Sea Monsters of the Pacific: Umibôzu
January 9, 2014
Next in our series of mythical or real sea monsters of the Pacific, here is one from Japanese folklore: the umibôzu.
Translated as “sea monk”, the umibôzu is a shadowy creature that rises from calm waters, at night, and capsize ships. It is called “sea monk” because its bald head reminded the sailors of the shaved head of a Buddhist monk. Legend says that they can rise ten feet tall and break ships in two.
Umibôzus can rise suddenly from calm, placid waters, making them even more dangerous than creatures in stormy seas. However, an umibôzu was often interpreted as a sign of an incoming storm, and sailors would stay in port until the water cleared.
Reports of umibôzus have described different behaviours, such as pulling a ship down into the water by its mast or clinging to its hull to sink it. Some of them also try to extinguish any fires that may be lit on the boat.
Explanations for umibôzus
Of course, like with most legends, there’s usually some kind of scientific or natural explanation behind it. In this case, it could be one of many oceanic phenomena, such as great ocean turtle shells or giant jellyfish rising from the water. They could also be black thunder clouds rising over the horizon.
Another more recent explanation attributes the phenomenon of rogue waves, which were themselves thought to be folklore until one was recorded off the coast of Norway in 1995. These rogue waves occur far out at sea and are characterized by their suddenness and their height. Recorded encounters date only from the 19th century, but it is possible that Japanese sailors and fishermen could have encountered them far out at sea in the Pacific.
The ocean is full of mysteries that we have not quite deciphered, even today. Even if the umibôzu is a turtle shell or a rogue wave, the point of the legend is to warn sailors to follow their instincts when it comes to going out at sea.