by Senan Molony
Sir Arthur Henry Rostron, the eventual Commodore of the Cunard Line, Knight of the British Empire, and rescuer of 712 Titanic survivors, was a lifelong believer in the existence of sea serpents and other forms of cryptozoology. In fact, he had seen one himself, exactly five years before his Titanic exploits won him the praise and admiration of the world.
In his memoirs Home from the Sea (pps 45-47) Commander Rostron tells how he was acting as Chief Officer on board the Campania [on April 26, 1907], when something remarkable happened -
“We were coming one Friday evening into Queenstown, when off Galley Head, I noticed something sticking out of the water. ‘Keep clear of the snag right ahead,’ I called out to the junior officer who was with me on the bridge. We swung away a point but gradually drew nearer so that we were able to make out what the unusual thing was. It was a sea monster! It was no more than fifty feet from the ship’s side when we passed it, and so both I and the junior officer had a good sight of it.
The 57-foot Long Sea-Monster Killed by Stem of the Armadale Castle 
Drawn by G.E. Lodge from a Sketch by Captain J.C. Robinson
"During a recent voyage of the Armadale Castle when the vessel was in latitude 3 deg. South, the stem’s perpendicular struck a large fish close to the head, and held it prisoner for about fifteen minutes. The monster was not less than fifty-seven feet in length, and must have been eight feet in diameter. It was beautifully marked, and Captain Robinson was sorry he could not lasso and preserve it. There was keen controversy among the passengers as to its species, some arguing for a whale, some for a shark. As Mr Rudyard Kipling was on board and saw the sight, it has been suggested that the creature should be called ‘Piscis Rudyardensis."
So strange an animal was it that I remember crying out: ‘It's alive!’ One has heard such yarns about these monsters and cocked a speculative eye at the teller, that I wished as never before that I had a camera in my hands. Failing that, I did the next best thing and on the white dodger board in front of me I made sketches of the animal, full face and profile, for the thing was turning its head from side to side for all the world as a bird will on a lawn between its pecks. I was unable to get a clear view of the monster's features, but we were close enough to realise its head rose eight or nine feet out of the water, while the trunk of the neck was fully twelve inches thick.”
The junior officer in question, who is not named by Rostron in his memoirs, was one H.C. Birnie, who would himself have a distinguished career, going on to win a DSO for sinking a U-boat during World War One when Captain of HMS P-57. Many years later Birnie confirmed the whole of Rostron’s story to researcher R.T. Gould. Birnie added that when he was a child in 1894 or 1895, he and his father had seen on the beach at New Aberdour, Aberdeenshire, ‘a long snake-like thing’ extending from the water's edge to a rock some distance away.
Nine months before Rostron and Birnie’s sighting, the Illustrated London News had published a full page photograph of ‘A Curious Creature Sighted by the Steam-Yacht Emerald Between Madeira and St Thomas.’ It was an enlargement of a snap by a Dr Bowdler Sharpe.
Sea serpents had been a favourite lore of the sea since a famous encounter by the HMS Daedalus in 1848. The creature seen was ‘enormous,’ some 60ft long, and ‘something like seaweed washed about its back.’ Captain McQuhae had drawings made immediately after it was seen, including one of its head, carrying an expression of perfect innocence.
Left and centre: HMS Daedalus and her extensive serpent (click to enlarge); Right: Drawing by Captain McQuhae
Later the same year, a sea serpent was seen and sketched just west of Oporto by a naval officer on board HMS Plumper, on New Year’s Eve, 1848. And eight years later another celebrated case reared its head when the ship Imogene, to London from Algoa Bay, saw a sea serpent of 40 feet in length swimming on the surface of the sea on Sunday March 30, 1856. The weather was calm and clear.
A further sighting in South African waters may be cited, that of the Umfoli when nearing the Cape of Good Hope…
The year before Rostron’s apparition, the science of marine herpetology had taken a step forward when a meeting of the Zoological Society was told by Mr E.B. Meade Waldo and Mr M.J. Nicoll of a creature seen by them from the deck of the Earl of Crawford’s yacht, Valhalla.
‘These two gentlemen accompanied Lord Crawford as naturalists during his usual winter cruise. Both are well-known naturalists, and one is a member of the Council of the Zoological Society,’ wrote diarist W. P. Pycraft.
‘The story they unfolded to a breathlessly excited assembly of the Fellows is briefly this. When off Para on Dec. 7, 1905, at 10 a.m., they were standing on the deck of the yacht when their attention was caught by a curious sail-like object of some 4ft long and 2ft. high waving from side to side in the water. No sooner had they turned their glasses on to this strange object than there appeared a huge eel-like neck, some 6 ft. long, and as thick as a man’s thigh, and this neck was surmounted by a great turtle-like head and large eyes, now borne high above the sea, which was quite calm. It was dark colour above and silvery white below. After a few moments the head and beck were slowly lowered, and when level with the water were violently lashed from side to side, churning up the sea into a great sheet of foam, and then it vanished.
The Latest Glimpse of the Sea Serpent: A Scientist’s Sketch
This sketch is by Mr M. J. Nicoll. Naturalist to Lord Crawford’s expedition, who was on board Lord Crawford’s yacht, the Valhalla, when the sea serpent was sighted.
Adverse winds caused the ship to beat about so that at midnight they were only twenty miles from the scene of the morning. This is noteworthy, because when Mr Nicoll came on deck after breakfast, one of the officers came up and reported that during the night he saw a strange commotion in the water. At first he thought it was a rock awash, but a most careful examination showed that it was a beast of some kind, travelling faster than the ship, which was then making only about eight-and-a-half knots. The officer hailed the deck and the lookout man, and thus got witnesses to this weird phenomenon. Thought the sea was calm, and there was a bright moon, nothing satisfactory could be made out due to the wash which the creature was making, but in its movements it resembled a submarine travelling just below the surface.’
Bernard Heuvelsmans’ book, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (1968), contains two representations of Arthur Rostron’s sketches, which he discussed when interviewed by the Daily Mail at the time of the sighting, wherein they were reproduced.
Rostron told the newspaper in 1907: ‘There were two protuberances where eyes might have been, but I could see no eyes... It had very small ears in comparison with its enormous bulk.’
On Rostron’s sketches, these very small ears look like snail’s horns, similar to many descriptions of plesiosaurs and lake and loch monsters. When the Captain of the Campania heard about the incident, he asked Rostron what he had drunk at dinner. Neither the sketches nor Birnie's corroboration convinced him. In due course the Campania docked at Liverpool.
After shore leave, the Captain called on Rostron and raised the matter again. ‘Did you see it, Rostron?’ he asked. ‘Yes Sir,’ replied the religious Rostron.
In his memoirs, Rostron adds:
‘The previous evening when at home I was looking at the evening paper and was interested to read of an experience [that] a man had gone through in the Bristol Channel. He had been picked up in a boat in a very exhausted condition, drifting out of control, as he had lost oars and boathook. He told the story that on the Saturday previous, he had gone out fishing and in the evening had been attacked by a huge sea monster and had fought it off with his boathook and oars, losing them all. His description of the animal compared accurately with the one I had seen, and, as I saw it heading from the south of Ireland in the direction of the Bristol Channel, there was left little doubt in my mind that it was the same - and no longer any doubt in the Captain's mind that my monster had been real enough.’
If we look up the press reports however, for instance, the Liverpool Echo of April 30, 1907, it is hard to share Rostron's conviction when it was revealed that a Mr McNaughton says he was attacked by a monster ‘like a huge mummy with sunken eyes enveloped in a sort of hairy flap.’
He added: ‘The flabby monster seemed to leap out of the water as straight as an arrow for me. I hardly know what I did. I think I must have ducked and crashed the oar into the creature. At any rate I was flung violently into the water. When I regained the surface I managed to clamber into the boat. My terrible enemy was nowhere in sight.’
The incident appears to have happened only one or two days after and little more than 200 miles from Rostron’s encounter.
There was a small sequel that might be worth noting. When R.T. Gould, the researcher who much later quizzed Birnie on the incident, published an article on the sea serpent in The Times of London on December 9, 1933, a Mrs J.C. Adkins wrote in to say that she and her cousin had seen a sea monster at around the same time.
This beast, seen off Padstow on Cornwall's north coast, showed a long neck ending in a little head and a series of small humps above the waves. She could not recall the exact date, but remembered reading at the time of the sighting by Rostron and the Campania, which came hard on the heels of what she and her cousin had witnessed.
Just one month before Rostron's sighting - in March 1907 - the newspapers had reported that some Tenby fishermen trawling in the Channel saw ‘a monster fish, 200ft long, with four fins as big as sails,’ and that its ‘general appearance was that of a sea serpent.’
Even the North Atlantic provided sightings. A Dutch steamer, the Amsteldijk of the Holland America Line, met a strange animal in the summer of 1911. The location was noted as latitude 47° 30' N, longitude 27° 11' W. Second officer J.A. Liebau, noted in the log that the animal they saw on Saturday August 19 that year ‘was very probably a sea serpent.’
One doubter has written, however: ‘The sea serpent is a creature vainly imagined, a figment of the brain, a thing born of after-dinner orgies; it may even have a semblance of reality, but when analysed it proves to be nothing more than a school of porpoises playing at “follow-my-leader,” [or] a gigantic cuttlefish vainly waving its long arms in an endeavour to escape the grip of some hungry whale. On occasions, indeed, the sea serpent has turned out to be nothing more interesting than a floating spar decorated with a tangle of seaweed!’
The Times of London noted however in an Editorial in December 1933: ‘It is said that there exists a body of secret tradition among seafaring men, which by common consent they decline to communicate to outsiders, because of the contemptuous incredulity always shown by landsmen ignorant of the infinite potentialities of the sea. But sufficient instances of strange beasts seen on the high seas have been placed on record to make a formidable body of testimony.’
It is noteworthy, perhaps, that while Rostron told his tale to the Daily Mail in 1907 and gained worldwide fame half a decade later, he had no reservations about putting his reputation at risk when he wrote of the sea serpent again in his autobiography, bringing further such testimony home from the sea. Retailing the story, despite the high offices he subsequently held, including that of Aide-de-camp to the King, may even be a mark of the man’s essential humility.