The Case of the Hauraki Sea Serpent

You have likely heard of cryptids such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil.  But what if I told you there were similar strange beasts lurking in your own back yard?  Deep in the bush of the Coromandel Peninsula, beneath the apparently placid waters of the Hauraki Gulf, stalking the desolate hills of the Southland High Country?  In this first post on the crazy cryptids of New Zealand I look at the startling Case of the Hauraki Sea Serpent. 

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, 
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height; 
And far away into the sickly light, 
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The Kraken (1830) Alfred Tennyson

In the 1870s the Coromandel peninsula was abuzz with activity.  Gold had been discovered in 1867 and Kauri timber and gum were still in high demand. Despite this the area was still relatively inaccessible by land. The Hauraki plains were still difficult to travel being largely swamp, and there was no road-link between Auckland and Thames until 1930, after the building over the Kopu bridge in 1928 made such a thing possible. Until as late as the 1940s coastal shipping was really the main source of transport and commerce between big town Auckland and the smaller settlements along the peninsula.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091125-10-5
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091125-10-5

Steamer ships took passengers and goods between Auckland and Thames daily. The trip took a route through the Hauraki Gulf, past Motukorea (Browns Island) and on to the Coromandel.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 855-2'
Thames Wharf  1900s Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 855-2

The Leviathan

This routine journey was what was expected when the steamer Durham set out on a calm day in  February of 1878.  The Captain was in his cabin, but many passengers were on deck when there was a rather extraordinary break in the routine. As Mr A. Forde Matthews reported it to the Auckland Star

“At about three-quarters of a mile distant from the steamer we were greatly surprised at the appearance of a leviathan head, shaped like that of an eel, or, as some remarked, like a seal.  The monster reared its mighty form out of the sea to about 30ft. perpendicular height, remaining erect several seconds and then dashed its head forward into the water, creating a disturbance therein like the plunge of a ship downwards, and parting the sea in large foaming waves.  Then after a short time, and before we could recover from our astonishment, the stupendous animal rose again, and brought its head down in the same manner described and this for twelve or fifteen times in succession, as if the creature had been attacked, and was in great pain– at least that was the general opinion expressed.”

Mr A. Forde Matthews appears to have been a man of reasonable probity (he went on to hold various local council positions and the like), and there was quite a crowd of passengers who witnessed this with him.  But perhaps these folks were simply unaccustomed to marine life and what they saw was an amateur interpretation of the everyday?  Luckily for us the crew were also paying attention.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18910829-318-1
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18910829-318-1

Captain Somerville speaks

A reporter from the Star sought out the captain of the Durham, and he gave a statement to which he was prepared to testify to under oath.  Unlike the passengers Captain Somerville was a man with substantial experience with coastal shipping.  He had this to say

“I was engaged at dinner in my cabin, when the mate called out to me to come and look at what he thought was a whale.  The vessel was then passing Brown’s Island.  On going on deck I saw a large monster which I thought was a common spouting black-fish, but on looking closely I found this was not the case.  It had a head like an immense eel, with a pair of flanges which looked very much like ears; the neck and part of the body were out of the water, and reached about 30ft. in the air.  The color [sic] of the whole body was jet black, and the body appeared to be 10ft. in diameter.  I believe the monster had lost itself, and got in water too shallow to allow it to swim.”

Captain Somerville saw the creature dashing the water with its head and neck and had time to run back to the cabin for his telescope.

“On examining the monster more closely (I) was convinced that it was neither a black-fish nor a threshing whale, as I am too well acquainted with these fish not to know the difference… If it had struck the stern of the vessel when beating water with the upper portion of its body, the blow would certainly have shattered it to pieces.”

The Auckland Star concluded that there were too many witnesses who concurred to be in any doubt of the facts of the case.  They did not, however hazard a guess as to what or who the creature may have been.  So what was it?

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Aerial view showing Motukorea (Brown’s Island) where the beast was seen

Taniwha?

Aotearoa has a strong mythology involving beings who dwell in water– the Taniwha.  Could this have been what the people aboard the Durham that day encountered?  Although taniwha are sometimes described as monsters, most of their direct interactions with people seem to be in the form of something more familiar like an octopus or a dolphin.  The most well-known taniwha of the Hauraki region is Ureia, who is sometimes said to live in Tikapa (Firth of Thames), and has been seen in the form of a whale passing by Pt Erin on numerous occasions.  Could Motukorea have a taniwha of its own?  It seems to me that the kind of behaviour the mystery creature displayed could only be explained in taniwha terms if it was either a warning to the people of some danger or showing some displeasure– perhaps at a lack of respect shown by the frequent steamers going by.  The island was at that time under the ownership still of Sir Logan Campbell— could the taniwha have been expressing a dislike for the ‘father of Auckland’?  Seeing as there weren’t any near or present dangers to the boat and nothing changed subsequently with regard to shipping lanes or island ownership and the ‘monster’ didn’t appear again, it seems unlikely to be have been a taniwha action in this case.  But if not taniwha then who or what?

p-10862-amu
This carving of Ureia is in the Hotunui meeting house- formerly in Thames but now on display in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Taniwha-out!

Some people believe Nessie to in be a living relic of a lost age—they argue that the lake monster is in fact a supposedly extinct plesiosaur. There are many logical counter-arguments to this idea in Nessie’s case, but could New Zealand waters possibly hold a similar pre-historic creature? Enter the Taniwhasaurus—a mosasaur from the Late Cretaceous period whose fossil was first found in the South Island in 1874. Mosasaurs were a type of marine reptiles who frolicked in our oceans until around 66 million years ago when they joined in with mass-extinction event that wiped out about three-quarters of the earth’s plant and animal species. Could a couple have hung around? They kind of look right and match up size wise—I’ll let you decide what the likelihood of our sea serpent being a dinosaur is.

Taniwhasaurus
Taniwhasaurus–  a mosasaur of the Late Cretaceous period

Consider the Squid

By far my favourite contender for the  Hauraki Sea Serpent’s crown is not a serpent at all– it is a Giant Squid.  The Giant Squid (not to be confused with the Colossal Squid) can grow to 13 m (43 ft) for females and 10 m (33 ft) for males from the posterior fins to the tip of the two long tentacles.  Those two long tentacles have ‘clubs’ on the ends of them, which in shape could resemble an eel or seal like head.  Imagine, if you will, giant squid, partially submerged, flailing its long tentacle around and dashing it against the surface of the water.  It has (as Captain Somerville surmised) gotten in too shallow water and is finding the oxygen and light levels uncomfortable– hence its thrashing around.  The long tentacle with its club might be mistaken for a neck and head, while its partially submerged mantle could look like the body of a larger creature.

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It would not be the first time squid have been associated with sea monsters– The Kraken mentioned up top in the poem by Tennyson was based on a mythological cephlapod, as was the famous Cthulu of Lovecraft’s mythos.  Squid have also been used as an explanation/debunking of a sea monster before.  “But wait, Laura,” I hear you cry “what on earth would a deep-sea creature like a giant squid be doing in the relative shallows around Motukorea?”  I am so glad you asked!  The answer to that may come somewhat ironically in the dismissal of the story by another steamer captain.  On March the 8th it was reported that the captain of the Tamaki dismissed the claims of Captain Somerville and his passengers, saying that the creature was a sperm whale, that he passed close enough by to be sure of it.  Personally I don’t believe Captain Somerville would have misidentified a sperm whale– but if there was one in the vicinity it actually gives credence to the possibility of a giant squid.  Sperm Whales are the number one predator of giant squid– I think it is perfectly reasonable that one may have chased the other from the depths to the surface of the Hauraki waters, and that what those lucky folk upon the Durham saw that day was part of the long fabled battle between Squid and Whale.

091030-02-whale-eating-jumbo-squid_big
Whale with a squid in its mouth

But what do you think?  Was it a squid or a sperm whale?  A taniwha or a taniwhasaurus?  Or was it something else?  Let me know your theories!  Let me see your sea monster art!  Have any of you had encounters with something strange beneath the sparkling waters of the Hauraki Gulf?  And stay tuned for more tales of crazy cryptids in your own back yard!

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101215-10-6
 Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101215-10-6

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