Listen, I know it’s improbable, just like sightings of old Nessie in Loch Ness sound absurd to those who’ve never seen her. Sea serpents, if they exist, apparently live so submerged and so sensitive to man-made machinery, they only reveal themselves on the rarest of occasions. When one does, however, surface, and the chance bystander spies it, that poor schmegeggie of an eye-witness is so shocked when he tells us about it, we believe him just because he’s ripped out of his skull with honest disbelief. . . . wouldn't you be?
Consider this dispatch from the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, in 1860, vouching for a certain captain’s “truthfulness and aversion to exaggeration” (we well know this kind of acerbic Yankee: “It was about seventy feet long, with a head shaped like a horse’s, eyes the size of plates, and with fore-flippers extending from his chest.”
In 1890, the grandpa of Island author, Everett S. Allen, stumbled upon a Nessie on South Beach. According to Allen in his book, "Martha’s Vineyard: An Elegy," his aged relative had no imagination and no story-telling ability whatsoever. And yet one time when he was out mowing salt hay, he saw a sea serpent frolicking in the surf close to shore. The sight so unnerved the old Islander, he left his gear and tromped home to take to bed for the rest of the day.
Talk about unnerved, the freakiest of sightings occurred in August of 1817, in Gloucester where a jiggy-looking leviathan from the deep visited the seaport daily for a month! Try visiting Gloucester, and you’ll hear this tall tale itself told daily, even now, some 195 Augusts after the fact.
The first glimpse of the Gloucester sea ghoul occurred on August 6th, described by “two women and a coaster” (now what precisely was a coaster? - - a surfer, a sailor, a round textural object upon which one settles a drink? – saw something “strange” in the water. After that, a bunch of people saw in the churning waters either a humongous aberration of nature, or else they shared a kind of St. Vitus’s Dance of collective hallucination, which itself is not unknown.
On August 14th, a sailor raised his musket and shot the galloping gorgon, to no apparent effect. By the 18th, el monstro had been seen by fishermen, clergy, statesmen and housewives, all of them shouting out from various vantage points along the sands, now known as Pavilion Beach.
The sheer volume of stories led the prestigious Linnaean Society (named after a Mr. Linnaeus who developed a system to classify plants and animals) in Boston to investigate. This marked the first time a scientific inquiry was launched into the existence of Unidentified Swimming Objects.
And you know what? They’re gonna go on sucking up oxygen in their Alvin submersibles in search of sea monsters (although they’ll say they’re searching for single-cell amoeba and deep-sea quartz). All these ocean scientists are agog to discover something really jumbo and funky out there in the deep blue sea, never mind that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recently released the bummer news, "ixnay on ermaidmay". Trust me: Marine biologists want them to exist as much as they next guy.
So Gloucester. None other than the businessman and philanthropist, Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins (later founder of the Perkins School For The Blind), attracted to all the buzz and hubbub of the sea monster sightings, stood on the beach and peered through a telescope. He spied a “chocolate-colored creature at least 40 feet long with a foot-long marine-spike horn on its head, swimming through the water with the vertical movement of a caterpillar.”
Others agreed that the over-sized mammal or fish or snake or whatever propelled itself through the water with a vertical undulation.
What does this mean to us modern-day Vineyarders, as we make our way through the Sound on various skiffs, kayaks and schooners? The last confirmed sighting (leaving out all the drunken tales regaled on rainy nights in local bars), occurred in the 1930s.
Captain Fred Caldwell of Fairhaven and his mate, George Roche, were out trawling in Menemsha Creed, bound back from Gay Head (don’tcha just love that old name?) in the Devil’s Bridge area. They noticed something thrashing in the water to port.
A sea “lizard” bigger than their 52-foot vessel reared up alongside them. Afterwards, friends, family, and newspaper reporters who debriefed the two fishermen said they were serious, sober, and stressed for any number of days.
Now, here’s the still scarier part: A few days earlier, an abandoned boat was found steaming along in the Wood’s Hole harbor. No one was aboard. A lobster buoy was jammed hard between two bait barrels, and the line trailing over the stern was frayed as if from the tug of a Paul Bunyan
Here’s my educated, albeit unscientific, analysis: They do exist, these timorous, submarine-sized denizens of the deep, perhaps in all lochs, lakes, and oceans, even, dear reader, in your own swimming pool. Every half-century or so, in any given place, a sea monster gets lonely, and undergoes a sudden, raging desire to show itself.
Hmm . . . 2012 minus 1930s: we’re over-due for a sighting.
August on Martha’s Vineyard, a perfect time for one of the Gloucester Horror’s descendants to up-stage Jawsfest.