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Family Activities30th September 2023

Here Be Sea Monsters

Oceans are large, unforgiving, and a big mystery. A ship on the ocean is surrounded by vast amounts of water in every direction – including down!

Throughout history, encounters with unknown oceanic creatures have filled stories. Modern technology has made it significantly easier to explore the Earth’s oceans. To explore the deepest parts of oceans, scientists rely on autonomous submarines – remember Boaty McBoatface?- are used to delve to the deep depths of the ocean floor and identify the animals unknown. In fact, in May 2023 scientists revelaed that over 5,000 new species had been identified in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean.

There are still many mysteries that remain unsolved.

So, where do stories and descriptions of sea monsters come from? It’s not an easy question to answer.



Possibly the most infamous sea monster is the Kraken. Today it is imagined to be a large octopus-type creature. However, in its Scandinavian origins the beast was more like an oversized crab that was described to be as large as ten ships. The Kraken was believed to have horns, spikes, or spindly spikes and could eat ships whole.

The Kraken was believed to lurk deep in the waters between Norway and Greenland, occasionally coming to the surface to bask on the surface. Whilst at rest, the Kraken was reputed to look like an island that tricking ships in believing they could land and take respite from the ocean. Unfortunately, if the Kraken woke with a ship at anchor, it would plunge back in to the water dragging the boat and crew with it.

It is unknown where the true origins for the Kraken came from, but modern theories could explain elements of the myth. The water between Greenland and Norway consists of the Vesteris Seamount, which has underwater volcanic activity that produces large amounts of bubbles, dangerous currents, and floating masses of pumice.


Contemporary representations of mermaids do not suggest that they could be anything considered as a monster, however in the early folklore they were considered as abominations.

A mermaid is described as a being with the head and upper body of a female human with the tail of a fish. Depictions of mermaids appear worldwide in cultures in the Near east, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Western origins for mermaids can be traced to a couple of influences including the Ancient Syrian goddess Atargatis, who was sometimes depicted with a tail of a fish. Greek mythology also a key influencer, in particular the Sirens that started as half-bird and half-woman but later evolved to be half-fish.


Writers in the 1500s referred to two creatures named the ‘sea monk’ and the ‘sea bishop’. Both had human characteristics but with religious garments. The sea monk had a long, hooded cowl and a tonsure haircut, whereas the sea bishop was shaped like a human but with a tall shape like a bishop’s mitre (hat) on its head.


These very real objects demonstrate people’s appetite to believe that the sea monsters existed. These strange, mummified creatures were taken as evidence of proving the existence of dragons, or even a basilisk.

Jenny Hanivers are made from the carcass of skates or rays that were modified by hand and then dried out.


Medieval cartographers (map makers) filled in large, featureless expanses of water with animals, gusts of wind, whirlpools, and other details. These details and decorations not only made a map more interesting but earned the creator more money. A secondary reason for including fearsome sea monsters to scare people away from certain regions such as trade routes or prosperous fishing grounds.

The inclusion of sea monsters became so successful that cartographers were frequently looking for new inspiration. Some mapmakers were inventive by themselves but others took inspiration from older maps, books, and the world around them.


So, do sea monsters exist?

Many myths and legends are based on misunderstood sightings of real creatures.

There are many secrets still waiting to be discovered at the bottom of the ocean, so it is inevitable that we will discover creatures that have an unusual appearance.


Not quite a sea monster but for centuries, narwhals have found themselves mixed up in a mythical creature myth – the unicorn. The long, spiralling narwhal tusks were traded and sold as being unicorn horn. Further perpetuating the belief that unicorns exist.

Did you know? In 1949, a female narwhal found its way to the River Medway. Measuring over 13ft, her body came ashore at Rectory Wharf, Wouldham and was met with great local interest. The body began to decay in the river until specialists from the Natural History Museum recovered it. It was one of five narwhals to wash up in British waters in 400 years.


With Colossal Squid it is easy to see how fact and fiction merge together. These enormous cephalopods can reach 43ft in length and weigh 1,500 pounds and have long tentacles that have hooks on the end. The Colossal Squid is the largest and heaviest known mollusc but the Giant Squid (up to 33ft/ 440 pounds) is not far behind. The largest octopus is the Giant Pacific Octopus (up to 16ft /110 pounds).

When considering the description of the Kraken, the spindly spikes are reminiscent of the squid’s hooked tentacles.


The Anglerfish demonstrates what is capable within the depths of the ocean. With its overhanging lantern, large translucent teeth, and large jaw that will any fish or sea creature that crosses it path. We can only wonder about what other creatures lay deep on the ocean floor that have still not been discovered.

The inspirations for mermaids can be found in known species such as seals and whales. In fact, it is believed that Christopher Columbus’ sighting of a mermaid was in fact a manatee. In 1493, Columbus stated that he “quite distinctly saw three mermaids” off the coast of Haiti but described them as “not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”

modern day monsters

The legends of sea monsters are not confined to history books as tales of unexplained creatures are still shared today. Possibly with the rise of the internet and social media, it is easier for stories to spread and find an engaged audience.

One contemporary sea monster that still intrigues people today is the Loch Ness Monster.


As recently as August 2023, a large organised search for ‘Nessie’ took place on the Scottish loch. The Loch Ness Centre and the research group Loch Ness Exploration organised the biggest search since 1972. It consisted of physical searches that were so popular that applications to join had to be closed. These were also supported by online surveillance by people all over the world that monitored the surface of the loch through a live stream.

In person surveillance relied on a wealth of modern technology including surveying equipment that was to be used for the very first time in freshwater, drones with infrared cameras, and a hydrophone to monitor underwater sounds.


The weekend’s activities did not produce any conclusive information regarding the existence of a sea monster in Loch Ness. However, one tantalising event did happen with the team’s new hydrophone technology that picked up “four mysterious and previously unheard loud noises”. Unfortunately, the team manning the equipment failed to press record and it will remain a story to be told by those onboard the vessel at the time.

So, with no conclusive evidence either way. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster endures for a bit longer.

find out more


Take a deep breath and plunge down to the dark murky depths of the ocean this Halloween and discover the monsters that lurk beneath.

Could there be anything more scary than coming face to face with a Giant Sea Spider the size of your face or within inches of a carnivorous Giant Deep-Sea Isopod?

Get up close and personal with these spectacular specimens from the most unexplored parts of the planet in our Monsters of the Deep exhibition in No.1 Smithery.

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