The Kraken, a sea monster, was verified by marine biology

Posted in Biology, Fish, Historical articles, History, Legend, Sea on Friday, 6 January 2012

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This edited article about sea monsters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 896 published on 24 March 1979.

Kraken, picture, image, illustration

An enormous kraken dragged two of Captain Dens’ crew to a watery death, by Oliver Frey

The Danish sailing vessel had been becalmed for three days off the coast of West Africa. Her captain, Jean-Magnus Dens, decided to put the time to good use and ordered the crew to scrape and clean the outside of the ship. To do this, the men worked from planks on the vessel’s side.

Suddenly, as the sailors scrubbed and scraped away, a giant sea monster emerged. Wrapping its two enormous arms around two of the terrified men, it dragged them down into the sea.

A third arm curled around another sailor. But, as he clung desperately to the rigging, his shipmates freed him by hacking off the monster’s arm with their cutlasses. Despite repeated attempts to harpoon the monster, it eventually sank safely below the water. The bodies of its first two victims were never recovered, and the third sailor died that night.

The captain afterwards described part of the arm that had been hacked off. He said it was very thick at one end and tapered to a sharp point at the other. It was about eight metres long and covered with large suckers.

On returning to Copenhagen, Captain Dens found few people who believed his fantastic story of a deadly encounter with a deep-sea monster. He related how he and his crew had tangled with a kraken, or legendary “giant of the deep” – the kind of creature about which authors such as Jules Verne later wrote.

There was, however, one man who listened seriously to the master mariner’s tale. A young French naturalist named Denys de Montfort was determined to prove to the sceptical world that octopuses of colossal size existed. Believing that Dens’ monster was a huge octopus, he included the captain’s account in his unfinished six-volume work, The Natural History of Molluscs – spineless creatures with soft bodies.

The books were published in Paris between 1802-5, when they were attacked by scientific critics as being a mixture of fact, fantasy and fiction. Despite the ridicule and criticism, de Montfort continued to compile reports of “the sightings of monsters and serpents of the sea by mariners whose sincerity I do not and will not doubt”.

To prove his beliefs he followed every possible lead. And, in the early 1800s, he went to the port of Dunkirk, in Northern France, where a group of American whale fishers were living and working. He interviewed a captain named Ben Johnson, who told of a typical tussle with a giant octopus.

“My men and I harpooned the creature in the belly,” Johnson said. “Then we made the monster fast to the ship with several running nooses. The octopus’ limbs were some twelve metres long and the suckers were arranged in two rows. The suckers were larger than a man’s hat and the creature was like something you meet in nightmares.”

However, the octopus (or kraken as some men called it) managed to struggle free before it could be brought ashore. De Montfort desperately needed some concrete evidence to support his arguments, and he was prepared to settle for an arm – or even a sucker – of one of these monsters.

During his stay he met several whale-fishers who were only too eager to add to his stock of monsters. One of the men, Captain Jim Reynolds, gave a graphic account of a sighting.

“One day,” the French naturalist recorded, “he and his men saw floating on the surface of the water a long fleshy body, red and slate-coloured, which they took to be a sea serpent, and which frightened the sailors who rowed the whaleboats.

“However, one sailor noticed that the supposed snake-like monster had no head and was motionless. So they found the courage to haul it aboard. They then discovered from the suckers that it was an octopus or squid arm – one that measured 15 metres in length and almost one metre in diameter.”

Unfortunately the arm, which would have been a convincing piece of evidence, was nowhere to be found. Although disappointed at not seeing it himself, de Montfort’s hopes rose when he heard of an extraordinary painting of a sea monster on view further along the coast in St Malo.

He hurried to St Thomas’ chapel there and eagerly inspected the picture. It had been commissioned, he was told, in thanksgiving for the survival of a local ship’s crew which had fought with “a monster straight out of Hell.”

“The ship,” wrote de Montfort afterwards, “had just taken on her cargo, when suddenly a monstrous sea creature appeared on top of the water. It slung two of its arms around the masts and the very weight dragged the ship over, so that she lay on her beam-ends and was near to being capsized.”

The crew had then seized knives and axes and desperately chopped away at the monster’s long and writhing arms. As they did so, they called upon their patron saint, St Thomas, to give them strength and courage.

“Their prayers,” concluded the naturalist, “were answered. When the ship returned to St Malo the crew went in solemn procession to the chapel. They sank on their knees and gave thanks to the saint for his help and protection.”

De Montfort then had the chapel painting copied by an artist. The copy duly appeared in another of the naturalist’s controversial books, and this time the critics showed him no mercy. He was branded “the most outrageous charlatan France has known,” and no one in Paris accepted his challenge to go to St Malo and see the original painting for themselves.

Together with his books, Denys de Montfort sank into disrepute and eventual obscurity. Penniless and friendless, he was found dead in a Paris gutter in the early 1820s. His reputation as an “eccentric and sensationalist” overshadowed his fine early work on mollusc shells. And it was soon ignored or forgotten that he had identified 25 new species.

But, despite de Montfort’s downfall and disgrace, reports about krakens and other assorted sea monsters continue to be made. They came from Norway (the traditional home of the kraken), Greenland, North America, and even England.

De Montfort’s beliefs were echoed as recently as 1966, when Captain John Ridgeway and Sergeant Chay Blyth were rowing across the Atlantic in their boat English Rose III. One midnight they were almost rammed by a “writhing, twisting creature” some twelve metres long.

“I searched for a rational explanation for this incredible occurrence,” wrote Ridgeway, “as I picked up the oars and started rowing again . . . I reluctantly had to believe that there was only one thing it could have been – a sea monster.”

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