This appeared in the North Clare Local in May. I have now wrung every drop out of the sea and have to move on.
How many sailors in times past believed in mermaids, krakens and other creatures we now associate with Pirates of the Caribbean films? How many fishermen elaborated on terrible tales of woe just to frighten a new crew member? We can’t quantify it, but we know that there were a few who believed, and many more who scoffed, but felt a jolt of fear when they set out for uncharted waters.
Mermaids were an almost universal phenomenon. Students of Greek myths will know about the deadly Sirens, beautiful women who lured ships with their otherworldly singing, only to watch them founder on the rocks below. Lorelei is the German version; she was the spirit of a lovely, betrayed girl, who didn’t mean to lure men to their deaths on the banks of the Rhine.
Melusine was a Breton mermaid, a fairy who lived in harmony with her human husband provided he left her alone once a month, or whenever she bathed. (The stories vary; many bring Melusine’s mother into it, the original dragon of a mother-in-law!) Of course, Melusine’s husband can’t grant this seemingly reasonable request, and so surprises his scaly wife in her tub.
The Scots have many beautiful stories about selkies; which were half seal, half human. It was incredibly bad luck to kill a seal, as it could be a selkie out of human form. The Irish version was the jolly and trickster-like Merrow, who wore his hat at all times; to be without it meant they couldn’t return home beneath the waves.
Mermaids could usually said to be products of fertile, lonely imaginations, separated from female company for far too long. Mirages at sea are not uncommon; and it’s believed that somewhat desperate sailors mistook manatees for mermaids. There is also the extremely rare genetic syndrome called sirenomelia, where the lower body is fused together like a fishtail. Sadly, it generally proves fatal, although one sufferer has reached the age of 25.
Unlike mermaids, sea monsters may prove to be a bit more feasible. Much of the earth’s ‘deep ocean’ remains unexplored, and to be frank, much of what we’ve already found has been weird enough, so anything’s possible. There is a certain synchronicity among many tales of sea monsters; giant octopus or squid like creatures, they go for ships and bring them down to the depths.
Indeed, those charming little illustrations on old maps of creatures boarding ships were put there for a reason. The Kraken was the worst of all; a giant tentacled monstrosity which meant death for any sailor caught in its path.
And there are such things as giant squids; not only giant squids, but colossal ones. The giant reaches around 13m (43ft) max and the colossal, 14m (46ft). These are quite mysterious animals, and possess the largest eyes of any known animals. We know relatively little about these deep-sea dwellers, but they are thought to be quite peaceable (unless you’re a fish). Like most maligned critters, they are at greater risk from human activity than we are from theirs.
However romantic ghost ships sound, it’s safe to say that they are products of overactive imaginations and silver tongues. They do have some friends in high places though; the future King George V of England wrote that he saw The Flying Dutchman during his time in the British navy. Writing aboard the HMS Bacchante in 1881, he said, “At 4am, The Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up.”
Whether he was just tired or simply seeing things, the Dutchman is the most famous of all ghost ships. Legends abound about an evil captain who spat at God and offended the devil, and was doomed with his damned crew to sail the earth forever; if contacted, the desperate crew of the ship will try and send messages to their long-dead families. Naturally, an encounter with her means doom for the living.
Abandoned ships, such as the Mary Celeste, are another eerie phenomenon. As recently as 2008, a Taiwanese ship was found adrift, with all its crew missing. Another ship which became caught up in the 2011 Japanese tsunami was found deserted a year later near the Canadian coast, and had to be sunk by the US Navy.
Unfortunately, most ‘ghost’ ships are the victims of terrible storms and natural disasters, such as tsunamis. And there are even more simple explanations. Take a Spanish submarine found floating, empty, off the Bay of Biscay in 1959. Spooky? Not quite. It was being towed when the chain snapped, leaving it adrift. Yet again, the mundane explanation is the correct one, alas!