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Imagine that when Christopher Columbus sailed West in his Carrack to travel around the world to reach India, he had never made it to land, because halfway across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America his ship was attacked. It was a creature that no one had ever seen before, and no one lived to tell the tale of its existence.

So what kind of a creature could have done this?


There isn't any restrictions to the design of this creature, as long as it can realistically live on this planet in the ocean. It can live in whatever population, social dynamic, or area required, and must be able to take down a boat similar to a 15th century merchant ship (of around 30-45 meters long). It can also be any type of animal (fish, mammal etc.), whatever is needed for the design.

However, so as not to be too broad, I'll offer some reasonable assumptions that can be followed, although they are not required to be.


It doesn't necessarily have to be a huge creature to sink a ship, it could be a group of smaller creatures that worked together in order to take down the vessel. Whether it was a solitary monster or a pack of hunters, they likely only reside in the deep ocean far away from land.

Now, obviously as this is the first boat to have ventured into their territory, in order to survive that long, they must have regular prey that they can eat to survive. So let's say they usually eat whales, and have mistaken this ship for a new breed of particularly large whale they have never seen before.

To bring the ship down, they would be limited to doing it in the way that they are used to getting their prey. For example, if attacking a whale, the creature would likely need to tear chunks out of it until it dies of its wounds, or turning it upside down until it drowns. Either of these techniques could be used to sink a boat.

It can also win by either ferocity and relentless attacks, or intelligence and teamwork, like killer whales can do to knock seals into the water.

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    $\begingroup$ Your last sentence is your answer: bbc.com/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-18877090 $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 30 '15 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen: a creature that uses wood in the middle of the Atlantic does seem to create more questions than it answers ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 30 '15 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Does it have to be a creature? Because there's a force of nature in that part of the Atlantic that fits the bill perfectly. A hurricane. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 30 '15 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this the premise of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Strand Dec 1 '15 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ This legendary creature has already been imagined. $\endgroup$ – 458 Dec 3 '15 at 8:39

17 Answers 17

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Mega-AquaBoa-Constrictor

The problem I have with animals biting the ship is that one bite would likely deter them. It seems like a lot of sea animals like sharks usually take one bite of something that they don't like and then move along.

A hyper-evolved boa constrictor that has grown substantially large and evolved to adapt to deep sea water would be drifting around snagging wales by looping over them. Along comes Columbus and she soars up out of the water, lands over the deck, and constricts it, feeling the 'bones' begin to snap. But when she goes to eat it, she is disappointed.

This can happen time and again, because the boats still look like the bellies of whales from below.

Happy writing.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this idea, I figured that boats look pretty similar to whales from below, and it would make sense that the creature would have already killed the whale/ boat before it tries to eat it. $\endgroup$ – Mike.C.Ford Dec 1 '15 at 9:41
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Give that Columbus' craft were built using Carvel construction (butt jointed wood caulked with tarred hemp that is hammered into the joints and then a coat of tar over everything beneath the waterline), and given that we have already found oil-eating microbes to exist.... imagine hitting a massive, dense plankton field saturated with hungry microbes in the middle of the ocean that just LOVE your flavour of tar?

So, it wouldn't be a malicious attack, but once your craft lost its watertightness...it wouldn't matter much the intentions. And you could have fun with the crew desperately trying to disassemble the deck to hammer down over cracks, construct nails, and otherwise find ways to solve the issue of the myriad growing leaks as the ship takes on water, sinks lower, and exposes more weak seams to the sea.

In this case it would be more the tension/survival story rather than a sea-battle epic, but could be fun to explore. To satisfy the "current diet" portion of the equation — the plankton field forms over a relatively shallow tar field that oozes enough oil to tar the plankton, resulting in a symbiotic relation between the microbes and the plankton. Your ship provides a moveable feast that the microbes jump on, multiplying exponentially with all that yummy food available! And maybe the critters are dormant under cold temperatures, so it's hitting the main tropical trade routes that is deadly. Or when a nice warm hurricane brings a plankton field north....

And, as a side, the Viking ships that previously sailed the north atlantic would have been just fine as they used lapstrake construction (overlapped boards held tight with rivets) that would not have been affected.

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  • $\begingroup$ That makes the menace very geographically constrained, and also easily defeated. It takes only one guy to realize what went wrong and make it back home (which someone would, as they would probably turn around the second they realized how screwed they were). From that moment on the hulls would be lined with copper, and the problem would be solved. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 30 '15 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ You ever tried to "turn around" in a square rigger to go against the trade winds? There's a reason the Atlantic route was a big oval, those boats didn't do upwind very well. You get caught by this undersea-plume half way across you either have to try and make it across the doldrums to the return wind, or dash for the Carribean and hope you make it, then repair, refit, and try to get home in a baddly damaged craft! Besides, the OP didn't say it was something that nobody would ever survive - just that anyone who had run into it so far hadn't made it. $\endgroup$ – Michael Broughton Nov 30 '15 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Sailboats that could sail efficiently to windward and big enough for trans-oceanic trade weren't available until the Clippers stormed onto the China opium routes, and they were a very late entry into the market -19th century -long after the 15thC timeline given, and only a few decades before steam power supplanted sail. Up until then, going to windward was the bane of seafaring existence. $\endgroup$ – Michael Broughton Nov 30 '15 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ Tar microbes might be indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico where tar naturally seeps out of the ocean floor. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 1 '15 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ You could defeat the microbe attack by dropping a couple of sails around the hull of the ship (a procedure known as "fothering" a sail). the pressure of the water trying to enter the ship forms a partial seal which gives you time to patch things up from the inside. This procedure was used by Admiral Nelson when his ships were struck by cannonballs so there is provenance there. $\endgroup$ – Spratty Dec 1 '15 at 10:27
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This is not as straight-forward as it sounds. Some problems as I see them:

1. Oceanic Exploration Not a New Thing

At the time that Columbus "discovered" the New World, the Vikings had already started and abandoned settlements in North America. Furthermore, many civilizations had already dabbled in oceanic exploration, notably the Chinese.

There is also some evidence that Egyptian vessels may have reached South America, but I digress. What the point here is that human ships had been up and about the ocean for a while before Columbus came along.

Since whales migrate, and this creature would probably follow its prey, what are the chances that no one else before Columbus would have encountered these creatures and not left some kind of record of it? Some survivor floating back to shore, or the horribly mangled corpse of a whale showing clear signs of having been ravaged by a predator. It would spark people's imaginations and stories would be told through the ages.

Of course, you can justify this by having there exist legends of sea monsters, etc.

2. Eating Wood

A large squid, etc may very well attack a boat having mistaken it for a whale. The problem is that once it tries to take a chunk out of said boat it will soon find it rather more difficult than biting a whale. Furthermore, instead of being made of tasty flesh, this new prey is made of ... wood?!

In order for this creature to persist in its attack, it would either have to:

A) Be very, very clever and know that within the wooden hull are tasty humans that it can devour. Or

B) Be incredibly territorial, and not tolerate any "newcomers" to the neighborhood. In other words it attacks the ship not because it is food, but simply because it's there. The problem with this scenario is that any creature which migrates (to follow its prey) doesn't have a set territory, and thus won't be territorial.

3. Conquistadors

There's not a lot of sea creatures which can take on a decent sized ship. Sure, a pod of whales working together can flip a boat, etc, but almost any creature that size does not have a vested interest in doing so - after all, human ships are not only difficult to deal with, they're also quite heavily armed.

Remember that exploration and colonization went hand in hand with slavery and conquest, so these explorers were typically very well armed. In fact, those first explorers to reach the New World have been remembered not as peaceful discoverers, but as Conquistadors, who incidentally slaughtered the indigenous populations and toppled their civilizations. These guys could make short work of a squid or whale attacking the boat - especially since they usually traveled across the ocean in numbers, not in a single boat (not at the that point)

Now to answer your question:

What could take out a boat? As @bowlturner has pointed out, a sufficiently angry whale may do the trick. However, in my opinion, these things would soon find themselves extinct.

Anything massive and vicious enough to take out a ship without survivors eventually either killing it with guns/cannons/harpoons, means that its attack must be both lightning fast, and devastatingly powerful. Especially if it must destroy small fleets of these exploratory vessels as they cross the ocean.

So what would be needed?

In my opinion, something from an age gone by. The Megalodon Shark comes to mind. Scientists disagree slightly as to how big this massive predator was, but most believe it was somewhere around 20 meters (that's over 60 feet) long. This bad boy had a jaw so big, and a bite so powerful that it could rip a smaller whale in half.

I quote from Wikipedia:

Sharks often employ complex hunting strategies to engage large prey animals. Some paleontologists suggest that great white shark hunting strategies may offer clues as to how C. Megalodon hunted its unusually large prey. However, fossil evidence suggests that C. megalodon employed even more effective hunting strategies against large prey than the great white shark ... Fossil remains of some small cetaceans (e.g. cetotheriids) suggest that they were rammed with great force from below before being killed and eaten.

In other words this massive predator would rush from the depths to strike its prey from below with devastating force.

This thing would be clever enough to know that there's advantages to taking out a ship (oh look, yummy treats are jumping in the water!), as well as vicious and smart enough to take on a decent sized vessel in such a way that a harpoon, or gun would not help the crew in the least - it attacks from below, no one can see it coming.

That's my 2 cents, at least.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I didn't realize that there had already been successful cross-Atlantic expeditions pre-Columbus. Let's assume the creatures ate them too. And I like the idea of the creature being territorial as opposed to attacking for food, that would give more of a reason for no survivors. Also attacking from below seems logical, and the Megaladon Shark certainly fits the bill. Some good points! $\endgroup$ – Mike.C.Ford Nov 30 '15 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike: the Norse didn't take the same route though, they hopped to Iceland and then Greenland, followed the coast of the latter and hopped again. And they were establishing settlements along the route as they went: the first Norse to Iceland never went any further (and for that matter the first Norse to Iceland found a few Gaelic monks already there). So stopping them too requires you to quite carefully define where this critter strikes. Anyway Columbus didn't know that Vikings had reached Vinland, so it doesn't necessarily make any difference to your story what happened to them. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 30 '15 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ I guess this is the less plausible, but more AWESOME option. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 1 '15 at 9:40
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    $\begingroup$ You should put a big fat "TL;DR: GIANT MONSTER SHARKS (yes, plural)" at the top of your answer so that I'm motivated to read past the real-world problems part ;-) $\endgroup$ – Cephalopod Dec 1 '15 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ Whales have most definitely sunk boats before, by simply ramming them - the Robertson family only just survived the sinking of their wooden yacht (google.ie/…) $\endgroup$ – Edward Dixon Dec 1 '15 at 16:48
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The most realistic way—historically correct, even—seems to be a case of the overly hungry naval shipworm (Teredo navalis var. esuriens). Columbus had a large problem with them, the knowledge about these critters got lost at his time and he wondered why his ships were literally falling apart under his feet1 (you don't see them, their entry holes are very small).

But such an attack is more apt for the horror-genre, I presume, not so much for the Real Action™ section.

1 Briggs, D.E.G. & Crowther, P.R. (eds): Palaeobiology II, Blackwell Science Ltd., pp.: 273-277; Oxford.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can this creature be classified as "underwater creature"? $\endgroup$ – justhalf Dec 1 '15 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ @justhalf Why not? It lives underwater and reproduces in water. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 1 '15 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, sorry, I'm not familiar with worms, I thought they live in the wood planks carried from land. $\endgroup$ – justhalf Dec 1 '15 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ I swear the book had a preview at Google books! Sorry for not checking that up. $\endgroup$ – deamentiaemundi Dec 1 '15 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ They are actually molluscs they use their shell to burrow into drift wood. $\endgroup$ – John May 25 at 13:52
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Why not go with the tried and true Kraken?

  • It is large enough to take down a boat, and could easily live off of large aquatic life (whales, sharks) when boats are not around.

  • Give it the ability to digest wood, since most if not all ships of the era were constructed of wood.

  • Kraken are jerks, for lack of a better way to put it. They attack ships because they like wrecking stuff.

  • It is familiar to people already, being featured in popular culture depicting that era.

  • The creatures are really creepy and fill their victims with dread and hopelessness, which is really powerful when telling a story. There is nothing quite as meaningful in a story as surviving against insurmountable odds.

While the Kraken is a legend, not real, we can infer several of properties that logically follow from other aquatic organisms:

  • Being a carnivore large enough to destroy a ship and eat humans, sharks, and whales whole, it is clearly a large apex predator.

  • Being a large apex predator, it would hang out a ways from shore similar to how whales rarely approach shore. It needs space which does not exist in shallow waters. This would insulate it from attacks from shore by cannon fire, certainly from guns, and any attempts to ambush it with a ship full of powder manned by a brave (or condemned) crew would be an exercise in futility.

  • We see in nature that apex predators are relatively rare: it takes a lot of smaller creatures to form an equilibrium with a large, dominant predator. Too many apex predators, they eventually starve or kill each other: too few, and the population grows until it reaches that equilibrium

For these reasons, I would expect such a creature to be relatively rare, and to be far from shore. Many ships could make it through shipping lanes untouched, but an occasional ship would simply vanish. Perhaps another ship would be close enough to see the attack or to rescue survivors handing on to flotsam, but this would be even more rare. Rare, but might still occur: and it would spawn stories and legends... of The Kraken.

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  • $\begingroup$ Care to tell us a little bit about this terrible creature? What I mean to say is, how do you envision this thing? Is there only one? Are there many of them? How many whales would there be needed for a population of them to survive? Why is it that they stick only to the middle of the Atlantic and don't prey on ships closer to Europe, where an attack might be witnessed and thus ways to combat them established? (A bait ship full of gunpowder comes to mind) $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 30 '15 at 20:30
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An angry or protective Sperm Whale could do the trick.

If it needs to be more exotic/unknown that hasn't had any contact with humans. why would it attack something so dissimilar from anything regularly visiting its habitat? I see three options:

  1. Huge territorial creature (a new kind of whale, most likely). It will challenge and ram anything that it perceives as threatening its dominance.
  2. A mass of something that breaks down wood. Something like Sargasso sea weeds, except that it has roots digging into the wood as if it were ocean floor. Ships would get stuck in it and while they could cuts the roots attached to the sides of the hull, they cannot reach under the ship to free the keel. After some weeks, the hull is Swiss cheese and the ship sinks.
  3. Malicious intelligent creatures. These could be mermaids or anything really. They don't attack the ships for food, but because humans are enemies to them for some philosophical, religious or other reason. It's hard to give a specific design for these.
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea of plants taking down a ship, I never considered that. I suppose some sort of barnacles that devoured their prey with a corrosive saliva would work similarly. $\endgroup$ – Mike.C.Ford Nov 30 '15 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with that is that the sailors would catch on what's happening and simply remove said barnacles, or clean the seaweed away. In the case of the seaweed, before long the hulls would be lined with copper, and their wood-eating action would be counteracted. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 30 '15 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Nobody would get back to tell people to add copper plating. Sailors diving down to clear the weed would also get stuck and never reach the surface again. With hundreds of tons of seaweed stuck to the ship, it would not sail anywhere fast, and never get clear. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Nov 30 '15 at 18:50
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Large whales already exist and they have been known to smash whaling vessels. They usually attacked those ships as a form of defense but a 100+ft long whale could easily do enough damage to an old sailing ship that it would never make it home, or even sink outright.

So We take one of the larger whale species, sperm whale or blue whale and make it much more territorial, especially during breeding season. Or the females during calving season. The ships sail through the wrong 'territory' and get smashed to splinters. They might even have a boney ridge along their head to allow for ramming, like big horn sheep.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of a whale that rams its prey, that would definitely be able to do enough damage to a boat in the middle of the ocean that it wouldn't make it to shore. $\endgroup$ – Mike.C.Ford Nov 30 '15 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Mike.C.Ford ya and it takes the least amount of change to give you a believable monster! $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 30 '15 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ It's not a whale but a few years ago a pal of mine was rowing across the Atlantic when a swordfish rammed his boat. The spike went straight through the fibreglass and broke off (ouch). I haven't found a photo of it but if I do I'll post it. He didn't sink as the boat had lots of airtight sections - as modern boats usually do. Also, from personal experience, it would take a rather bigger whack to go through a wooden hull unless the hull had been weakened in some way. $\endgroup$ – Max Murphy Dec 1 '15 at 18:12
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My proposal is a bit different, in that it is not an outright attack:

Farting.

A large whale is drifting a few meters below the surface, trying to clutch its stomach with its flippers and wishing it hadn't had the krill vindaloo and ten pints at the Rugby Club dinner last night.

Suddenly an enormous blast of flatulence releases a huge cloud of methane bubbles into the water. The whale feels much better, but for Chris and his crew sailing above, as the water density plummets and their ship vanishes below the surface, their last smell is ... not pleasant.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1350-bubbling-seas-can-sink-ships/

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The answer is coral. These tiny creatures form a hard barrier that, if it's hit by a ship, it can take it down.

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    $\begingroup$ While this is true, and many ships have been taken out by reefs, these are pretty static and it would be more the fault of the captain, and not deliberate act of the coral $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 30 '15 at 20:47
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I propose something like the mega-creature described in another answer, in either of these two life stages:

Stage 4: Big Grazer

Hundreds of meters wide the creature munches its way through the floating seaweed leaving a cleared trail behind it and consuming anything smaller that is foolish enough to get in its way.

Stage 5: Sessile

As the creature grows larger and slower the seaweed is no longer able to sustain it, movement uses more energy than it gains. It sinks down towards the deeper ocean and goes quiet, camouflaging itself in the deep. Mostly it hibernates waiting for Grazers or Larger to pass above, when one does massive tentacles shoot out and drag them down into its waiting maw.

The Sessile form would have an interesting effect in that the area above it would have few grazers, letting the smaller creatures grow and the seaweed populate in fertile abundance - until the smaller creatures grew large enough to be worth eating. This abundance would tempt more grazers into the area, only for them to be consumed in turn.

I like the sessile adult stage best. It could be driven up from the depths by volcanic activity; you can reread some Iain M. Banks to get in the mood for writing those passages. The Great Meteor Hotspot might be within handwave distance of the right course, though it's probably too close to waters well known by Europeans of the time. It might be better to cook up a brand-new hotspot that's a little more considerate of the author's needs.

Another option: If something like a stray elasmosaurus started hanging around and snapping up anybody it could grab off the deck or out of the rigging, a steadily diminishing crew might struggle for days or weeks to keep the ship functioning and get it back to land. If a storm came up and they couldn't steer effectively or take in any sails, that might be the end of them. Or they could wander far off course and wreck on any number of small uninhabited islands.

Tragically, carracks seem to have had a modern rudder they could jury rig to work from belowdecks, rather than a steering oar. Resourceful sailors could spend a lot of pages sneaking up on deck to rig an improvised control system for a steering oar, and even then it would be prone to catastrophic failure under the torsional stress of a major dramatic climax.

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My answer: a hyperadvanced Native American civilization based in Eastern America with underwater cities.


Hundreds of years previously, they had had many of the same culturistic details of many Native American tribes actually discovered, but one year, someone gave birth to a would-be philosopher. His ideas included civilization, urbanization, and many other aspects of our life today. He also supported the environment like most other Native Americans. He wanted to build coast-line environment-friendly cities, and tunnels to spherical cities underwater. (He also discovered the creation of glass by melting sand.) He got many supporters by appealing to their eco-friendly and religious culture, and a century later, they evolved into an amphibious society with people living in both underwater and grounded cities.


They learn somehow1 that the Europeans will come over with their ships and ruin their environment by colonizing it. When they hear that Columbus is sailing the ocean, they send a military sub painted like a large fish out to destroy the ship. It sends a rocket through the water, Columbus' ship explodes with no survivors, and everyone lived happily ever after. >:)


1: I have not come up with this yet, please suggest in comments.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Native Americans were quite territorial, if I understand correctly. No need to justify their attack using the environment. Merely a desire to show superior strength and preserve their territory would suffice. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 Dec 3 '15 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ @jpmc26 people are quite territorial... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 25 at 15:04
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The obvious answer is one or more whales. There is no point in imagining anything more exotic. For thousands of years EVERY human vessel which sailed large distances was totally at the mercy of every large whale they passed close by. Only in recent centuries have the sizes and strengths (and other anti sinking factors like waterproof bulkheads) of ships increased so that a larger and larger proportion of major ocean going ships were whale proof.

Fortunately for human sailors, many thousands of whales watched with only mild interest the fragile seagoing rafts, canoes, boats, and ships go by for every one who decided for some reason to attack, or was hit by the ship.

Even today sailboats traveling long distances, and not much smaller than many early ocean crossing ships, sometimes run into or are rammed by cetaceans much smaller than the great whales and sink. For example, puny little orcas and pilot whales have sunk sailboats. boats have even been sunk by the even punier great white sharks.

Right now I am working on a list of ships (not sailboats, ships) sunk due to running into or being attacked by large whales, which on 02/13/2016 has more than ten examples from the Charming Sally in 1738 to the Lizzie S. Sorenson in 1910. And that is not including various online claims that the great Mocha Dick sank varying numbers of ships in the first half of the 19th century.

All of those ships were built much sturdier than the 15th century ships of Columbus, so Columbus's ship would not have been strong enough to survive whale impacts.

Of course most ships which were attacked and sunk by whales were whaling ships actively attacking whales when they were sunk, and there is no evidence that Columbus carried equipment for whaling. So we can simply assume that the Santa Maria ran into a whale sleeping or resting at the surface, perhaps at night, and was damaged badly enough to sink.

Of course Columbus had three ships on his first voyage, and you would want to sink them all without survivors for your scenario. (Unless the survivors returned home and without Columbus to insist on it nobody bothered to send another expedition)

So you would want a pod of large whales resting or sleeping at the surface, and all three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, smash into them almost at the same time. Some of the crew might launch their boats, but if Columbus and the other captains die the task of navigating a thousand miles or more back to Europe fast enough to avoid dying of thirst and starvation might be impossible.

Or the surviving whales could be angered at a seeming attack and lash back and smash the ships some more so that any which were not already sinking are doomed to sink after the attack, and also smash any boats which may be launched.

So the point could be that the destiny of mankind was determined by the decision of a pod of whales about which identical patch of ocean to rest in that night.

If you want an even more obvious answer, have a "butterfly effect" change the course of a hurricane to intersect and sink the small fleet of Columbus.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great first answer and welcome to Worldbuilding M.A. Golding! $\endgroup$ – fi12 Feb 13 '16 at 23:52
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Red tide.

dead dolphin

https://mycbs4.com/news/local/red-tide-killing-marine-life-in-florida

Red tide is caused by a bloom of microscopic creatures called dinoflagellates. They produce a toxin which kills everything in the water that cannot escape; mostly smaller fish but also some larger. Red tide can also put toxins into the air - it causes a strange spastic cough as though you had been pepper sprayed. It makes sense that water breathers would die, but I wonder if the aerosol toxin accounts for the deaths of air breathers like manatees and dolphins.

In this scenario, there is a bloom of dinoflagellates at sea around the ship. I could imagine a ship caught in the doldrums and the bloom happens around them, perhaps triggered by a distant sandstorm and iron enrichment of the water or some undersea upheaval. First, dead fish come to the surface around them, then dead dolphins and whales. The sailors begin to cough. The first mate's parrot dies. The men make masks soaked with rum and light fires on deck to try to drive off the bad air, but the bloom gets worse and worse. A group of sailors sets out in the boat to try to row clear of the bloom but are not even out of sight before they are overcome; the toxins are even worse down on the water. It is a slow, bad way to die.

The ship itself is fine. It is found adrift some years later. The skeletons of the crew have long since been washed off the deck by storms. A breeding population of mice survived in their refuges and emerged to thrive eating the ships stores. The captain's log describes what happened but only in fragments, most of its paper having gone to make mouse nests.

The other survivor is the ship's cat, who cashed in several of her 9 but had a couple left.

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A large, realistic sea creature able to tear down a ship 35-45 meters in length.

You might want to read some detail about:

Moby Dick

a sperm whale (fictional) that destroyed a vessel and severed the leg of the captain.

An Angry Blue Whale

the largest creature ever to adorn the evolutionary tree of earth (as far as we know). An angry full grown individual (or a mating couple) can easily destroy a 15th century ship.

Megalodon

the baddest thing you could ever come across in your worst nightmares! They went extinct some 20 million years ago, but it wouldn't hurt to say a small population managed to survive. A single of these prehistoric sharks was more than capable of destroying a 15th century vessel and more!

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Essex was an American whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts, which was launched in 1799. In 1820, while at sea in the southern Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain George Pollard Jr., she was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale.

You should read the Wiki entry for that. The depiction of the attack is quite detailed.

And about this constraint:

It was a creature that no one had ever seen before, and no one lived to tell the tale of its existence.

This is how books at the time of Columbus pictured whales. Most people going to the new world would never have deen a whale before:

Balena

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Leviathan

Another slightly out of the box answer. The biblical Leviathan would fit the bill. I have no idea what this animal would look like, but it sounds pretty terrifying:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+41%3A1-34&version=ESV

Job 41 - English Standard Version (ESV)

1 “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?

2 Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?

3 Will he make many pleas to you?
Will he speak to you soft words?

4 Will he make a covenant with you
to take him for your servant forever?

5 Will you play with him as with a bird,
or will you put him on a leash for your girls?

6 Will traders bargain over him?
Will they divide him up among the merchants?

7 Can you fill his skin with harpoons
or his head with fishing spears?

8 Lay your hands on him;
remember the battle—you will not do it again!

9 Behold, the hope of a man is false;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.

10 No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before me?

11 Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.

12 “I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his goodly frame.

13 Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who would come near him with a bridle?

14 Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.

15 His back is made of[d] rows of shields,
shut up closely as with a seal.

16 One is so near to another
that no air can come between them.

17 They are joined one to another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.

18 His sneezings flash forth light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.

19 Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.

20 Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.

21 His breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes forth from his mouth.

22 In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him.

23 The folds of his flesh stick together,
firmly cast on him and immovable.

24 His heart is hard as a stone,
hard as the lower millstone.

25 When he raises himself up the mighty are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.

26 Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail,
nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin.

27 He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.

28 The arrow cannot make him flee;
for him sling stones are turned to stubble.

29 Clubs are counted as stubble;
he laughs at the rattle of javelins.

30 His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.

31 He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.

32 Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be white-haired.

33 On earth there is not his like,
a creature without fear.

34 He sees everything that is high;
he is king over all the sons of pride.”

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In March to the Stars, John Weber posits a 50-meter fish, similar to a stonefish. It starts its attack by opening its huge mouth; this creates a suction that can stop a moving ship:

The opening was at least twenty meters across, a yawning cavern in the abruptly surfacing snout of a piscine easily as long as Sea Skimmer herself. The giant predator was an ambush hunter, like the terrestrial stonefish, and the snap-opening of its tooth-filled maw created a low-level vacuum that literally stopped the ship in her tracks.

Unless stopped, it will proceed to bite the ship, breaking the ship in half, and then suck down the crew.

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