NOT a large snake.

Lt. Drummond's sketch

Lt. Drummond’s sketch

The sei whale, a baleen whale, has a narrow upper jaw giving it a flat top profile. The baleen, typically a lighter color than the skin, hangs from it, perhaps giving the perception of a light-colored throat or underside. The streamlined features, description of ridges on the head, behavior of the creature, and location of the sighting all fit with a conclusion of a skim-feeding whale of this type. There is a problem regarding the fin, which is prominent in sei whales, and the lack of mention of whale-like blowing. Those details, Galbreath explains, can be accounted for, along with other discrepancies, by the poor viewing conditions, a possible injury to the animal that damaged the fin, and the witnesses’ perceptions that they were seeing a sea serpent.

Sei whale at the surface. Photo from http://www.planetwhale.com/boat-767_HEBRIDEAN_WHALE_CRUISES_Whale_Dolphin_Watching

Sei whale at the surface. Photo from http://www.planetwhale.com/boat-767_HEBRIDEAN_WHALE_CRUISES_Whale_Dolphin_Watching

Distinctive fin of sei whale. "Balaenoptera-borealis" by Andrea Centini - Flickr: Balaenoptera-borealis. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balaenoptera-borealis.jpg#/media/File:Balaenoptera-borealis.jpg

Distinctive fin of sei whale. “Balaenoptera-borealis” by Andrea Centini – Flickr: Balaenoptera-borealis. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balaenoptera-borealis.jpg#/media/File:Balaenoptera-borealis.jpg

This explanation is reasonable and is far more plausible than others put forward. We can discount the explanation that it was a “saurian” (plesiosaur) since they are long extinct with no evidence that they survived past the dinosaur age extinction event. There is no evidence that a giant eel was seen since such an animal was ever documented. No known animal has been recovered that looks or behaves in the manner described. And, unfortunately, though the idea was for a while taken seriously by scientists, there has never been a large “sea serpent” creature discovered.

Therefore, it is likely that we can chalk up the Daedalus event to a skim-feeding whale. That’s about as good of an answer as we will probably get from an event long passed unless some surprise additional evidence is forthcoming.

It’s fair to conclude that the many and various sea serpent sightings have not one but multiple causes. Skim-feeding whales is a valid option as one of them.

  9 comments for “Daedalus sea serpent may have been skimming whale

  1. Peebs
    October 22, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    I’m wearing my Pedant Hat.
    Please don’t prefix HMS with the Definite Article.
    ‘The Her/His Majesty’s Ship’ is just wrong.
    I have now removed my pedant hat.

  2. October 22, 2015 at 7:31 PM

    We ‘muricans typically forget what HMS means. At least I have to stop and think about it.

  3. busterggi (Bob Jase)
    October 23, 2015 at 8:08 AM

    We ‘muricans is never wrong, its them danged Brits who can’t decide what the H means.

  4. Meagan Martin
    October 23, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    What about a skim-feeding right whale? Seen the right why this looks eerily like the description: http://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/video/southern-right-whale-skim-feeding-at-surface-stock-video-footage/3B2FBBDE_0060

  5. Peebs
    October 23, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    In fairness Busterggi we only swap when one of our monarchs dies and even then not always!

    The last Daedalus was a Naval Air Station in Lee On Solent (I served there on and off for about ten years). It was where the picture of the so called ‘ghost’ of a naval airman was taken.

    Just thought you’d like to know!

  6. October 23, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    Yes, I’m not sure why it had to be the sei whale, actually. But that video shows a nice example of the steady movement through the water.

  7. Phil
    October 24, 2015 at 9:55 PM

    Notice also that Daedalus is not a whaling ship. I point this out because in an analogous field, astronomy, astronomers don’t report seeing UFOs.

  8. Mark Riegel
    October 26, 2015 at 10:19 PM

    Way back in 1957 or 58, when a small boy, I was given a copy of [i]Mermaids and Mastodons: A Book of Natural and Unnatural History,[/i] by one Richard Carrington (not the 19th c. astronomer), which among other things offered natural explanations for a number of legendary and mythological creatures, including sea serpents. Carrington discusses the Daedalus sighting, as well as other 19th and early 20th c. sightings, and notes that even in 1848, speculation from the scientific community was that the Daedalus creature was not a reptile but some kind of mammal, with a large elephant seal being the popular suspect. Carrington suggested that most “sea serpent” sightings were of “an ancient and as yet undiscovered species of whale.” I suspect he’d have been convinced, if he’d seen the above video, that the species was neither ancient nor undiscovered.

    Carrington’s book (which is still listed on Amazon) had a huge influence on how I came to view the world.

    Phil, I like your comment. Good insight.

  9. ApexDisorder
    October 27, 2015 at 4:41 AM



    The main purpose of the dorsal fin is to stabilize the whale and keep it from rolling in the water.

    Dorsal fins can vary greatly in terms of shape and size depending on the species of whale and while many species possess a dorsal fin there are some exceptions such as the sperm whale and beluga whale which have no dorsal fin at all.

    Some species of dolphin and porpoise also lack the presence of a dorsal fin.

    I got to thinking about dorsal fins on mammals.

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