Ethnobiology and Shifting Baselines: An Example Reinterpreting the British Isles’ Most Detailed Account of a Sea Serpent Sighting as Early Evidence for Pre-Plastic Entanglement of Basking Sharks


  • Robert France Dalhousie University


Scotland, 19th-century, sea serpents, non-lethal entanglement, basking sharks



Recognizing shifts in baseline conditions is necessary for understanding long-term changes in populations as a prelude to implementing present-day management actions and setting future restoration goals for anthropogenically-altered marine ecosystems. Examining historical information contained within anecdotal accounts from non-traditional sources has previously proven useful in this regard. Herein, I scrutinize eyewitness descriptions and illustrations related to the most detailed nineteenth-century report of sighting a purported sea serpent in the British Isles. I then reinterpret this anecdote (as well as complementary evidence offered by cryptozooloogists in its support obtained from other sightings of similarly described unidentified marine objects), suggesting it to provide one of the earliest descriptions of the non-lethal entanglement of an animal—in this case what I believe to have been a basking shark—in European waters. The present work suggests that the entanglement of sharks in fishing gear or hunting equipment has a much longer environmental history than is commonly believed, and provides another example of how ethnozoological studies can contribute toward recognizing past fishing-related pressures and baseline shifts in affected populations.  Sharks, it seems, have been subjected to the impacts of not just direct fishery exploitation but also through becoming by-catch, long before the advent and widespread use of plastic in the middle of the twentieth century.


Aiken W R G, Purser J (1936) The preservation of fibre ropes for use in sea-water. Plymouth Laboratory New Series 20:643-654.

Al-Abdulrazzak D, Naidoo R,.Palomares MLD, Pauly D (2012) Gaining perspective on what we’ve lost: The reliability of encoded anecdotes in historical ecology. PLOS One 7:1-5.

Alexander KE and others. (2017) Tambora and the mackerel year: Phenology and fisheries during an extreme climate event. Science Advances 3:1-18.

Alves RT, Albuquerque UP (Eds.) (2017). Ethnozoology: Animals in Our Lives. Elsevier.

Anderson, E.N., D. Pearshall, E. Hunn and N. Turner (Eds.) (2011) Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Anonymous. (2019a) Dead whale was tangled in rope in East Lothian for ‘months’. BBC News 25/04/19.

Anonymous. (2019b) Whale washed up in Caithness tangled in Canadian fishing gear. BBC News, 03/06/19.

Barclay J (1811) Remarks on some parts of the animal that was cast ashore on the Island of Stronsa. Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society 1:418-444.

Barber L (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870. Doubleday & Company.

Bauer HH (2013) Cryptozoology and the troubles with ‘skeptics’ and mainstream pundits. Journal of Scientific Exploration 27:690-704.

Baum JK, Myers RA (2004) Shifting baselines and the decline of pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecology Letters 7:135-145.

Bekker-Nielsen T, Casola DB (Eds.) 2010. Ancient Nets and Fishing Gear. Aarhus University Press.

Berger C (1983) Science, God, and Nature in Victorian Canada. University of Toronto Press.

Binns R (1984) The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. W.H. Allen.

Bolster WJ (2012) The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Harvard University Press.

Brink-Roby H (2008) Siren canora: The mermaid and the mythical in late nineteenth-century science. Archives of Natural History 35:1-14.

Brongersma LD (1968) The Soay Beast. Beaufortia 15:33-46.

Brown CM (1990) A natural history of the Gloucester sea serpent: Knowledge, power, and the culture of science in Antebellum America. American Quarterly 42:402-436.

Burns EI (2014) Monster on the Margin: The Sea Serpent Phenomenon in New England, 1817-1849. Ph. D. Thesis, Department of History, University of Buffalo.

Burnett DG (2007) Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Princeton University Press.

Burton M (1960) The Soay Beast. The Illustrated London News (June 4, 1960):972-973

Burton M (1961) Was the Soay Beast a Tourist? The Illustrated London News (October 14, 1961):632.

Coleman L,.Huyghe P (2003) The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Putman.

Cronon WJ, McDonnell MJ (Eds.) (1993) Humans as Components of Ecosystems: The Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas. Springer.

Crumley CJ (Ed.) (1994) Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes. School for Advanced Research Press.

Das N (2009) Occam’s Razor and cryptozoology. The Scienta Review. MIT.

da Silva TC, Medeiros PM, Balcázar AL, de Sousa Araújo TA, Pirondo A, Trindade Medeiros MF (2014) Historical ethnobiology: An overview of selected studies. Ethnobiology and Conservation DOI:

da Silva Vieira K, Da Silva Viera WL, Alves RR (2017) Imaginary zoology: Mysterious fauna in the reports of ancient travelers and chroniclers. In: Alves, R.T. and U.P. Albuquerque (Eds.) 2017. Ethnozoology: Animals in Our Lives. Elsevier.

Davis JF, Gray C, Bigelow J (1817) Report of a committee of the Linnaean Society of New England relative to a large marine animal, supposed to be a serpent, seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August, 1817. Linnaean Society Private Publication. (online access, numerous sources)

Deedy A (2017) Hark! A sea monster! (Oh, no, just a dying whale). All those strange sea monster sightings in days of yore? This may be the best explanation yet. Hakai Magazine 08/02/17.

Dendle P (2006) Cryptozoology in the medieval and modern worlds. Folklore 117:190-206.

Derraik JGB (2002) The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42:842-852.

Drew J, Philipp C, Westneat MW (2013) Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19thCentury Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies. PLOS ONE 8(4): e59855.

Ellis R (1994) Monsters of the Sea. Alfred A. Knopf.

Fairfax D (1998) The Basking Shark in Scotland – Natural History, Fishery and Conservation. Tuckwell Press.

Fama E (2012) Debunking a great New England sea serpent. 16/08/12.

Ferretti F, Curnick D, Liu K, Romanow EV, Block BA (2018) Shark baselines and the conservation role of remote coral reef ecosystems. Science Advances 4(3): doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0333.

Fortibuoni T, Borme D, Franceschini G, Giovanardi O, Raicewich S (2016) Common, rare or extirpated? Shifting baselines for common angelshark, Squatina squatina (Elasmobranchii: Squatinidae), in the northern Adriatic Sea (Mediterranean Sea). Hydrobiologia 772:247-259.

France RL (2007) Wetlands of Mass Destruction: Ancient Presage for Contemporary Ecocide in Southern Iraq. Green Frigate Books.

France RL (2016a) Reinterpreting nineteenth-century accounts of whales battling ‘sea serpents’ as an illation of early entanglement in pre-plastic fishing gear or maritime debris. International Journal of Maritime History 28:686-714.

France RL (2016b) Historicity of sea turtles misidentified as sea monsters: A Case for the early entanglement of marine chelonians in pre-plastic fishing nets and maritime debris. Coriolis: An International Journal of Maritime Studies 6:1-24.

France RL (2017) Imaginary sea monsters and real environmental threats: Reconsidering the famous Osborne, ‘Moha-moha’, Valhalla, and ‘Soay Beast’ sightings of unidentified marine objects. International Review of Environmental History 3:63-100.

France RL (2018) Illustration of an 1857 ‘sea-serpent’ sighting re-interpreted as an early depiction of cetacean entanglement in maritime debris. Archives of Natural History 45:111-117.

France RL (2019) Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent. Wageningen Academic Publishers.

Galbreath GJ (2015) The 1848 ‘enormous serpent’ of the Daedalus identified. The Skeptical Inquirer 39(5):42-46.

Gardner D (2007) Whale survives harpoon attack 130 years ago to become ‘World’s oldest mammal’. The Daily Mail, 13/06/2007.

Goode GB and others. (1884) The fisheries and fishery industries of the United States. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reprinting. (online access, numerous sources).

Gould RT (1930) The Case for the Sea-Serpent. Philip Allen.

Gregory MR (2009) Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings – Entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364:2013-2025.

Guizard F (2018) Delfines nec non et ballenae…Les cetaces de l’Atlantique nord au haut Moyen Age: Representation, identification et consummation. Anthropozoologica 53:115-123.

Hamilton J (2003) Scottish Myths and Legends. Lomond Books.

Harrison P (2001) Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles. Robert Hale Ltd.

Hendrikx S (2018) Monstrosities from the sea. Taxonomy and tradition in Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) discussion of cetaceans and sea-monsters. Anthropozoolgica 53:125-137.

Heuvelmans B (1968) In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang.

Home E (1809) An anatomical account of the Squalus maximus (of Linnaeus) which in the structure of its stomach forms an intermediate link in the gradation of animals between the whlae tribe and cartilaginous fishes. Philosoiphical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 2:206-220.

Houwen L, Olsen KE (2001) Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe. Peeters Publishers.

Jacquemard C, Gauvin B, Lucas-Avenel M-A, Clavel B (2018) Animaux aquatiques et monstres des mers septentrionales (imaginer, connaitre, exploiter, de l’Antinquite a 1600). Anthropozzologica 53. Spcial issue.

Johnson T (2005) Entanglements: The Intertwined Fates of Whales and Fishermen. University Press of Florida.

Kristjonsson H (1971) Modern Fishing Gear of the World 3: Fishing Gear, Purse Seining, Aimed Trawling. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Laist DW (1997) Impacts of marine debris: Entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Coe JM, Rogers DB (Eds.), Marine Debris.

LeClercq-Marx J (2018) Entre tradition classique et imaginarie germane-celtique: Les monstres anthropomorphes des mers septentrionales, au Moyen Age et au debut de l’epoque modern. Antrhopozoologica 53:53-65.

Lehn WH (1979) Atmospheric refraction and lake monsters. Science 205:183-185.

Lehn WH, Schroeder I (1981) The Norse merman as an optical phenomenon. Nature 293:362-366.

Lee H (1883) Sea Monsters Unmasked. William Clowes and Sons.

Lotze HK and others. (2006) Depletion, Degradation, and Recovery Potential of Estuaries and Coastal Seas. Science 312:1806-1809.

Loveless E (2017) Ethnboarchaeology can be sued for ecological conservation because it can detect shifting baselines. Arizona Anthropologist 28:51-65.

Loxton D, Prothero DR (2015) Abominable Science!: Yeti, Nessie, and other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press.

Lyons SL (2009) Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. SUNY Press.

Macrae J, Twopeny D (1873) Appearance of an Animal, believed to be that which is called the Norwegian Sea-Serpent, on the Western Coast of Scotland, in August, 1872. The Zoologist 2(8):3517-3522.

Magin U (1996) St George without a dragon. Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent. Fortean Studies 4:223-234.

Mason A (2017) An ocean in the parlor: Home aquariums were the newest fad in the natural history-crazed Victorian era. Hakai Magazine, March 24. 12p.

Maxwell G (1952) Harpoon at a Venture. R. Hart-Davis.

McCaskill J (2009) Conserving Waterlogged Rope: A Review of Traditional Methods and Experimental Research with Polyethylene Glycol. MA Thesis, Texas A&M University.

McClenachan L (2009) Documenting loss of large trophy fish from the Florida Keys with historical photographs. Conservation Biology 23:636-643.

McClenachan L, Ferretti F, Baum JK (2012) From archives to conservation: Why historical data are needed to set baselines for marine animals and ecosystems. Conservations Letters 5:349-359.

McGowan-Hartman J (2013) Shadow of the dragon: The convergence of myth and science in nineteenth century paleontological imagery. Journal of Social History 47:47-70.

McEwan GJ (1978) Sea Serpents, Sailors & Sceptics. Routledge.

Meine C (1999) It’s about time: Conservation biology and history. Conservation Biology 13:1-3.

Mitchell SL (1829) The history of sea-serpentism. American Journal of Science and Arts 15:351-356.

Mowat F (1997) Sea of Slaughter. McClelland-Bantam.

Narchi NE, Cornier S, Canu DM, Aguilar-Rosas LE, Bender MG, Jacquelin C, Thiba M, Moura GGM, de Wit R (2013) Marine ethnobiology a rather neglected area, which can provide an important contribution to ocean and coastal management. Ocean & Coastal Management 89:117-126.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2014) Report on the Entanglement of Marine Species in Marine Debris with an Emphasis on Species in the United States. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program.

O’Neill JP (1999) The Great New England Sea Serpent: An Account of Unknown Creatures Sighted by Many Respectable Persons Between 1638 and the Present Day. Down East Books.

Oudemans AC (1892) The Great Sea-Serpent. Coachwhip Publications (2007 facsimile reprinting).

Parsons ECM (2004) Sea monsters and mermaids in Scottish folklore: Can these tales give us information on the historic occurrence of marine animals in Scotland? Anthrozoös 17:73-80.

Pauly D (1995) Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:430.

Paxton CGM (2009) The plural of ‘anecdote’ can be ‘data’: Statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified large marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology 279:381-387.

Paxton CGE, Holland R (2005) Was Steenstrup right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Oresund. Steenstrupia 29:39-47.

Paxton CGM, Knatterud E, Hedley SL (2005) Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: An analysis of the Egede accounts of a ‘most dreadful monster’ seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734. Archives of Natural History 32:1-9.

Paxton CGM, Naish D (2019) Did nineteenth century marine vertebrate fossil discoveries influence sea serpent reports? Earth Sciences History 38:16-27.

Pitcher T (2005) Back-to-the-future: a fresh policy initiative for fisheries and a restoration ecology for ocean ecosystems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 360:107–121.

Pontopiddian E L (1755) The Natural History of Norway. A. Linde (online access).

Regal B (2012) Richard Owen and the sea-serpent. Endeavor 36: 65-68.

Rice PM, Rice DS, Pugh TW (2017) Small Things Forgotten: Artifacts of Fishing in the Petén Lakes Region, Guatemala. Contributions in Ethnobiology.

Ritvo H (1997) The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. Harvard University Press.

Ritvo H (2010) Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History. University of Virginia Press.

Rossi L (2016) A review of cryptozoology: Towards a scientific approach to the study of ‘hidden animals.’ In: Angelici FM (Ed.) Problematic Wildlife. Springer.

Saenz-Arroyo A, Roberts CM, Torre J, Carino-Olvera M (2005) Using fishers’ anecdotes, naturalists’ observations and grey literature to reassess marine species at risk: The case of the Gulf grouper in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Fish and Fisheries 6:121-133.

Saenz-Arroyo A, Roberts CM, Torre J, Carino-Olvera M, Hawkins JP (2006) The value of evidence about past abundance: Marine fauna of the Gulf of California through the eyes of 16th to 19th century travellers. Fish and Fisheries 7:128-146.

Sargent CL (1818) The sea serpent. Evidence about It. Unpublished manuscript. Sole copy in Cape Ann Museum Archives.

Shermer M (2003) Show me the body. Scientific American 288:37.

Soini W (2010) Gloucester’s Sea Serpent. The History Press.

Speedie C (2017) A Sea Monster’s Tale: In Search of the Basking Shark. Wild Nature Press.

Starkey LJ (2017) Why sea monsters surround the northern lands: Olaus Magnus’s conception of water. Preternature 6:31-62.

Sweeney JB (1972) A Pictorial History of Sea Monsters and Other Dangerous Marine Life. Nelson-Crown.

Swinney G (1983) The Stronsay Monster: A case of mistaken identity. Journal of Marine Education 4:15-17.

Szabo P, Hedl R (2011) Advancing the integration of history and ecology for conservation. Conservation Biology 25: 680-687.

Szabo VE (2008) Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic. Brill.

Szabo V (2018) Northern seas, marine monsters, and perceptions of the premodern North Atlantic in the longue durée. In Visions of North in Premodern Europe, Ed. Jorgensen D, Langum V pp. 145-182. Brepols Publishers.

Teit JA (1918) Water-beings in Shetlandic folk-lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia. Journal of American Folklore 31:180-201.

Tidermann S, Gosler A (Eds.) 2010. Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Routledge.

Traill TS (1854) On the supposed sea snake cast on shore in the Orkneys in 1808, and the animal seen from H.M.S. Daedalus in 1848. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 3:208-215.

Vegter AC and others. (2014) Global research priorities to mitigate plastic pollution impacts on marine wildlife. Endangered Species Research 25:225-247.

Wabnitz C, Nicols WJ (2010) Plastic pollution: An ocean emergency. Marine Turtle Newsletter 129:1-4.

Wallace S, Gisborne B (2006) Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants. Transmonanus.

Watkins A (1958) The Sea My Hunting Ground. Heinemann.

Westrum R (1979) Knowledge about sea serpents. In Wallis R (Ed.) On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge. University of Keele.

Williams G (2015) A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness. Orion Books.

Woodley MA (2008) In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification. CFZ Press.

Woodley MA, Naish D, McCormick CA (2012) A baby sea-serpent no more: Reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile ‘Cabororsaur’ report. Journal of Scientific Exploration 25:497-514.

Zapelini C, Giglio VJ, Carvalho RC, Bender MG, Gerhardinger LC (2017) Assessing fishing experts’ knowledge to improve conservation strategies for an endangered grouper in the southwestern Atlantic. Journal of Ethnobiology 37:478-493.




How to Cite

France, R. (2019). Ethnobiology and Shifting Baselines: An Example Reinterpreting the British Isles’ Most Detailed Account of a Sea Serpent Sighting as Early Evidence for Pre-Plastic Entanglement of Basking Sharks. Ethnobiology and Conservation, 8. Retrieved from



Original research article