Two boys came across a curious piece of flotsam on a Florida beach on Anastasia Island near St. Augustine. The year was 1896.
The closest thing Anastasia Island had to a naturalist in 1896 was the local physician, DeWitt Webb. He sketched the thing, photographed it, used a team of horses to pull it back from the tide. Another doctor, George Grant, staying at a hotel near the South Beach, wrote a description for his Williamsburg, Pennsylvania hometown paper. The object resembled in all details the corpse of an octopus, with its tentacles missing, likely chewed off by sharks and oceanic scavengers. It varied from the standard octopus in one essential respect; the body measured over twenty feet in length and weighed an estimated 5-7 tons.
Samples were sent to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, but it was a Yale man, Professor Addison Verrill, then the world's leading expert on cephalopods, who identified the creature. Verrill had studied some of the giant squid (architeuthis) specimens which had washed ashore in the late nineteenth century, settling for once the scientific debate over its existence.
Verrill pronounced the specimen an octopus, octopus giganteus Verrill 1897. Florida was then, to a degree, an American national boondocks, and getting experts to the flesh that lay rotting on the beach was not an easy matter. Moving the matter any distance was equally problematic, and the tide seemed inclined to reclaim it. Chunks were cut, however, and sent to Dr. Verrill and William Healy Dall of the Smithsonian Institute.
The scientific community had only just come to accept the giant squid, in the 1890s. Octopus giganteus proved too much, and, under pressure, the cephalopod specialist reexamined the samples cut off, and changed his mind. He said it was probably a whale, decayed. That this hypothetical cetacean was also apparently filleted, as well, was not addressed. The photographs and illustrations do not look much like a whale; were it not for the size, anyone even remotely familiar with marine life would immediately identify it as the remains of a cephalopod.
The story vanished, for many years, an obscure Florida legend.
In 1957, Forrest Wood, the inappropriately-named curator of Florida's Marine Studios (later Marineland) discovered references to the giant octopus, and attempted to track the remaining evidence. In addition to an assortment of accounts in newspapers and journals, he located the portions that remained in the Smithsonian's possession. Dr. David Gennaro, a cell biologist at the University of Florida examined the antique preserves, keeping in mind the unique properties of octopus cells. He concluded:
the evidence appears unmistakable that the St. Augustine sea monster was in fact an octopus, but the implications are fantastic.
Based on the photographs and measurements, he estimates the living beast would have stretched 200 feet from tentacle to tentacle.
An analysis in the 1980s has also suggested the material came from a "mass of collagenous protein" from a cephalopod, though not of "any known species" (Mackal). Another examination in the 1990s suggested it might not be a cephalopod after all, but could not clearly identify what it was. Most recently, the sample has been identified as being the blubber layer of a (rather large!) whale, but that identification has been disputed.
We know the ocean depths house giant squid, colossal squid, and some as-yet unidentified creature that goes bloop! We have sailors' reports from ages past insisting that the kraken could be found as both outsized octopus and squid. The remains from St. Augustine remain a mystery, but we may have to accept, one day, that the giant octopus, star of many a sailor's yarn and monster movie, is a living beast.
"The Colossal Octopus" The Museum of Unnatural History.
Richard Ellis. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Jason Finch. "Giant Octopus."
Andrew D. Gable. "St. Augustine Monster." The Crypto-Web Page.
Willy Ley. Exotic Zoology (1959). New York: Bonanza Books, 1987.
R.P. Mackal. "Biochemical Analysis of Preserved Octopus giganteus Tissue. Cryptozoology 5: 55-62.
"St. Augustine's Giant Octopus" Florida Haints, Hauntings, and Hoodoo.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum