Mystery of the Giant Octopus

About the mystery of the possible giant octopus that washed up on a Florida beach, the history and debate over what the giant creature was.

An Octopus to Remember. Some years ago, early-morning strollers on the beach at St. Augustine, Fla., came upon a strange form that remains a center of controversy even today. The shapeless mass, which apparently had washed ashore during the night, had no head by the time it reached the sand, and its legs were only stumps. Some strollers thought it might be a dead elephant, but it was apparently a sea creature. Everyone agreed that they had never seen anything like it before.

"One of the 1st scientists to study it and venture an opinion on its identity, according to F. G. Wood writing in Natural History magazine, was Prof. A. E. Verrill of Yale University. The professor was known worldwide as an authority on giant squid of the ocean depths. But what Professor Verrill suggested about the monster lying lifeless on the St. Augustine beach sounded farfetched. He thought at 1st that it might be a giant octopus.

"But the more he thought about this the more unlikely the whole idea seemed. Finally he declared publicly that he had changed his opinion."

Verrill's change of mind was understandable, since no giant octopus is recorded in science. There are 140 different species of octopi, and the largest one is often said to be Octopus dofleini of the North Pacific, which has an arm span of about 20'. But even this biggest of known species is much smaller than the creature found on the Florida beach that morning.

For over 2 months, the monster lay there on the sand, decaying with time. "Samples of it were taken and shipped off to the Smithsonian Institution and the museum at Yale University. . . . Once or twice the creature was moved. One time an investigating scientist using a dozen men and block and tackle, stretched it out the better to measure it. The remaining parts measured 21' long, and weighed an estimated 6 tons. As the creature continued to weather in the tropic air the hide grew so tough that an ax would not penetrate its 3"-thick skin, but would instead simply bounce off."

Decades after the creature was found, scientists still speculated on what it might be. Dr. Joseph F. Gennaro, Jr., a biologist, wrote in Natural History how he compared microscope slides of the creature's tissue with samples of both octopus and giant squid. He concluded that the "monster" washed ashore was the largest octopus ever to be measured.

The arms of the creature were eventually judged to have once measured 100'. "From the tip of one tentacle to the tip of an opposing one it could have stretched across 200' of ocean."

Still, authorities continue to debate whether the monster really was a giant octopus. Dr. Gilbert L. Voss, an expert on cephalopods at the Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, doubts that it was. He notes that the soft body of an octopus decays quickly when exposed to the sun and wind. But the St. Augustine monster turned tough instead, leading Dr. Voss to conclude that it might have been the remains of a whale or a shark.

"In a sense, it is too bad that the men of science do not solemnly agree that the creature was indeed a giant octopus. Without such a monster the depths of the sea lose some of their mystery. One might like to know that down there somewhere there really is an octopus with a 200' reach, providing, of course, one did not come face to face with it."

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