“Omne ignotum pro magnifico est”
“We have miraculous notions of everything unknown”
Hagrid is without doubt my favourite character from Harry Potter, due entirely to our mutual love and child like enthusiasm for large and dangerous animals. If Hagrid were to join us on the boat I am sure he would, like myself, be eagerly looking out for wildlife. As well as secretly hoping for a glimpse of the more ferocious and mythical creatures rumoured to lurk beneath the waves. With 14.1 million people tuning in to watch the first episode of Blue Planet II, I am confident it is not just Hagrid and myself who have an interest in what swims in the ocean.
Indeed our fascination and fear of sea monsters appears to be as enduring as it is old. In The Odyssey, written by Homer in the 8th Century BC, Odysseus is forced to sacrifice six of his crew to the six headed Scylla to avoid an even worse monster called Charybdis. The 13th Century Icelandic Örvar-Oddr saga describes a giant squid like creature called Hafgufa. The Norwegian word ‘krake’ meaning ‘fabulous sea monster’ eventually slipped into English as the now famous Kraken. A creature who appears in both Jules Verne’s 1870 classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
The references throughout history are not just fictional, the Old Testament refers to a terrible sea creature call the Leviathan, Aristotle discusses sea serpents in his Historia Animalium and in 1st Century AD Pliny the Elder gives a detailed description of a giant squid weighing 320kg and measuring 30ft found dead on a beach. What is more, maps and encyclopaedias of the Middle Ages, such as the Carte Marina, are so teaming with monsters it is a wonder that any sailor made it out of the Middle Ages alive! Many of what we consider to be mythical sea creatures appear on these maps, but presented as real animals. Even in modern times these accounts of encounters continue. A mass of people, including fisherman, military personnel, and tourists all reported seeing a sea serpent 80 to 100ft long, with a head resembling a horse in the harbour of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The reports were so wide spread that a group of local naturalists called the Linnaean Society formed a special investigation committee. But no conclusive proof was found.
With so many references through the ages, surely there must have been something behind the stories? Modern science has dispelled many old myths but in the case of monsters, myth is quickly becoming scientific fact.
Evidence confirming the existence of Krakens began to emerge during the explosion of commercial whaling in the 18th Century as sperm whales, who clearly share my taste for calamari, would spit out half eaten giant squid as they fled from the whalers. The unusual circular scars on sperm whales and stories of them battling with the Kraken did much to fuel public imagination. The existence of giant squid is no longer in doubt and a 28ft specimen called Archie can be found in London’s Natural History Museum. The fossil record gives evidence that squid have lived in the ocean for over 155 million years but these truly ancient creatures were only caught on film in 2005 by a team of Japanese scientists working in the Pacific. It is also known that sperm whales dive to depths of over a kilometre to eat the giant squid which can grow up to 43ft in length. The Southern Ocean also contains colossal squid that can grow to 46ft and are known to eat small whales, the silhouette of which look much like a boat when viewed from below. It may well be a case of mistaken identity that has caused attacks on shipping. In 2003 the crew of a yacht competing in the appropriately named Jules Verne round-the-world Trophy reported being attacked by a giant squid several hours after departing from Brittany, France. The squid purportedly latched onto the ship and blocked the rudder with two tentacles. For some context Captain Jack Sparrows ship the Black Pearl was 163ft in length and so the legends do appear to have drifted from fact, which is unusual given fisherman’s ‘renowned’ integrity when reporting measurements. But whilst Captain Jack would have been safe, our 25ft rowing boat…
The discovery of a real Kraken is a great example of how mythology and folklore can evolve from real events. Over-zealous retelling may muddle and distort fact and fiction but there is basis in truth nonetheless. The Kraken is not alone in being proved real. The Coelacanth fish was thought to have been extinct for the last 65 million years but was rediscovered in 1932 and again in 1998 when caught in the nets of deep sea trawlers. In both cases the Coelacanth was unchanged from the fossil examples.
The thought occurs that other ‘mythical creatures’ are waiting to be rediscovered. Despite David Attenborough’s best efforts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate 95% of the underwater world is still unseen by human eyes. With my most recent application to study at Hogwarts denied, the Atlantic Ocean now represents my best chance of finding a large, dangerous, hopefully friendly, fantastic beast. Don’t worry, as a progressive modern explorer I will ask for a selfie.
MEN OF OAR
The Men of Oar Blog has been written to keep you, our supporters, up to speed with our progress through our challenge and inform you about some of the more complex aspects of Ocean Rowing. Although it is based on true events, the blog is written to entertain. We hope you enjoy-if so please share!