Mythical Water Creatures

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Creatures of the Deep

Kraken model
© AMNH / D. Finnin

Water beckons us. It is soothing and seductive but it's also capable of unleashing deadly force. The mythic creatures that inhabit the depths give form to water's essential mysteries. They arouse feelings of curiosity, hope- – and bottomless fear. Like water itself, these creatures can be beautiful and enticing. But will they share their life-giving bounty? Or lure us to destruction?

Water Creatures: Fun Facts

  • Giant and colossal squids have the largest eyes of any living creature; each eye can be as large as a human head.
  • The mythical kraken – perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles – may be the largest sea monster ever imagined; some stories described it as more than 1.5 miles around with arms as large as a ship's masts.
  • Many documented sightings of what were thought to be sea serpents were later debunked as cases of mistaken identity. For instance, several "sea monster" carcasses turned out to be partially decayed basking sharks (an immense fish that grows to 30 feet in length), a "baby sea serpent" proved to be a deformed blacksnake, and an enormous serpent turned out to be a mass of floating seaweed.
  • Several pictures of sea serpents on old maps appear to be based on sightings of the oarfish or ribbon fish. A long eel-shaped fish that grows up to 36 feet, the oarfish has a crest of bright red spines on its head and a spiny dorsal fin running down its entire back.
  • The story of Sedna is one of the most dramatic tales of the Inuit people of the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. In a deadly tale of betrayal on the stormy sea, a young woman is tossed overboard by her own father, who cuts off her fingers to keep her from climbing back into the boat. Her fingers become the whales, seals, and walruses on which the Inuit depend for food and materials.
  • Centuries ago, when European adventurers set out to explore the world, their sailors told of seeing mermaids in the waves. When the boats arrived in ports around the world, the image of the mysterious half-woman, half-fish creature spread, often taking on new meanings as it mixed with local beliefs.
  • In the ocean near Haiti in 1493, Christopher Columbus – probably glimpsing a manatee – reported seeing three mermaids but said they were "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men."
  • People have been making facsimiles of mermaids for at least 400 years by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish. The most spectacular mermaid hoax was pulled off by the famous showman P. T. Barnum. In 1842, Barnum tricked thousands of people into paying to see a mermaid supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands. The name "Feejee mermaid" is now used for all such manufactured mermaids.