Sea monsters in Casco Bay?

As with many bodies of water, there are legends about strange creatures lurking beneath Casco Bay as well. Our local monster is known as Cassie and is apparently serpent-like in her form.

Cassie was first sighted back in 1779 by a young sailor named Edward Preble. Fast forward nearly 200 years to 1958 when a fisherman described a similar serpent-like creature he saw that turned its head in response to the repeated blow of the foghorn. Apparently, Cassie is a long-lived serpent! The depths of this story can be plumbed at Portland’s International Cryptozoology Museum where Director Loren Coleman has been particularly fascinated by Cassie’s story and has put together a display about her history.

Perhaps another story from New Harbor, Maine might shed some light on the identity of Cassie. This story came from another fisherman who reported a strange sighting in the local paper in the 1850s and suddenly found himself the subject of buckets of questions about what he had seen. Some of those questions came from marine biologists who helped to identify what species this could have been. Their best guess was an oarfish.

An oarfish is a serpent-like creature that can be up to 30 feet long, making it the longest bony fish. Partly because of this length, giant oarfish are known as Regalecus glesne, meaning “king of herrings.” They don’t look much like a herring aside from their sleek body shape and prominent pectoral fins. Also, as their name implies, an oarfish’s fins look a bit like oars. They use these oars to row themselves around in the dark depths of the ocean – as deep as 1,000 meters. They have blue-black markings along with spots and squiggles that are thought to be bioluminescent in the darkness of the deep water. Here, in the dark, they hang out by themselves, hunting for jellyfish and other invertebrates.

Even with those large fins to row them around, oarfish aren’t particularly speedy or muscular. They don’t need to be since their prey aren’t too speedy either and the water that deep down is quite still. That means they aren’t strong enough to survive the water motion in shallower water. When they come too close to the surface, they often die. Perhaps this is why they have been thought to be sea monsters – listlessly bobbing up and down in the water like a sea serpent. They lose their markings when they die, however, so they look slippery and silvery – also enhancing their monstrous quality.

Although they live in the depths and tend to be in warmer waters than those of the Northwest Atlantic, oarfish are sometimes found washed ashore after storms. Given the storms we had at the end of October, it wouldn’t have been out of the question to find one at Halloween.

These stories of sea serpents remind me of the strange “bigeye” a fisherman friend found a few weeks ago after a storm. Often those out on the water, like fishermen, discover things that scientists would never come across. This was particularly true before there were sophisticated submersibles with cameras that allowed researchers to see beneath the surface and learn about the creatures that live there. The eyes and observations of fishermen brought firsthand knowledge to the scientists. This still happens to a degree, but the technology available now can sometimes leave out these important observations. As always, a collaborative effort results in the best knowledge, as is what happened in the case of the identification of the oarfish back nearly two centuries ago.

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