Detail from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina, 1539, the oldest map of Nordic countries to show place names. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The cartographers of old sometimes peopled the unknown oceans with all manner of horrid creatures and grave dangers. In the North Sea, you might come across writhing red snakes, ship-crushing maelstroms, or a voracious leviathan ready to devour your entire crew with its dagger-sharp teeth. The message of these maps was clear: journey here at your own risk. “HC SVNT DRACONES” the famous inscription once read. Here be dragons.


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Monogahela Lands a Sea Monster

In 1852, the Illustrated London News reported that the whaling ship Monongahela captured a sea serpent in the Bering sea. In a letter, the ship’s mate recalled:

The tail and head would occasionally appear in the bloody foam, and a sound was heard so dead, so unearthly, and expressive of acute agony, that a thrill of horror ran through our veins.

After the incident, the letter describing the creature was allegedly given to a passing ship. Several months later, the Monogahela sank into the icy brine, taking all of her crew to their deaths.

What was the mysterious creature they brought up? Was it some relic of the Cretaceous, a living fossil cruising the black depths of the ocean’s most profound depths? What nightmare dragon emerged from the sea, and was it somehow responsible, even after its death, for destroying the crew of the Monogahela?

The giant oarfish. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo by Sandstein, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or maybe the beast was merely Regalecus glesne, the giant oarfish. Reaching up 36 feet in length, the oarfish is the world’s longest bony fish. A resident of all the world’s oceans, this real-life monster undulates in the epipelagic and mesopelagic ocean layers at depths of up to 3,000 feet. It’s rare, but occasionally washes up on beaches–and terrifies anyone who happens across it.

Hic sunt dracones, indeed.

(Hat tip to Tom Lytle for the story of the Monongahela.)