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The “Tresco” Sea Serpent of 1903


On pages 368 – 369 of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans describes the sea serpent allegedly seen by the crew of the Tresco near Cape Hatteras in 1903. His opinion was that the story “reaches the peak of fantasy”, and I have to admit that, from the summary provided, it did seem to suffer from credibility problems. Nevertheless, one always wishes to refer to the original document, which was cited as the October 1903 issue of The Wide World Magazine. Now, The Wide World was a monthly magazine in which members of the public related their own adventures in various parts of the world. It was a requirement of publication that they certify that the story was true in all particulars and, in most cases, I suspect they were. Most of them lacked the normal structure of fiction – the beginning, middle, and end – and had the air of truth about them. Just the same, there was no method of confirmation, and a number of hoaxes certainly did make their appearances in its pages.

I have been an avid fan of The Wide World ever since I was introduced to it as a boy, and have collected every edition I could lay my hands on. Regrettably, this includes only a couple before World War II. Then, a couple of months ago, a light bulb went off in my head. The Internet Archive contains a number of the early bound editions, including volume 12, where the relevant article appears on pages 147-155. I would really like to introduce you to this wonderful magazine, and I would seriously suggest that you read it. But for those who lack either the time or the inclination, I shall publish the article here.

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The “Sea-Serpent ” of the “Tresco.”

By Joseph Ostens Grey, Second Officer of the SS “Tresco.”

Will the problem of the ” sea-serpent ” ever be satisfactorily solved? Scientists and others scoff at the idea of its existence, and cast ridicule upon those who claim to have seen it ; nevertheless, hardly a year passes without a seemingly well authenticated account of its appearance being added to the cases on record. We publish herewith the story of Mr. J. O. Grey, second officer of the SS “Tresco,” of the well- known Earn Line, whose statements are corroborated by the captain of the vessel and other eye-witnesses.

Seafaring men expect storms and sometimes wrecks, but for most men of the merchant marine in times of peace there is much monotony in their voyages to and from the various ports they seek during their years at sea. On an ordinary voyage, such as I have taken, year in and year out, for sixteen years, a remarkable experience befell me recently.

I know that the very word “sea-serpent ” is the signal for joking, ridicule, and utter incredulity. While many reports have been brought to land, no sea-serpent, small or large, and no fragment of head or fin have ever been subjected to study by any recognised scientist; and yet such a creature confronted the steamship Tresco when on her last outward voyage from the United States.
We left the port of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, on May 28th, 1903, for Santiago de Cuba, which we reached on June 5th, and we arrived back in Philadelphia on June 14th. The Tresco belongs to Mr. E. C. Thin, a shipowner whose office is at 27, Chapel Street, Liverpool ; she is under a two years’ charter to the Earn Line, of Philadelphia. The Tresco is a large cargo-steamer engaged in the West India trade. She plies from one port to another, usually laden with sugar, but sometimes with iron. Her length is three hundred and eight feet, her registered tonnage one thousand eight hundred and sixty tons, and her gross tonnage three thousand seven hundred and fifty tons.

On this trip it so happened that, instead of the Tresco being heavily laden with a return cargo, she was going out in water ballast ; the ship was therefore very light. She rose well out of the water, her rail some twenty feet above it. Her draught was no more than twelve feet and she was extremely “tender.” Twenty tons of coal deposited on either side of the main deck would have given her a dangerous list to port or starboard, as the case might be. We encountered no heavy weather and all went well on board; it was the true monotony of the merchant marine.

Our crew, of course, changes from trip to trip, but our officers have been a long time with the company, all of whose ships have somewhat similar names, beginning with Tr, like Tripoli and Tronto. Our skipper is Captain W. H. Bartlett, whose home address is James Villa, Looe, Cornwall ; our first officer is Mr. Elias Griffiths, who lives near High Park Street, Liverpool. I am the second officer – Joseph O. Grey. We had twenty men on board [indecipherable].

The next couple of paragraphs are impossible to read due to the text not copying well. However, he does state that, two days out, they were on an oily sea about ninety miles from Cape Hatteras.
About ten o’clock I saw, on our port bow, something creating a vast amount of disturbance in the water. The commotion was so great that I judged it to be a school of porpoises, which herd together and play, jumping above the water like great Newfoundland dogs. It is not at all uncommon to see a school of them in those waters ; but, somehow, the approaching school seemed different. I watched them closely as they neared the vessel from the south-east.

Whatever was approaching the vessel, the water was surging about some large fish which presently I discovered were not porpoises, but sharks. Now sharks are common enough, but not in solid masses as was the school I now beheld travelling at such great speed. It seemed to me a phenomenal departure from anything I had heretofore observed in regard to these voracious and savage creatures. They were not attracted to the vessel by anything thrown overboard, but held steadily on their way.

They seemed to be some maritime express, bound for Cape Hatteras; for, from the time we sighted them until they disappeared, they kept to their course, as if making all speed. What impelled them to travel at such a rate I could not imagine ; nor could I offer any explanation for their assembly in such a solid mass.

Sharks differ in size and there are several varieties. So far as I could tell these were the usual bottle-nosed shark. They were swimming shoulder to shoulder, closely packed together, their dorsal fins cutting the water steadily. Occasionally their snouts appeared. It was a curious spectacle, and, while in no way alarmed, I watched them until they were out of sight. In all, as nearly as I could count them as they passed, their number was about forty.

I saw no more sharks. The time went by uneventfully. My mind reverted several times to that rushing herd of sea-tigers, and no reason for such swift, steady pursuit of an unchanging course occurred to me. My wonder rather increased than diminished.

The passing of the sharks had made me unusually on the alert. About an hour later I espied a fresh object in the water on our port bow. It was some distance away, due south-east — exactly the direction from which the sharks had appeared. It was floating low, and it looked black. I thought it must be a derelict — one of those wandering, drifting hulks, so desolate to see, so dangerous to encounter.

I instantly gave orders to the man at the wheel to steer for the derelict. The Tresco was steaming along due south; but now she swung gradually about until she was going exactly south-east. The sea was still calm and smooth. We sped easily on our way, with little said except, ” It is a derelict; steer for her.”
The man at the wheel beside me on the bridge thought so too as we headed for it, wondering how much of a hulk it would prove to be, or what we should ascertain of its history. We always steer for derelicts in the hope of possibly rescuing survivors; or some poor bodies may remain that need decent Christian consignment to the sea. It is, besides, an important duty resting upon the masters of all vessels to report to the Hydrographic Office the name of every derelict met with.

During the twenty minutes we were steering toward it I was decidedly puzzled. It seemed to me that this low-lying, dark object was moving toward us, as well as we toward it. It did not look like the hull of a vessel; nor could it be a raft. Neither would move so swiftly toward us. What could it be? The puzzle grew stranger. I stared intently, as every moment brought us nearer. We would soon know, at all events. The powerful engines were driving us onward so rapidly that the solution would be now a matter of but a few minutes. And yet the time seemed long. Nearer and nearer we drew and at last we were but two ships’ lengths away. With a conviction that grew ever deeper, and ever more disquieting, we came to know that this thing could be no derelict, no object the hand of man had fashioned, no object, probably, the eyes of man had ever seen.

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