Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Monsters of the Deep

As a scientist with a keen interest in mythology and palaeontology, I recently visited the Chatham Historic Dockyard to visit the Monsters of the Deep exhibition, that was co-curated by Darren Naish of TetZoo fame. Monsters of the Deep was previously on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, which is quite a bit further away than Chatham. However, the timing of my visit wasn’t exactly the best as it was on the penultimate day that the exhibit was open, before the Historic Dockyard closed for the winter season. After speaking to Darren about things, I’m not entirely sure where the next museum Monsters of the Deep will turn up at, but my hope is that it will be slightly more north than the previous two locations so that more people can visit it. In case that doesn’t happen, I’m going to document my thoughts within this blog post so that those of you reading can at least experience it that way

The view that greets you upon entry into Monsters of the Deep

Upon stepping in the exhibition hall, one of the things that stands out is a small section of the Carta Marina, depicting some of the sea monsters that could be found Scandanvia and the surrounding waters. This was originally created by the cartographer Olaus Magnus between 1527 and 1539, which gives it that wonderful medieval bestiary look and feel to things. Just by looking at it, you may not realise the Carta Marina was one of the most precise depictions of any part of Europe at the time, even if its portrayal of the oceans was not quite as accurate as could be. For example, the British Isles are completely missing from the map. Despite this, it is quite easy to get lost in the details of the map and wonder where the inspiration of all of the different sea monsters came from. As long as there have been ships sailing the oceans, there have been tales of dangerous animals that lurk in the depths.

A better view of the giant section of the Carta Marina on display

On the wall opposite the Carta Marina is a whale skull, providing some insight into how some of the myths and legends of marine monsters may have originated. There also a number of 3D models of the monsters contained within the map on the wall, providing both a tactile and visual representation of these beasts. It is hard to believe that centuries ago people thought that some of these animals lived out in the oceans. Next to these were an explanation of sea monks, which was allegedly captured at sea in 1546 in Denmark. At that time, Christian III of Denmark sent an illustration of it to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who confirmed the identity of the sea monk (it was likely an angel shark or monk fish). Many of the authors of medieval bestiaries believed that every animal on land also had an equivalent that lived in the oceans, which is the originator of some names of the animals we all know and love such as dogfish and seahorse. The church took this one step further with the idea of sea monks and sea bishops, which have now been cemented in popular culture.

If you know Darren as well as I do, you know that he loves cryptozoology, having even published a book on the topic called Hunting Monsters. I’m surprised that this only got a small corner as there is a lot more going on with cryptozoology and potential sea monsters, which has been the case since well before Olaus Magnus drew the Carta Marina. One of the main focusses of this ‘Corner of Cryptozoology’ is Bernard Heuvelmans, who authored a number of influential books on the topic, some of them on display in the glass case underneath his photograph. Other objects included a megalodon tooth and an ammonite, both of which have been inspiration for various cryptids (creatures proposed to exist by cryptozoologists). The highlight for me was seeing a coelacanth for the first time (just out of frame to the right on the image below).

Those of you that know Darren well will know he is extremely fond of cryptozoology

It wouldn’t be an exhibition about Monsters of the Deep, without some examples of actual animals from the err….deep. There were a whole host of different animals on display on top of the light-up bubble towers photographed below, such as a dumbo octopus, viperfish, and a sea spider. The animal in the far left is a giant marine isopod, which as its name suggests, is very large. So large in fact, that I was surprised by its size! Some of the other deep sea animals were a lot smaller than I originally thought, but I guess given the limited resources as the bottom of the ocean, they can’t grow to large sizes unless the resources are there to support them. This was probably the coolest part of the exhibition, and it was also a hit with families, helping to connect young children with some of the animals that live in the most inhospitable habitats to people on the planet. Life does indeed find a way!

Who doesn’t love a wet specimen or two?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love reading or learning about this history of science, so it was great to see some of the specimens and equipment used on the HMS Challenger, which is seen by many as the foundations of modern day oceanography. As a quick bit of background information, the Challenger expedition of 1872–1876 was a scientific programme that made many discoveries, with the expedition being initiated by William Benjamin Carpenter. The Royal Society of London obtained the use of HMS Challenger from the Royal Navy and modified the ship for the scientific tasks they had in mind, equipping it with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry. Under the scientific supervision of Thomson himself, the ship traveled approximately 68,890 nautical miles (79,280 miles; 127,580 kilometres) surveying and exploring. Among many other discoveries, the expedition catalogued over 4,000 previously unknown species. Therefore seeing some of the instruments from this voyage was sensational. For those would-be Challenger research scientists, there were some microscopes and slides available for you to play around with nearby.

As well as all of the information about the cultural and historical impact of mythology and stories surrounding sea monsters, there was also a big emphasis on the science and how we know what we do about our oceans. This started with the HMS Challenger and extended into the current age with the use of remote operated vehicles and other interesting pieces of kit. There were also demonstrations of where mythical sea monsters appear in popular media such as television and film, such as Gorgo and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Overall, I really enjoyed Monsters of the Deep and it was well worth the journey – it is a shame that I didn’t get a chance to visit it sooner as I would love to walk around another time just to fully absorb everything properly. In general, the exhibition was extremely well curated and pulled together a number of threads surrounding sea monsters, taking the visitor on a journey through time as our understanding of the deep seas developed through time.

I do love a good figurehead, especially when they are snake-related

I’d just like to thank my Patrons for their support, which helped to make this journey to the Chatham Historic Dockyard to visit Monsters of the Deep possible. Hopefully this isn’t the end of the exhibition and it will open up at a new location somewhere exciting in the spring!

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