The Galathea Expedition: On the Tail of a Sea Serpent

Regardless of when the existence of giant deep sea creatures was first confirmed beyond all doubt. There was, and still is, an effort made to understand the myths and legends of sea monsters as being either large cephalopods, or some other deep sea creature. One of the most notable expeditions in the history of deep sea biology was that of the Galathea 2, mounted between 1950 and 1952 by Anton Bruun “with the serious purpose of testing his theory that such creatures [as sea serpents] do in fact exist”.

The expedition, like most in the history of the marine sciences, rested upon a tripod of nationalism, scientific and personal curiosity. These three components are hinted at, some more strongly than others, among the expedition’s objectives enumerated by Bruun in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition 1950-1952, a popularization of the Galathea’s mission published in 1956. They were to search for large deep sea fish and cephalopods, spread a knowledge of Danish culture and economic life, and, primarily: “explore the ocean trenches in order to find out whether life occurred under the extreme conditions prevailing there – and if so to what extent”.

The image of the sea serpent provided a convenient link between the scientific and nationalistic motivations for the expedition. At the heart of this media campaign was the writer and journalist Hakon Mielche. In the introductory essay of The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition, R. Spärck mentions Mielche’s importance to the expedition, writing: “in 1941 Dr. Anton Bruun gave a lecture on the possibility of the existence of sea serpents, and a report of it was read by the author Hakon Mielche. Mr. Mielche approached Dr. Bruun, and the idea of the Galathea Expedition grew out of their talks”. More than this, it was Mielche who used the image of the sea serpent to provide political and scientific justifications for the project. Though he, unlike Bruun, didn’t appear to have serious intentions of discovering the sea serpent in the deep waters of the world, having later written in his memoirs:

And the sea monster? I’m sorry, I almost forgot. But it had done its full duty by the time we took off. It was the catalyst that got the whole idea going. I assume full responsibility for the exploitation of the poor little thing. But Bruun believed that one day it would be found – and he stood firm until the day he died.

Inside the visitor’s book aboard the Galathea, Mielche had drawn two illustrations of the sea serpent, the last one showing it waving goodbye to the visitors. This picture was placed on the same page as the Danish king’s signature. Thus the very image of the sea serpent proved to be a powerful political tool for the organization, funding and popular support of the expedition.

As has already been noted, however, Bruun’s hopes for finding something actually resembling a sea serpent were more sincere than Mielche’s. Bruun was certain that the strange appearances of deep sea creatures would look like those of sea monsters to those unfamiliar with them, and hoped to find the origin of the sea serpent myth in deep sea biology. Yet it is also apparent that Bruun wished to downplay his search for sea serpents after the Galathea expedition had finished its voyage.

Another essay in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition by H. Volsøe, the expedition’s resident expert on sea snakes, also downplays the serpentine inspiration for the voyage, stating that in the course of his work: “It was necessary to put on a serious scientific face

in order to convince [people] that there really are such creatures [as sea snakes] and that they probably have nothing at all to do with the Great Sea Serpent which obviously underlay their skepticism”, at which point Volsøe puts the topic to rest until the very end of his essay in which he states that the sea snakes are most likely not the model for “the countless reports of the Great Sea Serpent” owing to their relatively small size.

Despite this there is one place where Bruun’s disappointment can still be seen. In his discussion of Galatheathauma axeli, he comments that it is “unquestionably the strangest catch of the Galathea Expedition, and altogether one of the oddest creatures in the teeming variety of the fish world. But we caught only one, right at the end of the cruise, and still no one has caught the Great Sea Serpent”. This seems to have been all of Bruun’s comments about the “Great Sea Serpent” after the expedition, a notion which nevertheless formed the early heart of its inspiration.

From: Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

For more information:

http://www.galathea3.dk/uk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampyroteuthis_infernalis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galathea_expeditions

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It.

Bruun, A. F. “Objectives of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

—, “Animal Life of the Sea Bottom”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

Spärck, R. “Background and Origin of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Volsøe, H. “Sea Snakes”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

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