By Elizabeth Carbonneau
Halifax Harbour is one of the world’s deepest, and its contents and potential inhabitants have long been the subjects of lore and speculation. Claims of frightening sea monsters are particularly fascinating and certainly beg retelling.
One of the earliest accounts of a sea monster in the harbour was published in 1752. Some local fishermen found a dead creature tangled in their nets near the harbour mouth. They brought the carcass back to shore and left it on the wharf for public display. The Halifax Gazette’s description of the creature was remarkably close to that of a walrus. Could this “sea monster” simply be one of these arctic mammals that travelled too far south?
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Halifax area was rampant with taverns and any sea monster sightings were considered to be simple alcohol-induced hallucinations. However, in 1825, a prominent and well-respected anonymous gentleman claimed to have seen a sixty-foot-long snake-like creature coiling in the Bedford Basin near the Goreham family’s wharf. The NovaScotian interviewed Mr. Goreham, who was also present and confirmed the gentleman’s account. That same day, a whaling boat near York Redoubt was approached by a similar 60-foot-long coiling monster. It apparently swam around the boat and bumped into it several times before losing interest and speeding off. In 1833, five Halifax men planning to fish in Mahone Bay were stopped near St. Margaret’s Bay by an agitated school of dolphins. The cause of their fear was about 100 feet away: the men described seeing a dark serpent, about 80 feet long, swimming in the area before rushing away.
One of the last harbour monster sightings occurred in 1853. A schooner captain was on night watch aboard his ship near McNab’s Island when he saw a large animal approach. It swam around the boat and blew like a whale for almost an hour before slipping under the surface. Later that morning, Peter McNab Jr. was rowing to Halifax from McNab’s Island. He encountered a strange eel-like creature “undulating” through the water. He followed it for about half an hour before it disappeared near Georges Island. As both men were well-respected in the community, their accounts were accepted as true. However, Peter McNab was committed to the Mount Hope Insane Asylum twenty years later, and those who remembered his sea serpent encounter dismissed it as an early symptom of his madness.
Recent years have been lacking in sea monster sightings. Were these earlier accounts just cases of ordinary ocean animals being misidentified? Or have all our increased harbour activities chased the monsters away?
Image: DHM 2012.44.19; Photo of ferries and Halifax shoreline. Written on back: “View of Halifax Harbour and ferries taken from wharf at Dartmouth. 1937,”
Sources: True Stories from Nova Scotia’s Past by Dianne Marshall