39 Vintage Illustrations Of Deep Ocean Creatures That Seem Too Strange To Be Real

Published November 2, 2020
Updated November 10, 2020

These drawings of sea creatures show how naturalists of centuries past first documented their discoveries — and they're as magical today as they were to the scientists who first saw them.

Butterfly Fish
Gem Anemone
Sperm Whale
Paper Nautilus
39 Vintage Illustrations Of Deep Ocean Creatures That Seem Too Strange To Be Real
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Long before the days of photography, scientists relied on the skilled hands of artists to recreate their marine discoveries on paper. The results were surprisingly lifelike — and sometimes fantastical — scientific drawings of sea creatures.

As science advanced alongside our ability to explore the world, so too did the art of nature illustration. Artists became coveted members of the scientific community in the 19th-century and integral to the expression and dissemination of the knowledge that researchers had thus far collected on the natural world.

Today, the art of scientific drawing is a dying one. But the work is no less breathtaking today than it was then.

Scientific Drawings Of Sea Creatures Help Naturalists Document The World

Tropical Fish

Biodiversity Heritage LibraryTropical fish from 1912's Reptiles, Amphibia, Fishes and Lower Chordata by Richard Lydekker.

Before high-resolution photography, scientists had to get creative, both literally and figuratively, in order to visually document the specimens they studied.

Scientists of the 19th century and earlier primarily relied on talented artists to recreate images of their scientific specimens on paper as well as their own observations and the accounts of others, like travelers and sailors, to relay their discoveries to the public.

But travelers and seamen alike often exaggerated or misremembered their encounters with natural beasts, which often resulted in the creation of fantastical creatures — and this was especially true when it came to documenting particularly elusive or bizarre ocean creatures. For instance, naturalists believed that based on the tales of seafarers, whales were dragon-like beasts with fangs and long faces.

Scientific journals from as late as the mid-19th century are also filled with drawings of mythical beasts that scientists believed were real, in part, because there was no way to verify the existence of these animals in the first place. Some of these mythical sea creatures are included in the gallery above.

But as modes of transportation advanced, European scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander Van Humboldt were able to traverse the globe themselves to study specimens in biodiversity-rich climates like South America and Southeast Asia. Among the most popular naturalists of the time was Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and artist best known for his vibrant studies of sea creatures. Haeckel was especially fascinated by marine life, which became the primary focus of his work.

His multi-volume series Kunstformen Der Natur, or Artforms in Nature, was published in 1904. The series boasted an impressive body of detailed drawings of various living organisms, mostly from the depths of the ocean.

There are also the whimsical works of 1910's Cephalopod Atlas, which depicts the marine animals encountered by an 1898 German submarine expedition led by biologist Carl Chun aboard the SS Valdivia. Chun's crew ventured 3,000 feet into the sea where an artist drew his discoveries in real time.

The expedition was a feat of its time that resulted in the discovery of a plethora of deep-sea wildlife. But before this expedition, it was widely believed that no life existed at all that deep in the ocean. Instead, researchers were left to their imaginations.

Exploring The Illustrated Archives Of The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Snouted Fish

Biodiversity Heritage LibraryIt was commonly believed in the 19th century that there were marine counterparts for each land animal. For instance, many naturalists believed that there were sea dogs, which looked identical to terrestrial dogs but with fins.

Today, the public can access a breadth of scientific illustrations from as early as the 1400s on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) website, which is the world's largest open-access digital library for the historical documentation of life in the natural world.

Launched in 2006, BHL's vast collection contains 58 million pages of natural science studies, including striking scientific illustrations of sea creatures by artists and naturalists of the past. The BHL archive, which is operated under a global consortium, has been accessed by over 10 million people in over 240 countries around the world so far.

And while the archive is certainly mesmerizing to look at, it also serves a scientific purpose. Researchers at the BHL believe that these vintage illustrations can help inform researchers today by providing them with up-close, detailed studies of living organisms as they existed before climate change and ascertain how they have changed as well.

The manner in which these creatures and plants were recorded also reveals the opinions and judgments scientists held at the time. For instance, many of the animal illustrations depict creatures in family units, even if they didn't congregate that way, in order to make them more relatable to humans and reflect the views of society at the time.

Although scientific illustration is rapidly becoming a dying art, these drawings of bizarre sea creatures as they were first discovered remind us of the whimsy and awe inherent in our environments. The illustrations may have once come out of a necessity to record the world, and they are now feats of artistic creativity and a testament to how far we've come in exploring our natural world.

Now that you've checked out the gorgeous and sometimes strange illustrations of sea creatures by naturalists of the past, explore the stunning deep-sea photography of Alexander Semenov. Then, learn about the the medieval "Compendium of Demonology," an illustrated guide to hell.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Cite This Article
Ishak, Natasha. "39 Vintage Illustrations Of Deep Ocean Creatures That Seem Too Strange To Be Real." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 2, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-sea-creatures-drawings. Accessed April 24, 2024.