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‘Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent’ — book review

Pulling the threads on one of American history’s weirdest mysteries.

“The question of the ‘Great Sea Serpent,’” as observed by cultural critic Paul A. Lester, “for many years constituted the public image of the ‘great unknown’ of science. It predated such comparable popular 20th century phenomena as the Abominable Snowman, Loch Ness monster, and flying saucers.” No case is as celebrated as that of the Gloucester Sea Serpent, sighted by hundreds of residents of the port town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, between the years 1817 and 1819.

Wading into this age-old maritime mystery comes veteran marine biologist Robert L. France of Dalhousie University, with his thoroughly researched and utterly comprehensive new book, Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent (2019, Wageningen Academic Publishers, $77, ISBN 9789086863358). Published in softcover, the book is beautifully put together, filled with black-and-white photos, archival illustrations, statistical charts, and maps, and presents the eyewitnesses’ sightings in their own words.

Structured like a mystery novel, Disentangled gradually unravels as France leads the reader along, continually teasing the big reveal of his proposed explanation for the Gloucester Sea Serpent sightings of the early 19th century. So remarkable were these reports, writes France, that they’ve repeatedly proven a thorn in the side of cryptozoological skeptics like Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero, and Charles Paxton who, when confronted with the specter of the Gloucester serpent, have been forced to either ignore, discard, or throw their hands up in despair – as marine biology writer Richard Ellis did – over this particularly compelling case.

While I’m reluctant to spoil France’s ultimate conclusion as to the identity of the Gloucester Sea Serpent, I will say two things. France is an ecologist especially interested in the plight of marine animals that become entangled in human garbage and fishing gear abandoned in the ocean, so it’s not surprising that entanglement plays a key role in France’s hypothesis. Secondly, even though I was familiar with France’s work on sea monsters from his technical papers in academic journals, his ultimate conclusion about the beast’s identity nevertheless surprised me.

The first two chapters of Disentangled contain a well-researched overview of the history of sea serpents and their importance to ethnozoology (the sociology of animal-human relations), and a historical sketch of early 1800s Gloucester society, including what residents would have known and believed about sea serpents. Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive retelling of the three-year case of the Gloucester Sea Serpent, including the contemporary investigation into the veracity of the sightings by the Boston-based Linnaean Society of New England, which succeeded in recording many original witnesses’ testimony, but also suffered the embarrassment of mistaking a common black snake for the monster’s progeny.

Chapter 4 presents the eyewitness’s sightings of the sea serpent reproduced in their own words, followed by France’s analysis in Chapter 5, in which all previous hypotheses for the identity of the serpent (both skeptical and cryptozoological) are taken to task, before France reveals his own explanation for the sightings which he maintains were not hoaxes or illusions, but were of something which was both alive while paradoxically not entirely biological.

One possible drawback of the mystery novel approach, however, is that it results in France eschewing his primarily chronological narrative and instead relating information about the Gloucester case in an occasionally piecemeal fashion. A good example concerns one of the key incidents in the Gloucester Sea Serpent affair, in which local Captain Richard Rich set out with a crew in the summer of 1818 to capture the animal. After pursuing the “serpent” around the harbor, Capt. Rich eventually hooked it and brought it ashore, only to find it was actually a bluefin tuna, which got him laughed right out of town. Rather than relate this important episode in Chapter 3, France saves it for the second half of Chapter 4, and then doesn’t proceed to analyze it in-depth until near the conclusion of Chapter 5.

 

This single criticism aside, France’s Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent is a much welcomed and highly recommended edition to the growing body of critical academic literature focused on cryptozoology. Far from being the work of a debunker, marine biologist France takes the research of such noted cryptozoologists as A.C. Oudemans, Bernard Heuvelmans, Loren Coleman, and Michael Woodley seriously, noting that three of those four individuals are also qualified zoologists. France is nevertheless appropriately critical of cryptozoology for its numerous pitfalls and problems, most notably its tendency to construct hypotheses from cherry-picked data and a priori conclusions about the objective reality of imaginary animals.

Overall, France’s approach to the controversial field of cryptozoology is refreshing. Often derided as a pseudoscience, France writes that cryptozoology would be more accurately labeled an “anachronistic science,” in that its practices and methodology closely resemble those employed by 19th century natural historians, rather than contemporary field biologists. Scholarly articles about sea serpents regularly appeared in mainstream academic journals then,  and many of the best and brightest scientists of the time endorsed their existence, with the then-recent discovery of fossil marine reptiles like plesiosaurus lending credence to the belief that such creatures were not outside the scope of nature.

Is it any wonder, then, that cryptozoologists are still obsessed with sea serpents?

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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