A little more than 100 years ago, an enterprising Old Orchard Beach businessman charged curiosity-seekers 10 cents each to see the bones of a sea serpent that had washed ashore.

The attraction spawned a short book and the not-immodest declaration that said serpent was the “Eighth Wonder of the World” with “eyes as large as watermelons,” “a tongue fifteen feet long” and 85-pound breasts with “nipples as long as a telephone receiver.”

The sea serpent’s agent: One F.E. Sidelinger, “who is the local real estate agent who’s trying to drum up interest in Old Orchard Beach,” said June Pusbach O’Neill, author of “The Great New England Sea Serpent.” “It’s just such a funny combination of things. The descriptions are so embroidered and florid, it’s a fabulous little side note.”

Sidelinger’s catch didn’t make her detailed appendix of 264 sea serpent sightings off the New England coast from 1638 to 1997 — the nipples give it away, she said; it was pretty likely a whale — but the tale did make her book, “The Great New England Sea Serpent.” It’s a mostly straight-laced read of mostly straight-laced men and women who, over and over, saw something in the deep.

Nearly one in five of those sightings are off the Maine coast, many accounts from experienced fishermen.

“When you think about the life of a fisherman in New England waters, especially in the 19th century, these were not fanciful men,” O’Neill said recently in a phone interview from home in Katonah, N.Y. “These are not people who are going out for a pleasure day of cruising saying, ‘I’m looking for a sea serpent.’

“Almost 100 percent of the time, an authentic sighting starts with, ‘I thought I was seeing a floating spar, a floating pole, garbage bags, an overturned dory,'” she said. “Then when they sail in closer, it turns out to be something else — and it moves and it raises its head.”

Her own interest in the topic was piqued as a child growing up in Swampscott, Mass., and discovering a write-up in the local library about a sea serpent sighting there.

“It was the era of the Loch Ness Monster,” O’Neill said. “Years later, I’m actually on Long Island at a beach house and I get this idea for a book about a little girl who sees a sea serpent in the water and nobody else believes her. So I write it.”

But, unfortunately, no one wanted it.

“The funny thing about doing a subject like sea serpents is that the minute you say it, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re writing a children’s book,'” she said. “People just don’t take you seriously.”

When she pitched Down East Books, an editor pitched back: “We don’t really publish children’s books like this, but we’re interested in the sea serpent — do you want to write a book about it?”

O’Neill scoured libraries and historical societies, striking sea serpent gold at the Cape Ann Historical Association in Gloucester, Mass., where she discovered “Scrapbook No. 15,” a huge collection of sightings, newspaper clippings and sketches belonging to the late George Woodbury. She could find out nothing about the man himself, not even when the scrapbook was donated. The sightings in it stop around 1934.

“I have this fantasy — he passes away and his family is cleaning out his library, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do with all this junk?'” she said.

Down East published “The Great New England Sea Serpent,” in 1999 and Paraview Special Editions picked it up when it went out of print. Last month, the book was featured on “Maine’s Hidden History” on Maine Public Radio.

O’Neill said her approach was to mostly relay the little-seen-before accounts verbatim and get out of the way. There are some common threads in all the sightings: It’s very long, often 60 to 100 feet, shades of black or brown and often seen near schools of herring or mackerel. It’s also skittish, opting to flee instead of attack under pressure.

“One of the criticisms is, I didn’t speculate enough on what the creature could be,” she said. “I felt that was irresponsible. I’m not a zoologist; why would I impose my interpretation or hopes and dreams on it?”

That said, she is a sea serpent believer.

“I think there was — I hope there is,” O’Neill said.

She has one fear — that food in the Gulf of Maine has become too scarce with competition from commercial shipping, so the serpents have died out or moved on. She’s not aware of a sighting off New England since 2003.

Her most intriguing account had to be left out of the book.

It was 1996, in the mid-Atlantic, aboard a U.S. Coast Guard training ship.

“The crew have this thing in sight — and it’s only a ‘thing’ — for about 25 minutes,” O’Neill said. “It’s circling around their ship — nobody logs it; nobody reports it to anyone.”

A crew member later told her it was big but not a whale or shark and it never made a sound. Then the person swore to secrecy.

“I’m not even allowed to tell you what the name of the ship was because it would be so embarrassing (to the Coast Guard),” O’Neill said. “Nobody wants to be, ‘We had an unidentified marine creature for 25 minutes in sight; nobody knew what it was; we all had our glasses on it and we couldn’t figure it out.’ It doesn’t officially exist.”

And that could explain the lack of sightings in the last 10 years more than competition over fish.

“I think a lot of sightings are not reported,” O’Neill said. “It’s hard to imagine being brave enough to report a sea serpent in the Twitterverse. People just shred people for the slightest things.”

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send photos, ideas and preserved carcases to [email protected]


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