Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Sea Serpent?

Frederick McCoy was not only aware that many of the marine species he described were unique to Australia, but that others, such as this 13ft 7in (4m 14cm) deep ocean dwelling Oarfish, had much wider distribution.

His excitement was palpable when describing this rarely-encountered and highly fragile animal.

So few examples of this fish have been observed, and those described were so imperfect, that I am glad to be able to give a figure and description of an Australian one, caught on the waters between the Tasmanian and Victorian coasts, in May, 1878.

I have little doubt that this fish is the "Sea Serpent" of the popular accounts in the newspapers of observations made far out at sea by captains of ships, perfectly trustworthy, but not sufficiently instructed in zoology to give good descriptions.

The Regalecus ... is so excessively fragile that it is obvious it could only live in the depths of the ocean, far from the land, where the water is still and free from the turbulence of the shallow surroundings of the coasts, ... and the few specimens which have been caught were dead or dying, and much damaged in the shallow waters.

I think captains of ships are too familiar with Seals, Conger Eels, or long stretches of ocean seaweeds to mistake any of them, as different authors have suggested, for a "Sea Serpent," but the Regalecus, from its great rarity, would be quite unfamiliar, and its form would suggest a serpent to an untrained observer.

Oarfish, Regalecus glesne, by Arthur Bartholomew.
The 'sea serpent' as sighted by the man at the wheel of the Sacramento, en-route from New York to Melbourne, 24 November 1877.