March 27, 2017

Three Provincetown Sea Serpents

I have been to Provincetown on Cape Cod many, many times. It's definitely the liveliest town on the Cape in the summer, and there's always something interesting to see when you walk down Commercial Street.

Outside the hubbub of the town, though, there are miles and miles of dunes and beaches. It gets pretty quiet out there, particularly in the off-season. It can feel like you're at the end of the Earth, where anything is possible. It's the type of place where monsters might appear...

In 1886, George Washington Ready of Provincetown saw a sea serpent off the shore of Provincetown. According to The Provincetown Advocate, the sighting started with a disturbance in the water:

It looked like a whirlpool and from his point of view appeared to be about 20 feet in diameter, from the center of which jets of spray looking like steam were ejected to the height of 50 feet. Intently watching this strange phenomenon he saw a huge head appear above the surface of the water and point for the shore. The head was as large as a 200 gallon cask, concave on the under side. Mr. Ready saw the creature coming towards the shore and secreted himself in a clump of beach plum bushes where he got a good view of the monster. 

And what a monster it was!

It was about 300 feet long and the thickest part, which was about the middle way, he judged as it passed, to be about 12 feet in diameter.... The most curious feature was the head. The open mouth disclosed four rows of teeth which glistened  like polished ivory and were at least two feet long, while on the extreme end of the head or nose extended a tusk or horn at least 8' long. The creature had six eyes as large as good-sized dinner plates and were three feet from the head. It could see behind, before and sideways all at once. Three of the eyes were fiery red and the others were green. 

Although it was ostensibly a sea monster, there was something vaguely infernal about the creature:

A strong sulphurous odor accompanied the creature and intense heat was emitted, so much that the bushes and grass over which he moved had the appearance of being scorched with fire. 

The creature made its way to a freshwater pond and burrowed down into the earth. The water in pond drained downwards after the creature, drying out the pond and leaving a hole "some 20 feet in diameter, perfectly circular, down which sounding leads have been lowered 250 fathoms and no bottom found."

Provincetown Harbor

That description is from the August 18, 1949 Provincetown Advocate, which is quoting from an 1886 Yarmouth newspaper. I don't think there are any bottomless pits in Provincetown these days, so either the hole collapsed in on itself or the story is one of those hoaxes 19th century newspapers loved to publish. I do find the "sulphurous odor" intriguing, though, because people who encounter Sasquatch often say he smells the same. Satan is also supposed to smell like sulfur, of course.

The November 16, 1950 Advocate has another interesting account of something serpentine, but this time seen in the air by a ship's crew on September 30, 1850 at 9:00 pm:

I observed in a N.E. direction, at an elevation of about 40 degrees, a halo resembling a serpent of fiery red color. It extended about 10 degrees in a S.E. and N.W. direction, the head somewhat elevated, with an immense curl or fold near the center. It moved off in a S.E. direction, but becoming less and less distinct until half past 9, when it entirely disappeared. I am unable to conjecture what may be the cause of this appearance, but guess it must be the veritable Sea Serpent, tired of swimming and desirous of a more conspicuous situation...

That account sounds less like a sea serpent and more like a UFO to me, but people didn't really have the concept of UFOs in 1850. It sounds like the crew definitely saw something strange in the sky, but again I am not sure if readers are supposed to take the suggestion it was a flying sea serpent seriously.

Provincetown dune shack

A more serious sea serpent appeared in Provincetown in January of 1939. Well, at least its skeleton did. Coast Guard crew at Wood's End found an 18 foot long skeleton on the beach.

It bears no resemblance to whale, black fish, shark, sea cow, or any other sea skeleton arrangement. The central section of the long spine is about eight inches in diameter and it tapers off at both ends.  It contains 71 vertebrae and on each side are the remains of two growths that may have been flippers. The skull is flat and narrow with jaws but no teeth. A hole about three inches in diameter extends through the skull (Provincetown Advocate, January 19, 1939)

The skeleton was shipped off to Harvard's Museum of Natural History for identification. Curator William S. Schroeder said that the skeleton came from a basking shark, not a sea serpent. Basking sharks are quite rare in New England waters, which is why no one in Provincetown could identify it.

If you're down in Provincetown this summer, keep your eyes peeled. Who knows? Maybe you'll see a fourth sea serpent, and maybe this time someone will prove it's real.

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