When Monsters Ruled the Deep
These sea monsters are no myth. Meet the ancient reptilian creatures that have inspired terrifying tales in cultures the world over.
By Virginia Morell
Art by DAMNFX
There is nothing quite so frightening as the idea of a sea monster. Unlike T. rex and other giant dinosaurs, which went extinct, might sea monsters live on? Might they lurk beneath the leaden cloak of the oceans, breaching occasionally into view? Through the ages, serious mariners have returned to port with accounts of huge, snaky beasts baring teeth and trailing feathery manes, undulating through the waves or rearing like a horse. Stories about water serpents have slithered into many cultures. Three legends – from Scotland, North America, and China – are plumbed in these pages. But what about the science of sea monsters? In fact, there was a time when they did exist. About 250 million years ago Earth’s continents were gathered into one landmass, Pangaea.
Shallow seas and the lack of significant marine predators created new niches for many reptiles that had developed on land. They wriggled into the water, swam, reproduced, and died, becoming the fossils on which the computer-generated art in this article is based. They remain, with good reason, the stuff of nightmares.
Science tells us a lot about prehistoric reptiles, and art fills in the rest. Sculptor Gary Staab started with a fossil of the predator nicknamed “Godzilla” and asked, “How do I breathe air into the lungs of that thing?” He applied clay to a wire frame, made a silicone mold, and from that resin model, which was then digitized. Computer artists led by Mark Dubeaus added the smooth skin of a whale, the color of a crocodile, and scars as seen on sharks and other big predators. A giant ichthyosaur, modeled by sculptor Donna Sloan and digitally colored, would take 18 wheels to transport. “The intriguing thing about ichthyosaurs,” she says, “is how they were sculpted so perfectly by their environment.”
Nessie, World-Famous Sea Monster
“You’ll never see Nessie in this weather,” my cabdriver says, shaking his head as we drive along the narrow road bordering Scotland’s Loch Ness. “It’s much too hot for him. He’ll stay down deep in the loch, where it’s cool.”
Maybe so, but I stare long and hard at the loch’s placid waters anyway. It’s on days like this, others insist, that the loch’s surface stillness is shattered, and a creature (him or her) – a large beast with a back shaped like an inverted boat – surfaces briefly, then dives to the depths again: Nessie, the world’s most famous sea monster. So far, more than a thousand eyewitnesses claim to have seen the Loch Ness monster – or at least the waves it leaves behind when diving into its dark-water lair. But Nessie is only one of many water monsters. From the misty coasts of Scandinavia to the thick forests of the Congo to the plains of North America, nearly every culture seems to have its Nessie. And in many instances, the legendary monsters are linked to actual fossils of marine reptiles that ruled the seas from about 250 million to 65 million years ago.
The few times Nessie has supposedly been caught on film or by sonar soundings, it most closely resembles a plesiosaur, a long-necked, seagoing reptile that went extinct along with the terrestrial dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. That a plesiosaur would be alive today, plying the fresh waters of once glaciated Loch Ness, defies scientific reasoning.
“Some years ago I was on a boat one night. We were tied up, at the end of a mirror-calm day.