Daedalus and the Deep – the real sea serpent mystery

Daedalus and the Deep has its roots in real events. HMS Daedalus was a real ship, a Leda-class frigate built in 1820 and later re-rated to corvette. HMS Daedalus was best known in Victorian Britain, for the sighting of a sea-serpent between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena in 1848 – 165 years ago today. The description of the serpent in the narrative is based on those in contemporary reports from the officers of the frigate. Exactly what those men saw in the Atlantic on that August day remains a mystery.

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The sighting sparked considerable interest back in the UK, and was extensively covered by the London Illustrated News and other newspapers in October that year.

London Illustrated News
The London Illustrated News coverage of the Daedalus sea serpent in October 1848

‘That there is such a creature, however, there can be little doubt,’ Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion reported, ‘as his appearance has been so often alluded to. One of the best descriptions, and on the very best authority, is that which we have seen in the report of an English officer to the war department of his own country. When the Daedalus frigate, Captain M’Quhae, which arrived at London, not long since, was on her passage home from the East Indies, between the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena, her captain and most of her officers and crew, at four o’clock one afternoon, saw a sea serpent.’

Daedalus sea serpent
A contemporary artist’s impression of the sea serpent sighting by HMS Daedalus on 6 August 1848

The report continues: ‘Its head appeared to be about four feet clear of the water, and there was about sixty feet of body in a straight line on the surface. It is calculated that there must have been under water a length of thirty or forty feet more, by which it propelled itself at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. The diameter of the exposed part of the body was about sixteen inches; and when it extended its jaws, which were full of large jagged teeth, they seemed sufficiently capacious to admit of a tall man standing upright between them.’

The journal quoted Captain M’Quhae’s report directly: ‘It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognised the features with the naked eye… It had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed washed about its back.’ M’Quhae described the creature’s head as like ‘that of a snake’.

Sea serpent HMS Daedalus
Another contemporary artist’s impression, showing how close the sea serpent was said to have passed to the ship

The London Illustrated News hailed ‘a new attestation to the existence of the Great Sea Serpent’

This sighting was, as Gleason’s pointed out, not unique. In fact, the following year, a remarkably similar sighting was reported by the sloop HMS Plumper in the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal. An officer described ‘a long black creature with a sharp head, moving slowly, I should think about two knots … its back was about twenty feet if not more above water; and its head, as near as I could judge, from six to eight…There was something on its back that appeared like a mane, and, as it moved through the water, kept washing about; but before I could examine it more closely, it was too far astern’.

Plumper sea serpent
The sea serpent sighted by HMS Plumper the year after HMS Daedalus’ sighting

Happy Sea Serpent Day!

One Comment Add yours

  1. RJR says:

    Every time I see your book, I hear this song in my head – the lyrics don’t begin until well after halfway but it sums your story up perfectly, Daeds!


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