Sea Serpents Off Vancouver Island
In his 1872 adventure novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, French novelist Jules Verne wrote:
“The human mind enjoys impressive visions of unearthly creatures. Now then, the sea is precisely their best medium, the only setting suitable for the breeding and growing of such giants- next to which such land animals as elephants or rhinoceroses are mere dwarves. The liquid masses support the largest known species of mammals and perhaps conceal mollusks of incomparable size or crustaceans too frightful to contemplate… Why not? Formerly, in prehistoric days, land animals… were built on a gigantic scale. Our Creator cast them using a colossal mold that time has gradually made smaller. With its untold depths, couldn’t the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn’t the heart of the ocean hide the last-remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?”
Many residents of Canada’s West Coast, both past and present, certainly seem to think so, and with good reason. Long before Spanish, English, or Russian sails first appeared off the shores of what is now British Columbia, First Nations throughout the Pacific Northwest told stories about massive marine monsters endowed with preternatural abilities which ruled the waves between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. The Tlingit of northwestern British Columbia and the Alaskan Panhandle, for example, told stories about the gonaqadet, or ‘sea wolf’, who lived in a den at the bottom of the sea, on whose physical appearance and essential nature not all storytellers were in agreement; some anthropologists described the gonaqadet as an enormous animal shaped like a longhouse, which was greatly feared for its ability to devour entire canoes, crew and all; while others described it as a benevolent creature with sharp teeth, claws, fins, long ears, and a long tail, which brings good luck to all who see it. Further to the south, the Bella Bella and Tsimshian of the Great Bear Rainforest told stories about the Sk’amck, a huge water monster which bit off human arms and legs and swallowed people whole, and believed in the existence of a fish with preternatural power resembling a double-headed salmon.
Undoubtedly, the richest collection of legendary sea monsters endemic to Canada’s Pacific Northwest is that which populates the traditional folklore of Vancouver Island. The Kwakwaka’wakw, who once ruled the Island’s northeastern shores from Cape Scott to Campbell River, told tales about monstrous halibut, ferocious underwater birds, and vicious grinning sharks with long tongues and bull-like heads. The Nootka, who held sway over the Island’s western coast, believed in a sea spirit called kaptca, who appeared as a drowned giantess floating in the ocean, her long hair streaming all around her; those who managed to pluck one of her hairs from the water would receive wealth and power thereafter, but none who caught a glimpse of her face lived to tell the tale. All native residents of Vancouver Island, including the Northern and Central Coast Salish tribes who occupied the Island’s southeastern quadrant, told stories about two specific types of oceanic entities, namely Komokwa, the generous and wealthy Chief of the Sea, and Sisiutl, a giant two-headed amphibious sea serpent saturated with preternatural power, said to be the mortal enemy of the Thunderbird.
Sightings of huge unidentified sea creatures are still reported from time to time in the waters off Vancouver Island. The most famous subject of such accounts is an alleged sea serpent called Cadborosaurus, or “Caddy,” who is said to occasionally rear his horse-like head and display his serpentine trunk in Cadboro Bay on the southern tip of Vancouver Island not far from the University of Victoria. Since at least the 1940s, newspapers across British Columbia have recognized Caddy as one of the province’s three classic monsters, alongside the Sasquatch of the coastal mountains and the Ogopogo of Lake Okanagan. While this author certainly intends to give Caddy his due in some future work, this piece will explore three lesser-known monster sightings made in some of the more obscure bays and sounds off Vancouver Island, all of them from the archives of Gary Mangiacopra.
Sea Serpent of Ucluelet
The first of these reports was submitted by 41-year-old George W. Saggers and published in the Summer 1948 issue of the magazine Fate. The author, who hailed from the municipality of Ucluelet, on the western shore of Vancouver Island, was a commercial fisherman who spent most of his waking hours at sea, having commenced his career at the age of 13 in his father’s rowboat. At the time of writing, Saggers was the proud owner of what he described as “one of the most up-to-date commercial trolling boats, equipped with radio-telephone, direction finder and photo-electric pilot.”
One day in November 1947, George Saggers left Ucluelet harbour about an hour before daylight, as was his custom. When he had reached a point about two miles off shore, southwest of a landmark called the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse, he lowered his fishing poles, slowed the engine, put his lines and hooks on the water, and slowly headed out to sea.
After trolling for about a mile, Saggers got a bite on one of his lines and reeled in what proved to be a large salmon. Just as he prepared to haul the fish into his boat, Saggers was beset by a peculiar sensation. “A sort of shiver went up and down my spine,” he wrote, “and I had a feeling that I was being watched. Immediately, I looked all around.
“On my port side, about 150 feet away was a head and neck raised about four feet above the water, with two jet black eyes about three inches across and protruding from the head like a couple of buns, staring at me.
“I just didn’t look real. I’ve never seen anything like it. The head seemed to be the same size as the neck, about eighteen inches through and of a mottle color of gray and light brown.
“This particular morning there was quite a ground swell with a chop; which meant that anything floating on or close to the surface would certainly do a lot of tossing about. But this sea monster was very steady, which only proved to me that there was plenty of it under the water.
“If it had made one move toward the boat, I was prepared to run into the cabin and slam the door shut. It had a look I distrusted greatly.
“After it looked at me for one full minute, it turned its head straight away from me, showing the back of its head and its neck. It appeared to have some sort of mane, which seemed like bundles of warts rather than hair. It looked something like a mattress would, if split down the middle allowing rolls of cotton batting to protrude. The color of the mane was dark brown.
“Then the monster went down out of sight, moving so quietly that it never left a ripple or disturbance of any kind in the water.
“My name is George W. Saggers. I live at Ucluelet, B.C., Vancouver Island, Canada. What I have told you is true.”
Sea Serpent of Parksville, BC
Another sea serpent, this one answering to the general description of Caddy, appeared off the eastern shores of Vancouver Island on February 24th, 1954, just north of the city of Parksville. About thirty witnesses claimed to have seen the strange sea creature basking in the sun about 380 yards offshore. Mr. W. Baldwin, a resident of the nearby community of Errington, had the best view of the spectacle, watching it from shore through field glasses. “I never saw anything like it,” he told a reporter for the Nanaimo Daily News, describing the creature as having a head that was both reptilian and horse-like, and a long tapering tail. He estimated the creature to measure between 30 to 40 feet in length, and described it as having four humps.
After watching the creature disport itself for about an hour, six locals- including Arthur Stewart and his brother, of nearby Horne Lake; and Chuck Ball of the proximate community of Dashwood- approached the monster in a rowboat, hoping to capture it on camera. Apparently startled by their approach, the sea serpent submerged and shortly reappeared on the other side of the rowboat. “Then it made a beeline for them,” Baldwin told reporters, “but submerged for good in about fifty yards.” Thoroughly spooked, the six adventurers made a hasty retreat to shore.
Sea Monster of Alert Bay
The third and final sea serpent sighting we will examine in this piece took place in 1928 in Alert Bay, a piece of ocean nestled in the crook of Cormorant Island near the northern end of Vancouver Island. This sighting was alluded to in an article in the July 19th, 1963 issue of the Vancouver Sun, written by a female columnist from Ladysmith, BC, who wrote under the penname ‘Mamie Maloney’. The witness was Maloney’s own husband, T.R. Boggs, who claimed to have seen a camel-like head raised five or six feet out of the water, gliding against the waves, “with definite humps occasionally breaking the surface for 50 or so feet behind.” Boggs was purportedly reluctant to tell his story to anyone he did not know well, “defeated by the let’s-humor-him-he’s-so-sane-in-other-respects looks [his tale] invariably invoked.”
One night, while reading in bed, Boggs allegedly found the explanation for his sighting in the book Vancouver Island’s West Coast: 1762-1962, by George Nicholson. This book contains a two-page chapter which attempts to provide a conventional explanation for sightings of Caddy and other sea monsters off the shores of Vancouver Island. “The apparition so often observed off Cadboro Bay…” the chapter begins, “is no sea serpent; although to the novice, that’s what it sometimes looks like.” The chapter proceeds to explain that the sea serpent is really an optical illusion produced by a bull sea lion leading his harem across the water.
“The bull always leads,” the article explains, “every so often breaking surface to hold his head at least three feet above water and look around as if to see if any strange bachelor bull might be skulking around… The big head, high on a thick neck, seen unexpectedly and only for a brief time, could, with the help of a little imagination, be described as that of a camel, horse, the legendary dragon, the mythical sea serpent, or a combination of them all.
“So much for the head and neck… Now for the humps or coils. The females always follow close behind, invariably in line, and for some unexplained reason they never raise their heads out of the water… The fierce looking bewhiskered head of the bull sea lion high out of the water, followed by a length or two behind by one or more arched bodies of the females, and all appearing to be part of one animal, admittedly looks like a sea serpent.”
Whether such an explanation could account for the eerie experience of George Saggers, a maritime veteran who had spent 27 years on the waves at the time of his sighting, or the traditional tales told by the natives of Vancouver Island, whose ancestors knew the sea and its inhabitants as well as any man knows his own backyard, is a matter of conjecture.
- My Old People Say: Part 2 (1975), by Catherine McClellan
- Tlingit Myths and Texts (1909), by John R. Swanton
- “The Chilkat Blanket,” in Volume III, Part IV, of the Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History (December 1907), by George T. Emmons
- Indian Myths & Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America (1895), by Franz Boas
- The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes (1951), by Philip Drucker
- “Notes on the Sk’qo’mic of British Columbia, a Branch of the Great Salish Stock of North America,” by Charles Hill-Tout in the 1900 Report on the Ethnological Survey of Canada
- “The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia,” by Wilson Duff in Memoir No. 1 of the Anthropology of British Columbia (1952)
- “Sea Serpent off Vancouver,” by George W. Saggers in the Summer 1948 issue of Fate
- “Monster of Vancouver Island,” in the March 1955 issue of Fate
- “Photographic Party in Boat Foiled by Parksville Caddy,” in the February 25th, 1954 issue of the Nanaimo Daily News
- “‘Monster’ Seen Off B.C. Coast: Horse-Headed Serpent Noted Basking in Sun,” in the February 25th, 1954 issue of the Montreal Star
- Vancouver Island’s West Coast, 1762-1962 (1965), by George S.W. Nicholson