One of the classic images of a sea monster on a map: a giant sea-serpent attacks a ship off the coast of Norway on Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina of 1539, this image from the 1572 edition. Credit: National Library of Sweden
Always remember, it's simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren't dragons ---Sarah Ban Breathnach
It's no secret that kayakers love maps. Any maps measuring the distance from place to place. Looking at the roads and trails following meandering blue river lines and rocky shores. We can stare at those National Geographic and Tom Harrison maps for hours while planning our next expedition. We like the way they feel in ours hands. Their waterproof, tear-resistant paper with detailed topographic information, clearly marked trails, recreational points of interest, and navigational aids lead to our path.
Now in the world of Google Maps, smart phones and GPS, where paper maps are a bit old-fashion, the unknown is unnerving and the ocean can be downright scary place. But go back a few centuries, where old world maps and atlases of once-uncharted territories are crammed full of undiscovered and mysterious lands and most frighting of all sea monsters.
“A lot of it was just purely unknown. The same way we imagine aliens in outer space, they thought there was something crazy with lots of legs and eyes waiting to eat them,” said Dory Klein, of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center in the Boston Public Library, in interview with National Public Radio “In the Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe, people didn't really know what was out there. So your corpus of knowledge came from folklore and the Bible. And so in that world, monsters could very well be real and they were just part of this supernatural landscape."
Each week, Klein, the center’s education and outreach assistant, picks out a map from the 16th or 17th centuries and then highlights the strange and mysterious beasts that adorn the top corners and oceans of the maps on Instagram and Twitter, calling it “Map Monster Mondays. The map center, a non-profit organization established by the library and philanthropist Norman Leventhal, has a collection of more than 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases.
Klein says that those mapmakers let their imaginations run wild with fantastical creatures appearing in a variety of forms like sea-pigs, sea-bears, sea-elephants and seahorses in the common belief that every land creature had a sea equivalent. Some resemble amusing figures like from the Muppets or Dr. Seuss, such as the “hippocampus,” a mythical beast that has the upper body of a horse, and the lower body of a fish, while others like image of mustachioed, polka-dotted cat-monster” standing opposite a dragon holding a human hand between its sharp teeth are much scarier. These monstrous creatures suggest a world full of dangers lurking in the ocean deep.
"It was a jolting reminder," said Klein, "That all of the monsters that you see embedded in these maps really were genuinely scary to the people who are looking at them.”
J.R.R. Tolkien said, "Never laugh at live dragons.” I'm sure that could be said for sharks and whales too. Several kayakers around the world have had close encounters with marine life in the past year, living up to Medieval map illustrations.
Australian Ian Watkins estimated that a shark about 16-foot long, barged into his kayak while paddling off the country's west coast.
"This wave was coming behind me and I thought 'what the heck's that', and then I looked on and there's this massive fin, and I thought 'that's a serious shark'," he told ABC News, "Then he kept circling me, it went from the right under the kayak, then from the left under the kayak …when it was coming under it was just really white it was massive and I thought 'holy … bloody hell"
While a video clip went viral last year of the two Brits narrowly escaping death and injury when a 40-ton humpback whale crash-landed on their kayak off Monterey Bay in California. "It was above us and all I could see was this whale crashing towards us, blocking out the light," Tom Mustill told The Telegraph, "I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to die now. "The terrifying incident was captured on video by a passenger on a nearby whale-watching boat. Remarkably, the everyone was left uninjured.
"Yes, it happens." wrote Athena Holtey in TopKayaker.Net, "Kayaks are bumped, chased, circled, punctured; Shark teeth are pried out of hulls, out of cheeks, and faced off with paddle braces. This is the stuff entertaining forum banter is made of; but often the question remains definitively unanswered. The results are kayakers lacking the confidence to launch into the unknown wilderness they so want to embrace."
Other sighting of modern day sea monsters are far more mysterious and now part of the local folklore. The Loch Ness Monster also known as Nessie is one of the most famous lake monsters in history. Believers and cryptozoologists say that the creature represents a line of long-surviving dinosaurs while the most of the scientific community regards the Nessie as a tall-tale without any biological evidence.They say the sightings are hoaxes, misidentification of other objects or wishful thinking.
Others include Lake Champlain's Champ Echolocation, Pennsylvania's Raystown Lake's Ray and Pepie a sea serpent that is said to inhabit the waters of Lake Pepin on Minnesota Wisconsin border. These lake monster tropes have evaded our detection while much like the creatures on the Medieval maps, they have captured our wonder and imaginations.
Of course sea monsters on maps mostly disappeared as navigational and printing technology improved. Portrayals of whales and other map creatures became more realistic during the early 17th century.
“It was easier to convey more accurate information," Klein said, "So you might see pirate ships as an indication of, ‘There are dangerous pirates here’ or, 'These are good fishing waters, 'You’ll find whales here,’ but it wasn't an immediate disappearance [for the monsters]. It was more of a fading out.”