The Shape of the Unknown

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Yesterday, I wrote about the mythical monsters that once populated the marine realm on the way to uncharted territories. Today, I thought I’d look at images of creatures that might have inspired tales of monsters, at least in the retelling.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Photo: Bryant Austin

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).
Photo: Bryant Austin from his book Beautiful Whale

It doesn’t come as a surprise that whales inspired stories of awe. The humpback whale easily grows to be 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) long, around the length of the three ships Christopher Colombus sailed in search of new territories. In the late 20th century they became one of the standard-bearing animals for human impact on marine life.

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Chukchi Sea. Photo:: Sarah Sonsthagen/US Geological Survey.

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Chukchi Sea.
Photo:: Sarah Sonsthagen/US Geological Survey.

Growing up to 3.6 m (12 ft) in length, the walrus impresses more through its massive weight and long tusks. During the 18th and 19th century, American and European sealers and whalers hunted the walrus into extirpation (local extinction) in the Atlantic. Here’s an image of a walrus from an ancient map:

Olaus Magnus' 1539 Carta marina, including a green walrus the size of a mountain. Source: Wikipedia

Olaus Magnus’ 1539 Carta marina, including a green walrus the size of a mountain.
Source: Wikipedia

Global trade in walrus ivory is restricted under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Although not listed as imminently endangered, the main danger to the walrus at this point is habitat alteration due to climate change.

The Giant Octopus earns its name. Little is known about its habits, but individuals have been found that were over 4m (14 ft) in length. Not large enough to take down a ship, but an impressive sight nonetheless. Little is known about this octopus, which has proven an elusive object of study.

North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini). Photo: Mark Laita

North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini).
Photo: Mark Laita from his book Sea

Thus, while it is known to be highly intelligent and a successful hunter of anything in its size range (including birds), and sensitive to polluted water, it is not considered endangered simply because too little is known about its population.

I try to imagine trying to describe these animals to someone who had never seen them in an era before photographs and mass communication, before most people had traveled farther than they could walk in a few days.

Would I emphasize the strangeness of the new creatures, make them sound even more fear-inspiring than they were, or would I talk about their unusual grace, impressive speed and unaccustomed movement?

Would the shape of the unknown be a fearsome maw, or  a sinuous fin?

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