Giant Turtles

In the third century Aelian wrote: “This sea [the Indian Ocean] produces monstrous turtles, the shells of which can be used as roofs.” In 1154, referring to turtles in the same region, in the sea of Herkend, near Sri Lanka, Al Edrisi in his Geography mentioned that he had seen turtles thirty feet long. They had, he claimed, laid as many as a thousand eggs apiece.

Icebergs are not the only titanic things, as Karl Shuker has amusingly noted, that may be floating around in the Atlantic. Apparently ships of yesteryear had to watch out for Giant Turtles, too. Cryptozoologists have observed that the area off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, a region with a long history of Kraken encounters as well, seems to be a haven for these oceangoing Giant Turtles.

Off Newfoundland’s Grand Bank, on March 30, 1883, the schooner Annie E. Hall came upon something that its crew first thought was an overturned ship. It turned out to be a giant, and very much alive, turtle. Thirty feet wide and forty feet long, it appeared to have twenty-foot-long flippers.

Near Nova Scotia, in June 1956, the crew of the steamer Rhapsody reportedly encountered an enormous white-shelled turtle measuring forty-five feet long, with fifteen-foot-long flippers. The creature raised its head all of eight feet out of the water. Crew members had the Canadian Coast Guard warn away local boats.

In his book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans writes of the “Father-of-All-Turtles,” borrowing a name from a Sumatran folktale that he thinks refers to Giant Turtles of the sort some witnesses mistake for a Sea Serpent. According to Heuvelmans, “This very rare type is described as a gigantic turtle and is sometimes given very specifically turtle-like features, such as a very wide mouth which splits the head in two when it opens, big prominent eyes, and very large scales on the back.” Heuvelmans thinks that if these creatures do exist, they live for the most part in temperate waters.

Things also look promising in Vietnam for more new freshwater Giant Turtle discoveries. According to legends associated with Hoan Kiem Lake (located in downtown Hanoi), a giant golden turtle rose from the waters in the mid-fifteenth century to snatch a magical sword from Emperor Ly Thai To, fresh with victory over Chinese invaders. The king and his courtiers were boating on the lake when a Giant Turtle arose, took the magic sword, then plunged to the depths and returned the blade to its divine owners. Since that time the lake’s name has been “Ho Hoan Kiem,” which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.” The story is retold in thousands of schoolbooks and in popular performances at Hanoi’s water-puppet theaters.

In recent years the Vietnamese state press has run photographs of crowds gathered at the lakeside pointing excitedly at some fuzzy shapes on the surface. Finally, in December 1996, the legend became real when witnesses reported seeing a large and ancient turtle. A swarm of bubbles would herald its arrival at the murky surface. A flipper would pop out, and part of its shell (estimated to be forty inches across in its entirety) would rise to view. Sometimes its green-and-yellow head, the size of a football, would appear. On one occasion in December 1996, the creature came to within six and one-half feet of the shore, swiveling its head to show a great downcast mouth, its skin peeling.

In early 1998 closer encounters set Hanoi abuzz. The witnesses were numerous pedestrians who noticed unusual activity in the lake. They described one to three turtles. A recent sighting, among the most credible, occurred on March 24, 1998, when passersby caught a glimpse of the turtles as they surfaced to take in the spring air.

An amateur cameraman caught the creatures on video, which subsequently aired on Vietnamese television. The station also claimed the turtles made a second appearance on April 5. Researchers who have been trying to get a glimpse of the turtles believe they could be the only ones of their kind in the world.

Mythology and science mix in the work of Hanoi National University professor Ha Dinh Due, the world’s foremost expert on the turtles of Hoan Kiem Lake. “The Hoan Kiem turtle is the world’s biggest fresh-water turtle,” he says. “It can measure two meters (six and one-half feet) long and can weigh as much as two hundred kilograms (440 pounds) Professor Due has been studying the turtles for the past decade, sometimes in conjunction with international reptile specialists. A Hoan Kiem turtle, found and preserved thirty years ago, is now displayed at a small temple on an island in the lake. The plaque tells visitors it is thought to be more than five hundred years old—old enough, in fact, to be the turtle of the legend.

Much remains unknown about these ancient monsters living in the center of downtown Hanoi—their number, reproductive ability, origins, and especially, the question of whether or not they’re unique to the Lake of the Returned Sword. Due says, “If we have cooperation from international experts and they determine this is a new species, it will be a significant contribution to world biological diversity. And since the turtles are right here in the middle of urban Hanoi, many people can easily come to see them.” In this vein, local civic and governmental groups plan to clear the Lake of the Returned Sword of pollution that may be harmful to the big turtles. The construction of an artificial beach has been proposed to facilitate breeding.


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