Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sea Serpents, Science and Vampire Squid

(While not discovered by the Galathea Expedition, many more examples of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, the "vampire squid from hell" were dredged up from the bottom.)

The Galathea Expedition of 1950-52 is a little known but endlessly exciting excerpt from the history of marine science. The Danish project was instigated when the zoologist Dr Anton Frederik Bruun gave a presentation in which he discussed the possible existence of sea serpents to a public audience. The story was picked up by the journalist Hakon Mielche who was so interested in the topic that he contacted Dr. Bruun and together they conceived of an expedition to research what creatures lived in some of the deepest sections of the ocean.

I find this narrative so interested because it seems as if Dr. Bruun really did hope to find a sea monster during their two year voyage, while Mielche was incredulous and consciously used the image of the serpent to raise public support and funds from wealthy Danish supporters, including the royal family. The idea of hunting for a sea serpent struck so deeply at the heart of Danish national identity and was able to be harness so effectivley by a publicist like Mielche because for many generations the Scandinavian people in general and the Danish in particular have served as a major locus of sea monster accounts, and some of the earliest medieval chronicles come from this part of Europe.

I've gone over some of the papers produced by their voyage, and the collection of deep sea oddities is quite substantial, as is Bruun's disappointment that in the end they did not find the fabled serpent.

It is yet another example of the ways in which myths and cultural beliefs can shape the focus of the sciences. Indeed, it sent a group of Danish scientists around the world, and to the very depths of the sea.

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