From the Depths

The scope of paranormal activity in St. Augustine is usually limited to ghosts, and for good reason – ghost stories have featured prominently in the folklore of the City for a long time. However, the Ancient City also has some good stories of creatures from another corner of the unknown: sea monsters.

A black and white drawing of a man at the beach standing over a blob called "The Florida Monster."
Verrill, A.E. (1897). The Florida Sea-Monster. The American Naturalist 31(364): 304–307.

I started my research looking at our most famous cryptid, the Saint Augustine Monster, which washed ashore on Anastasia Island in 1896. It was certainly the remains of something, although the giant rotting blob defied explanation (and classification) by everyone who saw it. Dr. De Witt Webb of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science wanted to alert the scientific community to the curiosity and contacted an expert on marine invertebrates from Yale University named Addison E. Verrill. Verrill speculated the remains were of a previously undiscovered species of giant octopus. He took the liberty of naming the “discovery” after himself, the Octopus giganteus verrill. That might have been the end of the story, except that Dr. Webb took one extra step that we can all be thankful for. He sent photographs and chunk of the blob to the Smithsonian Institution in 1897 (today it’s in the collection storage of the National Museum of Natural History). As time progressed and scientific testing methods and equipment improved, the sample was brought back out, most recently in 2004 when a DNA test identified the sample as whale blubber. Mystery solved! Sorry Verrill. For more information on this, please read this fantastic little blog post by the Smithsonian here.

A black and white drawing of a blob called "The Florida monster" on the beach.
Verrill, A.E. (1897). The Florida Sea-Monster. The American Naturalist 31(364): 304–307.

 While I was looking for more information on the Saint Augustine Monster I came across a curious letter in a folder from the Marineland Dolphin Adventure archives (thank you to the Manager of Education and Community Development, Terran McGinnis!) that was labeled “Newspaper/Correspondence of Sea Monsters.” These were mostly collected by a past curator named Dr. Forrest Grove Wood, Jr. – aside from having the greatest name of all time, Dr. Wood was the first person to report the underwater ultrasonic vocalizations (sonar) by dolphins in captivity at Marineland. He was also apparently very interested in reports of sea monsters. Most items in the folder contain letters and clippings regarding the misidentified remains of whales (sounds familiar!), giant squid, sturgeons, poisonous eels (sea snakes), the Loch Ness Monster, etc., but one letter stands out as truly mysterious. Dr. Wood received a letter on February 10, 1959 from Robert S. Browning which recounted a strange sighting at New Smyrna Beach about 11 years earlier. Browning explained that in the fall of 1948 a school of small whales were beached at New Smyrna, and shortly after he saw a strange bump in the water about 150 yards offshore. He grabbed a pair of binoculars to get a better look:

“Through them I could see what was the body of some creature, it appeared flabby fat and was coal black on the top. As it turned very slowly it would heave up on a swell and part of its undersides would come into view which disclosed that the belly part was of a sulphur yellow color and between the black and yellow was a series of irregular black blotches which were large neat the black and grew progressively smaller towards the yellow. There was no sign of any fins or other appendages. As I watched the creature seemed to move its neck and head back and forth as if chasing something. This was done with great power for it threw a mass of spray six or eight feet into the air fifteen or more feet ahead of the body part which remained stationary. This occurred several times and I must have watched for close to twenty minutes. At this time a shrimp boat which was a couple of miles away began to draw nearer. I do not know whether this was a signal for the creature to disappear or whether he grew tired of what he was doing but he made up his mind to go and this is the part that really amazed me and caused the incident to make such an impression on me for as he started slowly to sink (he did not rush off) he raised from the water behind him a long fairly slender black tail which must have been twenty to twenty five feet long and which curved in a most graceful arc and slowly following the line of the arc descended into the water as the rest of the creature disappeared. This tail had no fins nor did it have flippers and the end of it did not come to a point but was cut off square.”

Browning went on to mention that he estimated the creature to have been 60 to 80 feet in length, and that when the tail was raised it was lifted about ten feet above the water. He also mentioned that he rarely spoke of his experience because no one believed him, but that he thought the incident was at least worth recording, which was the reason for his letter. 

It’s easy to write off Browning’s experience as something explainable that was simply misidentified. Given the right setting and state of mind a yowling cat can sound like a moaning ghost to someone who is unfamiliar with the sound. But Browning was not among the uninitiated when it came to the ocean. In fact, one of the most fascinating things to me about his letter is how familiar he was with the ocean, which makes his experience stand out as truly mysterious. In his own words:

“As for myself I have been at this beach off and on for twenty years. During my youth I spent the summers on the shores of Fire Island, Long Island; in the first World War I was a naval aviator, in the second I was the captain of one of the first LST’s [Landing Ship, Tank] put in commission and later in the war was assigned to one of the large research organizations of the Navy. My college degree was in chemical engineering. I tell you this so that you may know that I am not unused to the sea, nor to science, nor to observation both at sea and on land so I feel rather qualified to know what I am talking about.” 

He included with his letter what he described as a “crude” watercolor to give a general impression of the what the creature was like, and it is fascinating to say the least:

Sea Monster

 

As for Dr. Forrest’s response, he keeps one hand gripped on cautious skepticism, but with the other offered this sentiment:

“Of the numerous reports of sea monsters that have been sighted, most are at least explainable on the basis of known marine life. A few do not admit of ready explanation, and quite a few reputable scientists are willing to keep an open mind about what may live in the depths.” 

We may never know for sure what Robert Browning saw off the coast of New Smyrna that day, and we can never know when it will decide to return. Maybe never. Maybe on your next beach day. Only time will tell.   

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