It’s been a while since we checked in on how the Renaissance is doing with its ocean mysteries, so here is a marine biology update circa 1550.
Seals come in two forms:
Walruses are horrifying
But whales are worse
Fish can have human faces
but not always where you’d expect
As for the rest
… it’s probably better left alone.
[All images except chest face fish from Historiae animalium liber IV : De piscium & aquatilium animantium natura. Chest face fish from The noble lyfe & natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes yt be moste knowen]
At this point it’s been pretty conclusively established that the ocean is weird, but one of weirder marine phenomena I’ve encountered is the sea monk or sea bishop, an animal that was sighted of the coast of Poland in 1531, washed up on Danish shores in the late 1540s and went the 16th century equivalent of viral.*
*This of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the Protestant Reformation or Henry the Eighth declaring himself head of the Church of England. Scientific interest only.
Pretty much every major work on fish in the next 100 years included one:
Guillaume Rondelet (1554) [“human features, but with a coarse and rude outline […] the head was shaved and smooth; the shoulders were covered by a cape.”]
Pierre Belon (1551)
Conrad Gesner (1558)
Richard Breton (1562) [Breton was a Protestant, which may explain the increased levels of eldritch]
Caspar Schott (1662)
Johann Zahn (1696)
And a late entry: this abomination from Robert Chamber’s The Book of Days (1869)
Explanations for these include most of the usual contenders: monk seals, grey seals, hooded seals, walruses, angel sharks, deliberate fraud of the Jenny Haniver variety, Steenstrup’s ever popular ‘squid doing victory arms’.
During World War I on July 30th, 1915, the German U-Boat (submarine) U-28 was patrolling off the coast of Ireland when it came across the British freighter Iberian. The U-Boat quickly destroyed the freighter, sinking it with a well placed torpedo. While watching the sinking from the conning tower, the captain and six other officers witnessed something extraordinary. According to the Captain of U-28, Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner,
“On July 30, 1915, our U-28 torpedoed the British steamer Iberian, which was carrying a rich cargo (trucks and vehicles primarily) across the North Atlantic. The steamer sank so swiftly that its bow stuck up almost vertically into the air. Moments later the hull of the Iberian disappeared. The wreckage remained beneath the water for approximately twenty-five seconds, at a depth that was clearly impossible to assess, when suddenly there was a violent explosion, which shot pieces of debris — among them a gigantic aquatic animal — out of the water to a height of approximately 80-feet.”
“At that moment I had with me in the conning tower six of my officers of the watch, including the chief engineer, the navigator, and the helmsman. Simultaneously we all drew one another’s attention to this wonder of the seas, which was writhing and struggling among the debris.”
“We were unable to identify the creature, but all of us agreed that it resembled an aquatic crocodile, which was about 60-feet long, with four limbs resembling large webbed feet, a long, pointed tail and a head which also tapered to a point. Unfortunately we were not able to take a photograph, for the animal sank out of sight after ten or fifteen seconds.”
The U-28 would serve admirably during the rest of the war, sinking 40 enemy ships. Unfortunately the boat was sunk in 1917, taking all souls aboard.