Updated: Sep 23, 2019
One of the more unexpected findings of our research, whilst writing The Seal Serpent, was the fact that over the last hundred years or so, at least a dozen sea lions escaped or were deliberately released from captivity in Europe and the UK. Since the late 19th century, California and Steller sea lions among other species were exhibited in scientific collections, zoos, menageries, circuses and of course for showmanship, some even being kept as pets.
It was inevitable that some would escape or would be released prior to and during both World Wars as a result of conscription, austerity and rationing when owners were called up to fight for their country or there was just not enough food to sustain their voracious appetites. Unlike other exotic species such as big cats which could not be safely released, a sea lion could be dumped in any stretch of water and left to fend for itself. So why is this significant?
Pinnipeds have been commonly proposed as identities for some lake monsters and indeed there are many accounts of them swimming into rivers, taking advantage of spawning fish and getting into lakes where they could be mistaken for a monster. However in Europe and the UK the indigenous pinniped species are the grey seal and the common or harbour seal, both members of the true seals or phocidae. Other phocids such as the hooded seal, bearded seal and ringed seal, normally Arctic species, have all been documented from around the shores of Europe. True seals however have a specific morphology; they tend to be large and torpedo shaped and cannot use their hind flippers for movement on land, although this does not stop them from negotiating difficult obstacles.
But sea lions are different.
As members of the eared seals or otariidae, they have a much sleeker shape, horn like ears, a distinctive neck and are able to use their hind-flippers for sustained, movement on land.
A California sea lion may also reach a length of 8ft and have a head height of 5ft, while species such as the Steller sea lion may attain a length of 10ft.
So imagine if you will, either animal emerging from a lake in the middle of the night, bounding across a road in front of a surprised or frightened witness. Given the impact that Loch Ness has had on people’s perception of lake monsters it would be fairly easy to conclude that you had seen some sort of prehistoric reptile, especially as the animal would not look like an indigenous species.
If we accept that in Europe and the UK, some errant sea lions are responsible for some lake monster accounts, how far back could this have been happening? Interest in these animals from the scientific community and general public seems to have gathered momentum from 1867 onwards in the UK, when many began to be imported as attractions. However some otariid species such as the Cape fur seal were recognised and subsequently exploited as a food source by sailors and explorers since the late 16th century. So it is not altogether impossible that such species could have been captured by these adventurers, who saw an entrepreneurial opportunity to make some money from exhibiting them in their native countries, quite early on. But there would have been some problems on their return; firstly sea lions need a lot of food to sustain them and secondly at a time when there were no purpose built aquarium’s to accommodate them, they would have to have some access to the sea or other bodies of water presumably making them difficult to manage without the possibility, of potential escape.
This possibility is something which would be impossible to quantify as obviously no one was keeping records. The fact that in the last 100 years this has happened fairly regularly is only really quantifiable by searching historical newspaper articles and these instances, are likely to only be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
One of the earliest, most publicised accounts originates from 1919 and involves a sea lion by the name of Billiken, one of several that were trained in the First World War to track enemy submarines (as detailed in our book). Following demobilisation Billiken escaped his trainer and disappeared into the North Sea, off the coast of Kent around July 10th, 1919. Despite subsequent searches and apparent sightings he eluded capture.
Funnily enough over 3 weeks later on the 5th August, off the coast of Hoy in the Orkney Islands a famous sea serpent account was reported by J. Mackintosh Bell which describes a very sea lion like creature. Then in September 1919 (depending on various sources), a group of children at Loch Ness (80 miles away), apparently witnessed a large amphibious animal, moving from some trees onto the loch in a manner that is also reminiscent of an otariid. If Billiken or a similarly escaped animal had found their way into Loch Ness around 1919, then there is a good chance they may have returned to the area during the 1920s and possibly 1930s, especially if they were able to exploit fish stocks fairly easily in this way. Any such errant pinniped which managed to forage inland could have ended up in a lake, lough or loch where it may have surprised the local populace and created a legacy of confusion.
A performing sea lion has been picked by a trawler on the north coast of the Outer Hebrides. It is thought it must have escaped from a ship while travelling with a menagerie.
Diss Express - Friday 02 June 1939
Adapted from The Seal Serpent.