Some books become classics while others are unjustly forgotten. The skeptical movement tends not to have a very deep canon, and the most iconic skeptical book is probably Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. But there are many older texts that are just as interesting and important that have fallen by the wayside. One of these is Henry Lee’s 1883 Sea Monsters Unmasked, a lavishly illustrated book produced for that year’s International Fisheries Exhibition in London.
Lee brilliantly dissects the myths of the kraken and the sea serpent with careful skeptical inquiry. A full century before Joe Nickell suggested that lake serpents could be attributed to groups of otters swimming in formation (see Real Life X-Files, 2001), Lee had already suggested that sea serpents could be better explained as pods of dolphins swimming in formation:
Additionally, Lee also reported another sea monster story of a kind still current today. Let's start with a more modern example and then compare to Lee's. On April 25, 1977, a Japanese fishing boat pulled up a rotten carcass that many took for a plesiosaur off the coast of New Zealand. Although this story was debunked as merely a rotten shark carcass (the flesh of the snout falls off to produce the dinosaur-like false "head" and "neck"), to this day fringe believers, including some Christian textbook writers, claim this find as a real dinosaur and proof of the Genesis account of creation.
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.
Lee has many other fascinating skeptical investigations in his book, and it is well worth the read.
[Update: I forgot to mention that Lee's sequel, Sea Fables Explained, is much less useful, relying as it does on outdated speculation about the universal worship of Noah's Ark left over from Jacob Bryant's New System.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.]
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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