Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Cetaceans, sex & sea serpents

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.

Since then, many explanations to the sighting were advanced, such as the one that says the folks may have seen a giant squid (Architeuthis), with one of the tentacles mistaken for a tail.

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.

You may also watch this terrorizing video of a sea battle between whales and sea serpents — or maybe just whales mating.

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Posted in Criptozoology,Fortean | 14 comments

14 Comments so far

  1. craig york February 25th, 2008 8:44 pm

    That its clearly two excited males in the second picture is….
    interesting.

    I remember hearing about this explanation for the Edege sighting awhile back-I suppose its plausible, but
    at a remove of 250 years, its hard ( ahem ) to have much of
    opinion one way or the other, except to better understand
    the notion that it had to be something other than a “Sea
    Serpent”. I’ve been fascinated by Sea Serpents, Lake monsters
    and Cryptozoology generally for a long time, but I wouldn’t
    accept the Edege story as anything other than an interesting tale-worth considering, but hardly evidence.

  2. Jan Sundberg February 26th, 2008 5:56 am

    The whale penis is seen A FEW SECONDS only, so that’s not a proof of anything and especially not the debunking Hans Egede, who was a far more learnt man than the clowns who came up with this preposterous idea, Erik Knatterud among them! The independent Norwegian researcher Erik Knatterud has, obviously, joined the skeptics because he can’t find what he is looking for, i.e. sea serpents in general and the monster in Lake Mjosa in particular. Shame of you, Erik! You’re lacking stamina (the capability of sustaining prolonged stressful effort). Take a new deep breath and search on, before you’re making a fool of yourself…

  3. craig york February 26th, 2008 7:22 pm

    Well, at least he didn’t consistantly mis-spell the man’s name. ( Boy, am I embarrassed. )

  4. Mori February 26th, 2008 8:54 pm

    Mr. Sundberg, in the paper the authors clearly concede they don’t have any proof, and are only advancing an hypothesis. I think they have nothing to be ashamed of, as if it isn’t a “universal source of sea serpents”, it is indeed a plausible hypothesis to consider.

  5. charles gaukel February 28th, 2008 1:26 pm

    It’s an interesting theory but whale anatomy was pretty well known because of the whaling industry. When two whales (or three from the photo) were getting it on, weren’t the Captain Ahabs looking for any sign to thrust their harpoons into their prey? I would imagine that the whalers knew what a whale penis looked like because they cut them up at a decent rate.

  6. […] Cetaceans, sex & sea serpents Reports of ancient sea serpents might be the result of sightings of ancient whale penises. Page also has a picture of the aformentioned appendage, entirely safe for work, unless you are a whale. In which case, nice waterproof computer! (tags: cryptozoology, myth, whales, penises) […]

  7. arolternell June 8th, 2008 9:26 pm

    XDD.Is this as funny as I think?
    Legendary sea snakes were whale penises????.LOL

  8. www.digbuzz.com January 29th, 2009 7:51 am

    whale penis…

    The first image of whale penis in this note comes from here, … The whale penis is seen A FEW SECONDS only, so that’s not a proof of anything and …In 1741, missionary Hans Egede published his report of a “most dreadful monster” seen near the c…

  9. […] that what sailors in the 1700’s thought were sea monsters were actually whale penises. yes. read on… […]

  10. […] What is it? The legendary sea serpent, feared by hardy sailors since the dawn of hardy sailing. Probably actually a giant squid or possibly just a whale’s penis. […]

  11. americopywriter (John January) May 19th, 2009 10:04 pm

    Wayward plesiasaur? Undiscovered species? Nope. Whale sex: http://tinyurl.com/63wypk

  12. timisbusy (Tim Atkinson) May 19th, 2009 10:07 pm

    Who wants to see some 2m penises (whale)? http://tinyurl.com/63wypk (via @americopywriter)

  13. […] is that the famous Egede sighting of 1734 might actually have been of a whale penis, which has been supported with some remarkable photos. Others have mentioned it merely as a misidentified […]

  14. […] is that the famous Egede sighting of 1734 might actually have been of a whale penis, which has been supported with some remarkable photos. Others have mentioned it merely as a misidentified whale. Yeah, no […]

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