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Sea Serpents of the Pacific Northwest

Sea Serpents of the Pacific Northwest



The Pacific Northwest stands in sharp contrast to other parts of the American West. There are no cactuses or parched deserts in this land of rain and fog, towering forests and meandering fjords. When Lewis and Clark wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805, their foremost concern was to keep dry. They noted in their diary on Boxing Day, 1805, "...a continuation of rain, accompanied by thunder, and a high wind from the southeast. We were therefore obliged to stay in our huts and endeavored to dry out wet articles before the fire."

Water plays an all encompassing role in the Pacific Northwest and it is not surprising to find that its coastal seas and wet forests continue to this day to hide unresolved mysteries.

The economy of coastal tribes of the area has long rested on the rich bounty of sea and forest. Abundant resources have left leisure time for artistic creation, and native peoples have left an artistic legacy of the region's creatures. ne sea life, in particular sea otters with their lustrous pelts, drew English, Spanish, Americas, and Russian fur traders in keen competition for the resources of the region.

European and eastem North American explorers marveled at the rich sea life, many species of whales, playful otters, seals, and birds. They soon heard from the Indians about other, rarely seen creatures that vied with orcas for strength and speed and occasionally even ventured on land.

The Manhousat people along the west coast of Vancouver Island, for example, spoke of the hiyitl'iik, or sea serpent, a semilegendary creature.' This animal was seven or eight feet long, moved quickly on land as well as on water, and could grow wings at will. It was very rarely seen.

Sea serpents remain a persistent and unsolved Pacific Northwest mystery. Reports continue to trickle in of sightings of large, unknown marine animals in coastal waters and some large inland lakes. Despite wide public interest in such mysterious creatures, scientists hesitate to draw conclusions or even involve themselves in the search. Observations of sea monsters are sparse and fleet- ing, and many scholars would rather dismiss them than seek a rational explanation.

Questions regarding the existence and nature of mysterious, undiscovered animals do, however, attract some scientific attention. Crypto zoology, a term coined by scientist Bernard Heuvelmans that derives from the Greek cryptos (hidden) and zoology (the lore of animals), describes the activity of those (crypto zoologists) who apply scientific methods to the study of hidden animals, or cryptids.1 Crypto zoology remains on the margin of the scientific mainstream.

The time has passed when the discovery of new animals motivated zoological research. There may yet exist animals unknown to science, and some of them might occasionally be glimpsed, in Scotland's Loch Ness, for example, and elsewhere. Concern about the existence of such crypteds now attracts mostly amateurs and hobbyists. Classically trained French zoologist Heuvelmans is a rare exception: A professional who has devoted his scientific life to the exploration of this challenging topic, scouring old manuscripts and virgin forests for evidence and writing extensively on the subject.

The International Society of Crypto zoology, with offices in Tucson, Arizona, and presided over by Heuvelmans, serves, through its publications and meetings, as a focus for approximately one thousand members, divided about equally between curious amateurs and equally curious scientists from many disciplines.

News of the existence of marine crypteds in the Pacific Northwest first arose from native legends, and designs on native crafts have preserved their likenesses. The Skagit River atlatl is one of the best known and most solidly authenticated of the prehistoric Northwest Coast artifacts. The yew wood spear-thrower, now in the collection of the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, is crowned by a carving of a rampant sea monster with white inlaid eyes. The artifact was dredged near the mouth of the Skagit River, and carbon-14 dating has shown that the atlatl was carved circa AD 200.

Depictions of sea serpents also are common in native petro glyphs seen along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. A creature in one of the petro glyphs at the Monsell site near the Nanaimo River on Vancouver Island, bears some resemblance to the sea monster carved on the atlatl.

Reports by European eyewitnesses support the native legends, drawings, and pictographs. A classic early sighting and description by nonnatives of a sea serpent was that of prospector Osmond Fergusson and his partner, identified only as Walker, in the Queen Charlotte Islands in January 1897. "I saw ahead of us what I thought was a piece of driftwood," Fergusson wrote,
"On getting closer I noticed it was moving towards us. When within 50 yards I said to Walker, What is that? What we could see was,an object sticking out of the water about two feet. When within a few feet of it the end uncoiled & raised a long neck out of the water with a head like a snake on it."

When the animal submerged and passed near them, Fergusson wrote, they "could see a body 25 feet long tapering with a fish like tail."'

Others spotted similar long-necked creatures. One Sunday in September 1905, Philip Welch and a friend were fishing for trout in Johnstone Strait off northern Vancouver Island. In 1970 he wrote that on that day sixty-five years earlier, an enormous salmon run at the mouth of the Adams River made it impossible to catch trout.

Although it was only 9 A.M., the disappointed fishermen were re- signed to returning home when they saw a long neck appear some two hundred yards astern their boat. The animal submerged. Alarmed, they rowed for shore as quickly as they could, hitting salmon with their oars at every stroke. The creature reappeared about one hundred feet astern. It was gaining on them when once more it submerged, and they did not see it again.

The animal, Welch wrote, had a long neck, six to eight feet of which protruded above the water. The neck, about the size of a stove pipe, tapered from a twenty-inch diameter to about ten inches at the head, which looked somewhat like the head of a giraffe. 'Me creature looked up and down Johnstone Strait, turning its head this way and that, giving the men a good view of it. Welch noticed two bumps on the head, about five inches high and rounded on top. Nostrils were plainly visible but eyes were hard to detect.

No mane or hair of any sort were visible. The animal was brown in color. Welch's report did not include a sketch; his description of the animal, however, resembles a creature observed many years later on the Oregon coast.

Although stories of sea serpents continued to appear in the press and to attract public interest through the early years of this century, many scientists refused to take the evidence seriously.' The views expressed by David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University and a prominent zoologist and ichthyologist, were widely shared. Commenting in 1893 on a sea serpent sighting in the North Atlantic, Jordan insisted that the sea-serpent is a myth. It does not receive the attention of scientific men because they have real things to attend to. If people were not telling marvelous tales of the sea-serpent, they would find something else to tell marvelous tales about and somebody to believe them.

Turn-of-the-century scientists were too busy with more readily verifiable phenomena to pay attention to fleeting eyewitness reports of hypothetical creatures. Observers, often subjected to ridicule were hesitant to disclose findings. For many years, the cultural climate was not favorable for the reporting of sea serpents.

This changed, however, after 1933 when the British press began to pay serious attention to reports of a large "monster" in Scotland's Loch Ness, beginning with a sighting by John Mackay in April of that year. Mackay was the innkeeper in Drumnadrochit on the north side of Loch Ness.

He and his wife were returning from Inverness along the recently opened north-side road when they spotted a giant creature in the Loch. Their report in the Inverness Courier started the interest in a Loch Ness "monster."

Exactly one year later Lieutenant Colonel R- K. Wilson, a British army surgeon, captured Nessie on film while he was grouse hunting near Loch Ness. By the time Wilson took his photograph in April 1934, Fleet Street journalists had transformed "Nessie" into an international celebrity. Following the example of the British press, the former colonies assumed a similar interest in sea monster sightings.

Major W. H. Langley, clerk to the British Columbia legislature, announced to a receptive audience that on Sunday, October 1, 1933, while sailing near Chatham Island, just east of Victoria, he and his wife had heard a very loud noise, "something between a grunt and a snort accompanied by a huge hiss. We both saw a huge object about 90 to 100 feet off ... and on the edge of the ke p just off the Chatman Island shore," he told the Victoria Daily Times. "It was every bit as big as the back of a large whale, but entirely different in many respects. Its color was of a greenish brown. ... It had markings along the top and sides. They seemed to be of a serrated nature."

The animal was visible for only a few seconds before it dived quickly, and they saw it resurface in the distance.

Encouraged by Langley's report, F. W. Kemp, an officer of the Provincial Archives of British Columbia, revealed that he and his family also had seen a strange animal in the same area the previous summer. On August 10, 1932, they had observed a "huge creature with head out of the water travelling about four miles per hour against the tide." Kemp reported that the creature, swimming to the steep rocks of the island opposite ... shot its head out of the water on to the rock, and moving its head from side to side, appeared to be taking its bearings. nen fold after fold of its body came to the surface. Towards the tail it appeared serrated with something moving flail-like at the extreme end.... Around the head appeared a sort of mane, which drifted round the body like kelp."

Kemp and his family came back the next day and measured logs on the beach against which they had compared the creature. One log was more than sixty feet in length. The Kemps also drew a picture, which tallied with Langley's description .

Archie Wills, news editor of the Victoria Daily Times, gradually developed an active interest in the strange creature. He soon had a dozen letters from people who said they, too, had seen the sea serpent but had refrained from talking about it for fear of ridicule.

Wills organized a contest to name the animal, which was dubbed "Cadborosaurus," after Cadboro Bay near Victoria, where it had been repeatedly sighted. The name was soon abbreviated to "Caddy," a more manageable form under which later sightings were reported. Since then, about fifty sightings of Caddy at close range have been reported by eyewitnesses in the protected waters of the Puget Sound-Strait of Georgia system, as well as on the outer coast from Oregon to Alaska . From among the fifty reports a sampling is noted here to suggest the nature of the evidence.

Mrs. E. Stout of Klamath Falls, Oregon; her sister-in-law Mrs. Fred Parson; and their two small sons, ages four and five, were walking along sandy Dungeness Spit, watching ships travel in and out of Juan de Fuca Strait. It was the middle of March 1953, and the weather was overcast and drizzly, as it so often is on the coast during winter months. They were watching a large freighter, about a quarter of a mile offshore, moving eastward toward Port Townsend, when they saw what appeared to be a tree limb. Mrs. Stout wrote that the object disappeared abruptly beneath the surface and in a few seconds appeared again, much closer. The two women made out the form of a creature and distinctly saw a large, flattish head turned
away from them and toward the ship. Mrs. Stout continued:

"I think all of us gasped and pointed. We could distinctly see three humps behind the long neck. 'Me animal was proceeding westward and at an angle toward us. It sank abruptly again and reappeared closer, almost due north of us. In the dim light, we could distinctly make out color and pattern, a long floppy mane, and the shape of the head.... We estimated that the length of the exposed neck was at least 6 ft. and the head probably at least twenty inches long.

"As a trained biologist, I simply could not accept that long floppy mane or fin. Yet, we all saw it. It was a limply hanging thing. We deduced that the humps were at least five feet. Again, I simply could not accept their arrangement. They were close together with no visible curve .... The animal was rich deep brown with large reticulations of a bright, burnt orange. The pattern wasn't unlike that of a giraffe except much larger. ne fin appeared to be drab or colorless.

"We could see no body movements, except that the neck lowered and moved backward with grace and the head swivelled, raised and lowered. Its forward progression was smooth, like a swan's. It sank and rose almost perpendicularly; although there was no indication of effort, it progressed westward, toward Pt. Angeles at a fair rate of speed. The whole episode lasted about eight minutes."

Another close-range sighting, which clearly involved an unidentified creature, was reported by David Miller and Alfred Webb, two fishermen from Victoria. The observation occurred in midafternoon in late November 1969 about one-half mile off the Discovery Island Lighthouse in eastern Juan de Fuca Strait. Miller wrote:

"I observed this strange creature surface roughly 80 ft. on our port beam. It started to move rapidly away from us so we speeded the engine up and gave chase. We got within 30 ft. when it suddenly submerged, not in the method seals or sea-lions do but as though something pulled it under. A few moments later we arrived at its place of submergence and there was a tremendous turbulence, suggesting a creature the size of a 30 ft. sea whale.

"Its speed under water was also astounding as it surfaced a few minutes later over a hundred yards away. It stayed up while we took after it again but this time it never let us close again. ne first encounter was so close that both of us remarked about its large red eyes and short ears visible at that range .

He included a sketch with his report and emphasized that of all the many kinds of marine creatures he had seen in his years at sea, none looked even remotely like that one. Marine crypteds seen along the outer Pacific Coast include one reported in 1934 by L A I-arson, first mate on the Columbia River lightship. The animal, later described for the press as "Colossal Claude," was "about 40 feet long," Larson said.

"It had a neck some eight feet long, a big round body, a mean looking tail and an evil, snaky look to its head." Claude broke into the news again in 1937 when Charles E. Graham, skipper of the troller Viv, reported sighting a "long, hairy, tan-colored creature, with the head of an overgrown horse, about 40 feet long, and with a 4-ft. waist measure."

One of the best documented West Coast sightings occurred around New Year's Day 1937 about two miles south of Yachts, Oregon, just south of Cape Perpetua near a chasm in the rocky shoreline known as the Devil's Churn." The weather was stormy and the sea very rough. The witnesses, a couple who insisted that their names be kept confidential to avoid ridicule, were sitting on a landing about thirty feet above the sea along the switchback trail that leads from the parking area near the highway to the Churn.

They were watching the spectacular breakers when they saw the creature about two hundred feet due west of the mouth of the Churn. It came directly toward the Churn, swimming slowly without any visible propelling motions and stopped for fifteen to twenty seconds close to the entrance of the chasm, about one hundred feet from the observers.

The couple remarked that "the heavy breakers did not seem to toss it around one bit." A truck came by on the highway during that time, and the animal turned its head to look at it, then looked back at the witnesses, then again at the truck.

Afterwards, it swam south along the coast, moving rapidly at a speed the man estimated to be twenty-five knots.
The two witnesses followed the animal along the shore highway in their car. At an observation point about a mile south of the Churn, they saw it veer off from the coast and swim out to sea.

The couple sketched the creature showing a neck, approximately fifteen feet long, surmounted by a head described by one witness as like that of a horse or camel and by the other as similar to a giraffe's head. One witness observed small, "incessantly fluffering" ears while the other did not notice the ears but thought that the animal had I small, straight horns on its head, eight to ten inches high and the size of a small water pipe. A mane the color of seaweed was visible along the neck all the way down to the body. The body itself was about six feet across, the "size of a steam boiler," although not rounded, with a ridge along the back.

About three feet of the body emerged above the water surface. While the animal was in a low wave trough after a breaker had passed, one of the witnesses, who observed a tail as long as the rest of the body, estimated the total length of the animal to be fifty-five feet.

Are such stories true? Have people seen sea serpents or merely glimpsed real and elusive animals yet unknown to science? Or are their reports akin to the sensational offerings of tabloids? Logic suggests three possibilities:

(1) Witnesses were lying;
(2) they were honest but deluded; or
(3) they actually observed what they described.

The veracity of witnesses is not readily testable. Undoubtedly some hoaxes have been reported.

Nevertheless, the surprise and disbelief expressed by many people at what they have seen, plus the reluctance of several individuals to speak of their experience for fear of being ridiculed, suggest that they might be telling the truth. In some cases multiple witnesses have corroborated each other's descriptions.

Many skeptics acknowledge that the observers have encountered some strange animal. The interpretation of what witnesses saw is most often not accepted by scientists, who suspect some error of observation and are wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of irreproducable evidence, and by laymen, who feel threatened by novelty.'Mus, a plethora of alternate explanations has come forward: 'What you must have seen is an oarfish," insists the dismissive critic.

Others are equally sure that a pod of leaping dolphins or belugas were seen, or a leopard seal, a family of sea lions, a tangle of giant kelp, and so on.

Most cases of misinterpretation tan be eliminated by admitting only the best evidence such as sightings at close range, under good conditions, by sober and (preferably) numerous witnesses who provide detailed and consistent information. The eyewitness accounts reported here are among the best. None of the "monsters" is reconcilable with any known living marine creature, which indicates that perhaps witnesses saw a creature thought to be extinct.


This possibility has gained respect since 1938 when Marjorie Courtenay Latimer identified a bluish, man-sized fish captured in the Indian Ocean off South Africa as a coelacanth, previously known only as a fossil fish with stubby, leg like fins, thought to be ancestral to land vertebrates." The last known living coelacanth had lived eighty million years ago! The prospect of discovering more "living fossils" has fired both public and scientific imaginations.

Numerous marine crypted sightings have been explained in terms of extinct animals such as Staller's sea cow, a sluggish sirenian hunted to extinction by starving Russian fur traders soon after its scientific discovery in the Bering Sea in the eighteenth century; the zeuglodon, a serpentine, primitive whale known from shallow seas of the Miocene Period (twenty-five-million years ago); and long-necked plesiosaurs, marine reptiles from the Jurassic Period (more than sixty-five-million years ago)." Each of these hypotheses has its proponents, but none draws universal approval.

The final possibility is, of course, that the animals observed are entirely new and unknown to science. Most oceanographers readily concede that the ocean may yet have secrets to reveal. New animals continue to be discovered, usually by accident. For example, the megamouth shark, a fifteen-foot-long filter feeder, was found tangled in the anchor chain of a United States Navy ship near Hawaii in 1976. It had never been observed before, and only five other specimens have been seen since.

What unknown animal hides in the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest? A creature with a long neck, whiskers, a mane, and a large body with lumps on its back. An animal that makes noises and hisses when it surfaces; by all appearances an air-breather and a mammal. But why would a large air-breather be seen so rarely at the surface? Where would this unknown, presumed mammal, perhaps even Heuvelmans's hypothetical "merhorse," breed? Heuvelmans has attempted to classify marine crypteds according to their character- istics and has hypothesized a variety of new animals to fit the observations.

One of them is the "merhorse," a long-necked, horse-headed marine mammal with large eyes, whiskers, and a mane, similar to many of the observations of Caddy. Seals and other pinnipeds congregate in gregarious rookeries; whales engage in musical frolics. How could such a large, unknown marine mammal be so elusive?

The mystery is not likely to be solved in the near future. Sightings are rare and apparently random. The development and funding of a research program that embraces review of evidence, formulation of hypotheses, search strategy, and instrument design in what is, after all, a legitimate scientific question tends to be thwarted by the stigma of "frivolity" that mars the subject, as well as by the absence of any obvious practical application.

Crypto zoology, without a clear prospect for the betterment or enlightenment of humankind, remains a science that seems too "pure" for most oceanographers to pursue seriously.






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