70% of the world’s surface is the ocean – and much to the horror of humans through the millennia, scary sea monsters are actually a real thing. They prowl the vast waters of our globe and emerge with terrifying results in stories – and real life.
The dictionary defines the word monster as “an animal of strange or terrifying shape” and “one unusually large for its kind.” By this definition, the creatures that dwell in the deep ocean are true monsters. Miles beneath the surface, where sunlight can no longer penetrate, exists an eerie world of cold darkness. This is the abyss.
Contrary to popular belief, the sailors of Columbus’s day did not think they would sail right off the edge of the Earth. They were, however, apprehensive about what they would find in their travels. Mistakes about marine life have ranged from inaccurate assumptions about the behavior of known species to fanciful depictions of animals that “might” exist.
Alexander Winchell suggested that, “the unexplored depths of the ocean conceal the forms of octopods that far surpass in magnitude any of the species known to science.” Winchell was right on both counts.
Perhaps that’s why they play such a massive role in our collective imaginations as well: the Kraken of Nordic sea lore, the loch ness monster of Scotland, the Lukwata sea monster of Uganda. The list of fables, legends, and sea shanties is as deep as the deep-sea waters where some monstrous animals swim. Science is just beginning to catch up and we can look to organizations like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) and others for emerging information on the truth behind the scary stories.
So let’s dive in and ask: Are sea monsters real
The Giant Squid
On a December day in 1848, the sailing ship Pekin was becalmed off the Cape of Good Hope near Southern Africa when a crew member spotted a strange creature in the water. Careful examination of the animal by use of a telescope revealed it to be snake-like, with a large head and shaggy mane.
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Only two months before the HMS Daedulus had reported seeing a sea serpent in that very same region. Amid great excitement a small boat, it’s crew prepared to capture the animal, was lowered into the water. The Captain, Frederic Smith, watched from a distance, with concern for the safety of his men, as the small boat approached the creature. To the Captain’s surprise the animal did not move at all as the boat drew near. He was even more surprised when the crew of the boat proceeded to tow the “creature” back.
The sea serpent turned out to be a twenty foot long piece of floating seaweed with a root shaped like a head and neck. Could the Daedulus sea serpent been of similar origin?
Judging distance, size and motion of an object in the sea is extremely difficult. Objects on land can be compared to nearby trees and boulders. In the water only the waves offer a clue to scale and the size of waves vary enormously depending on weather conditions.
The movement of the waves can also suggest motion where there is none. Arthur Adams, a ship’s surgeon in the 1860’s, spotted what appeared to be a mysterious creature moving through the water by using lateral undulations of it’s body. His ship’s course was altered to intercept the animal and capture it. When they approached the thing Adam’s wrote:
“By this time, however, a closer and more critical inspection had taken place, and the supposed sea monster had turned himself into a long, dark root, gnarled and twisted, of a tree, secured to the moorings of a fishing net, with a strong tide passing it rapidly, and thus giving it an apparent life-like movement and serpentine aspect.”
The Daedulus affair might also be explained by an abandoned native canoe painted like a snake. L. Sprague de Camp suggested the owners of the canoe may have harpooned a large sea animal, like a whale shark, and they were either spilled into the sea when the animal surfaced under the boat, or jumped in panic when they could not cut the line dragging the canoe.
World’s deepest-living predator (it’s terrifying)
Scientists aboard a research vessel were trawling for fish near eastern Australia when they accidentally pulled up this: a fang-faced monster that has the body of an eel, the face of a lizard and an impressive reputation as the world’s deepest-living predator.
Known as Bathysaurus ferox (literally meaning “fierce deep-sea lizard”), the so-called lizard fish has an MO of burying itself on the deep seafloor, 3,300 to 8,200 feet (1,000 to 2,500 m) below the water’s surface. When unsuspecting prey swims by, B. ferox darts out of the sediment and snatches up the meal in its formidable jaws. “Once it has you in its jaws, there is no escape: The more you struggle, the farther into its mouth you go,” Asher Flatt, the vessel’s onboard communicator, wrote in a blog post.
Oh, also, it’s a hermaphrodite (meaning it has both ovarian and testicular tissues in its reproductive organs). That means any B. ferox can mate with any other B. ferox it meets, giving the species a survival advantage in the sparsely populated deep ocean.
While the Fangtooth fish may have the largest fish teeth out there, the scariest fish teeth may be the needly, out-of-mouth fish teeth of the viperfish. It’s a broad title for any species of marine fish in the genus Chauliodus. These species are characterized by needle-like teeth and hinged jaws that will remind you of an underbite. This saltwater menace is one of the fiercest predators of the waters, attracting prey through its light-producing organ before attacking it.
Rare, deep-ocean shark with 300 “frilled” teeth
Some deep-sea fishers were trawling near Portugal this November when they accidentally hauled up a dinosaur of a catch. Scientists aboard a nearby research vessel identified the strange catch as Chlamydoselachus anguineus — also known as the frilled-tooth shark, a species that has changed so little over the past 80 million years that researchers call it a “living fossil.”
How did the frill-toothed shark get its name? Look into its spooky maw, if you dare, and behold its 300 three-pointed teeth, which resemble rows of very sharp, terrifying frills. The creatures stretch more than 5 feet long and use their impressive chompers to take down prey, which includes fish, squid and other sharks. Though the captured shark died, it still provided researchers an exciting opportunity to study it. Frilled-tooth sharks are rarely seen, as they can swim as deep as 4,600 feet (1,400 m) below the ocean’s surface — deeper than most fishing vessels dare venture.
Why is it looking at me like that?! While the Northern Stargazer’s name make it sounds like some sweet, cuddly hipster fish, it’s actually the polar opposite. This hideous fish buries itself in the ocean food, using jolts of electricity to jolt prey before opening its giant mouth to devour small fish and crustaceans whole. (Scuba diving vacation? Thanks but no thanks.)
The Leviathan has a Hebrew origin. It appears in the Old Testament Bible as a sea serpent with multiple heads. It appears in Psalms, the Book of Job, the book of Isaiah, and the Book of Amos. The monster is described as chaotic and life-threatening. It is also cited as eating the damned afterlife. It is often associated with the sin of envy.
Today, the term “leviathan” is commonly used to describe any sea creature of large proportions.
Many tales of sea serpents and sea monsters are suggested to be caused by the giant oarfish, or regalecus glesne. This fish can reach lengths of up to 11 meters, making it appear like a colossal sea serpent or sea dragon.
Some Specific Scary Sea Monsters
There are plenty of secrets of the monstrous seven seas that we have yet to understand. But there are plenty of real-life sightings to send a shiver-of-a-jellyfish sting up your spine. The depths of the ocean are where mysticism meets horror movies – and the surface is by no means safe, either. Read on for a thoroughly-inconclusive list.
Box Jelly is especially scary because to encounter a box tentacle is usually a death sentence for a human being. Named for their shape, they are considered the most venomous animal in the ocean according to NOAA.
Their tentacles are loaded with poison darts known as nematocysts. People and animals that encounter these booby-trap-laden strings can become paralyzed, have heart failure, and die within minutes. There are 50 or so species of box jellyfish, and only a couple have the venom count to kill people. Those species are found in the Ind-Pacific region and Australia. Terrifyingly, they do not live in deep water but are a coastal species. Yes – box jellyfish live up to the hype. We often do not live up to their tentacles. Avoid these sea creatures at all costs.
Great White Shark
One of Finding Nemo’s charming villains with a soft side, the Great white shark is no stranger to our psyches. Horror stories, films, and encounters abound.
These monsters are a species of large mackerel shark found in the coastal waters of all major oceans. It’s only predator in the wild is, occasionally, the killer whale.
While scientists explain that humans are not the “preferred prey” of the great white shark – it’s just that these creatures are curious, and are willing to take a taste test. Not a comforting thought for surfers and swimmers, to say the least.
Similar to the drama around bears, lions, and tigers on land, the idea of a shark attack ends up being much bigger, culturally, than the actual risk. For example, there were 8 reported shark attacks in 2021. For some context, over 40% of the world’s human population lives in coastal areas. These attacks are exceedingly rare.
A feature of seafaring folklore around the world, sirens and merfolk with humanoid torsos and serpentine tails have haunted the corners of maps and human imagination for millennia. Anybody travelling in a wooden ship over the horizon in the eighteenth century was more out of touch with the rest of humanity than today’s astronauts who at least have radio contact.’
‘These sailors would sometimes be travelling for years out of contact with people at home. There were big expectations about the fantastic things they might have seen on the other side of the world.’
Their stories were so popular that enterprising craftspeople in Japan established a thriving trade in cryptozoological specimens.
Although today we may recognise creative taxidermy or artfully dried sea animals for the hoaxes they were, mermaids were once prized features of private cabinets of curiosity and carnival sideshows.
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So as you can tell reality seems to be more scary than the fantasy. You can see why so many strange tails come about when you look at what actually is swimming below the depths. It really does make you ask the question. Are sea monster real?