It happened when I was 20, an ordinary seaman aboard the naval supply ship HMCS Provider. The year was 1980 and it was springtime.
We were some miles off the west coast of Vancouver Island, cruising north in moderately rough seas, and I was standing lookout on the port bridge wing during a night watch. On my left was the open Pacific, the house-size rollers tumbling into the immense blackness.
The thing came up suddenly alongside. I was facing a dark wall of massed coils or folds or crags – I still can’t properly describe it. It appeared to be formed of giant sections. The head towered over the port bow and an eye looked down toward me. Then it turned away and its great body went under. The Provider was 551 feet (168 metres) and in the few seconds I saw it the creature seemed to dwarf the ship in both length and bulk, though being so close to it could have skewed my perspective.
Shaking like a leaf, I dashed into the bridge and shouted, “Did you see it?” An officer and two seamen ended a conversation in the dimmed light and looked at me blankly. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t seen it. I tried to describe it. I said it must have shown up on the instruments. All I got were crooked smiles. The next day, however, one of them – Leading Seaman Landry – approached me in the mess and assured me that everyone who went to sea had encountered something that would never show up in a textbook or on a National Geographic Special.
There was certainly nothing in the marine zoology books that came even close to what I saw in size or appearance. But there was a whole literature on “mythical sea monsters” and sea serpents that dated back to antiquity. In Scandinavia especially, scores of accounts by sailors and fishermen had been recorded. Some told of sea monsters that were hundreds of feet long and destroyed ships and devoured mariners. Printed in 1555, Olaus Magnus’s History of the Northern Peoples famously described the Great Norway Serpent, or Sea Orm, and another creature sighted in 1522 that “lifts himself high above the Water and rouls himself round like a sphere.” The Coast Salish also had stories and depictions of sea serpents, so they weren’t unknown in these waters.
Though I believed I had seen a living sea serpent, I shared the experience only with family members and close friends. I had no witnesses or evidence, so why invite ridicule? And even now I fight against a strong impulse to keep it a secret, which I can’t totally explain.
There was a terrifying split second when it was gazing down on me and I felt it could have sent me and the ship I was on straight to oblivion, had it decided to.
It seemed ancient to me at the time. I wonder if it’s still out there.