By Amani Simons, NMB Curatorial Intern

History | October 27, 2023

Reading time: 7 minutes

Let me preface this with a disclaimer: I am an island girl who is scared of the ocean. Well not exactly scared but, I believe there is something truly unsettling about the “unexplored”; and what is more unexplored than the deep blue sea? And I’m not the only one who thinks so. It is an inherent human characteristic that the “fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear” (Carleton, 2016). The ocean is an unforgiving force of nature that dominates 70% of the earth. It is essentially the lifeforce of every living thing on this planet and yet roughly 80% has been left unexplored. I sometimes wonder why this is. It may be because the human instinct/desire to control is rendered moot by the ocean’s uncontrollable disposition or because its sheer vastness makes us feel miniscule. Nevertheless, the relationship between humans and the ocean is a tale as old as time.

Throughout human history, aquatic folktales and fables have been created and shared from one generation to another, either as cautionary tales or as artistic expressions of traditional cultural values. Most Bermudian residents will be familiar with the other name Bermuda held, “Isle of Devils” and the fear the Island represented for early sailors traversing the Atlantic. A hand-coloured engraving, Les Monstres Marins et Terrestres (1539), by, the ironically named, Sebastian Munster, on display in NMB’s Shipwreck Island exhibit viscerally displays early mariners’ fears in its artistic rendering of an ocean full of monsters with toothy maws waiting to devour those that dare to enter their domain.

Sailors and artists imagined an ocean full of ravenous monsters waiting to devour their unlucky victims. Les Monstres Marins et Terrestres, by Sebastian Munster courtesy of Old World Auctions.

“Fear can take strange forms, so it’s not surprising that our fear of the ocean abyss––a realm Carl Jung compared to the madhouse of the subconscious mind––has produced some of the strangest forms of all” – Susan Casey

Many believe Bermuda sits at the crossroads of the supernatural and the unknown. How else can the island’s mysterious ways be explained? Located in the heart of the Sargasso Sea Bermuda is the easternmost point and titular location of the notorious Bermuda Triangle. Bermuda’s treacherous reef system and penchant for hurricanes add to its notoriety and have earned it the title of “Shipwreck Capital of the World”.

Even the Sargasso Sea, which surrounds us, adds to the Island’s infamy. Concerned with how they would sail through the Sargasso Sea, Christopher Columbus’ crew’s anxieties were based on a belief that the sargassum would drag them to a watery demise. Aside from the seemingly deceptive seaweed and currents, which travel in a circular motion and form an ocean gyre, the Sargasso Sea is home to nearly 200 marine species. Most notably, the elusive European eel whose reproductive habits have perplexed scientists since early ocean exploration.

Anguilla anguilla syn. A. vulgaris. Supino, Felice (1916) Pesci d’Acqua Dolce d’Italia, Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, Editore Libraio della Real Casa. Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

The monstrous visions from Munster’s 1539 engraving may seem ridiculous, and an outlandish rendering of the overly superstitious earlier mariners. However, superstitions regarding the ocean continued well past the 16th century. In 1860 an oarfish, measuring 16 feet long, washed ashore in Bermuda and was initially believed to be a fictitious and feared sea serpent. Colloquially known as the Doomsday Fish, oarfish are thought to be an omen, warning of potential natural disasters, and in Japanese folklore are credited as messengers of the sea god’s palace.

The ocean holds a complex space in our collective imaginations, it is a liminal transitional space, a creative and destructive force, a waterway that can connect regions, and a barrier that can separate people. In Polynesian cosmology, it is believed that the demi-god Māui shaped the northern island of New Zealand by summoning a colossal fish from the depths of the ocean. Through this act of harnessing the ocean’s resources to form land, Māui played a pivotal role in fostering the emergence of life by establishing a viable habitat. Though not in the form of a fish, Bermuda’s creation similarly originated from the depths of the ocean, via volcanic activity.

Christian mythology also abounds with aquatic narratives. Moses famously parted the Red Sea, Jonah experienced the remarkable event of being swallowed by a whale, and notably, in our current era of growing concerns about polar ice caps and rising sea levels, the story of Noah and his Ark holds particular relevance.

As an Atlantic World island nation shaped by our ability to adapt to the marine environment that surrounds us, this liminal, transitional nature is even more keenly felt. The ocean behaves as an intersection, connecting people from one place to another while simultaneously acting as a barrier, isolating people from their origins.

For early colonists and emigrants in search of opportunity, wealth, or refuge, the ocean could allow one to pursue a better life. Bermuda was built on the foundation and success of its maritime economy. For generations, Black Bermudian men have been central to its success whether as boat builders, pilots, or sailors. They became highly skilled and, in some cases, multi-lingual, able to understand and immerse themselves in foreign cultures and bring news and knowledge back to the island.

Bermuda’s prosperity has deep roots in its maritime economy, with Black Bermudian men playing pivotal roles across generations as boat builders, pilots, and sailors. “The building used as a barrack for Royal Artillery.” From an album of original watercolour paintings and sketches of Bermuda made by Johnson Savage MD, Royal Artillery, between 1833-36.

Bermuda’s demographics are representative of an Atlantic World that was shaped by the intermingling of and connection between diverse cultures. Though I cannot speak for all cultures within the African diaspora, as a Bermudian, my views on the ocean are further complicated by its role as a barrier for those forcibly migrated during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The ocean separated them from their homelands and families and should they not survive the journey, it became a grave.

The complexity of our relationship with the ocean and our uncertainty surrounding what lies beneath has led to the development of scientific disciplines and discoveries and Bermuda has played a significant role in the history of deep-sea explorations from HMS Challenger’s nineteenth-century expedition to Otis Barton and William Beebe’s groundbreaking descent.

However, our anxieties surrounding the deep ocean and the consequences of our negative impact on it have added to the catalogue of ancient cautionary aquatic folktales, highlighting our modern fears for future generations.

Three decades after Barton and Beebe embarked on their historic deep-sea expedition off Nonsuch Island in Bermuda using the revolutionary Bathysphere submersible, a wave of aquatic horror films, including the iconic “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” emerged, leaving an unexpected ripple effect. Personally, with my active imagination, I stay as far away from horror movies as I can get. Imagine watching a movie about sharks and then trying to enjoy a Saturday at Horseshoe Bay Beach. That sounds absolutely terrifying.

The film franchise Jaws, perhaps best showcases the negative influence of the aquatic horror genre and humanity’s negative impact on the ocean itself. Interestingly, the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, found his own fascination with Bermuda after a visit in the 1970s that served as the inspiration for his novels The Deep and The Island. The Deep follows newlyweds who discover shipwrecks in Bermuda, unveiling a different kind of suspense and intrigue beneath the waves. Whereas, The Island follows a divorced New York City journalist’s investigation into the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, with its own thrilling terror. Both were made into varyingly successful adventure-thriller films.

Returning to Jaws, its release in 1975 triggered an upsurge in vendetta killings and shark hunting tournaments, contributing to the demonisation of these sea creatures and leading to a drastic decline in their populations. Since 1975, there has been a 71% decrease in shark populations. To put this into perspective: there are on average six provoked shark-induced fatalities per year, while approximately one hundred million sharks are killed by humans in the same time frame. The impact of sharks on the ocean’s ecosystem is far too valuable for their extinction to occur.

In addition to the very plausible extinction of the “kings of the oceans”, the rise in global warming, overfishing, and plastic consumption, humanity has done quite a bit of potentially irreversible harm to the ocean. Climate change has fundamentally altered how the ocean behaves. It has led to the icecaps melting at an exponentially faster rate, which in turn has led to a rise in sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and an increase in hurricanes. This oceanic retribution seems almost allegorical as if the ocean is trying to warn us against our destructive ways.

With the ghostly and supernatural season upon us and Halloween just around the corner, it is important to remember that the most terrifying things of all are not the things we make up, but real things found in nature and our impact on them. The ocean is full of fascinating creatures and infinite knowledge. Perhaps the scariest things in the ocean are not those things that we imagine are lurking below the waves, just waiting to get you but those prowling above them: us.

Become a Member

Membership supports NMB education programmes and offers year-round benefits

Support NMB

Donations help us tell Bermuda’s story, preserve our past, and connect people with history


Join our team of volunteers. Digital and in-person volunteer opportunities are available