The supposed coils of the serpent’s body present exactly the appearance of eight porpoises following each other in line. This is a well-known habit of some of the smaller cetacea. They are often met with at sea thus proceeding in close single file, part only of their rotund forms being visible as they raise their backs above the surface of the water to inhale air through their “blow-holes.” Under these circum-stances they have been described by naturalists and seamen as resembling a long string of casks or buoys, often extending for sixty, eighty, or a hundred yards. This is just such a spectacle as that described by Olaus Magnus—his “long line of spherical convolutions,” and also as one reported to Pontoppidan as being descriptive of the sea-serpent.
As it turns out, a very similar incident happened back in the nineteenth century, when a similar body was dragged from the water near the Orkneys in 1808. The monster was studied and samples of its bones preserved in two British museums.
It looks convincing, and there is a savour of philosophy about it that might lull the suspicions of a doubting zoologist. What more could be required? We have accurate measurements and a sketch taken of the animal as it lay upon the shore, minute particulars of its outward form, characteristic portions of its skeleton preserved in well-known museums, and any amount of affidavits forthcoming from most respectable individuals if confirmation be required. And yet,
“’Tis true, ‘tis pity;
And pity ‘tis ‘tis true,”
the whole fabric of circumstances crumbled at the touch of science. When the two vertebræ in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons were examined by Sir Everard Home he pronounced them to be those of a great shark of the genus Selache, and as being un-distinguishable from those of the species called the “basking shark,” of which individuals from thirty to thirty-five feet in length have been from time to time captured or stranded on our coasts. Professor Owen has confirmed this. Any one who feels inclined to dispute the identification by this distinguished comparative anatomist of a bone which he has seen and handled can examine these vertebræ for himself. If they had not been preserved, this incident would have been cited for all time as among the most satisfactorily authenticated instances on record of the appearance of the sea-serpent. As it is, it furnishes a valuable warning of the necessity for the most careful scrutiny of the evidence of well-meaning persons to whom no intentional deception or exaggeration can be imputed.
[Update: I forgot to mention that Lee's sequel, Sea Fables Explained, is much less useful, relying as it does on outdated speculation about the universal worship of Noah's Ark left over from Jacob Bryant's New System. Sea Fables is best taken with a large grain of salt.]