‘Sea serpents’ spotted around Great Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century were probably whales and other marine animals ensnared in fishing gear — long before the advent of the plastic equipment usually blamed for such entanglements.
The snaring of sea creatures in fishing equipment is often considered a modern phenomenon, because the hemp and cotton ropes used in the past degraded more quickly than their plastic counterparts. But Robert France at Dalhousie University in Truro, Canada, identified 51 probable entanglements near Great Britain and Ireland dating as far back as 1809.
France analysed 214 accounts of ‘unidentified marine objects’ from the early nineteenth century to 2000, looking for observations of a monster that had impressive length, a series of humps protruding above the sea surface and a fast, undulating movement through the water. France says that such accounts describe not sea serpents but whales, basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) or other marine animals trailing fishing gear such as buoys or other floats.
Such first-hand accounts could help researchers to construct a better picture of historical populations of marine species and the pressures they faced, France says.