But there was a time when science wasn't so exact.
In the 16th century when the natural sciences were just beginning to be developed and scientists were just beginning to venture farther out, the scientific rage was to compile encyclopedic tomes of all known animals and plants. In those volumes hearsay would oftentimes be used in place of direct observation.
When an animal could not be directly observed, images would be copied from other sources. The result would be exaggerated, and sometimes fantastical, images that were quite removed from what the actual beast looked like. Sort of like playing the game "Telephone" where the message becomes diluted and misinterpreted with each transmission.
For instance, Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner (1516-1565) in his Icones Animalium (Animal Icons), shown to the left, copied some of his images of whales from Swedish historian Archbishop Olaus Mangus's (1490-1557) Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern People).
So what looks like a sea monster to us is really a rendering of a killer whale, attacking a beaked whale, attacking a seal, as shown in the image at the bottom.
The Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History collects these valuable early works that are still used by researchers here at the Smithsonian Institution. —Daria Wingreen-Mason