Octopus giganteus

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Via Anomalies 101
Mike Tatzel

The object that started the commotion was a rotting carcass of great size. It was first seen by Herbert Coles and Dunham Coretter on a bicycle trip on the evening of November 30, 1896. The following event could have been of extreme zoological importance. What was instead ignored and ridiculed could have been one of the greatest zoological discoveries in history.

When the young men first saw the carcass, it had sunk into the sand because of its immense weight. The next day, Dr. DeWitt Webb, founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, arrived on the scene. The skin was of an extremely light pink color with a silvery tint to it. They concluded it weighed roughly five tons and the visible portions were twenty-three feet in length, four feet high, and eighteen feet across the widest part of the back. Webb, decided that it was not a whale but only some kind of octopus.

Over the course of the next few days, Webb and the rest of the party returned and photographed the creature. Sadly those photographs were lost. However, two drawings based on the snapshots were made by A. Hyatt Verrill, son of Dr. Verrill. One assistant reportedly found fragments of arms while digging in the sand nearby. He was unfortunately alone at the time so his statement is uncorroborated. Evidently, it was attacked while still in the sea and had been dismembered before the carcass washed to shore. Soon afterwards, a storm dragged it out to sea where it again washed ashore two miles to the south of its original position.

It was then that Webb sent several letters describing the carcass to scientists. Professor Verrill of Yale read one of them. Verrill, a zoologist, was recognized for his work on cephalopods, especially giant squid. In a note in the American Journal of Science, published January 1897, he concluded the animal was a giant squid, not an octopus, but much larger that the Newfoundland specimens he had examined. Webb then forwarded more photographs and information to Verrill, who changed his theory to an octopus. He wrote more notes to the American Journal of Science describing the new giant octopus. He concluded the specimen’s tentacles to be approximately seventy-five to one hundred feet long by eighteen inches at the base. He then designated the new creature Octopus giganteous verrill, after himself.

It would be into the second week of January that the work on the specimen would continue. The carcass had been washed out to see again resulting in further losses of body parts and mutilation of the carcass. He reported to both Verrill and Professor William Healy Dall, curator of mollusks at the National Museum in Washington DC, now called the Smithsonian, by letter. In spite of this, neither Verrill nor Dall made any effort to investigate the carcass for themselves nor were they willing to provide the time and money to properly preserve the animal.

Using teams of horses and the efforts of local citizens and companies, Webb was able to move the carcass further up the beach. This protected the remains from being permanently washed out to sea where they would have been lost forever. He then prepared specimens for Verrill and Dall. They were both taken from the mantle of the creature and preserved in formaldehyde. This would turn out to be the only hard evidence to future scientists to study. Webb was, however, interested in preserving the whole carcass and preservatives were forwarded.

Verrill received Webb’s preserved specimen on February 23 and wrote letters of reaction that were published in Science on March 5, 1897, and in the Herald on the seventh. He described the samples visually and concluded they could not be octopus tissue because they resembled the blubber found in some crustaceans, despite the fact that little oil was found in them. Professor Frederic Augustus Lucas, of the National Museum, also examied the speciems and stated "the substance looks like blubber, and smells like blubber, and it is blubber, nothing more nor less."

Verrill finally concluded, after further examination of the tissues, that the bag-like section of the carcass was most likely the upper head and nose of a sperm whale. In the issues of the American Journal of Science and the American Naturalist for April, he does not try to make the objections and problems with his sperm whale theory less obvious. He pointed out that other zoologists that examined the carcass still believe it is an unknown cephalopod related to the octopus.

No work was done on the specimen until 1957 when Dr. F. G. Wood became interested and involved Dr. Joseph F. Gennaro Jr. Gennaro made a trip to the Smithsonian to collect the specimen and wrote:

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.

He noted that the material corresponded to Webb’s description. He was allowed to remove what he wanted with a dissecting knife with replaceable blades. The two pieces he removed were wrapped in cheesecloth, placed in a jar, and transported by himself to his laboratory.

Initial examination proved disappointing. There were no features such as suckers, identifiable skin structures, or muscular masses. He then viewed them through a microscope along with control specimen samples of known octopus and squid. He was disappointed to find no cellular fine structure. He expected highly differentiated cells of a mammal if it was from a whale or structures typical of a squid or octopus. Then he viewed his control samples. They also revealed little if any cellular structure. Differences of connective tissues were more striking. Octopus tissue was different from squid tissue and neither could be mistaken for mammalian tissue.

Using polarized light, Gennaro decide to compare connective tissues. His findings were as follows:

Now differences between the contemporary squid and octopus samples became very clear. In the octopus, broad bands of fibers passed along the plane of 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 planes of the section, separated by thin partitions of perpendicular fibers….It seemed I had found the 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 seventy-five years, the moment of truth was at hand. Viewing section after section of the St. Augustine sample, 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.

We can agree with the assessment but should not be surprised that giant octopi have not been verified before. Perhaps the giant sucker marks on whales, particularly sperm whales, are not caused by giant squid, but rather by giant octopus, as they are more sluggish and are bottom dwellers. Where would these creatures be found? Wood’s investigations revolved around the Bahamas, where reported creatures known as the Lusca very clearly resemble that of giant octopi.

Interestingly enough, Wood had worked in the area in 1956, surveying possible sites for Marine Studios. At one point he recounted vague references to "giant scuttles." "Scuttle" is the Bahamian word for octopus. A reliable guide with whom he worked, named Duke, maintained that the scuttle’s arms were about seventy-five feet long. He also said they are not dangerous to fishermen unless they can grip the ocean floor and the boat at the same time. Additional information was received by George. J. Benjamin, who was intrigued by the great blue holes in the ocean floor around the Andros Islands. He nor his colleagues ever observed any octopi or squid on their investigations of the holes.

However, it seems that evidence presented, consisting not only of reports but also tissue samples, establishes that very large octopi exists somewhere in the Atlantic off the Florida coast. Whether these creatures explain the Lusca cannot be determined until deep diving exploration is carried out in the area.

It seems that other carcasses besides the now famous St. Augustine monster have been observed. In fact, many references can be found to unidentified sea creatures, dubbed globsters, that have washed ashore, some of which resemble the giant octopus. One such body found in Tasmania in August 1960 may have been another octopus. Unfortunately, the investigation that followed was worse than that for the St. Augustine carcass. The discovery was made by a rancher and two cowhands but did not reach the capital until months later. An aerial search located it and a four-man expedition was dispatched in March 1962 led by Bruce Mollison from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. They described the hairy carcass as having no eyes or bones and having creamy, rubbery skin. It was marked with what may have been gill slits. It was given headline treatment and even discussed in Parliament. A zoological team was sent by the government to investigate and returned the next day. Because of the time it had spent decomposing on the beach they said:

"…it is not possible to specifically identify it from our investigations so far. But our investigations lead us to believe that the so-called monster is a decomposing portion of a large marine animal. It is not inconsistent with blubber."

Mollison did not swallow their solution as easily as the press. He claimed they had to say it was ordinary to cover up the fact they were not fast enough to be able to investigate properly. What he saw was not part of a whale, he stated. Theories about the classification of the lump of flesh ranged from a thawed mammoth from Antarctic ice to a space-being. A.M. Clark from the University of Tasmania thought it might have been a giant ray.

Surprisingly, the same rancher who had first seen the Tasmanian globster stumbled across another carcass in 1970. He was in no way excited about it, remembering the ridicule he had gone through the first time. Hardly anyone rushed to investigate the carcass that could have put an end to the mystery of the 1960 carcass.

Other globsters include one that, in March 1965, washed up on the eastern shore of North Island in New Zealand. It was hairy, thirty feet long and eight feet tall. No other significant information was published. On Mangrove Bay beach in Bermuda in May 1988, tissue samples were taken of which laboratory results have yet to be released. Its discoverer, Teddy Tucker, described it as "three feet thick…very white and fibrous…with five arms or legs." Its flesh was extremely hard to cut even in the absence of bone. More recent globsters include that which was found on Four Mile Beach, Tasmania, in 1997. DNA testing was to be done but the results of those tests have never been published.

Marine biologists have turned their attention to those animals living in the unexplored ocean depths, where giant squid are believed to exist. Perhaps there is a bright future and possible discovery of the great octopus.


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