In 1741, missionary Hans Egede published his report of a “most dreadful monster” seen near the coast of Greenland. Along with an illustration by Egede himself, it would become a particularly famous account in the vast collection of “sea serpents” tales.
But Charles Paxton, from University of St Andrews, Scotland, suggested a couple of years ago a much more interesting hypothesis. Paxton has already been awarded the IgNobel in Biology in 2002 for his study on the “Courtship behaviour of ostriches towards humans under farming conditions in Britain“, so his hypothesis may not be such a surprise.
Paxton proposes the folks saw a whale penis.
Yes, a male whale of a species unknown to the travelers, for some reason excited and having its erect organ — which can reach up to two meters in length — mistaken for the tail of some sea serpent.
An image, however, may be worth more than the last dozen words:
As you can see, outrageous as it may sound at first, it’s actually a plausible and serious idea. So much so that it was published on the Archives of Natural History, “Cetaceans, sex & sea serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “Most Dreadful Monster” seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734” (PDF, no images).
In the paper, Paxton, along with Erik Knatterud and Sharon Hedley, cautiously argues that:
… we have no “unmeet confidence [sic]” in our interpretation of the Egede creature. Nor are we suggesting that whales’ penises are a universal source of sea-serpent sightings. … In the case of the Egedes, we are assuming that the use of the serpent simile and the drawings were not wholly accurate. If they were accurate, then the strongest objection to the baleen whale interpretation of the Egede sighting is the presence of obvious teeth in the drawing.
Our explanation also assumes that the witnesses would not have recognised a whale’s penis and that some species would display their penises in the summer off Greenland. Hans Egede (1741, 1745) described the large “membrum virile” of a whale but the Egedes may not have realised it could be seen at sea.
Despite these objections, even if the monster was an unknown species, the diagnostic features (the blow, the two obvious flippers and the possible breaching behaviour) suggest a cetacean. Ultimately, we will never know for certain. Whatever it was Poul Egede saw that day, be it an amorous wandering grey, humpback or North Atlantic right whale, a flukeless whale or an unknown species, it was a most unusual sight both at the time and now.
Which leads us to another fascinating image comparing ominous old illustrations with casual modern photos of frenetically excited whales:
The first image of whale penis in this note comes from here, and the one just above, from here.
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