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Rediscovering a legend

'Perhaps it's true, perhaps it's not'.

Persistent stories of sea monsters have baffled scientists for hundreds of years, but very few come close to the detailed encounter with a creature near Mahia peninsula in 1891. Researcher and maritime archaeologist James Ashwell speaks to Avneesh Vincent about the possibility of discovering the unknown . . .

“I was doubtful it was a sighting which I’d be inclined to believe at first, but with such detailed descriptions from the sailors . . . it definitely was something weird,” James Ashwell said in a Zoom call from Auckland.

His lifelong interest in the sea started as he grew up in Gisborne, where he studied commercial fishing at Tairawhiti Polytechnic before heading to the United Kingdom to study maritime archaeology.

“It’s basically the study of human interaction with the sea, in terms of man-made materials and the presence of different cultures beneath the sea — such as shipwrecks,” he said.

While most of the research around ship “graveyards” has been done along shallow waters such as coastlines, few studies were conducted on deep waters such as the water between Australia and Tasmania.

“I began looking at shipwrecks at Melbourne head — the entrance of Port Phillip — and one of the ships was Rotomahana, a ship built for New Zealand.

“It was when I started doing research on her history that I came across the story of the sea serpent.”

He predominantly learned about this through newspaper articles of the time, including in The Poverty Bay Herald (now The Gisborne Herald).

Recreating the sighting, he said it took place around 6.30am on August 1, 1891 — coinciding with an earthquake, as the witnesses discovered when they reached Napier and shared their story.

The Union Line steamer Rotomahana was heading south from Gisborne to Napier. As the steamer passed Portland Island, just off the southern tip of Mahia Peninsula, the chief officer Alexander Lindsay Kerr and the quartermaster Peter Nelson were on the bridge of the ship.

James said the quartermaster had just come off duty on the wheel and was looking out at the rolling sea towards Portland Island and the coastline beyond when suddenly a figure resembling a long, eel-like head and neck emerged from the water. It was about a mile away from the ship, before it quickly withdrew itself back beneath the water.

Moments later, the head and long neck reappeared, but rose further out of the water, revealing the presence of two fins at its sides, before disappearing again. The serpent appeared twice more in the same way, and each time it emerged from the water, it got closer to the ship. When it emerged for the fifth time, the chief officer also witnessed it.

They both estimated, based on the height it rose above the surface, that its full length was around 100 feet (30 metres).

As per statements recorded in some newspapers, the chief officer said he had been sailing for 27 years and had seen almost every part of the world, but he had never seen any “object” that riveted his attention like the one that did that morning.

Another statement was provided by the quartermaster and whaler Mr Nelson, who said it was nothing like a whale and had it been one, he would not have taken any notice of it, “as it is such a common thing to see whales at sea”.

Could have been something unknown to science

James said both men agreed the creature’s peculiar retracting movement, which pulled it back beneath the surface, rather than continuing forward under the water like a fish or whale, was also unlike any other creature they had ever seen.

“From a scientific point of view, the story does not give me enough evidence to believe it to be true. Maybe until we have a specimen or somebody actually finds one or videotapes the creature, it’s difficult to prove its existence.”

However, unlike most other sea serpent stories, the fact two sailors with more than 25 years of working together at sea served as live witnesses detailing the extraordinary sighting made James take an avid interest in the story.

“I really don’t think they made an error — that’s not to say what they saw was a monster . . . they were clearly quite certain that it was not anything they knew or recognised, even though they were looking at it at the same time.

“That in itself lends credibility to what they really saw being something strange and unknown to science.”

James said that whenever subjects such as sea serpents or other monsters came up, they were usually classified under the category of cryptozoology — which is the search for and study of animals whose existence is disputed and unsubstantiated.

“It’s a sort of limbo/halfway that they exist.”

While it was difficult to match their sea serpent description to any known creature in the sea, parallels could be drawn to a prehistoric marine creature called a Plesiosaurus, genus of the extinct sauropterygian reptile that first appeared during the early part of the Jurassic period (more than 200 million years ago) and became extinct about 66 million years ago.

An Otago University research paper written by R. Ewan Fordyce said the existence of plesiosaurs along with other marine reptiles, such as mosasaurs, has been known from the fossil record in New Zealand since the 1860s. British anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen identified the first specimens in this country.

The plesiosaur Kaiwhekea katiki, named by Arthur Cruickshank and Ewan Fordyce in 2002, is one of the most complete fossil reptiles described from New Zealand and lived here about 70 million years ago.

Although this marine reptile is considered extinct, its land counterpart the tuatara — order of Rhynchocephalia — is the last survivor of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinasaurs.

“It’s absolutely possible that these prehistoric creatures may exist in the depth of the sea and are yet to be found,” said James.

“It could be that they may have changed a little or by a significant amount, and possibly be the sea serpent in the story,” he said.

While it was safe to assume that dinosaurs on land had died out when the catastrophic meteorite hit Earth 66 million years ago, it was possible that creatures living in the sea could have survived, said James.

“AlI I would say is one of my old school teachers said it’s best to keep an open mind . . . perhaps it’s true, perhaps it’s not.

“But until the world’s oceans are completely explored, there is no way to know for sure.”

Since the sea environment was usually difficult to work in, it was important to have the right equipment and technology to study it.

“Ocean depths are a problem. There’s an aspect of increased pressure with increasing depths, the vastness, and also the highly mobile environment, such as the tides and current, to consider.”

James said a limiting factor was the low amount of investment in the scientific research of oceans compared to “something like space”.

“Thanks to the space race in the 1960s, we know more about space than ever but there hasn’t been the same sort of race yet to the seabed as there was getting to the Moon.”

Often quoted in documentaries and books, he said humans truly know more about the surfaces of Mars and the Moon than they know about the ocean depths.

“There is clearly a lot of room for a whole zoo-full of creatures to exist down there, some of which we may never have seen because they spend their whole lives down in the very dark depths,” he said.

James said the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was a good example to illustrate the harshness of the sea environment, coupled with the lack of proper technology to be able to locate the airplane.

Despite there being 26 countries involved in the search, including about 60 ships and 50 aircraft, no conclusive evidence could

be retrieved to understand the tragic incident.

“If we can’t find a plane then there could be any numbers of creatures that are yet to be discovered in those depths, unclassified, and will probably remain hidden a lot longer, unless they came out after an earthquake —which was the case of the sea serpent story more than hundred years ago,” he said.

James said his interest in the sea, ships and marine life started when he was a child.

“Sometimes on weekends my father and I would walk hand in hand, wandering along the Kaiti and Wainui beaches during low tide and picking up shells. He would often tell me stories about ships and the sea. That’s how it all began.”

While a lot of people believed in the phrase seeing is believing, the funny thing was that until science confirmed a reality, no one would ever have a bar of it, he said.

“All you are left to do is, well, this is a

take what you will, believe it or not sort of thing . . .”

James said the sceptics who wrote against the possibility of the sea serpent were more than willing to believe the “object” described was anything but a large, unknown marine creature.

So what was it? Unfortunately, the creature seen off Portland Island is as mysterious today as it was in 1891.

“While it is up to the readers to believe what they will or not . . . it could just be that this story becomes a great chat over a cup of coffee and nothing else.”

SIGHTED HERE: James Ashwell points to the location where the serpent was seen, on a marine chart of the Mahia-Hawke Bay region.
The Rotomahana: A colour postcard of the S.S. Rotomahana in her heyday. Bill Laxon Collection, New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa (2005.352.437).
Serpent drawing: The pencil sketch of the creature by James Ashwell, based on the testimony of the two crewmen.