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Saturday, June 12, 2010

LINDSAY SELBY: The San Clemente Sea Creature sightings

San Clemente Island is in the Santa Barbara Channel, which separates the mainland of California from the northern Channel Islands. During the early 1900s there were rumours that a strange creature had been seen in the waters and lots of people had seen the monster, but were reluctant to talk about it. Then this story appeared in Esquire Magazine 1934.(this is an extract)

“It was in September, 1920. I was fishing for marlin swordfish at San Clemente with the late Smith Warren. We were staying at Mosquito Harbor where the fish camp used to be. It was early in the morning—about 8:00 o'clock. We had worked close in shore the three miles from the camp down to the East End. We had then turned back up the coast and worked along about a mile and a half to two miles off shore. The sea was glassy with just a little roll coming down the island.. Smithy was down in the cockpit doing something or another. I was perched on top of the cabin looking for fish. My bait trolled along astern, the rod tied to the fishing chair. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something huge lifting up out of the sea. Turning swiftly I was face to face with something I had never seen before—will probably never see again! A great barrel shaped Thing, tapering toward the top and surmounted by a reptilian head strangely resembling those of the huge, prehistoric creatures whose reproductions stand in various museums. It lifted what must have been a good twenty feet. Widely spaced in the head were two eyes—eyes such as were never conceived of even in the wildest nightmare! Immense, at least a full foot in diameter, round, slightly bulging, and as dead looking as though they had seen all the death the world has suffered since its birth! No wonder those who had seen it close by could speak of little else but the eyes! This was the picture that came into the lenses of my seven power binoculars the moment I clapped them on to the Thing—knowing what I was looking at. At the same time I yelled to Smithy to head for it. Through the glasses the head, those awful eyes, that portion of the body showing—and it must have been at least six feet thick, perhaps more, appeared scarcely a hundred feet away. It was covered with what looked like stiff, coarse hair, almost bristles. Strangely enough, considering the light, I gained a distinct impression of a reddish tinge. Remember that. The bulk of the Thing simply cannot be told. To this day I don't believe that I saw anything but the head and a section of the neck—if it had a neck. What was below the surface only God knows. But listen to this. You will recollect that I mentioned a little roll coming down the island? The Thing did not rise and fall in that roll as even a whale would. The waves beat against it and broke. As we drew nearer, the great head which had been slowly turning, stopped. The huge, dead eyes fixed themselves upon us! Even today, after fourteen years, I can still see them—yes—feel them. For seconds—it seemed like hours—they stared at us incuriously, dull and lifeless. Then, without convulsion of any sort, it started to sink, slowly, majestically—and disappeared beneath the surface. There was no swirl, no whirlpool, no fuss, no nothing. The waters closed over it and it was gone. With its disappearance I think we breathed for the first time. I looked at Smithy—Smithy looked at me. "J——!" I croaked. Only a week later I was talking to N. B. Schofield, head of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries of the California Division of Fish and Game. Schofield is an ichthyologist of considerable reputation and a pupil of the late Dr. David Starr Jordan. He suggested that I was said to have seen a strange monster and asked me about it. After I had described the Thing he was silent for a minute or two then went on to say that fishermen out of Monterey, California, swore that they had been seeing a similar creature only recently. I was never closer to the Thing than three hundred yards—perhaps more. I know two men who have been closer than that but there is no material variance in their stories and mine other than one of them thinks he saw a mouth with teeth. I am quite sure that I did not. As to how large the Thing is—your guess is as good as mine. I have a feeling, probably a sort of sixth sense, which tells me that I saw only a small portion of the beast—that beneath the surface was a body greater than that of any known creature, a whale included. However, that is nothing more than an unprovable hunch. I do not know whether it was serpentine in form or not. I again have a feeling that it was not. If it was—then we had better revise our views on serpents. I have told all I know about the Thing. Now, I will lay all my cards face up upon the table. Smith Warren is dead; his lips are sealed. Neale is still living but was never as close to the creature as were we. True, there are a number from out of the ranks of those twenty-five or thirty who have seen the Thing who are still alive. Some of them might come forward in defense of my story—but I shall not ask them to.. From Esquire Magazine for Men, June 1934

Then this story was published in 1975 in the book "From The Ozarks To Aliso" by Karen Wilson Turnbull.( Bound as From the Ozarks to Aliso with George Wesley Wilson, O.H. 1430, Community History (Laguna Beach))

Grace Wilson aged 88 was interviewed for the oral history book and this is her story:

Grace: "...Howard and I were looking out the window at the same time and we saw this huge horses' head sticking up out of the water. It stuck out way up high, and it just sailed along. It was quite a ways out, but it was close enough that we could see it's head bend. It was just going along."

Karen: What did you think it was?

Grace: "A Horse!" (laughter)

Karen: Now they call it the Loch Ness Monster, don't they?

Grace: "Well, I don't know. You see these sea horses on television and they're little bitty things...nothing big...but this was a real big thing. I'll never forget how that thing looked. Howard and I both know what it looked like. Has he said anything about it?"

Karen: Yes, he drew a picture of it once.

Grace: "We just called it a "sea horse", because we couldn't think of nothing else."

Howard confirmed the above account, and also told me that they both decided that it was probably some kind of creature "that got lost...maybe it came down from Alaska". He told me of how he too would never forget how big it was. And how the colossal head looked left and right, how the neck would bend, and how the big eyes even blinked a few times. I asked if it could have been a tree trunk that might have washed out of one of the rivers to the north, but Howard said no. "It was much bigger then a tree. It would bend it's neck almost in two", as the gigantic head would occasionally dip down to the water, "then straighten back up. It turned it's head to look directly at the shore, and I saw the eyes blink." "No," he said, "It was alive. "It wasn't just drifting along with the current either. "You could see the white water splashing up the front of the neck, and the wake water trailing along behind as it swam south. It was moving along pretty fast. It must have been powerful" he said.

It was also observed in 1935 by J.A.Coxe and described in his book, "Men, Fish and Tackle" (1936).He described the creature as having very large eyes, a long neck, about 6 inches( 15cms) thick and a reptile like head, with red bristle like protrusions on it The eyes were expressionless and cold and when he approached , it slid beneath the water leaving no ripples on the surface. Which is very similar to the Esquire account.

Apparently the local private fishing club( Tuna club started in 1898) also holds several accounts of the creature been seen, but I have no access to them (If anyone does please post a comment). The story in esquire sounds like just, that a story, but the oral history project sighting sounds more real. So what did they see? It may have been a leopard seal or an elephant seal that had indeed come down the coast from Alaska or beyond , or a long necked pinniped ( you will have seen this discussed elsewhere , the possibility of their existence)after tuna perhaps. The problem is memory is fallible and things grow larger or smaller with retelling(usually larger) and we convince ourselves of things that may not be strictly true. When the stories are this old it is difficult to decide what is true and what is not. The only truth we can define is that about 30 people saw something strange and large in that stretch of water between the 1920s and 1930s.

6 comments:

Dale Drinnon said...

There is a lot of difference between a neck six inches thick and one six feet thick. The very thick neck of the very large creature entirely rules out any possibility of a LONG necked pinneped, it is also "Thick-necked"

In the case of the creature only six inches thick, that one sounds as if it might be an oarfish, especially since it had stiff red bristles on its back. But the immenasity of the really big one that neither rose nor fell with the waves must have been incredible unless it was very much exaggerated. We are talking something on a par with the biggest whales or bigger if what the witness says is true. Personally, I think that part is exaggerated. It would be useful also to know other detalis such as the shape of its head or its size. If it had eyes a foot across, what is that in a head a dozen feet long, say? We get no sense of proportion from the description.

But at the very least, different witnesses are describing different things.

Dale Drinnon said...

The September 1920 sighting specified a barrel shape about six feet wide and twenty feet out of the water, including the head and just the beginning of a neck. The thickness goes into the length 3 1/2 times and probably at least half of the 20 feet must be the head. The two eyes a foot across are widely separated-which would necessarily mean more than a foot apart and probably more than two or three. The neck showing would be less than ten feet long and at least six feet thick. It is not necessarily very long at all.

What I guess is that this is the really big Mosasaur type again, Shuker's Leviathan. Then it could be a hundred feet long which is about what the report suggests. Sometimes the Mosasaur type is described with a continuous "Mane or fin" down the middle, and I suppose the idea of a reddish horse's mane could have been partly influenced by the other accounts. But it was no Merhorse with those dimensions. The other reports are quite paltry beside it.

If 20 feet of it was showing and it was a hundred feet long, only a fifth of its length showed above water and four-fifths were below. That would have provided it with its great stability. And it would have been enough to cause some people to drop dead from sheer fright at the sight of such a horrible thing.

I would still like to know more details but you can see what we are up against with 20 feet of head and neck six feet thick showing above water to work with. A regular "Merhorse" might show 20 feet of neck length but that would be perhaps two feet thick. Twenty feet of length and six feet in diameter is already the size of an elephant and several tons.

Dale Drinnon said...

Heuvelmans lists the Sept 1920 sighting off San Clemente to Ralph Bandini, etc. He calls it a "Merhorse" but evidently he did not stop to think of what such a lenth of head and neck 6 feet thick might look like.

The dimensions are also comparable to the Dec 12 1857 Castillian SS sighting off St. Helena. This time the creature raised a head "Shaped like a long nun buoy" seven or eight feet thick up to 10 or 12 feet out of the water. Depending on how much of an incline that was, it could have been 20 feet long on a diagonal slant. The creature is often cited for having a "Scroll or tuft of loose skin" two feet from the top-which Heuvelmans at first compares to the often-reported 'mane'(In The Wake of the Sea-Serpents p. 244 "-but this is by no means certain")If the profile was not of the creature at equilibrium but canted slightly toward the viewer, the median 'mane or fin' could seem to be offset two feet down on that side. If the eyes were seen they were not decribed, but the head like a nun bouy is spindle-shaped: Bandini's reported "Barrel-shaped" head would not be much different, although the Castillian version would seem to have a more pointed end to the snout. The Castillian creature was estimated as having an enormous size also, at 200 to 500 feet according to different crew members. No doubt this was exaggerated, as Heuvelmans says: still, if it were only a hundred feet long, that would be impressive enough.

In all these cases the dimensions match well enough with my chart I made in recreation of the Monongahela creature.

And thank you very much for starting me on this line of inquiry, because now the big-Mosasaur sort of "Marine Saurian" has about a dozen sightings listed by my count and is as well-substantiated as both the Titanoconger and the Megaconger. It is by far the best-represented "Marine Saurian" now, and all the smaller Mosasaur-and/or-big-croc "Marine Saurian" sightings together might make as many reports.

The big-Mosasaur seems to be a specialist predator on small whales and medium-sized sharks, but if Bandini saw one while marlin fishing it could have been hunting marlin too. And it might also be hunting elephant seals in those waters. It has an enormous gape and jointed jaws like some snakes, and it swallows its prey whole. If there were small or medium sized Mosasaurs that persisted into the Cenozoic, this type might have evolved later along with the whales and grew to enormous size because the niche for a small-whale predator became open as the whales themselves evolved to larger size. Giant squid might also come to mind as possible prey items but there is no evidence that the big-Mosasaurs pursue them.

shiva said...

The description reminded me a lot of both "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and the original Japanese "Godzilla", but the report dates from 20 years before either of those films, so if the 1934 date is genuine, then is there a possibility that the influence went the other way (ie, some of the inspiration for those films came from actual cryptid reports)?

It almost seems like the witness (or the writer of the report) was trying to hint that the creature was actually not swimming, but walking on the bottom (and therefore was presumably of a size that could not possibly exist given real-world biology and physics).

Were there any "giant monster" movies (or other works of fiction) prior to 1934?

Tabitca said...

There was a silent film of Conan Doyles Lost World may have been out in the 1920s.The book of the same and also Journey to the Centre of the Earth book would have been around for some time. It doesn't mean to say that the people concerned saw or read either.It is something we can only offer conjecture on.

Greg May said...

The late Ken Norris, a former curator of Marineland of the Pacific and one of the world's most respected oceanographers may have posthumously solved the mystery of the San Clemente Sea Monster. In his book, 'The Porpoise Watcher' Norris described the hectic pre-opening days of Marineland in 1954 when they were catching specimens in Catalina Channel off the Southern California coast. Norris described how he and his staff would observe whales 'spyhopping' - a natural behavior where a whale takes a vertical position in the water with its head out of water to take a look at its' surroundings. Gray whales do this during their annual migration from the Bering Sea to Mexico. When viewed from a certain angle, the spyhopping whale takes on a different appearance. Norris described how the superstitious fishermen called the spyhopping pilot whale 'monaco' - a Sicilian term meaning a priest wearing black robes. This is what the whales looked like to them when viewed from a certain angle. So the Sea Monster is actually spyhopping whales.