The Devil Whale: Island or Sea Monster?

Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we’re going to have lunch on this lovely island! Or…is it an island?

The legend of a whale (or turtle) as big as an island can be found all over the world, from Sinbad to Pliny the Elder to St. Brendan; it’s known as Aspidochelone (Asp-Turtle) to the Greeks, the Devil Whale in Christian tradition, and Fastitocalon in the old English poem “The Whale.”

The story goes like this: a ship approaches what seems to be an island in the middle of the sea, complete with sand, hills, and grass. The sailors happily clamber onto solid ground and go about making lunch. But as soon as they light their cooking fires, the “island” begins to shake and sink, revealing its true nature. 

Unfortunately for the island, it’s not an island but a sea monster, and now its back is on fire. Unfortunately for the sailors, as the monster swims down into the depths to extinguish the flames, it drags them with it, including any ships or boats that might have anchored themselves to what really did look like a beach at the time.

The Devil Whale is a fantastic story. But could it be a real thing? Are there whales as big as islands that sink ships and doom sailors? Well, sort of. 

Let’s start with the giant whale part. We’re used to sailor-vs-whale stories: Jonah, Pinocchio, Moby-Dick. But did you know Moby-Dick is actually based on a true story? In 1820, a whaling ship called the Essex was rammed and sunk by an understandably irate sperm whale (those are the big gray ones with all the teeth). Now I don’t mean the whale sank a little boat with a few sailors in it. I mean it sank the actual ship. We only know about this because a few survivors, with just their little whale boats left, lasted 93 days in the open ocean until they were rescued. 

The Essex struck by a whale — a sketch by survivor Thomas Nickerson

The whale that sank the Essex was reportedly 85 feet long. To put that into context, the Essex was 88 feet long. Now, that would be far larger than the 60-foot sperm whales we see today. But the British Museum has a sperm whale jaw that is estimated to come from a whale that reached 84 feet. Before whaling purposefully destroyed the largest sperm whales in the world, it is possible bulls could reach 80-some feet. So yes, the giant whale sinking ships thing is sort of real.

And actually, so is the disappearing island bit: they’re called vanishing islands. Phantom islands are the legendary ones, like Atlantis, or mirages that turn out not to be islands when you get close. But vanishing islands are real places. They sit very low to the water, which is why they appear at low tide, and then disappear at high tide, which can look very much like a massive monster submerging itself. (Build fires there at your own risk.)

And now for some monstrous writing prompts!

  • What the blooming hell? Probably the weirdest thing about the story is that little detail which most convinces sailors that this is, in fact, an island and not a living creature: the grass. Some sources say the island-whale’s skin is like sand, and it has bumps that resemble rocks. Sure. But how could there be actual plants growing on the back of a whale? Well, writers, that’s up to you. Maybe the beast is still for so long that seeds can sprout in soil washed up by the waves. Maybe the plants grow by magic, and they’re filled with a rare power sought by the bravest spellcasters. Maybe it’s a glamour: the whale uses a spell to appear like an island, drawing in sailors to eat. Maybe there are even dangerous sirens who live on that “island.”

  • The devil and the deep blue sea. So the “Devil Whale” thing is a Christian metaphor for well, the devil, specifically temptation and deception. But we can dream up a truly demonic sea monster. Maybe it’s a natural creature transformed by dark magic or a demon in whale guise. It might want to attract sailors so it can eat them, or damn their souls. Would there be a way to escape a demonic whale-island? Would religious relics provide protection? Could there be an angelic sea monster who might come to the rescue of a pious soul?
  • Having a whale of a time. So what if the whale was friendly? As long as you didn’t light its back on fire, anyway. A sailor could travel the world from their own private island. A navy officer could have a massive sea monster come to their rescue during a deadly battle. A magical giant whale might fight alongside its human best friend in a contest of oceanic good and evil. How could the person and whale have met? Did they start out as enemies? What do other humans think of this friendship?
  • Isle Royale. Let’s go the fairy tale route. Your hero (gender neutral) needs to save a prince (gender neutral), and the quest involves a caper on an island that’s got teeth. Maybe somebody built a tower on this “island” to hold kidnapped royalty who are now in danger of being drowned. Maybe the whale is the final boss of a campaign. Or maybe the whale is the prince’s best friend who doesn’t approve of most heroes and drowns them. How would your hero survive?
    • Island of Dreams. The whale-island is an unlikely creature that would fit well into a fantasy or sci-fi world. Maybe your characters meet the whale on a vision quest. Maybe it exists only in a realm of magic, where a whole city is built on its back. Maybe the whale swims through the cosmos with a space station attached. Maybe an alien civilization is built entirely on whale-islands that travel the galaxy. If only one of these whales still exists, it would make our island into a lifeboat.

    Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday on this island! Let’s maybe have a cold lunch, though.

    Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

    If you like mysterious tales of the sea, you can read my story “The Lifeboat” in Seaside Gothic, Issue 4.  You can also listen to my horror story “The Island,” about yes, a mysterious island, for free on the Creepy podcast.

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    Sources & further reading:

    The Devil Whale: Wikipedia

    Aspidochelone: Wikipedia

    A Legendary Sea Creature (Aspidochelone): The J Paul Getty Museum

    A Whale of a Tale…The Leviathan: Biodiversity Heritage Library

    The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea: The Getty

    Vanishing Island: Wikipedia

    The Essex Whaleship: Wikipedia