"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
- Albert Einstein
This is the true story of Jason Seabury and the whaleship Monongahela, reported to have captured and killed a sea serpent in the Pacific Ocean on January 13, 1851.
Sea serpents, or more correctly sea monsters, have always been an integral part of man’s life on Earth. Ever since he ventured out into the unknown depths of the world’s oceans, he feared what was said to be lurking in depths of the dark, cold and mysterious waters beneath him. He was not master here; this was the domain of monsters.
Dragons have also played major roles throughout history. There is hardly anyone who has not heard of St. George and the Dragon. Magical lands and hidden forests were created in our minds as a place for these fanciful beasts to live, good and evil. Knights in shining armor sought to conquer the dragon and save maidens. There were many more people on land to witness the dragons than there were on the sea to witness sea serpents. And those on land had far easier and safer transportation to the areas where dragons lurked. But historically there are no scientific facts or credible witnesses who had seen and described the winged, fire-breathing dragons to support the stories.
But sea monsters are real. These monstrous creatures are known not only from stories told for generations, and cited in the Bible, but they have been seen by thousands of people throughout history. Witnesses from different places around the globe, from different cultures, and from different times spanning centuries, have reported the same details. The witnesses have been credible people; ship captains, scientists, fishermen, explorers – in addition to the thousands of those who lived on shore at the edge of the sea. They all agree on the features of the sea monsters they have seen.
There is a parallel to the truth about sea monsters. In ancient times when rocks fell from the sky people cried, “Impossible!” And the rocks issued fire that trailed behind them. But rocks cannot burn! Witnesses, credible people, claimed to have seen them. Moreover, their reports had a common thread in their descriptions. All agreed to what was seen. Witnesses were from different parts of the world and saw the phenomenon at different times. The reports were not believed. Those claiming to have seen the flaming rocks streak through the sky were seen as hallucinating, mad, joking or simply seen as plain liars. Then in 1819 a German scientist, E. F. F. Chladni, wrote Uber Feuer-Meteore, Vienna, showing massive amounts of evidence collected from reports of burning rocks falling from the sky throughout the ages. The reports all had consistent observations, and by the sheer magnitude of similar data the falling rocks must be fact. Meteorites have been accepted by everyone ever since. They are not fantasy. They are not miraculous. They are not a hoax. They are not unknown. And so it is with sea monsters.
We know very little about our oceans. The deep seas have not been explored; new species are found in the depths almost daily. Even with our modern sophisticated scientific methods and apparatus to explore the deeps of the sea, we know more about the planet Mars than we do about our own vast oceans. Could sea serpents lurk there? Why not? No one has demonstrated that they do not swim in our oceans today. They very well may remain undetected; it would be difficult to locate a swimming animal the size the Empire State building at a depth of over six miles through hidden canyons, especially if you didn’t know where to look. But scientists have demonstrated that previously unknown monsters do indeed inhabit our oceans. Several sea creatures have recently been found that were thought to be extinct for millions of years. Consider coelacanth, a four-foot long blue fish that was known only from fossils dating back as far as 400-million years, and considered to be extinct for more than 60-million years. Until one was caught alive in 1938. Several more have been caught, and released, and they have been filmed in their habitat by divers since then. Coelacanth (see' - la - canth) is now a protected species.
The story of the capture of a sea serpent in 1851 by Jason Seabury, captain of whaleship Monongahela, has been told and retold and debated for over 150 years, ever since the account was first published in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 24, 1852. All attempts at telling the story, until now, are filled with errors. Every author has a different version of the account and different interpretation of the few facts they have been able to uncover. The facts are obscure and convoluted; information is often buried in seemingly unrelated places, or simply cannot be found. Bernard Heuvelmans (known as "the father of cryptozoology”) was the author of the book, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968). Although doubting the account of the Monongahela sea serpent, he said that there are “signs that this fantastic hoax may after all have had a germ of fact. To unravel the whole confused story would require much more time and careful research than I have been able to give it.”
Intrigued by the account, I gave it the time and careful research required to unravel the story. When the confusion, misinformation and lies are cleared away, missing information found and put in place, the true account that emerges is more fascinating than any recounting of the story ever told.
The complete story is woven from six related true accounts: the voyage of whaleship Monongahela from New Bedford to the Arctic from 1850 to 1853, and its loss in the Behring Sea; the published account of the Seabury capture of a sea serpent as reported in the New York Tribune on February 24, 1852; the discovery and public display of sea serpent fossils, Hydrarchos, by Albert Koch in the 1840s; the analysis of Koch’s fossils by well-known leading paleontologists and zoologists around the world: the report of Captain Lt. William Gibson, USS Fenimore Cooper, sent by the US Navy to search for survivors and wreckage of Monongahela in the Behring Sea in 1854; Jason Seabury’s deep concern for his betrothed, Mary Ann Heath, and the resulting home sickness, anguish and fears which may have influenced his judgment.
Jason Seabury’s dialog is quoted verbatim from the published account attributed to his first-hand witness and involvement, and from his letters written from sea during the voyage to his brother Otis.
Facts of the voyage are assembled from several sources, including log books of other whaleships that met with Monongahela and exchanged information. The Whalemens’ Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, a weekly newspaper published in New Bedford specifically for the whaling industry, also provides many missing details, including reported dates, latitude and longitude, and reported catch at the time. Manuscript letters from Jason Seabury to his brother Otis give facts of the voyage and shed light on Jason’s troubled mind. The official crew list yields the names of all onboard the ship when it left New Bedford. A letter from another brother, Humphrey Seabury, details more personal information, including the nature of Jason’s betrothed. Massachusetts Vital Records and Census Records have also been consulted for missing details. Several nineteenth-century newspapers from around the world also provided significant information.
All names and places are authentic; there are no fictional characters. Casting anyone in an ill light or in a degrading manner is not intended. If facts are presented that seem to be derogatory to any person, they are the documented public facts available to everyone. All information presented here is fact, in one vein of the story or another. Nothing has been embellished; nothing of importance has been fabricated. The pieces of the puzzle are simply presented as found. But what is the true story?
The great sea serpent still lurks where it cannot be found.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Thomas Lytle. All rights reserved.
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Preface - The Voyage - The Sighting - The Capture
The Sea Monster - Sea Serpents - K-T Extinction - Jason Seabury Ancestors
When was the capture? - Links - Bibliography