Myth, legend or reality, strange sea beast sightings and stories have been reported around the Nova Scotia’s waters since humans have paddled or sailed in and about our coastline.
Our Northumberland Strait area has had its share of these, sometimes very descriptive, accounts of sea monsters.
The Mi’kmaq First Nations people of the Maritime provinces have several legends pertaining to sea monsters. One in particular is called “Jipijka’m or “horned serpent,” “who lives underwater, is a worm about an inch long, which can make itself into a horrid monster as large as a horse or much larger.”
The legendary first European explorer to reach Atlantic Canada was thought to have been Irish Monk, St. Brendan, and a group of his followers in the sixth century. The recorded voyage describes their encounter with a sea monster. “They landed on an island which turned out to be a large sea monster called ‘Janconious.’”
One of the first recorded sightings of a sea monster on the Northumberland Strait was in October 1844 at Arisag, Antigonish County, when a man by the name of Mr. William Barry, a millwright from Pictou, was fishing off the community pier. “A creature swam slowly past him and, there being only a slight breeze at the time, was attentively observed.” The monster was within 25 feet of the wharf and he “estimated its length at sixty feet and the thickness of its body to be at three feet.” Mr. Barry went on to describe the creature’s shape in the water; “It had natural humps on the back, which seemed too small and close together to be bends of the body. It moved in long undulations, thus causing the head and tail to appear and disappear at intervals.”
A year later, in August 1845, a “Marine Monster” was reported stranded in Merigomish Harbour. The news reports were carried in several papers throughout Canada and United States. In the Washington Sunday Herald the headline read “The Perennial Sea-Snake.” The article went on to describe the observed event. “There was seen here at Merigomish a marine monster, which was estimated about 80 feet long. It was aground in still water, within 200 yards of the beach.” Several witnesses in the Merigomish area observed the creature and reported “it was dark in colour and very rough and it raised its head frequently from the water, and its back was either covered with humps or they were caused by the motion of the body.” The strange episode lasted for about an hour. “It withered about continually and would bend its body into a circle and unbend it with great rapidity it eventually succeeded in getting off into deeper water.” The group observing the legless reptile stated that “it soon disappeared, and left a long and wide wake, although no fins could be seen.”
The above two accounts were authenticated by Sir John William Dawson of Pictou, the first Nova Scotian scientist of worldwide reputation. Sir William Dawson sent his findings to Sir Charles Lyell, another world leading scientist of his day. Sir Lyell was keeping records of the study of evolution and paleontology.
Another recorded sighting occurred about 10 miles eastward off Pictou Island in July 1879. Captain Sampson of the schooner Louise Montgomery was sailing on the Northumberland Strait. He reported “an enormous sea serpent,” which appeared to be “100 feet long and the size of a barrel. It was going straight along at a rate of seven knots an hour.”
For over 150 years abnormal marine creatures had been sighted and reported throughout various locations from different coastal areas around Nova Scotia. The last reported incident of a “sea monster” was in 2003, off Point Aconi, Cape Breton. Lobster fisherman Wallace Cartwright thinking his boat was going to run into a log, was startled when the drifting timber suddenly “raised its turtle like head, about a foot out of the water.”
He reported “the creature’s snake-like body was about eight metres long, smooth and brownish. I have been lobster fishing for 30 years. This was one distinct animal,” said Cartwright, “one I’ve never seen before.”
So, the next time you are out on a boat or on a beach around the Northumberland Strait keep a sharp lookout and be ready for a myth, legend or a real “sea monster.”
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.