Mossback's Northwest: Before the Kraken, what lurked in the Salish Sea?

Area waters have a history of monster sightings, many of them way stranger than Bigfoot.

Seattle has a new hockey team named after the Kraken — a legendary old Norse sea monster. Do we in the Northwest have a history of sea monsters?

You betcha.

We all know about Bigfoot, lurking in our forests — and the pages of the tabloids — but strange creatures have also been sighted in our Salish Sea waters.

Move over Sasquatch, meet Cadborosaurus!

The idea of sea serpents in the Salish Sea and nearby waters is old. Indigenous artwork has featured a serpentlike creature in petroglyphs, dances, songs, masks and carvings. It was a known critter long before Europeans came along with their own stories of seeing weird things at sea.

In 1880, a news item in the Vancouver (Washington) Independent reported that a “Marvelous sea serpent” had been seen (again!) off Cape Flattery. “He disported in the water more than 15 minutes, to invite inspection of its prodigious size and rare ugliness, throwing his long tapering body 90-feet out of the water, and disclosing wings that put our mainsail in the shade,” reported one B. Stowe when he got to port. The serpent’s snorting was said to be epic.

That same year, a “wonderful sea monster” was said to have been caught near Victoria by local Native people. It was brought to town and described as a “genuine sea serpent six feet in length, with the orthodox mane, a head shaped like a panther….” It was said to have been preserved in spirits and sent to Ottawa for identification, as no locals knew what it was. That wasn’t the last time some odd carcass found on a Northwest beach sparked the question “What the heck is it?”

Strange sightings weren’t confined just to saltwater. Indigenous peoples told stories of creatures in lakes, famously a serpentlike critter in British Columbia’s Lake Okanagan named Ogopogo.

Since the late 19th century, hundreds of sightings of large serpentlike creatures have been reported off the coast of Washington and British Columbia, most in the Salish Sea, from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Willapa Bay, from the San Juan Islands to Howe Sound. There were sightings in Puget Sound, too, in Elliott Bay, at Deception Pass and near Everett. And some as far north as Alaska. Such accounts were sometimes ascribed to those who were too fond of their rum ration.

The creatures weren’t always flapping massive wings, but were often described as having a long body or neck and sometimes serpentine movement. People had different impressions of its head, though, saying it looked like a dog, a seal, a snake, a horse, a giraffe, a sheep, a camel, a cat, a cow.

I suppose it’s a kind of Rorschach test for the observers.

As with UFOs, sea serpent sightings seemed to come in bunches. With more boat traffic, more reports came in. The biggest bunch began in the 1930s in the waters off of Vancouver Island. In October of 1933, the Victoria Daily Times reported — on an  admittedly slow news day — that witnesses deemed credible had made sightings of a strange sea creature. That story turned on the spigot of serpent sightings.

The sightings were by two different couples roughly a year apart, both in the vicinity of Cadboro Bay, near Victoria. One witness, a Major Langley, a local barrister, was on his yacht with his wife when they heard a snort and a hiss and saw a large creature with a domelike back with serrations. Langley had been whaling and said it was unlike any whale he had ever seen.

It was near the same location where the previous summer another couple — named Kemp — had sighted something bizarre. Mr. Kemp worked at the Provincial Archives and reported the sighting of a reptilian creature swimming toward shore, where it raised its head out of water and rested it on a rock. It had a serrated tail and, Kemp said, moved a bit like a crocodile. It had a mane that resembled a bed of kelp. He calculated that it was more than 60 feet long.

Like Loch Ness’ Nessie in Scotland, it needed a name. Suggestions ranged from “Amy” to the multisyllabic “Hyaschuckaluck”—which means large water snake in Chinook jargon — but they settled on Cadborosaurus, or just “Caddy” for short. The sea serpent of old had hit the modern media. Articles appeared, and scores of new sightings were recorded. Some believed there was an entire Caddy family out there frolicking from Puget Sound to Campbell River. Speculation was that it could be a survivor of the prehistoric era — perhaps a Jurassic plesiosaur.

Still, despite hundreds of sightings, high resolution photos and film have been elusive. Strange remains on the beach have turned out to be the decayed remnants of other sea species, like basking sharks or oarfish. Like Bigfoot, no one has been able to nail down just who or what Caddy is.

Maybe a better name for Caddy is “Cagey.”

The Salish Sea could be crowded with cryptids — the name for unknown species. Researchers say “Caddy” sightings are not necessarily describing a single creature, but possibly two or three different critters. Nor do sightings guarantee anything truly new or unknown is really out there snorting, hissing and splashing about — except maybe the human imagination.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.