Monday, August 19, 2013

St. Augustine Sea Monster

On November 30, 1896, two young boys bicycling on Anastasia Island, off the coast of St. Augustine, made a frightening discovery: an enormous dead sea creature's decomposing carcass washed up along the shore.

They notified a local physician, Dr. DeWitt Webb, the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, who visited Anastasia Island the following day to inspect the creature. It was very pale pink, almost white, and glistened with a silver reflection in the sunlight. It was of a hard rubbery consistency, and could only be cut into with great effort. Despite this fact, the body was severely mutilated - presumably by sharks - and from all outward appearances seemed to be explained away best by being the remains of a giant octopus, having the stumps of four arms, with a severed arm buried nearby.

The carcass was half buried in the sand under its immense weight, but the part of the carcass that was visible above the sand measured 18 feet in length and 7 feet in width. Dr. Webb estimated its weight to be at least 5 tons. Numerous photographs were taken and drawings were made before the carcass washed in a storm that dragged it back out to sea. But shortly thereafter it came back, washing up on Crescent Beach, two miles south of its first location. Dr. Webb arranged for the creature to be hauled away, so that it would not be lost again to the ocean. It was moved to a spot next to a South Beach hotel, where it became a tourist attraction gawked at by large numbers of visitors.

What happened after that is murky. No one seems to know what became of the mystery carcass. Did they eventually get sick of its rotting smell when the following summer came? And if so, how did they dispose of it, since it was only dragged to the hotel with great herculean effort and, literally, a team of horses? Much written anecdotes exist from newspapers and magazines telling of the lump's discovery and subsequent analysis, but nothing tells of where it ended up.

The monster's legend didn't stop there, however. In 1957, a curator at Marineland who read of the old stories about the blob that washed ashore on Anastasia, and after making some inquiries found that tissue samples still existed at the Smithsonian Institution. He arranged for a biologist, Dr. Joseph F. Gennaro Jr., to analyze the sample, and Dr. Gennaro declared in the March 1971 issue of Natural History:

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.

In 1986, another scientist investigated all over again, and came to a similar conclusion:

I conclude that, to the extent the preserved O. giganteus tissue is representative of the carcass washed ashore at St. Augustine, Florida, in November 1896, it was essentially a huge mass of collagenous protein. Certainly, the tissue was 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.

But in 1995, yet another scientist disputed these findings, stating, "the St. Augustine carcass was "the remains of a whale, likely the entire skin [blubber layer]... nothing more or less."

So now who knows what to think. The more recent the scientific inquiries, the more weight their verdict should carry, due to their advanced technology, right? But I've been up and down the block in this burg called Earth long enough to know that I'd believe an 1896 or 1957 scientist over these modern-mindset ones. I trust 'em about as far as I can throw 'em. I remain content having no clue whether this beach blob was a giant squid, an octopus, a whale, or something else entirely. Only the blob knows for sure and he isn't telling.

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