Feature Image:
Destruction of Leviathan (1865), by Gustave Doré

Article from the Summer 2022 Nautical Issue
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Maybe it’s the isolation. Maybe it’s the up and down and back and forth of the waves. Maybe it’s purely a sense of adventure—when you’ve been out at sea for a while, you’re going to feel spoony. And you’re going to make mistakes. There are reasons that most shipboard romances fail. Failure’s even more likely if you hop off the deck and join your lover in the water. You’ll end up awash in narcissists, teases, and love bombers there just as likely as on land, and the monstrous breakups at sea are even more devastating. Too many of us have lost our limbs as well as our self-esteem and our ability to trust.

Proceed with caution. Here there be dragons.

Charisma, Love Bombs, and Spite: the Sea Serpents and Dragons

I understand the attraction. Long, muscular bodies, glittering scales, a tail or two to twine around and make you feel really held … Sea serpents and dragons are the Clark Gables and Gal Gadots of the maritime world. It’s always dazzling when Clark Gable and Gal Gadot want you. Especially when they can breathe fire, even underwater. So you may pine for a creature such as Chile’s Coi Coi-Vilu, the serpentine god or goddess who rules over all sea life—just don’t expect your affection to be returned to the same degree.

Your sense of awe and helplessness should have told you something. Big oceanic reptiles have charisma to burn, and they are certainly masters and mistresses of the Grand Romantic Gesture. They make you feel wanted. But just as with any two-legged date, you have to be careful not to get swept away: These lovers are toxic.

Take the Bakunawa of the Philippines, for example. Whether you consider him a dragon or a serpent, you have to remember that you are not the only girl or guy for whom he’s put on a show. He likes causing tidal waves, and he lives to work up an eclipse. With all these fancy stunts, you may be hearing a first-date I love you, but what he’s saying is I love you right now, but you know, things change. Love bombers never mention that their disarming declarations have an expiration date.

Sometimes you and your sea serpent tick along so happily for a while that you start to scoff at the naysayers. You remind your friends that Warren Beatty was a notorious mimbo before he met Annette Bening. Your friends are then right to remind you about Jörmungandr, also known as the Midgard Serpent or the World Serpent of Norse mythology. When über-god Odin lobbed Jörmungandr into the sea, the snake grew so big that he has now encircled the globe and holds his own tail in his mouth. (Fun fact: There is a way to tell what part of a serpent is the tail—just look for everything after his anus.) He’s got the whole world in his scales, and you are just one tiny part of that co-dependent, ultimately self-involved relationship.

But this is one vindictive narcissist. The moment someone demands enough attention to make him stop sucking his tail, he’ll writhe his way onto land and spray poison into the air and sea, bringing on Ragnarök.

Trust me, you do not want to be around for Ragnarök, much less be the cause of it.

Empty Promises: the Sirens

No creature has greater charisma than the sirens. They’re beautiful, yes, and they have throaty, seductive voices … Whether you believe that they are women from the waist up and fish down below, or as Homer (mistakenly, I think) did, that they are half bird instead, they are inextricably identified with the ocean and with seduction. Their songs promise dreams fulfilled. Best of all, they promise that you will be fulfilled, that you’re as gorgeous and clever and talented as they are.

Sadly, this is probably a lie. They are supernatural beings, after all, and we mortals can’t quite compete. But the promises are so beautiful!

No one is better at wrapping you around her littlest fin than a siren, but
a tryst with her is designed to end in destruction. She wants you to crash your ship into the rocks or fling yourself into the sea to catch her. The sailors of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader explain it well: The clouded water over which songs are floating is not where your daydreams and wishes come true but where your dreams do—it’s the space of living nightmares.

In short, a siren makes you feel great until she wrecks you utterly upon the rocky shores of a fake relationship.

You can still dream big for yourself. Just don’t listen to a monster who tries convince you she can give you the world. Wait for the one who loves where you are and helps you get further. to

The Tease: Cetus

To the ancient Greeks, ketos referred generically to any sea monster, but when most of us see the name in its Latin form, we think of one enormous sinister beast with a body as big as a ship and a head as tall as a house. The Greeks described Cetus as a sort of spiky dolphin, with spines a foot and a half thick—think of a water-bound stegosaurus with a snaking tail and the face of a boar or a dog. He is the forefather of dragons, the taunter of virgins, the monster who gave his name to an order of sea creatures, the cetaceans. He spends most of his time bobbing along in the waters offshore, waiting for the Greeks to get tired of a girl and toss her to him.

In fact, Cetus seems to enjoy threatening more than devouring. If you are serious about offering him a victim, you have to chain her up until he can be bothered to make a move. The Trojan princess Hesione had to wait so long
(naked, no less) that Hercules had time to travel a far piece and make a bargain with her father for her rescue. When Cetus finally showed up, he swallowed not the girl but the hero, who then spent the next few days hacking his way out of the monster’s belly.

Andromeda, seen above with a snakier Cetus, waited even longer than Hesione, such that her man Perseus was able to wing his way over and slay Cetus—again just as the monster opened his enormous maw. Perseus waved Medusa’s head around and turned Cetus to stone. Reports of his death, however, may be greatly exaggerated. There will always be a Cetus.

I submit that this monster must be more interested in the heroes than the heroines. Why else would he wait so very long to taste the girls’ flesh and move in just as the guys showed up?

You don’t need a Cetus in your life. When you’re undressed and tied up, you deserve all of your lover’s attention. If that’s what you’re into.

The Jealous Monster: Leviathan

You already know him by reputation—one of the most wondrous things God ever made, with unbreakable scales, fiery breath, and a chip on his shoulder about his first wife’s death. He slithers through several books of the Hebrew Bible, eating a whale a day, boiling the sea with the heat of his malodorous breath, poking his horns out of the water and threatening the Israelites.

And yet, you fall for him. Hard. Partly because he instantly seems to feel so close to you. He wants to know all about you; he wants to spend every minute together.

At first his jealousy is cute—the way he insists on eliminating all rivals for your affection in the same way as he got rid of the sea’s “great fishes,” or whales, and replaced a handful of Egyptian gods. But. There’s a reason the Christians associate him with both the deadly sin of envy and the devil.

Leviathan is the original green-eyed monster. Life with him is a constant Where were you? and Who were you with? and Is Cetus bigger than I am? His envy and jealousy are not about you; they are about Leviathan and his rivals. He will not die till the end of time, so it’s up to you to walk away before he decides to make you a part of himself forever, if you catch my drift. If you feel the water around the two of you heating up, swim fast.

So Handsy: the Giant Cephalopods

If two hands are good, a thousand tentacles must be better, right? Nope. Friends, this is the same faulty thinking that has people insisting that size really matters when we all know it’s really the motion of the ocean.

We also know that giant species of squid exist because they’ve been caught, killed, and documented, which is one reason their species might be a bit shirty with ours. They grow up to fifty feet long—not quite big enough to wrap their arms around a ship and pull it down, as artists love to show touchy-feely cephalopods doing, but still. Big.

The monstrous cephalopods are bigger.

First described in 1701 by Italian travel writer Francesco Negri, the many-armed kraken of Norway rises from the icy waters and wraps his arms around your ship as if to share some of its warmth. Trouble is, hugging and sinking ships is all the kraken is known for. Ditto the giant octopus of which Victor Hugo wrote, or Jules Verne’s incompletely described creature, which could be either squid or octopus. These are not the brightest or most creative bulbs in the sea.

You’ll find another impressive monster in the Bahamas, where the lusca (sometimes considered a hybrid octopus-dragon, emphasis on octopus) is supposedly seventy-five feet long and spends its life darting in and out of the “blue holes” around the island of Andros. (The metaphors just write themselves, don’t they?)

If size and sucker count are all that matter to you, go ahead and hook up with a monstrous cephalopod. You’ll probably get bored and leave long before he has a chance to drown you.

Narcissist With Poor Hygiene: the Hafgufa

Unappealing as we consider the kraken to be, its cousin the hafgufa is the outcast at family gatherings. Also living in the waters off Norway, the hafgufa loves himself a bit too much and has disgusting table manners. He hunts by using his own vomit as bait—that is, like many sailors, he heaves into the sea, but unlike the rest of us, he swallows the vomit again, along with the low-standards sort of fish attracted by it.

Demand more for yourself. If you find yourself on a date with a hafgufa, quietly pay your half of the bill and move on. Let him chow down with Leviathan; they deserve each other.

Bottomless Pits of Neediness: the Mouthy Monsters

The sea is a hungry mistress, and so are the monsters whose bodies are sometimes mistaken for maelstroms, waves, whirlpools, and the sea itself. I’m talking about something much worse than, say, the Japanese umibozu, or sea priest—that man-faced dragon is easy to recognize, and though he’ll stir a calm sea into a whirlpool for the sheer joy of watching a ship go down, he’s easy enough to distract by tossing out a barrel. The hungry-mouthed monsters are much more insidious.

If you sail the strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland, you may find yourself being courted by two very different yet equally unappealing potential lovers: Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla (by the boot) is a six-headed, twelve-legged dragon who’s rather good at math; from each ship that passes, she plucks and devours precisely one sailor per mouth. Charybdis, just off the Sicilian coast, is a whirlpool that opens up and sucks whole ships clean into her mouth indiscriminately—and she never has enough. Which monster is your monster? To sail that strait is to face a choice so difficult that it has entered our language as “being between Scylla and Charybdis.”

My advice: Choose Scylla. She has the discipline to take only what she can eat in one sitting. Then again, why do you have to choose? Try, like Odysseus, to steer clear of both. You deserve someone who won’t eat you before getting to know you.

Mr. Big: the Reformed Whales

Who doesn’t love a whale? They’re smart, handsome, good mothers, good at what they do in general. At least, so they want you to think. On occasion, a devil whale has also been known to lurk below the ocean’s surface, sucking prey down through a whirlpool.

The one we meet in Sinbad the Sailor may tell us something about how Charybdis would look above water. When Sinbad, a native of Baghdad, takes to sea to win a fortune, he and his fellow mariners count themselves lucky to make camp on a nice tree-covered island. But that island is not actual earth; it’s a giant whale who’s been asleep so long that the trees on his back have grown tall. The sailors’ campfire awakens the monster, who dives under the waves. The panicked seamen take off—all except Sinbad, who is forgotten and must beg Allah for mercy while treading water.

Many Christians have reported the same experience. Long ago, they concluded that what is not god must be the devil. Whatever your personal creed, we all would do well to use caution when building a fire on an island of which we know nothing. You don’t want a devil whale.

You might not want a whale at all.

The devil whale’s impulsive behavior and passion for swallowing ships in one gulp are obviously red flags. For centuries, in fact, any even sort of large whale was feared and kept many sailors from taking the plunge overboard. Just think of Captain Ahab, last seen riding Moby Dick’s back and stabbing for all he was worth, in the only sort of interaction imaginable between man and cetacean.

But something changed when modern technology took over the sea. With the global endangerment of all whale species, the situation has changed. Now whales are friendly big galoots: Surfers and scuba divers report gleefully that they love a group swim and are as curious about us as we are about them. And we are doing our best to keep the love alive. We listen to recordings of the songs the whales sing to each other; we sign petitions and wear T-shirts exhorting others to save them. Instead of swallowing Jonah, what today’s reformed whale wants is a cuddle on the beach and a long-term relationship.

Yes, the monstrous whales that were once so many Mr. Bigs to our Carrie Bradshaws—toxic bachelors, moody and predatory and dismissive—have been tamed, just like the home-loving Big of the last movie. However, you would do well to remember the whales’ past, in which they were (like Lord Byron) mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Don’t fall for their “poor sensitive me” pose now. They are still a danger.

As with any monster, when it comes to Sex and the Sea, maintain good boundaries.

The Protectors: Some Monsters Make Good Friends

Hard as this may strain belief now, a few legendary sea creatures are kindly by nature, at least some of the time—so kindly that they’re revered in local religions. If you manage to escape without being eaten, it is just possible that you can form some kind of friendship.

In New Zealand, taniwha are spirits similar to dragons or serpents; the Maori report that some are predatory and some are protective. Though they occasionally capture human women to live as their wives, the women aren’t always unhappy about it.

But it’s hard to tell just by looking at a taniwha whether he’ll protect your village or eat everybody in it. Try following his rules and you might be okay. The reward for a good relationship? When you die, you could become a taniwha yourself.

Makara is your best bet for stability. Widely depicted in art throughout the Hindu world, he is a friendly aquatic spirit whose front half looks like a stag, boar, or elephant, and whose rear is usually a fish or a snake. The most modern Makara closely resembles a crocodile, which would make him harder to pick out of a crowd.

At least one sea-monster expert believes Makara looks a bit like Cetus, but we would never compare the two. Makara protects human thresholds and temples and is the vehicle for the river goddess Ganga and the sea god, Varuna. Most promising of all, the flag of the Hindu love god, Kamadeva, depicts a version of Makara—which makes him beautiful in our eyes.

If you two ever break up, you know you can call on him for help if you lock yourself out of your house. If you consider Makara a little less exciting than some of the storm-tossing monsters, the sea goddess Tiamat, “the glistening one” of ancient Mesopotamia, might be more your speed. She is both the chaos out of which the world formed and the mother who gave birth to the first gods—and when she got mad at those kids, she birthed the first dragons, whose veins still run with poison rather than blood. Her ribs now make the vault of our sky, which proves that in some sense all our lives depend on sea monsters.

Word to the willful from an ancient mariner: Most of these creatures will never make it work with anyone. Before you lose yourself and get really hurt, try turning the monstrous lover into your ex. You don’t have to stay friends—you just have to stay safe.

Visit Susann on Instagram @susanncokal or susanncokal.net.


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Susann Cokal is the author of four novels, including the award-winning Kingdom of Little Wounds and her latest, Mermaid Moon, in which a mermaid goes ashore to find her mother, only to fall into the clutches of a witch who wants to harvest her magic. Cokal also writes short fiction and essays about oddities, and she lives in a haunted farmhouse with cats, peacocks, spouse, and unseen beings who bump in the night. “I’ve always suspected there was more to mermaids than the shipwrecks and love stories that lead them to land,” she says. “I’m glad I had the chance to figure them out in these changing times—both in the novel and here among the creatures of Enchanted Living.”