As most visitors to town have learned, St. Augustine has quite the repertoire of stories for the curious. Those that garner the most attention, though, are often the legends and myths that have come forth from the woodwork over time. One such story is that of the St. Augustine Sea Monster, also referred to as the St. Augustine Monster or St. Augustine Blob.
In late November of 1896, two boys on the beach at Anastasia Island found a large mass of flesh washed up on the beach approximately twelve miles south on Anastasia Island. Riding back to St. Augustine on their bicycles, they reported their find to local physician Dr. DeWitt Webb, who was also the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science. Dr. Webb visited the site on the first of December, a day after the remains were discovered. He reportedly was one of the only men with an academic background to see the mass in the field. Based on what he saw, Dr. Webb believed the remains to be those of a giant cephalopod, describing it as eighteen feet long and seven feet wide with four arm stumps and another buried nearby. Webb went on to have the remains photographed, and took samples of the flesh to be sent to scientists specializing in comparative zoology and the study of invertebrates. Writing to Professor A. E. Verrill of Yale University, considered the expert at the time on cephalopods (octopus, squid, and their relatives), as well as sending a sample of the carcass, Dr. Webb sought an answer as to the unidentified mass’s identity.
Initially, it was speculated that the creature was a yet-undiscovered species of giant octopus, tentatively dubbed Octopus giganteus by Professor Verrill. Some thought it may also have been a new species of giant squid (Architeuthis). If the mass was the remains of a giant cephalopod, it would have been the largest one known to science. Verill suggested that in life, the creature would have been 7 feet in diameter and weighed up to 5 tons. Using known species to calculate an approximate size, he concluded the creature’s arms could have been between 75 and 100 feet long, and up to 18 inches in diameter! Upon receiving and examining the sample of the mass cut by Dr. DeWitt Webb, Professor Verrill nearly immediately retracted his previous assessment, instead certain that the mass was what remained of a dead whale that had drifted ashore. He theorized that it was most likely the remains of a whale, horribly mutilated by scavenging and decomposition.
Over the years, however, in spite of Professor Verrill’s final conclusion that the mass of flesh belonged to a whale, the St. Augustine Monster’s identity has remained a topic of debate. Many scientists even into the 1970s believed the remains to be that of a gigantic, kraken-like beast. The 1990s and the advent of new technology, however, sought to put an end to the debate once and for all. Utilizing electron microscopic and biochemical analysis, a team of scientists did not find the flesh to be consistent with that of other cephalopods, octopus included. Their conclusions ultimately matched those of Verrill after receiving the sample, that it was long-decomposed whale remains. A 2004 DNA analysis confirmed again that the remains were those of a whale. Regardless of these conclusions and the wealth of evidence supporting them, some still believe the remains to be those of a monstrous octopus, yet undiscovered and unknown by science. After all, our own oceans are lesser-known than space, and octopus are clever creatures…
Written by Robert Covert
“Gigantic Octopus” by A.E. Verrill. Published in the New York Herald on January 3, 1897.
“Gossip.” Published in The Tatler of Society in Florida on January 23, 1897.
“On the Giant Octopus (Octopus Giganteus) and the Bermuda Blob: Homage to A. E. Verrill” by Sidney K. Pierce, Gerald N. Smith, Jr., Timothy K. Maugel, and Eugenie Clark. Published in the Biology Bulletin, April 1995.
“Octopus giganteus: Still Alive and Hiding Where? Part III- Lusca and Scuttles of the Caribbean” by Gary S. Mangiacopra, Michel P. R. Raynal, Dr. Dwight G. Smith and Dr. David F. Avery. Published in Of Sea and Shore, Spring 1995.
“The Florida Sea-Monster” by A. E. Verrill. Published in The American Naturalist on April 1, 1897. https://archive.org/details/jstor-2453041/page/n5/mode/2up
“The Myth of the St. Augustine Monster” by Bess Lovejoy. Published on JSTOR Daily on May 31, 2018. https://daily.jstor.org/the-myth-of-the-st-augustine-monster/