Professor Sharpe's mysterious sea-serpent photo

i-dbde941fb19c31c3d9127b76451e98d4-Prof Sharpe photo from Dwight & Mangiacopra 2001.jpg

Faked tadpole monsters and misidentified dead whales are one thing - are there any real sea monster mysteries left out there? The good news is yes, but as we'll see it's not just the identity of the creatures concerned that is mysterious. This is day 3 of sea monster week, and we here look at a case brought to attention by Dwight Smith and Gary Mangiacopra (their article is essentially the only one I consulted while writing the following). It concerns a photo that's been republished twice since its first appearance in a Californian newspaper, and must have been seen by thousands, if not millions, of people...

The photograph concerned was 'rediscovered' in 1980 by Gary Mangiacopra - a researcher well known for his many investigations of unidentified aquatic animals - while he was looking through old newspaper archives. Featured in a 1908 article from the San Francisco Examiner entitled 'To Catch a Sea Serpent', the photo extends across two pages and depicts an elongate, two-humped creature in the water. The caption explains that the photo - described as 'the first photograph of a sea serpent' - was 'taken by Prof. Sharpe from the steam yacht Emerald as the monster rushed past at 20 miles an hour' (Smith & Mangiacopra 2001, p. 27) [image below shows close-up of far left hump, with triangular object and... rope?].

i-c2e384e2c70646422c20ad79b0f01a52-Prof Sharpe closeup Dwight & Mangiacopra.jpg

The photo was published for the second time in The American Weekly on New Year's Eve 1933 in an article that was apparently inspired by the recent rash of Caddy sightings from British Columbia, and of course by the publicity surrounding Loch Ness. This 1933 outing of the photo [shown below] differed from the 1908 version in being longer, and in showing the start of what appears to be a third hump far to the right of the frame. The third outing of the photo was in 1944 when it appeared in an American Weekly article on monster sightings from Idaho's Payette Lake (on which see Mangiacopra 1980). This time Sharpe was described as Professor B. A. Sharpe.

Smith & Mangiacopra (2001) reproduced the images and discussed them in their article. They were unable to get any information on the images at all from the San Francisco Examiner (which was still going when Mangiacopra started his investigations in 1981). As they described, the object in the photo looks like a long, cylindrical creature with a dark dorsal and light ventral surface. A triangular object to the far left could be a head or a fin. Foam or spray appears at the right end of each arch, creating the impression of rapid movement.

Is this image a fake? Prof. George Zug (a well known herpetologist at the Smithsonian who has often commented on cryptozoological data) opined that an object at the far left of the first hump looks like a rope, and he suspected for other reasons that the photo was a fake. Smith & Mangiacopra (2001) agreed with this, but still wondered whether 'It is a genuine, overlooked cryptid photograph that was seen on three occasions and by tens-of-millions [sic] of readers who did not realize its significance?'. They ended by noting that, even if it is nothing more than a hoax, it's the oldest known existing photo claiming to depict a sea-serpent. Nothing is known of Prof. B. A Sharpe, or of the yacht Emerald, nor is it known where the photo was taken, how big the 'animal' was, or when the photo was taken.

i-49699e80b0617c690fdf785f13843ec7-Prof Sharpe 1933 version from Dwight & Mangiacopra 2001.jpg

While, probably, the photo is faked, it's not possible to demonstrate this at the moment. It doesn't look quite right - part of the creature has a texture that reminds me of paint on canvas, and I wonder if it was skillfully painted on to an original sea-scene. The big problem is that we know pretty much next to nothing about the image, and hopefully this article might make the case better-known, and hence help to provide some possible answers.

More tomorrow...

Refs - -

Mangiacopra, G. S. 1980. Sharlie: a preliminary report of possible large animals in the Payette Lakes of Idaho. Of Sea and Shore 12 (1), 43-46.

Smith, D. G. & Mangiacopra, G. S. 2001. The Professor Sharpe sea-serpent photograph: a preliminary report of its historical background. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Dracontology Special Number 1: Being an Examination of Unknown Aquatic Animals. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), pp. 26-33 [whole volume available here].

More like this

I'll second that it looks something like it was painted on. The surfaces where the creature comes out of the water look suspiciously like a slightly naive painting. Not sure though. Where's this Professor Sharpe then?

Here I am!

Just kidding.

By Prof. B. A. Sharpe (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

on the subject of cryptids Darren - Marc van Roosmalen's site is listing a new species of panthera (among other very exciting sounding things); do you know anything about this one?

"..must have been seen by thousands, if not millions, of people..."

Wow! I thought I'd seen pretty much all the 'sea serpent' photos out there - either on the Net, or in various crpto books and articles. Yet I've never seen this one.

Good to know there are still some undiscovered images to discuss!

I'm wondering if Darren is setting us up for him to throw us a curveball (or googly for the Englanders) and post on a real sea-monster as if it were fake.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

"While, probably, the photo is faked, it's not possible to demonstrate this at the moment. It doesn't look quite right - part of the creature has a texture that reminds me of paint on canvas, and I wonder if it was skillfully painted on to an original sea-scene." - DN

While the monster itself may be (likely is) faked, any painting on the photo was most likely done by the newspaper's art department in an attempt to make the photo more visually coherent when printed in half-tone. Newspaper photo retouching was commonly done, often directly on the negative, especially if the photo was not very readable.

If someone in the San Francisco area is interested in the details of this case, it should be possible to examine a copy of the Aug 2, 1908, issue of the San Francisco Examiner in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

I glanced quickly at issues of the San Franciso Call newspaper for August 2-4, 1908 (they are available freely online), but did not see any mention of the sea serpent story. I didn't search exhaustively, though. I also checked a few other papers -- the Washington Post and a couple in Florida, which were also available on-line -- but didn't see any mention of a sea-serpent story for this week. I guess it wasn't picked up by the national news syndicates, based on this very very weak evidence.

By StupendousMan (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hey, what about sea monsters where there isn't a photo, just a sound?
(this is at least a real sound....)

By Luna_northcat (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

That could be anything. A couple of whales moving in the waves. There is no easy way to tell the scale. Therefore, we have to allow for the distinct possibility that it is a sea serpent. Or not.

The Bloop! The Bloop! Yes, let's have a discussion of the bloop. What can it be!

BTW, I am serious.

Curious. American jouranlism of the time was more than
capable of printing a whopper right on page one if it
boosted circulation, but in looking for something to
back that, I discovered that the Examiner at least,
had some histroy of coming out against stories of this
ilk. About ten years prior to this story, many Califonia
papers were publishing reports of "Airship sightings"
which for many years were a mainstay of the UFO community,
but which have subsequently been shown to be hoaxed from
a number of different sources. Wm. Randolf Hearst wrote
an editorial at the time that slammed such reports in no
uncertain terms. Here's the article-the relevent passage
is about two paragraphs down.

It may have no bearing on this story-ten years is long
time in the newspaper business, and editors, and editorial
policy coem and go. In any case, I'll look forward to the
next part of the article.

I agree with Ropty. There are also a few other unidentified underwater sounds besides the Bloop, as I recall.

Boneless aquatic pterosaurs terrorized cetaceans until the latter's devastation starved them to extinction. Sadly, this occurred before photography could record them, and they have left no paleolithographic record. It's almost as if they never existed at all. Almost.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

Okay, I'm a linguist, not a biologist, but Gary Mangiacopra?
Has this person published anything else?
The name alone suggests a hoax.

Zach: I think the technical term is not "photographed", it's "composited". And if they weren't serpentine enough, they could hardly be sea serpents, could they? (Duh!) Seriously, what newspaper is going to pay the big bucks for a grainy, washed out oblique shot of a placodont, particularly if the tentacles don't even show? (Placodont's tentacles, it must be noted, have not preserved well in fossils.)

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hypatia: I can assure you that Gary Mangiacopra is a very real person, albeit one with an... interesting name. Gary and I used to correspond (google his name if you want confirmation).

The triangular thing-y at the extreme left puts me in mind of the raised "splashguard" around the blowholes that rorquals (and perhaps other mysticetes) can "erect" when breathing. (I know nothing of the physiology of this feature, or the mechanism by which the blowholes are elevated: I imagine some sort of erectile tissue that is engorged before taking a breath, but this is just imagination.) So my GUESS, as a possibility IF it is a genuine though enhanced photo, is a pair of rorquals swimming in tandem, the leader with its blowhole still out of the water and the follower in a slightly later phase with its head under. ... So why isn't the dorsal fin visible on the following one, since its visible arch would represent a more posterior part of the animal's back?

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

I might observe, that this photography demands for an identification as giant squid: Think the left part of the image as mantle and the right hump as tentacle, with the giant squid actually lying on his side. Nearly paradigmatic.
By this means the triangular structure could be identified as the visible part of the squid's rhomboid fin.

By Nicolas Miotk (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

My initial interpretation was of a sperm whale with part of a giant squid stuck between it's teeth or something to that effect.

Regarding the rorquals nasal blowhole splashguard, these links show what I consider to be an interesting parallel between that, a chubby cheeked human baby backfloater (wish I had a better comparison photo) with head tilted back a bit, and a sea otter with distinct ventral nose selected for backfloating.
whale link
baby link
ventral nose backfloater link

Remind me, is there an animal called the finless porpoise?

And narwhals have a little ridge along thair spine, no proper fin??

A rash of Caddy sightings in British Columbia?

...Where several shod feet have shown up on beaches?

...And for years where The X Files was filmed?

...With a new movie coming out soon?

It's a viral marketing campaign!

Am I the only one who thinks the bloop is just the sound of a bubble emerging from underwater? In the slowed down versions it sounds a lot stranger, but how can we be certain what the correct speed to play the sound really is?