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Interesting Facts Strange and Unexplained Mysteries and Secrets

Strange & Unexplained - Giant Octopus

[- Monsters in the Water -]
On a southbound bicycle trip on Anastasia Island, Florida, on the evening of November 30, 1896, two young Saint Augustine cyclists, Herbert Coles and Dunham Coretter, made a discovery which set in motion one of the sorrier episodes in the history of marine biology. An event of enormous potential zoological interest would be rationalized away, ignored, ridiculed, and generally damned into oblivion.

The object that started the commotion was an immense carcass which, owing to its great weight, had sunk far into the sand when Coles and Coretter spotted it and braked quickly to a stop. They did not take measurements, but they knew immediately that it was bigger than anything they had ever heard of.

The next day DeWitt Webb, a physician and founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, came to the site with several associates. The group concluded that the creature, which apparently had been beached just days before, weighed something like five tons. The visible portions measured 23 feet in length, four feet high, and 18 feet across the widest part of the back. The skin, of a light pink, nearly white color, had a silvery cast to it. It was not a whale, Webb decided. It could only be some kind of octopus, albeit one of heretofore-unrecorded dimensions.

Webb and his assistants returned to the beach as schedules and weather permitted over the next few days and took photographs (since lost) of the decayed, mutilated remains. One assistant, while on a solo trip, reportedly found fragments of arms while digging in the vicinity of the carcass. According to an account in the April 1897 issue of American Naturalist, "one arm was lying west of the body, 23 feet long; one stump of arm, west of body, about four feet; three arms lying south of body and from appearance attached to same, longest one measured over 32 feet, the other arms were three to five feet shorter." Evidently the animal had been attacked and partially dismembered before its body washed to land.

Soon afterwards a severe storm arose, and the carcass floated out to sea, to resurface two miles to the south, far from the arms which apparently only the one assistant saw.

Webb began writing letters to scientists who he thought would be interested. One, dated December 8, 1896, came into the hands of A. E. Verrill, a Yale University zoologist known for his pioneering work on the once legendary but now recognized giant squid, known in Scandinavian folklore as the kraken. Verrill rejected Webb's suggestion that the carcass was of an octopus; conventional wisdom holds the largest specimens do not exceed 25 feet. In a brief notice in American Journal of Science for January 1897, he noted the discovery of a giant squid's remains on the Anastasia beach. On receiving further information, however, he embraced the giantoctopus identification. From comparing the sizes of the arm fragments to those of known octopus specimens, he came to a fantastic estimate: the creature's full arm length must be at least 75 feet, which meant it was a true monster: 200 feet from tentacle tip to tentacle tip. Though Webb had done all the work, Verrill named the new animal after himself: Octopus giganteus Verrill.

Meanwhile the stormy weather conditions had moved the carcass once again. By the time it settled in its third location, even more of its body was missing. Still, enough of it remained to frustrate, for a time anyway, any human-engineered effort to move or raise it. In a January 17,1897, letter to W. H. Dall, curator of mollusks at the National Museum in Washington, D.C., Webb reported success:

Yesterday I took four horses, six men, three sets tackle, a lot of heavy planking, and a rigger to superintend the work and succeeded in rolling the Invertebrate out of the pit and placing it about 40 feet higher upon the beach where it now rests on the flooring of heavy plank ... on being straightened out to measure 21 feet instead of 18.... A good part of the mantle or head remains attached near to the more slender part of the body.... The body was then opened for the entire length of 21 feet.... The slender part of the body was entirely empty of internal organs. And the organs of the remainder were not large and did not look as if the animal had been long dead.... The muscular coat which seems to be all there is of the invertebrate is from two and three to six inches in thickness. The fibers of the external coat are longitudinal and the inner transverse ... no caudal fin or any appearance if there had been any ... no beak or head or eyes remaining ... no pen to be found nor any evidence of any bony structure whatever.

The "pen" to which Webb referred is quillpen-shaped cartilage material found in all squids. The absence of bones should have eliminated-but, as we shall see, did not eliminate any speculation that the remains were from a whale.

Though he urged them to do so, neither Dall nor Verrill came down to inspect the carcass personally. Instead they instructed Webb, whom they treated essentially as their servant, to continue his efforts and to keep providing them with data. But as would soon be clear, they would feel free to ignore those data if they did not serve the purposes of eminent scientists. Dall continually referred to the creature as a "cuttlefish" (a cephalopod mollusk related to squids and octopuses, but with 10 arms and a calcified internal shell).

On February 23, the same day he received samples from the carcass, Verrill composed letters of retraction to both Science and the Neu) York Herald. The carcass, he declared, was probably from the "upper part of the head and nose of a sperm whale." Prof. Frederic Augustus Lucas of the National Museum examined other samples, pronounced them "blubber, nothing more nor [sic] less," and took a swipe at the "imaginative eye of the average untrained observer." Webb protested vigorously in correspondence, which went unanswered. For his part Dall quietly expressed credulity at this unlikely explanation, as did several other cephalopod specialists, but they kept their dissent out of public print.

Meanwhile the remains of Octopus giganteus Verrill rotted away, and the brief controversy would be forgotten for six decades.

Return of the monster

In 1957 Forrest G. Wood, Jr., curator of the research laboratories of Marineland, Florida, came upon a yellowed newspaper clipping concerning the affair. Though an authority on octopuses, Wood had never heard of it.

Intrigued, he launched an investigation which in due course disclosed that the Smithsonian Institution harbored samples. Subsequently they were examined by University of Florida octopus specialist Joseph F. Gennaro, Jr., who concluded, "The evidence appears unmistakable that the St. Augustine sea monster was in fact an octopus."

But when Wood and Gennaro published their findings in a trilogy of articles in the March 1971 issue of Natural History, the editors of that magazine surrounded them with whimsical commentary which led some readers to think they were an elaborate spoof. A Wall Street journal article on the response reported that the editors had not done this accidentally. Wood, furious, wrote a letter of complaint to the magazine, which refused to publish it. A further insult came from the Ocean Citation journal Index whose abstract incorrectly, though apparently intentionally, had Wood and Gennaro concluding the animal was a giant squid.

In the mid-1980s an independent analysis conducted by Roy P. Mackal, University of Chicago biologist, determined that the tissue "was essentially a huge mass of collagenous protein" and "not blubber. I interpret these results as consistent with, and supportive of, Webb and Verrill's identification of the carcass as that of a gigantic cephalopod, probably an octopus, not referable to any known species."

Mystery of the globsters

A carcass discovered on a beach in desolate northwestern Tasmania in August 1960 may conceivably have been of an animal similar to the one in Florida, but the investigation here was even more badly botched than the one that greeted the St. Augustine creature. In the latter case no fully qualified scientist examined the specimen personally. Where the Tasmanian "globster" (a word coined by zoologist/anomalist Ivan T. Sanderson) was concerned, scientists did investigate on site; the problem is that their pronouncements contradicted each other, and before the differences could be resolved, or even debated, all concerned dropped the matter.

Word of the find, made by a rancher and two drovers (cowboys) in his employ, did not reach Hobart, the provincial capital of Australia's southern island state, until months later. G. C. Cramp, a businessman and amateur naturalist, financed an aerial search which located the carcass. Once that had been accomplished, a four-man scientific team led by zoologist Bruce Mollison of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) ventured to the site in early March 1962. Mollison subsequently reported, "One is always seeking some explanation, and you try to add up everything, but this does not add up yet."

The carcass was indeed peculiar. Devoid of eyes, discernible head, or bones, it had an exterior skin that looked "creamy" and felt "rubbery." It was also "hairy."

Over the next week and a half newspapers all over the world gave the Tasmanian globster headline treatment, and the Australian government was inundated with inquiries. The subject was even discussed in Parliament. Under intense pressure for answers, the government flew a team of zoologists from Hobart to the site for what was billed as an extensive investigation. Nonetheless the party returned the very next day.

Its official report, written immediately afterwards, acknowledged that because of the length of time that had passed between the beaching and its examination, "it is not possible to specifically identify it from our investigations so far. But our investigations lead us to believe that the so-called monster is a decomposing portion of a large marine animal. It is not inconsistent with blubber." The same day he received the report, Sen. John Gorton, Minister for the Commonwealth of Australia, wasted no time in informing the press that "your monster is a large lump of decomposing blubber, probably torn off a whale."

Mollison disputed this conclusion, as did one of the globster's discoverers, drover Jack Boote, who said, "They had to say it was nothing new to cover up the fact they hadn't done anything about it before.... They were too late and too slow. By the time they got there, the thing had decomposed. The thing I saw was not a whale or any part of a whale." Mollison remarked that the samples he had taken "could not be identified" under analysis, and University of Tasmania zoologist A. M. Clark, who thought the animal might be a "giant ray," declared that "it was clearly not a whale."

Unfortunately none of the laboratory analyses, including either those that allegedly supported the whale hypothesis or those that allegedly refuted it, ever was published. The affair ended in contradictions and ambiguities.

Perhaps these issues could have been settled in 1970, when another globster washed up onto the beach in the same general area of northwestern Tasmania. It was found, ironically, by the same ranch owner who had come upon the first one: Ben Fenton. Fenton, who remembered all too well the blistering ridicule to which he had been subjected 10 years earlier, was not pleased at his discovery. He told a reporter for a local newspaper, "Be careful you don't quote me as saying it is a monster. I don't know what it is, and I'm making no guesses-not after the last lot."

This time no scientists rushed, or even shuffled hesitantly, to investigate.

In March 1965 a globster appeared on Muriwai Beach on the eastern shore of New Zealand's North Island. It was 30 feet long, eight feet high, and "hairy," according to press accounts. Auckland University zoologist J. E. Morton was quoted as saying, "I can't think of anything it resembles." No further details have been published in either popular or scientific literature. Another globster washed up on a Mangrove Bay beach in Bermuda in May 1988. Samples were taken, but the results from the laboratory analyses have yet to be published.

Reviewing the cases, J. Richard Greenwell of the Intemational Society of Cryptozoology observes that the "descriptions-and photos-are similar in all cases. All the carcasses were described as tough and hard to cut, usually odorless, and very 'stringy,' which is often called 'hairy.' And, curiously, all seem to be more or less unidentifiable by experts.

Until more is known, we cannot state with certainty that globsters and the St. Augustine beast represent the same kind of animal or that this animal is the giant octopus. It is, however, at least a possibility.

Sightings

If giant octopuses are real, they would not often be seen for the simple reason that octopuses are bottom-dwelling animals. Nonetheless sightings, though infrequent, do occur or at least are claimed. Bahamian fishermen speak of sightings of "giant scuttles," and cephalopod specialist Forrest Wood finds such testimony credible.

In late December 1989 press accounts told of a frightening Christmas Eve encounter off Manticao in the southern Philippines. As the story had it, a party in a boat carrying an infant's body which was to be buried on a nearby island saw an octopus tentacle flop over the side of the craft. "At its thickest it was as big as a muscular man's upper arm," the boat's owner, Eleuterio Sarino, said. "It had bumps along it, and one of these hooked on to the edge of the boat." Another passenger, Jerry Alverez, said, "I saw other huge tentacles under the water and, though the light was poor even when I used my torch [flashlight], I'm convinced I saw a head down there with big eyes." The tentacles, he claimed, were eight feet long.

The boat began to rock from side to side and then capsized. The passengers waded safely to shore 200 yards away.

In recent years, marine biologists have turned their attention to the extraordinary and largely unknown fauna of the ocean depths, and so perhaps the giant octopus will finally get its due.

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