Pick from the Past
Natural History, March 1971

An Octopus Trilogy

After a decade of sleuthing, it can be safely said that the gigantic mass
of tissue that washed up on the beach at St. Augustine in 1896 was the
remains of an octopus that must have measured, from the tip of one
tentacle to the tip of the opposite tentacle, 200 feet. Yes, Victoria, 200 feet.

Part I: Stupefying Colossus of the Deep
Part II: The Creature Revealed
Part III: In Which Bahamian Fishermen Recount Their Adventures with the Beast


PART I:  Stupefying Colossus of the Deep

ACCOUNTS of giant octopuses have been recorded in the annals of sea monsters, but learned men who have reviewed the fragmentary evidence have usually assumed that such reports either exaggerated the size of the octopus or mistakenly identified what was actually a giant squid.

This is not surprising. Giant squids are known to exist. They have been examined and photographed by scientists. It is generally accepted that they may reach a total length of 60 feet or more. The evidence for gigantic octopuses, on the other hand, has consisted of partial sightings and secondhand accounts, the reliability of which have been open to question. Descriptions have generally been incomplete and could apply either to octopuses or squids.

The following account chronicles a search that began with a newspaper clipping and extended back more than 70 years to the discovery on a Florida beach of a monstrous sea creature that may have been a true giant octopus.

Although both are cephalopods with similar features, octopuses differ markedly from squids. Octopuses have eight sucker-bearing arms, all of about the same length; squids also have eight arms, but in addition possess two tentacles capable of being extended far beyond the tips of the arms. The ends of the tentacles are expanded and flattened and covered with many close-set suction cups. Octopuses have bulbous bodies with no skeletal structure. A squid’s body is elongate with a stiff internal “pen” and two horizontal fins at the end.

These anatomical differences reflect different ways of life. The octopus is (with a few exceptions) a bottom-dweller that feeds on bivalves and crustaceans. The streamlined squid is a swift and active swimmer that pursues fishes, capturing its prey by shooting out its two long sucker-bearing tentacles.

Despite these differences, the identification of a giant cephalopod can be difficult, especially if only a brief glimpse of the monster is possible, or if only a portion of it is recovered, as from the stomach of a sperm whale, which feeds on cephalopods. It is perhaps not surprising that Bernard Huevelmans, who has reviewed in exhaustive detail the available knowledge of sea monsters, is inclined to interpret all accounts of huge cephalopods as referring to the giant squid, which is known to science, rather than to the giant octopus, which is not.

Is the giant octopus but a mythical beast? The following account chronicles a search that began with a newspaper clipping and extended back more than 70 years to the discovery on a Florida beach of a monstrous sea creature that may have been a true giant octopus.

In 1957, the files of the Marineland Research Laboratory contained the accumulated papers of almost 20 years. I was looking for some notes I had made on the behavior of octopuses when I happened on a newspaper clipping I hadn’t seen before.

It was an “illustrated feature,” slightly yellowed with age, entitled “The Facts About Florida.” Most of it was devoted to a drawing of the artist’s version of an octopus. Under the drawing was a caption:

“In 1897, portions of an octopus, said to have been more gigantic than any ever before seen, were washed up on the beach at St. Augustine. Prof. Verrill, of Yale University, who examined the remains, which alone reputedly weighed over six tons, calculated that the living creature had a girth of 25 feet and tentacles 72 feet in length.”

This was hard to believe. The largest known octopus is generally considered to be the North Pacific species, Octopus dofleini, which reportedly reaches a weight of 125 pounds and may span—arm tip to arm tip—20 feet or more. The octopus described in “The Facts About Florida” surely belonged in the category of fictitious sea monsters. Yet the caption included several items of information that could not be quickly dismissed. The date and site of the finding were given. St. Augustine Beach, an oceanside resort just below St. Augustine, Florida, was only 16 miles up the coast from the Marineland Research Laboratory where I worked. And Prof. A. E. Verrill of Yale had been, at the turn of the century, a noted authority on cephalopods. It was Verrill who had written most of what was known about the giant squid. I had for some time been particularly interested in octopuses. Verrill’s name, along with a specific year and place, was enough to set me digging.

The clipping bore neither the date nor the name of the newspaper from which it had been extracted. Nobody I talked to could remember ever having seen an illustrated feature called “The Facts About Florida.” The St. Augustine paper was obviously the first place to direct an inquiry, but I learned that the newspaper building, with all its files, had been completely destroyed by fire a few years after the date given in the clipping.

So remarkable a find might have been mentioned in the New York Times, but my inquiry was answered with a card stating that the scope of their service was restricted to current events and suggesting that I consult their indexes and files at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

In the meantime I had written to the state librarian in Tallahassee. She informed me that the files of The Florida Times-Union, published in Jacksonville, had been indexed as a WPA project during the depression and the index turned over to the Jacksonville Public Library.

My letter to the Jacksonville library brought a reply corroborating the information in the clipping, and a few days later I received a photocopy of a page from The Florida Times-Union of Tuesday, December 1, 1896. In a brief article the dimensions of the creature were described as 22 feet long and 6 feet wide, and it was referred to as “apparently portion of a whale . . . ” But “President Webb,” identified as the president of the [St. Augustine] Scientific Society, had examined the monster and pronounced it to be an octopus.

This brought my search back to St. Augustine, and I inquired at the local society, as I should have done in the first place. There I learned that Dr. DeWitt Webb had been a physician with a bent for natural history. He was apparently a knowledgeable man. As later information made clear, he had good reasons for identifying the huge carcass on the beach as that of an octopus.

The body of the colossal octopus had been found cast ashore on the beach about 12 miles south of St. Augustine.

The files of the St. Augustine Historical Society contained a clipping from the New York Herald on which someone had written the date, January 3, 1897. Illustrated with a rather good drawing of an octopus, the article’s headlines emphasized the more spectacular details, but the text provided additional interesting facts. The body of the colossal octopus had been found cast ashore on the beach about 12 miles south of St. Augustine. It had evidently been dead for some time and was much mutilated. “Its head was nearly destroyed, and only the stumps of two arms were visible . . . The body, as it lies somewhat imbedded in the sand, is 18 feet long and about 7 feet wide, while is rises 3½ feet above the sand . . . The weight of the body and head would have been at least four or five tons. If the eight arms held the proportions usually seen in smaller species of the octopus, they would have been at least 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base.””

The remainder of the article, written in the first person but without a by-line, cited further details that had been provided the writer by Dr. Webb and mentioned photographs that Dr. Webb had taken. In conclusion it reviewed what was known at that time of the larger cephalopods, including the giant squid.

So authoritative was the latter portion of the article that it appeared to have been written by Verrill himself. In a letter to the editor of the New York Herald, published in the March 14, 1897, edition, Professor Verrill alluded to an earlier article about the giant octopus that he had written for that newspaper. But now, at this later date, he wished to retract what he had said before.

Stating that his opinion as to the identity of the creature had been based entirely on the general form and appearance, as shown by photographs, and on information that “a part of an arm 36 feet long had been found attached to the head when it was cast ashore,” he went on to say that this later statement was certainly untrue. He had just received from Dr. Webb some large masses of the exterior skin, fairly well preserved in formalin. These were “from three to ten inches thick, white, firm, elastic, and very tough.”

They were composed, Verrill continued, of “very tough elastic fibers, much interlaced and bound together. This structure is like that of the blubber of some whales, but there is very little oil in these masses. There are some irregular cavities and canals in some of the pieces.

”We must conclude, therefore, that the creature was a vertebrate animal, probably related to the whales.

“But I am unable to refer this immense, closed, pouch-like mass to any part of any known whale, or, in fact, to any other animal . . .”

The monster still intrigued me, and I was not convinced that Verrill was correct in his suggestion that it was some kind of whale. To anyone who has dissected a whale, even one long dead, the “very little oil” is especially significant. The blubber that lies just beneath the skin of a whale is rich in oil, while cephalopods possess very little fatty tissue.

Searching further, I learned that Verrill had described “The Florida Sea Monster” in an article that appeared in The American Naturalist of April, 1897, and that had been written before he had changed his opinion as to its nature.

In this article he presented additional intriguing details, all, it appeared, obtained from Dr. Webb. Although the monster had been cast ashore in an advanced state of decomposition, it had “contrary to expectation . . . resisted further decay, and still remains, after three months, nearly in the same state as at first.” Verrill alluded to a dozen different photographic views he had obtained from Dr. Webb, as well as “several large masses of the thick and firm integument” that Dr. Webb had sent him. Drawings, made from the photographs, were included in the article.

Gilbert L. Voss of the University of Miami Marine Laboratory (now the Institute of Marine Science) provided me with five additional references from his extensive files on cephalopods. (He also told me that in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution was a large jar of preserved tissue bearing the label Octopus giganteus Verrill, but let me come to this later.)

A prolific writer on the mystery animal, Verrill ultimately reversed himself in scientific journals, as well as in the public press.

His initial report on the creature appeared in the American Journal of Science in 1897 under the title, “A Gigantic Cephalopod on the Florida Coast.” After quoting from a letter written by Dr. Webb to a R.P. Whitfiled, he speculated that the remains might be those of a giant squid, perhaps a species of Architeuthis. In the same journal later that year, Verrill quoted additional details received from Dr. Webb and indicated his agreement with Webb’s identification by proposing the name Octopus giganteus for the creature. This account, entitled, “Additional Information Concerning the Giant Cephalopod of Florida, ” contains a significant statement:

“Dr. Webb writes that a few days after the photographs were taken (Dec. 7th) [the one accompanying this article is believed to be one of these] excavations were made in the sand and the stump of an arm was found, still attached, 36 feet long and 10 inches in diameter where it was broken off distally.”

But in a still later issue of the same journal under the title “The Supposed Great Octopus of Florida; Certainly Not a Cephalopod,” Verrill retracted his earlier opinion as he had in his letter to the New York Herald. “Additional facts have been ascertained and specimens received, that render it quite certain that this remarkable structure is not the body of a cephalopod.” Defending his earlier position, he says that “many other zoologists who examined the photographs held the same opinion. Some of those who have seen the samples of integument [covering, or skin] sent to me still believe that the specimen may be the body of some unknown genus of Cephalopoda allied to Octopus. But the thick integument of a cephalopod is necessarily muscular and highly contractile, while in this creature it is elastic and resilient, and not at all contractile. Therefore, I cannot refer it to that group . . .”

He also quoted, in a footnote, the written statement made by a Mr. Wilson to Dr. Webb in regard to the “arms” that he [Wilson] found when the remains were first cast ashore. “One arm was lying west of the body, 23 feet long; one stump of arm, west of the body about three feet; three arms lying south of the body and from appearances attached to same [although I did not dig quite to body, as it laid well down in the sand, and I was very tired), longest one measured over 32 feet, the other arms were 3 to 5 feet shorter.”

“Soon after this examination,” the footnote continues, “the specimen went adrift in another severe storm and was again cast ashore further south, which will probably account for the loss of the supposed arms.”

Nevertheless, Verrill concluded, the statement regarding arms must have been erroneous. “Apparently, nothing that can be called stumps of arms, or any other appendages, were present.” Again, Verrill described the tissue samples Dr. Webb had sent him, and rejected them as having come from a cephalopod.

In a letter to Science, Verrill wrote of additional studies he had made “which confirm the cetacean affinities more definitely.

The extreme firmness and toughness of the thick elastic masses of integument show that the structure must have been intended for resistance to blows and to great pressure, and could not have pertained to nay part of an animal where mobility is necessary. They are composed of a complex of strong, elastic connective tissue fibers, like those of cetaceans. There are no muscular fibers present in any of the parts sent. This lack of muscular tissue and the resistant nature of the integument are sufficient to show that the creature could not have been a cephalopod, for in that group a highly contractile muscular tissue is essential.”

After considering the possibility that “the great bag-shaped mass represents nearly the whole upper part of the head of [a sperm whale] detached from the skull,” Verrill concluded: “Therefore, a view that it may be from an abnormal or normal sperm whale must be regarded as a supposition or theory that still needs more evidence to support it, but is at present the most plausible.”

“The substance looks like blubber, and smells like blubber and it is blubber, nothing more nor less,” Lucas concluded.

A letter immediately following Verrill’s in the same issue of Science expressed the views of F. A. Lucas who, I learned later, was curator of comparative anatomy at the U.S. National Museum. Lucas thought that Professor Verrill would have been justified in making a much more emphatic statement (in his earlier note in Science), than that the masses of integument from the “Florida Monster” resembled blubber. “The substance looks like blubber, and smells like blubber and it is blubber, nothing more nor less,” Lucas concluded.

In the same year (1962) that I ordered photocopies of the publications just quoted, I sought further information about the preserved tissue labeled Octopus giganteus Verrill that Voss had remembered seeing in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. My next letter was to the curator of mollusks at the Smithsonian, Harold A. Rehder. In his absence the associate curator replied to my inquiry, confirming that the museum did indeed have such a specimen. Since it was the basis for the scientific name Octopus giganteus, which Verrill had proposed, he said it was the scientific responsibility of the museum to keep the material for any and all future reference, even if it was not a piece of giant cephalopod.

Museum curators guard their specimens zealously, and it appeared that this one was not available for further examination, at least, not any examination that would endanger it.

When Rehder returned and saw my letter, however, he was able to provide other material that far exceeded my expectations. Moreover, he later permitted a friend, Joseph F. Gennaro, Jr., then of the University of Florida, to carry away a sample of the tissue for histological examination. Gennaro had been working on the common Atlantic octopus at the Marineland Laboratory. When he heard my account of the St. Augustine Beach sea monster his interest was aroused, and he persuaded Rehder to part with a small piece of Octopus giganteus.

Along with the sample of tissue, Rehder provided us with the photograph that accompanies this article, a photograph made from an original glass plate that Dr. Webb or an assistant had exposed more than 60 years before. Also, he later sent me photocopies of Dr. Webb’s correspondence with W. H. Dall, the former curator of mullusks at the National Museum.

In one letter dated January 17, 1897, Dr. Webb wrote: “Yesterday I took four horses, six men, three sets of 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 up on the beach where it now rests on the flooring of heavy plank.”

The next day he wrote again, “I think I made one mistake in my description. The external muscular layer is circular and the internal longitudinal. I was obliged to go down in hot haste this morning to make a legal claim of it as one of the men who go about giving shows was going down and have it cut up and bring it up as a show. I went down and staked it around and put ropes around it and put up a notice that it was in my possession so that I do not think there will be any more trouble.”

“We could with a dozen men pulling at the ropes only partly raise it as you will see. I have another scheme which I hope to accomplish if I can raise the funds.”

On February 5, Dr. Webb wrote: “I made another excursion to the invertebrate and brought away specimens for you and for Prof. Verrill of Yale. I cut two pieces of the mantle and two pieces from the body and put them in a solution of formalin for a few days before I sent them to you. Although strange as it may seem to you I could have packed them in salt and sent them to you at once although the creature has been lying on the shore for more than two months. And I think that both yourself and Prof. Verrill, while not doubting my measurements, have thought my account of the thickness of the muscular, or rather tendonous husk pretty large so I am glad to send you the specimens and will express them packed in salt in a few days.”

Following other brief letters concerning the shipment of the specimens (and the expense of the formalin required), he wrote on March 17: “As you already know Prof. Verrill now says our strange creature cannot be a cephalopod and that he cannot say to what animal it belongs. I do not see hot it can be any part of a cetacean as Prof. V says you suggest. It is simply a great bag and I do not see how it could have been any part of a whale.” And, at the end, “What can I purchase the Formaldehyde for by the dozen?”

In a long, undated letter, Dr. Webb wrote of moving the creature for further examination. “We could with a dozen men pulling at the ropes only partly raise it as you will see. I have another scheme which I hope to accomplish if I can raise the funds and that is to draw it by means of a windlass farther up the bank entirely out of the pit so that the hood can be spread out, and then I hope to be able to get men to cut through the enormously thick hide which measures in some places 31/2 inches in thickness, and so open the whole thing up. The hood is so tough that when it is exposed to the air an axe makes very little impression on it. Judging from the difficulty of moving it, it must weigh 6 or 7 tons for 12 men with a block and tackle ought to move anything less.

”After getting it out we found it on being straightened out to measure 21 feet instead of 18 as I first reported to you. A good part of the mantle or head remains attached near to the more slender part of the body. This was spread out as much as possible. 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 so long dead as it appeared to have been when first washed ashore some six weeks since. The muscular coat which seems to be about all there is of the invertebrate is from 2 and 3 to 6 inches in thickness. The fibers of the external coat are longitudinal and the inner transverse. There was no caudal fin or any appearance as if there had been any. There was no pen to be found nor any evidence of any bony structure whatever. It is still in a comparatively good state of preservation and so would it not be a good thing for yourself or Prof. Verrill of Yale or both of you to come down and examine it for yourselves and so determine its exact place better than I can? If you think of coming at all you ought to come at once. I have written a similar letter to Prof. Verrill. You see I said invertebrate rather than squid . . . that is certainly safe.”

Dr. Webb’s practice and pocketbook must have suffered during this period, and his request that Professors Dall and Verrill come to Florida and see the monster with their own eyes was to no avail. The last letter in the collection is a melancholy one. Written by Professor True, Dall’s superior at the National Museum, it read:

Dear Mr. Dall:

I am sorry to say that the secretary does not see his way clear to have the cuttlefish examined at the cost of the Institution and the Museum can scarcely afford the expense at this time.

Could not measurements, etc., be made by Dr. Webb and some specimens saved?

Yours,
F. W. True

And, so apparently, ended the saga of the St. Augustine Beach sea monster. There seems to be no record of its ultimate fate.



PART II:  The Creature Revealed

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THE people in the Smithsonian Institution’s Hall of Mollusks had everything ready when I arrived to take specimens of the sea monster. As we approached the hall room where the sample was, I was a little surprised at their suggestion that I remove my coat, jacket, and shirt. I soon realized why: the smell in the room was very strong and became stronger as we approached a stainless steel sink in a far corner.

As we approached the hall room where the sample was, I was a little surprised at their suggestion that I remove my coat, jacket, and shirt. I soon realized why.

There by the sink was a glass container about the size of a milk can. Inside it was a murky mixture of cheesecloth, formalin (and I think some alcohol), and half a dozen large white masses of tough fibrous material, each about as large as a good-sized roast. We lifted them up with the cheesecloth, then took them out with forceps.

The pieces corresponded closely to Webb’s description. There was very little fat or oil in them; they were almost as white as soap. I cut the samples I wanted with a pathologist’s knife, which uses replaceable blades; the connective tissue was so tough that it dulled four blades simply to cut one or two finger-sized pieces. I wrapped these in cheesecloth and put them in a tightly covered jar together with some of the fluid. (The Smithsonian’s jar was lost during a move; the samples I had taken are all that is left of Octopus giganteus Verrill).

Unfortunately, there are no distinguishing structures in the pieces I dissected. No suckers, identifiable skin structures, or even muscular masses were discernible. All the pieces had the same homogenous, tough, white, fibrous texture. Only from one piece was I able to carve a small specimen from what appeared to be the periphery of the animal. I judged this by what looked like “natural” smoothness on one margin of the piece, perhaps indicating an original surface, although I had no way of knowing whether it was an outer or inner surface. Certainly, there was none of the typical covering layer one could expect from either a mollusk or mammal.

In my laboratory, I prepared the specimens for histological analysis together with “control” specimens of contemporary squid and octopus. When the slides were ready, I eagerly turned to the microscope to observe for myself the structure of this peculiar sea beast. Would the cells be the highly differentiated cells typical of a mammal, indicating that despite the lack of oil or blubbery smell the piece had really come from some type of whale? Would the architecture be similar to the squid sample or to that of the octopus that I had for comparison?

To my great dismay, no cellular material at all was discernible. Perhaps because the tissue mass had lain for so many days on the beach of St. Augustine.

To my great dismay, no cellular material at all was discernible. Perhaps because the tissue mass had lain for so many days on the beach of St. Augustine, or perhaps because the formaldehyde or alcohol had had insufficient time to penetrate for adequate preservation, nothing of the original cellular architecture remained. I found, however, that my control samples, which had been properly prepared for histological analysis, also failed to show much cellular arrangement. But even more striking than the absence of cellular structure was the presence of distinctive patterns of connective tissue. Differences between contemporary octopus and squid tissue struck the eye immediately, and each was obviously different from the typical pattern of mammalian tissue.

It occurred to me that I might learn something by observing and comparing the connective tissue patterns of the specimens under polarized light. The highly ordered fiber protein molecules oriented in the plane of the section doubly refracted the light and showed up brightly, while those that were perpendicular appeared black.

Now differences between the contemporary squid and octopus samples became very clear. In the octopus, broad bands of fibers passed across the plane of the tissue and were separated by equally broad bands arranged in a perpendicular direction. In the squid there were narrower but also relatively broad bundles arranged in the plane of the section, separated by thin partitions of perpendicular fibers.

It seemed I had found a means to identify the mystery sample after all. I could distinguish between octopus and squid, and between them and mammals, which display a lacy network of connective tissue fibers.

After 75 years, the moment of truth was at hand. Viewing section after section of the St. Augustine samples, we decided at once, and beyond any doubt, that the sample was not whale blubber. Further, the connective tissue pattern was that of broad bands in the plane of the section with equally broad bands arranged perpendicularly, a structure similar to, if not identical with, that in my octopus sample.

The evidence appears unmistakable that the St. Augustine sea monster was in fact an octopus, but the implications are fantastic. Even though the sea presents us from time to time with strange and astonishing phenomena, the idea of a gigantic octopus, with arms 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base—a total spread of some 200 feet—is difficult to comprehend. Yet still stranger things have been seen and reported in the sea. Melville, himself a nautical man and an extremely careful observer of the natural history of the sea, speaks in Moby Dick of “a vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth of a glancing, cream color.” Remember, a furlong is an eighth of a mile, or 600 feet. There’s something to think about.



PART III:  In Which Bahamian Fishermen Recount Their Adventures with the Beast

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DO giant octopuses exist? Dr. Gennaro and I think it likely that the St. Augustine sea monster was just that. But we had only the partial remains of a dead specimen to consider. Surely if such creatures do exist, someone, somewhere would have seen one, even though they do dwell on the bottom and would presumably be found only at great depths.

In March, 1956, a year before I found the clipping in the laboratory files, I had been sent to West End, Grand Bahama Island, to survey that location as a potential collecting area for Marine Studios. After making inquiries at West End, I engaged the services of a local fishing guide named Duke. He was highly recommended and I soon learned why. Before we set out each morning in his Nassau dinghy I would tell Duke some of the kinds of fishes that I wanted to find. Invariably he would take me to a location where, on going over the side with face mask and flippers, I would find the species that he said would be there. His knowledge of local waters was no less impressive than the reliability of his information.

One evening we had returned from a satisfactory day of logging locations at which various fishes were to be found. We were sitting in his dinghy just off the beach. For some reason I remembered vague references to “giant scuttles” that I had heard years before when I was resident biologist at the Lerner Marine Laboratory on Bimini.

Scuttle is the Bahamian word for octopus—perhaps a felicitous blending of cuttle and a descriptive term for the manner in which octopuses slither across the bottom. All Bahamians were familiar with the small common octopus, but I had understood that giant scuttles, which seemed to be a part of Bahamian lore, were something else.

I asked Duke if he had ever heard of any giant scuttles around West End. Not surprisingly, he said that he had; then he proceeded to tell me when, where, and by whom they had been seen. While I don’t recall the dates and names and places, I do remember that, according to Duke, the most recent encounter had occurred about ten years before. So-and-so had seen one off such-and-such key. And there had been, to his knowledge, two earlier sightings, again with names, approximate dates, and locations specified.

He offered additional giant scuttle lore: they come into shallow water only when sick or dying; they are dangerous to a fisherman only if they can hold fast to the bottom and at the same time reach a small boat floating above.

“How big did giant scuttles grow?” I asked. Duke, pointing to a small boathouse some 75 feet away, said their arms would reach from our boat to that building. He offered additional giant scuttle lore: they come into shallow water only when sick or dying; they are dangerous to a fisherman only if they can hold fast to the bottom and at the same time reach a small boat floating above.

Perhaps even a skeptical biologist could be forgiven for being impressed with this information. Anecdotal evidence is properly mistrusted, but the source must always be considered, and my informant had demonstrated his reliability in other matters. He had given me fairly precise data as to where, when, and by whom the giant scuttles had been encountered. And, certainly, if they indeed existed, the account of their behavior was reasonable enough.

A few evenings later I was chatting with the island commissioner. A native of Andros Island, he was a well-educated—and conservative—man. Octopuses were still on my mind. I mentioned my conversation with Duke, and asked him what he knew of giant scuttles.

Laughing, he told me of a time when, as a boy of about twelve, he had been fishing off Andros with his father and another man. They were handlining in 600 feet of water for silk snappers. His father had hooked something—the bottom, he thought at first. The line could be drawn up, but slowly as if it were hauling up a large object. When the end of the line came in sight, still many feet below them in the clear Caribbean water, they could see a very large octopus clinging to it. Detaching itself from the hook, the octopus came up and attached itself to the bottom of their boat. They were very frightened, but finally the octopus released its hold and disappeared into the depths.

I asked how big the octopus was, but the commissioner wouldn’t say. It had happened many years ago. He would not estimate its size, but it clearly was not comparable to the common shallow-water octopuses that everyone was familiar with.

What was the sea monster of St. Augustine Beach?
Is there indeed a giant octopus in Bahamian waters?

What was the sea monster of St. Augustine Beach? Is there indeed a giant octopus in Bahamian waters? As to the first question, Dr. Gennaro’s examination of the tissue from the preserved specimen at the Smithsonian Institution indicates that it was not a giant squid, and probably not a whale or any other kind of mammal.

That a huge sea creature of some kind washed ashore in Florida in 1896 is beyond dispute. That it was “a vertebrate animal, probably related to the whales,” as Verrill finally opined, appears doubtful.

Initially, I found it difficult to understand how the remains lay for weeks on the beach, unchanged, without further evidence of decomposition. When I wrote of my puzzlement to Frederick A. Aldrich, director of the Marine Sciences Laboratory of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and an authority on giant squids, he replied: “Frankly, I would tend to favor a cephalopod identification of the material you mentioned and per the articles you sent. Cephalopod tissue, particularly squid tissue in my experience, is firm and does not easily decompose beyond a certain stage, and actually hardens and toughens upon exposure.”

There are also the reports of arms on the remains of the creature. Dr. Webb had written to Verrill that the stump of an arm had been unearthed, still attached, 36 feet long and 10 inches in diameter where it was broken off distally. And would Mr. Wilson gratuitously have made up the details as to lengths and numbers of appendages that he told Dr. Webb of seeing earlier? Even though Verrill apparently discounted these reports, they can hardly be ignored.

As for the giant scuttle of the Bahamas, there is reason, at the very least, to keep an open mind. In the light of discoveries within the past half century of sizable, if not spectacular animals both terrestrial and aquatic, no biologist can safely affirm that all such creatures are known to science. A large octopus, living at great depths, could particularly escape scientific notice since no conventional collecting gear is able to bag one, and the chance of such a creature floating to the surface or washing ashore is small.

Man’s exploration of the sea will take him ever deeper and for longer periods of time. Soon he will be working—and living—at hitherto unimagined depths. The chances are good that he will encounter creatures now unknown or, perhaps, known only from long-forgotten documentation or from the unrecorded observations of seafarers and fishermen.

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