The Capture

Leviathan

The crew of Monongahela was hesitant to lower the boats in an attempt to capture the huge monster deemed a sea serpent by Captain Seabury. The mate spoke up, "Of what use is there in lowering for him? We only lose time, and gain nothing besides." The silence of the rest of the crew indicated their agreement with the mate. But Captain Seabury checked him, and ordered all hands aft.

When they had all mustered, he told them he wanted to try to capture the creature. The crew shuffled and stared at the deck. Seabury said:

"I urged them with all the eloquence I possessed, telling them there were but few who believed in the existence of a sea-serpent, and that a wish had been expressed that a whale ship might fall in with one of them - that if we did not attack him, and should tell of seeing him when we got home, we should be laughed at and derided - and the very first question would be: 'Why didn't you try him?' I told them our courage was at stake - our manhood, and even the credit of the whole American whalefishery, and concluded by appealing to their cupidity - holding out that we might possibly get him into some southern port."

His final comment to the crew was, "I do not order one of you to go in the boats, but who will volunteer?"

The response of the crew was what Seabury wished for. He wrote, "Let me say to their credit, every American in the ship stepped out at once, followed by all but one native and two Englishmen."

And so Monongahela’s sails were trimmed to follow the sea serpent. The weather had been worsening, but now would be their only chance of capturing a sea serpent. Everyone on board was anxious, and a little afraid, to capture the monster. Adrenalin ran high encouraging crewmen to sail on in the face of the increasing wind and waves, pursuing an unknown terror.

The wind soon picked up considerably. Seabury had the ship carry all sail in hopes that he would be able to lower the boats before the gale would make launching the boats impossible. The sea serpent worked swiftly to windward. Chasing the animal heading into the wind was difficult since a square rigged ship can at best sail six points off the wind. If Monongahela could sail at five knots, for example, she would only make good less than three nautical miles to windward in an hour. If the monster kept its course and speed, Seabury would lose sight of it soon. Jason had to haul on the wind. Doing so, Monongahela lost her fore topgallant mast. In the confusion and activity that followed, and reduced visibility due to deteriorating weather, the men lost sight of their prey.

The crew made all repairs at once, while the ship kept on the wind hoping to find the serpent again. In less than an hour they regained sight of the creature, but some distance off to windward since Monongahela had to sail on a port tack. When the creature changed its course, Seabury followed and put the ship on the starboard tack. The wind continued to gain in strength and Captain Seabury ordered the crew to put a single reef in the fore and mizzen topsails. Gale force winds blew sea water horizontally Cetusinto the faces of the men, stinging them and reducing visibility even further. The sound of the wind screaming through the rigging was eerie and made a supernatural sound to accompany the fantastic pursuit, like a roaring steam locomotive with its whistle piercing the background roar of confusion. The serpent disappeared and re-appeared in the rough and confused seas. The tops of the waves were being blown off into streaks of white foam that covered the wild sea with frothy lace. Finally the creature was only a mile ahead of Monongahela, now heading to leeward; he had made a complete reversal of his course. The ferocity of the storm made Seabury wary of lowering the whaleboats, but the time arrived when the monster lay motionless half a mile ahead. Why didn’t the monster sound? Seabury again trimmed Monongahela’s sails with head yards aback to provide better control. The ship keeper was told to keep her close by the boats, and to never lose sight of them.

Aboard Rebecca Sims the crew faced the same situation. Alonzo D. Sampson, a boatsteerer on Rebecca Sims, explained what happened from his point of view:

 

"That there has been a great deal of humbug practiced upon credulous people in relation to a creature called the Sea Serpent, I admit. But such a creature exists and I have seen it. … We were cruising in company with the ‘Monongahela,’ of New Bedford, when the lookout at our masthead discovered a strange looking object in the water half a mile astern and hailed with the intelligence. The Captain was called and came on deck with his glass, and after examining the object he pronounced it an immense serpent. The Captain called for volunteers to capture the sea serpent, saying that to go home with a story of having seen it, with nothing to show in proof, would only cause us to be laughed at."

 

Captain Gavitt on Rebecca Sims made up a boat crew and lowered one boat in pursuit of the monster with Sampson as boatsteerer. It would be foolish to risk more boats and men in this gale. Normally they would not lower in this weather for a whale; there would be other whales. But there would not be other sea serpents.

Olaus Magnus Monster "Hoist and swing!" Monongahela’s whaleboats were lowered. When the crew of six men was situated in the boat, they shoved off the hull and pulled their oars in pursuit of the sea serpent. Rowing in rough and confused seas, into the wind, was difficult and strained the men’s strength and morale. They had pursued whales in strong wind and choppy seas before, and would again in the ice of the Bering Sea, but that thought did not make this pursuit any easier. Several times the whaleboat surfed down the face of an oncoming wave and the bow plunged into the water at the trough, filling the bottom of the boat. Sea water swirled around the men’s feet. The pursuit was long since the monster swam so rapidly, about fifteen miles per hour. But at last it paused to as if to rest and the whaleboat caught up to it. As they neared the monster it lay quietly on the surface, not running as had been expected. The whaleboat was maneuvered into position to bring the bow up to the prey. A whaleboat from Rebecca Sims was approaching at the same time from the opposite side. When the whaleboat was finally about to touch the side of the creature Seabury sharply gave the command to his boatsteerer, James Wittemore, of Vermont, "Stand up!" Wittemore shipped his oar and stood up with the first harpoon in his hands, shifting his weight to gain balance in the pitching whaleboat, now facing the creature for the first time. This animal truly was a monster, enormous, but certainly not a whale. The head was frightening. It did look like a huge serpent, but more like a huge alligator. For the first time he could see the enormous teeth. They were in both the upper and lower jaws; a sperm whale has teeth only in the lower jaw, and baleen whales have no teeth. The incisor teeth were large and the huge teeth farther back were wide and serrated, whereas a sperm whale had thick conical teeth. Confusion increased as to what this creature would prove to be. At this moment as Wittemore stood facing the monster he could believe it was as Seabury had announced; it was a sea serpent.

There were always two “live irons” (harpoons rigged and ready for use) attached to the whaleline. The first iron was attached by a bowline tied to the eye splice of the iron's short warp; the second iron was attached by passing the whaleline through the eye splice of its short warp. Wittemore stood steady with his thigh nestled in the clumsey cleat, a round notch cut in the thwart to provide some steadiness for the harpooner. With only a slight movement of his hand, so as not to galley the monster, and because he might not be heard above the wind, the captain gave the signal to the boatsteerer to strike. Immediately Wittemore darted his first iron, then grabbed the second iron and darted that into the monster as well, both irons in to the hitches.

Meanwhile, Alonzo Sampson, steering for the captain of Rebecca Sims, also got an iron into the beast. He wrote:

"The ‘Monongahela’ was nearest to our game, but the two boats reached its vicinity at about the same time. The serpent lay quiet, only raising its head and looking around as eyeing first one boat and then the other. I was in our boat steering for the Captain, who, when we were near enough, gave the word, and I took my harpoon in hand and launched it into the animal at about his middle, the steerer of the ‘Monongahela’s’ boat doing the same thing on the other side at about the same moment. On being thus attacked, the serpent began to writhe and go through the contortions usual with his kind, lashing the water so furiously with his head and tail that some of the men became frightened and jumped out of the boat."

The next command from Monongahela’s boatheader Seabury was "Stern all!" This was to get the boat away from the fury of the monster when he felt the harpoons enter his back. Everyone pushed back on their oars to back the whaleboat away from the monster’s thrashings. After violently beating its head and tail in the foaming sea for a short time, the sea serpent unexpectedly lay still. It simply lay quietly in the water, waves washing over it. This was a good time for Seabury and Wittemore to change places in the whaleboat. Now Wittemore would steer the boat (thus boatsteerer rather than harpooner) while Seabury went forward to kill the monster with the lance. As Jason picked up his lance, the monster suddenly raised its head and tail, seeming to stiffen, as though Jason had touched a wound, but this was before he plunged the lance through its lungs. The sea serpent that had been quiet on the foaming sea suddenly became violent again and charged them with all its fury. The beast charged through the waves sending even more spray into the piercing wind as it crashed through each wave in rapid succession. The speed at which it swam was alarming; nothing could stop it. The frightfulness of the head as it approached the boat caused such terror in the crew that three of them jumped overboard. The crewmen knew the accounts of Essex and recently Ann Alexander, and were wary of a similar fate by a charging monster out of control. Seabury held out his lance in defense of the closely approaching head, and the point of the lance entered the monster's eye. But this did not deter the creature from attempting to annihilate his tormentors. It continued its furious charge attacking the whaleboat and anything or anyone that might be in the way of its charge.

Seabury was knocked overboard into the churning sea by the monster as it made good its charge and collided with the whaleboat. He rose to the surface and caught a glimpse of the writhing body, apparently searching the confused seas for victims, and was again struck by it and carried down. He temporarily lost consciousness in the water, but recovered and again rose to the surface, the sea covered in bloody foam. Seabury choked on the salt water he had swallowed and gasped for air; his throat burned. All was confusion and terror. Frightened and disoriented men thrashed in the water searching for the whaleboat while trying to avoid the whaleline that could drag them under. And the enraged monster was there in the water with them as cause for more concern and terror. The foul smell of the monster mingled with the thick metallic smell of blood and the tangy bite of sea water. If there was ever a hell at sea, this was it. But it would get worse, much worse.

This time when Jason came up he could not see the serpent, but knew it was still fastened to the two harpoons from Monongahela’s boats. The whaleline was in the water with him, but he did not know if it was secure. Seabury called to his third mate, Mr. Benson, to pick up the line. Mr. Benson was able to climb into Seabury’s boat, and from there he caught up the whaleline and bent on another line. Immediately this line began to run out rapidly as the monster turned and tried to flee. The whaleline at this time was not turned around the loggerhead, so it ran free. The men still on board Monongahela were the ship keeper who was the cooper along the cook and steward. They immediately tended to getting Captain Seabury and his boat’s crew, plus Mr. Benson, out of the water and back aboard ship. Seabury and the rest of the crew were rescued from the sea, one man unconscious and one severely bruised, but all survived.

 

Sebastian Munster 1628
Sea Monster from Sebastian Munster, Cosmographia, 1628.

 

The monster had taken out Seabury's line, plus Mr. Benson's line, and now the second mate's line which had also been bent on. Seabury then ordered the first mate, Mr. Wittemore, to bend on and pass his line to the ship. The monster was sounding and Seabury cautioned his officers not to hold too hard for fear of drawing the irons, but to pay out line with some slight tension on it. The speed at which the line was running out slowed somewhat, but as a precaution Seabury got a spare line out of the fore hold and bent it on, too. Fearing that the weight of the ship might cause the irons to draw, especially when it rolled on the seas from one side to the other in the rough weather, he bent on several floats or drags (called drugs by whalemen). These were crossed timbers, casks, anything that would tend to impede the progress of the fleeing prey. Soon the line became stationary; the monster no longer took out line, but was motionless in the deep. There were now out four boat's lines, 225 fathoms in a boat (three 75-fathom lengths spliced together and held in one line tub), and 100 fathoms more of another, in all 1,000 fathoms. There are six feet in a fathom. Therefore 6,000 feet of line was out between the monster and the ship - more than a mile-and-an-eighth of whaleline. The line was passed from the ship to the first mate's boat. This allowed the whaleboat to be pulled by the monster with less fear of the irons drawing than if the line were attached to the ship’s windlass. This meant that James Wittemore and his crew had to endure the crashing waves, howling wind and pelting rain even longer. Their whaleboat pitched and yawed wildly as they tried in vain to control it.

The weather continued to deteriorate; now blowing furiously; water blown horizontally by winds that approached hurricane forces. Seabury dared not to carry enough sail to keep up with the monster, now fleeing and towing James Wittemore’s whaleboat away from the ship in the furious sea. The mate's boat was in peril, and Seabury was obliged to take the whaleline on the ship again. He had the crew haul in on the lines, hand over hand, and ran the risk of drawing the irons. Once the lines were hauled aboard the ship, Wittemore and his crew, exhausted, awkwardly clawed their way back on board Monongahela again. Their whaleboat repeatedly smashed into the hull with such force that getting a hold on anything to climb up was almost impossible. The line was then made fast to the ship and Seabury ordered the men to take in all sail but enough to keep Monongahela steady. All they could do was to wait in fear of the monster rising, the line parting, or the irons drawing.

At 4:00 p.m. the wind began to shift and by 5:00 p.m. it began to abate to the great joy of all on both whaleships. At 8:00 p.m. there was a sudden lull; line taught. The night was beautiful - clear sky, wind died to a breath, and the seas were falling rapidly. The roaring weather quieted. The peaceful night was a perfect night to get some rest after the most demanding and stressful events of the day. But no eye closed on Monongahela that night. All speculated on their prey. What sort of animal was this? The amazement of actually capturing a living sea serpent sent a shiver through every man. Why had no one captured one sooner? Do they roam the seas alone or in pods, as did sperm whales? Are there other monsters still lurking below the surface? Many whaleships were lost without a trace; did they, too, encounter such a monster? The creature was apparently on the bottom more than a mile below them. No whale could stay down that long; the creature must have been in suspended animation, resting from exertion and wounds. This was his forte, he was at home there. When would he decide to run again? Or was he dead? Rebecca Sims’ boatsteerer, Alonzo Sampson, wrote:

"He settled down on the spot until he had run out several of our lines, when he became stationary and so remained for the next twenty-four hours, defying all our efforts to haul him up. At the end of that period he came to the surface, dead."

Monongahela Monster

The Jason Seabury record showed that at 4:00 a.m. the next day, January 14, sixteen hours after the monster went down, the line began to slack. The crew hauled the whaleline in hand-over-hand until two lengths of line were brought in. The line soon took a strain again, and was taken to the ship's windlass and made fast. At that point Seabury told the crew to get breakfast. But before they were through the cook cried, "Here he is!" In no time everyone was on deck and saw that indeed he had risen to the surface. All that was visible was a bunch, apparently the bight of the serpent where the irons held him fast. Three whaleboats were lowered and the officers lanced the creature without it showing any signs of life. The creature gradually rose farther to the surface, amid a field of floating pieces which the crew assumed were the monster’s lungs, cut up by churning the lance through them.

Jason Seabury explained what happened next:

"To make our work sure we continued to lance, eagerly seeking for his life, when he drew himself up and we pulled away, and then witnessed the terrific dying struggles of the monster. None of the crew who witnessed that terrible scene will ever forget it; the evolutions of the body were rapid as lightening, seeming like the revolving of a thousand enormous black wheels. The tail and head would occasionally appear in the surging bloody foam, and a sound was heard, so dead, unearthly, and expressive of acute agony, that a shrill of horror ran through our veins. The convulsive efforts lasted 10 or 15 minutes, when they suddenly stopped, the head was partially raised - it fell - the body partly turned, and lay still. I took off my hat, and nine terrific cheers broke simultaneously from our throats. Our prey was dead."

The dead monster floated buoyantly; it turned over, lying belly up. The crew beamed with joy as they looked at him over the rails. The terror was over. No one was lost. A wave of relief swept over every man. Again everyone cheered loudly.

After everything was secured, repaired and cleaned up, Captain Seabury requested a consultation with both ships' captains and crew, to determine what should be done with their prize. Seabury never mentioned Rebecca Sims, not even another unnamed ship. Alonzo Sampson of Rebecca Sims filled in this portion of the events in his narrative: “A question now arose between the Captains as to which ship he should be taken to. Finally the claim of the ‘Monongahela’ prevailed and we towed the carcass alongside her.”

 

Copyright © 2007, 2008 Thomas Lytle. All rights reserved.

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