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Archives of natural history 32 (1): 1–9. 2005 © C. G. M. Paxton, E. Knatterud & S. L. Hedley 2005.
Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: an analysis of the
Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster” seen off
the coast of Greenland in 1734
C. G. M. PAXTON
, E. KNATTERUD
and S. L. HEDLEY
Research Unit For Wildlife Population Assessment, Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental
Modelling, University of St Andrews, The Observatory, Buchanan Gardens, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9LZ, UK.
Bratlien Farm, Nesveien 1081, 2353 Stavsjoe, Norway.
ABSTRACT: A re-evaluation of the “most dreadful monster” originally described by the “Apostle of
Hans Egede in 1741 suggests that the missionary’s son Poul probably saw an unfamiliar
cetacean. The species seen was likely to have been a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), a
North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) or one of the last remaining Atlantic grey whales
(Eschrichtius robustus) either without ﬂ ukes or possibly a male in a state of arousal.
KEY WORDS: sea-monster – ﬂ ukeless whales – whale’s penis – Hans Egede – Poul Egede.
The famous account of the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede, “the Apostle of
Greenland”, of “a most dreadful monster” (H. Egede, 1741, 1745) seen off the coast of
Greenland in 1734, has been a regular feature of sea-monster books ever since Henry Lee’s
Sea monsters unmasked (1883). The case is interesting in that Egede had drawn and described
a number of large northern whale species in his book so he obviously felt the “dreadful”
monster was something different.
Conjectures about this curious animal have included such known animals as a giant
squid (Ellis, 1998; Lee, 1883) or an (extinct) Basilosaurid whale (Thomas, 1996) as well
as such speculative animals as a giant marine otter (Heuvelmans, 1968) or a giant long-
necked seal (Oudemans, 1892). However most authors have relied solely upon the imperfect
1745 English translation of Hans Egede’s book A description of Greenland, rather than the
additional accounts of this incident in the original Danish. We consider four early sources
for this encounter, one by Hans Egede, two by his son Poul and fourthly some remarks
attributed second-hand to another witness, a Mr Bing, and we offer a novel interpretation
of what was seen.
Hans Egede (1686–1758) was not a witness and his account is second-hand based presumably
on the recollection of his son Poul (1708–1789) which was published separately later
(P. Egede, 1741). Nonetheless it contains some information not given in the other accounts.
Hans Egede’s (1741: 47– 49) account was as follows
Men ingen af dem ere i vore Tider kommen os til Siune, uden allene et forfærdeligt stort Hav-Dyr, som 1734
blev seet i Søen uden for Colonien paa 64. Gr. og var af denne Gestalt og Skikkelse. Det var et saa overmaade
2 CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
stort Bæst, saa dets hovet ragte sig lige jevnt ved Skibets Mers, der det kom op af Vandet, og Kroppen var
nok saa tyk omkring som Skibet, og vel 3 à 4. gange saa lang. Det havde en lang spidz Snude, og blæste som
en Hvalﬁ sk havde breede store Laller, og Kroppen syntes at være begroet med Skiæl, og var meget runken og
ujevn paa Huden. Den var ellers skabt neden til som en Orm, og der det gik under Vandet, laftet det sig bag
over, og reiste saa Stierten op af vandet, en heel skibs lengde fra Kroppen.
But none of them are in our time [by] us been seen except a terribly big sea creature which in 1734 was seen in
the sea outside the colony at 64 degrees. And was of this form and shape. It was a so enormously big creature,
[that] its head reached the [ship’s] yard arm and the body was as thick as the ship and was 3 to 4 times as
long. It had a long pointed nose, and blew like a whale, [it] had big broad ﬂ ippers, and the body seemed to be
covered with a carapace [“shellwork” (H. Egede, 1745); “scales” (Thomas, 1996)], and the skin was wrinkled
and rough. It was otherwise created at the rear like a serpent and when it went under the water it lifted itself
backwards and raised then the tail up from the water a ship’s length away from the body.
This passage is slightly misleading as Poul Egede’s (1741: 6–7) account makes it clear that
the witnesses were on a voyage from Denmark to the Danish settlement at Disko Bay (69º N),
three days past the other Danish colony at Nuuk (64º N) on the west coast of Greenland.
Den 6. loed sig Tilsiune et meget forskrekligt Haf-Dyr, hvilket reiste sig saa høyt over Vandet, at Hovedet af
det, ragte over vores store-Mers. Det havde en lang spids Snude, og blæste som en Hvalﬁ sk, havde breede
store Laller, og Kroppen syntes at være begroed med Skiell, og var meget runken og ujefn paa Huden; den
var ellers skabt nedentil som en Orm, og der det gik under Vandet igien kastet det sig bag over og reyste saa
Stierten op af Vandet en heel Skibs længde fra Kroppen.
The 6th [July] let itself show [be visible] a very horrible sea-creature which rose itself so high over the water
that the head of it reached above our big yard arm. It had a long pointed snout and it blew [spouted] like a
whale [it] had broad big ﬂ ippers and the body seemed to be grown [covered] with carapace and [it] was very
wrinkled and uneven [rough] on its skin; it was otherwise created below like a serpent and where it went
under the water again threw itself backwards and raised thereafter the tail up from the water a whole ship’s
length from the body.
This account was illustrated in a map (drawn by Egede senior: Figures 1–3).
Poul Egede (: 45 – 46) gave a slightly different account many years later; the
undated book was probably published in 1789.
Her lod sig tilsyne et usædvanligt forfærdelig Dyr, der reiste sig saa høit over Vandet at Hovedet syntes at
rekke til vor Mers. Dens Aande var ei stærk som Hvalﬁ skens, da den anden gang kom op af Vandet. Første
Gang blev vi den ikke vaer, førend den stod saa got som over os paa et Pistol skud nær. Hovedet var smalere
end kroppen, som syntes blød og runken, havde brede nedhengende Laller, det var 3 Gange over Vandet. Sidste
Gang langt borte. Naar det dukkede under, kastede det sig bag over. Siden kom den lange Hale op bag efter,
meer en Skibs Længde fra Kroppen.
Here let itself be shown [be visible] an extraordinarily horrible creature, that rose so high over the water that its
head seemed to reach to our yard arm. Its breath was not strong as the whale’s, when it the second time came
out of the water. The ﬁ rst time we did not notice it until it stood as good as over us at a pistol shot close [to us]
[at a pistol shot’s distance]. The head was narrower than the body, which seemed to be soft and wrinkled, [it]
had broad down-hanging ﬂ ippers, it was 3 times above the water. The last time far away. When it dived under,
[it] threw itself backwards. Then came the long tail up behind more than a ship’s length from the body.
The earlier account (P. Egede, 1741) appears to be a more-or-less verbatim transcription from
his diary, whereas this later one seems a more considered work, with diary-like material as
well as commentary.
Whether the additional material was from memory or from the original
diary is unclear. The later account has a revised picture of the monster from the map in a more
naturalistic setting although the morphology of the animal is the same.
The meagre fourth source for the encounter is an indirect quotation in Pontoppidan’s
(1755) Natural history of Norway: “Mr Bing ... informed his brother in law, that this creature’s
3CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
eyes seemed red, and like burning ﬁ re, which makes it appear it was not the common Sea-
snake.” This eighteenth-century translation of the original Danish of Pontoppidan (1753)
retains the essential meaning of the original.
The original language of all accounts is ambiguous and the images of the monster are at least
partially stylised (Figures 1–3). Only one pair of limbs is mentioned but there is a strange
protuberance visible in the drawing half way down the body, which could represent one of
a second pair of limbs, or it could be a penis (but see below) or dorsal ﬁ n (depending on
the orientation of the body). This assumes the diagram is an accurate representation of the
encounter. It is only the rear end/underside of the monster that is described as serpent-like;
Egede (1789) omitted this simile. The only estimate of size was provided by Hans Egede
(1741) who stated that the monster was three to four times the length of the boat. The
boat has been estimated by Landstrøm (1994) to be between 21 and 24 metres long which,
accepting Egede senior’s account, could mean an animal between 64 and 98 metres long;
an implausible estimate of length. Furthermore, Hans Egede’s (1741) estimate contradicted
his own illustration, which suggests a creature about twice the length of the boat. Length
estimation of animals in the field is notoriously unreliable (Murphy and Henderson,
What did the witnesses see? Several diagnostic features were given (Table 1). The animal
“blew like a whale” (P. Egede, 1741), or “its breath was not strong as the whale’s” (Egede,
1789). Assuming the 1741 account is the more correct (early source), then the statements
can be interpreted in a number of ways. Poul Egede obviously did not think it was a whale,
hence the simile and the fact it was referred to as a “creature”. Nonetheless things that blow
like whales are, all other things being equal, most likely to be cetaceans. It had a long snout
or the head was narrower than the body. The word “Skiœl” can be variously translated as
“carapace”, “shell”, “scales” (for example Thomas, 1996), or as “shellwork” (for example
Egede, 1745), the latter in this context might signify encrusted with barnacles or callosities.
It had at least two (observable) ﬂ ippers (pectoral limbs). If these were the only limbs, then
the animal would have to be a cetacean as most ﬁ shes have two pairs of paired ﬁ ns (although
eels have only a single pair of ﬁ ns). However there is the strange protuberance depicted
in the midriff of the animal (Figures 1 and 2). The monster lifted itself backwards when
it dived. It is difﬁ cult to know what exactly this description means but possibly it was an
attempt to say that the creature came out of the water and fell back again on to its side or
back. The animal had a serpent-like tail that appeared out of the water when the rest of the
beast had disappeared. The creature had red eyes that, according to the interpretation of the
(exaggerated?) metaphor of Mr Bing, were glowing. Assuming the encounter took place in
daylight (as it was the Arctic summer), this luminosity would seem unlikely.
Most of these features could apply to a cetacean, especially one of the few species to
exhibit obvious “shellwork” (notably barnacles and callosities). Possible cetacean candidates
for the creature are compared in Table 1. Three species of whales which might have been seen
in the North Atlantic in the eighteenth century could be described as possessing “shellwork”.
One species, now locally extinct, is the grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus (Lilljeborg 1861))
which, if still present (Mead and Mitchell, 1984) in the North Atlantic in the 1730s, would
have been quite rare and thus may not have been recognised, even if the Egedes were
4 CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
Figure 1. Pictorial map of the Godthaab (Nuuk) region, Greenland, published in P. Egede’s account (1741) (original
map 28.5 × 37.3cm). Note the stylised depiction of the creature (lower right) and the drawing of the serpent-like tail
5CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
Figure 2. The creature as depicted in P. Egede (1741) (see Figure 1). Enlarged.
Figure 3. The ﬁ gure of the serpent-like tail from the map (see Figure 1) in P. Egede
Figures 4 (left) and 5 (right). Serpentine penises of whales. Figure 4: North Atlantic right whale photographed on 15
August 2001, Bay of Fundy (© New England Aquarium. Reproduced by permission of New England Aquarium, Boston,
Massachusetts). Figure 5: grey whale, photographed 1970s, Paciﬁ c coast of Baja California (© Steve Leatherwood,
reproduced by courtesy of Randall Reeves).
6 CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
Table 1. Diagnostic features of the “monster” and some suspect large cetaceans (M = present; V = absent).
MMMM M M M M M
2 or more ? 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Dorsal hump / ﬁ n?
(but see text)
VVV V V V V V
Narrow jaw /
7CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
familiar with most species of North Atlantic whale. This species has a dorsal hump which
might explain the protuberance shown in the diagram (Figure 2). The Paciﬁ c representatives
of this species are often not uniform in coloration, are covered in whale lice and barnacles
and can have wrinkles (or at least visible lines) (Jefferson et alii, 1997). A second species is
the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalena glacialis (Müller 1776)). It is not regularly found
as far north as Greenland although its range is thought to have extended there in the recent
past (Brown, 1986; Reeves and Mitchell, 1986). The third species is the humpback whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski 1781)) which has tubercles around the jaw and can
have a small number of barnacles primarily on the lower surface of the body (Carwadine
et alii, 1998) although they may not be readily noticeable to the casual observer.
witnesses see a large unfamiliar baleen whale, perhaps exhibiting a relatively infrequent
behaviour, for example breaching?
One objection (Gould, 1930) to the monster being a cetacean is that both Egedes were
familiar with whales. There are descriptions and ﬁ gures of several species in Hans Egede’s
works (1741, 1745). Hans Egede described eight “types” of whales (including porpoises)
in detail, and distinguished between whales and “ﬁ shes properly so called”. The whales
described by Egede (1745) were as follows.
1. A “ﬁ n whale”: there is no reason to think that the Egedes could necessarily distinguish
between different Balaenoptera species.
2. Another sort of unnamed whale which was ﬁ gured (H. Egede, 1741: ﬁ gure opposite
p. 79): appears to be a bowhead (Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus 1758).
3. “Northcaper”: a term later used exclusively for North Atlantic right whale (Eubaleana
glacialis) but Hans Egede (1741) did not describe it in any detail.
4. “Swordﬁ sh”: a confused account of something like a killer whale (Orcinus orca
(Linnaeus 1758)) that eats the tongues of larger whales.
5. A “sperm whale”: clearly Physeter catodon (Linnaeus 1758).
6. A “white ﬁ sh”: the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas 1776)).
7. A “buthead”: from the description almost certainly a northern bottlenose whale
(Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster 1770)).
8. The “unicorn”: the narwhal (Monodon monoceros Linnaeus 1758).
9. Porpoises: not described in detail.
It seems reasonable to conclude that Poul Egede, having grown up in Greenland and having
read his father’s book, would have recognised at least some of these species. The mention
of “Northcaper” (North Atlantic right whale) by Hans Egede (1741, 1745) may weaken the
case of the monster as a right whale because it should have been recognised. Nonetheless
this would not necessarily preclude the monster being a right whale if the Egedes were not
familiar with, or had a confused concept, of the “Northcaper”. The account of the “Northcaper”
does not give any diagnostic characters and Hans Egede was clearly confused about other
species. There was nothing in Egede’s list of whales resembling a humpback whale, unless
it was classiﬁ ed as a “ﬁ n whale”. It can be said with certainty that Egede made no mention
of a grey whale suggesting he was not familiar with this animal.
A more serious objection to a cetacean is that the rear of the animal was described
and drawn as serpent-like. Although whales are found, and can survive, without ﬂ ukes
(for example grey whales (Gilmore, 1950)), serpent-like or eel-like bodies are not usually
associated with the rapid thrust (Webb, 1978) that would be required to rear the whole body
high out of the water.
8 CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
However, there is an alternative explanation for the serpent-like tail. Many of the large
baleen whales have long, snake-like penises (Figures 4 and 5). If the animal did indeed fall
on its back then its ventral surface would have been uppermost and, if the whale was aroused,
the usually retracted penis would have been visible. The penises of the North Atlantic right
whale and (Paciﬁ c) grey whale can be at least 1.8 metres long (calculated from Collett,
1909), and 1.7 metres long (Rice and Wolman, 1971) respectively, and could be taken by
a naïve witness for a tail. That the tail was seen at one point a ship’s length from the body
suggests the presence of more than one male whale.
Like Owen’s (1848) interpretation of the famous sea-serpent observed in the South Atlantic
Ocean from HMS Daedalus, we have no “unmeet conﬁ dence [sic]” in our interpretation of
the Egede creature. Nor are we suggesting that whales’ penises are a universal source of
sea-serpent sightings although we do think that one other sighting, that from the merchant
vessel Pauline in 1875 when a sea-serpent in the form of a “whitish pillar” was seen amongst
a pod of sperm whales “frantic with excitement” (Heuvelmans, 1968; Oudemans, 1892),
could be a misidentiﬁ cation (the sperm whale penis can be pale (Harrison, 1938)). In the
case of the Egedes, we are assuming that the use of the serpent simile and the drawings
were not wholly accurate. If they were accurate, then the strongest objection to the baleen
whale interpretation of the Egede sighting is the presence of obvious teeth in the drawing.
Our explanation also assumes that the witnesses would not have recognised a whale’s penis
and that some species would display their penises in the summer off Greenland. Hans Egede
(1741, 1745) described the large “membrum virile” of a whale but the Egedes may not have
realised it could be seen at sea.
Despite these objections, even if the monster was an unknown species, the diagnostic
features (the blow, the two obvious ﬂ ippers and the possible breaching behaviour) suggest a
cetacean. Ultimately, we will never know for certain. Whatever it was Poul Egede saw that
day, be it an amorous wandering grey, humpback or North Atlantic right whale, a ﬂ ukeless
whale or an unknown species, it was a most unusual sight both at the time and now.
Thanks to Randall Reeves, Sonja Heinrich and some anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript and
Sascha Hooker for interesting Hyperoodon facts.
The English translations following are by E. Knatterud. Interpolations (in square brackets) include variant
readings of the original Danish text.
We have been unable to determine if the original diary still exists.
S. L. Hedley, personal observation, South Atlantic Ocean, 2000.
9CETACEANS, SEX AND SEA SERPENTS
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Received: 27 July 2003. Accepted: 26 June 2004.
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