In recent months I’ve had my head down in research for my upcoming cryptozoology book with Donald Prothero. Especially daunting, by weight of years and by weight of literature, has been the vast topic of sea serpents (an old tradition embodied today by cryptids including Cadborosaurus and Ogopogo). But I did manage to find an excuse to spend a few minutes playing with playdough at the kitchen table as part of that research. I thought I might share that here, just for fun.
It’s important to recognize that sea serpent witnesses do not usually report seeing animals shaped like serpents. Instead, they report a series of discrete coils or humps or dark rounded objects (“like a string of buoys” is a typical description1) and infer that these are connected beneath the water’s surface. The problem, of course, is that such sightings are by their nature ambiguous: a humungous serpentine animal might resemble a string of buoys, but it’s also possible for a group of smaller individual objects (say, an actual string of buoys) to resemble a string of buoys. For this reason, smaller, known animals such as seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and waterfowl have always been obvious sources for false positive sea serpent sightings. For generations, this has been the most common explanation offered by those skeptical of sea serpents: could witnesses in a given case have misidentified a group of smaller animals that were swimming together in a follow-the-leader arrangement?
From the perspective of many cryptozoologists, these “group of X swimming in a line” explanations seem forced. Nonetheless, naturalists routinely observe such following in a line behavior in many species, and it’s well-known in the cryptozoological literature as well. (I give a number of examples in the book.) But all that is largely beside the point: the illusion does not depend on the animals traveling in a line, but merely traveling in any clustered group.
This is perhaps one of the least appreciated principles relevant to the sea serpent literature: thanks to perspectival effects, any cluster of distant objects at sea will appear as a line when viewed from near sea level—as from a small boat or shoreline.
It’s an effect you can observe yourself on your kitchen table. Just plunk down some small objects in a random-looking cluster at the other end of the table, and then bend down to view the scene from an edge-on perspective. I just did this with some blobs of modeling clay. Viewed from above, my squishy blue seals comprise a more or less random cluster; viewed edge-on, presto—a squishy blue sea serpent. (See image below.)
We know that many animals move in groups on or near the water’s surface, from otters to ducks to dolphins. Given perspective, many of these groups of animals will appear sea serpent-like; therefore, it’s predictable as clockwork that some witnesses will believe they have seen sea serpents when in fact they have not. Consider, for example, the misperception of a flock of birds by key Loch Ness monster witness Alex Campbell:
I discovered that what I took to be the Monster was nothing more than a few cormorants, and what seemed to be the head was a cormorant standing in the water and flapping its wings as they often do. The other cormorants, which were strung out in a line behind the leading bird, looked in the poor light and at first glance just like the body or humps of the Monster, as it has been described by various witnesses.2
- Captain Elkanah Finney’s 1817 description of an 1815 serpent sighting. Oudemans, A.C. The Great Sea-Serpent. (Coachwhip publications: 2007). p 128
- Alex Campbell letter to Ness Fishery Board, Oct. 28, 1933. As reproduced in Gould, Rupert. The Loch Ness Monster. (Citadel Press: Secaucus, New Jersey. 1976.) p. 110–112