Giant Octopus

A discovery made on Anastasia Island, Florida, on the evening of November 30, 1896, set in motion a controversy that has never been settled. Two young cyclists came upon an immense carcass whose great weight had driven it deep into the sand. Having no idea what it was but sensing it was something important, they alerted others to the presence of the mysterious object. One of them, physician DeWitt Webb of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, arrived the next day with a handful of associates. The group estimated that the object was recently arrived and weighed close to five tons.

When they measured the parts above the sand, the investigators found that the blob was twenty-three feet long, four feet high, and eighteen feet across at its widest point. Its skin was somewhere between light pink and white, with a silvery cast. They were certain that these were not the remains of whale. As incredible as it seemed, they decided, these were from an octopus of unprecedented dimensions. On a later trip one investigator found fragments of arms. The American Naturalist (April 1897) reported that “one arm was lying west of the body, twenty-three 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 thirty-two feet, the other arms were three to five feet shorter.” It looked as if the animal had been partially dismembered before dying and washing to shore. Subsequently, a storm caused the Globster to wash out to sea again. It resurfaced two miles to the south. (See page 99.)

Yale University zoologist A. E. Verrill and Webb corresponded about the discovery. Though initially skeptical of the octopus identification (octopuses are not believed to exceed twenty-five feet; this creature’s arm length was seventy-five feet, Verrill estimated), Verrill soon embraced it, even naming the animal after himself: Octopus giganteus Verrill. Meantime, weather conditions had moved the carcass, with even more of its body missing, to a third location. On January 17, 1897, Webb, who was trying to recover it before it was lost forever, wrote W. H. Dali, curator of mollusks at the National Museum, Washington, D.C.:

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 forty feet higher upon the beach where it now rests on the flooring of heavy plank… on being straightened out to measure twenty-one feet instead of eighteen… 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 twenty-one 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 [internal shell of a squid] to be found nor any evidence of any body structure whatever.

Though neither Dali nor Verrill came down to Florida to examine the carcass, Verrill retracted the giant octopus identification and wrote that the carcass was nothing but the “upper part of the head and nose of a sperm whale.” The National Museum’s Frederic Augustus Lucas called the samples he examined “blubber, nothing more nor less.” Webb bitterly disagreed, and Dali and others expressed quiet disbelief in the claim. Nonetheless, it remained the official explanation, and it would not be challenged for decades.

In 1971 marine biologist Forrest G. Wood and octopus specialist Joseph F. Gennaro wrote that the samples they had examined provided clear evidence that “the St. Augustine sea monster was in fact an octopus.” Though Wood and Gennaro were respected figures in their fields, that did not keep them from being ridiculed and then ignored. A decade and a half later cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal of the University of Chicago analyzed samples. He concluded that they came from a “gigantic cephalopod, probably an octopus, not referable to any known species.”

In a disputed study published in 1995 in Biological Bulletin, four biologists attacked the Wood/Gennaro and Mackal analyses. Their own study of amino acids from the carcass showed that the animal could not have been a giant octopus or any invertebrate. The remains were probably from a whale, the biologists remarked, and “likely the entire skin”—notwithstanding the fact that whale skin cannot be removed intact, even artificially, from the animal. Even the skeptical marine expert Richard Ellis rejected the theory, and French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal, in a scathing review of the study, found numerous methodological problems and dubiously substantiated conclusions. As Ellis would write, “the mysteries remain unsolved and the legend endures.”


The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark

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