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The Mysterious Sea Monsters of Monterey Bay

Within the U.S. state of California, just south of the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose, lies the scenic Monterey Bay. With one of the highest levels of marine biodiversity in the country and with its many quaint towns, outdoor activities, plentiful wildlife, and splendid, sprawling natural vistas, the bay draws in droves of scientists and tourists year-round. Yet in addition to this, Monterey Bay also has its share of unexplained mysteries, and certainly ranking high among these are the reports over the years of mysterious sea monsters prowling its depths.

Tales of something strange lurking in Monterey Bay have been around since at least the 1900s, when sailors and fisherman in the area began to make sightings of what would eventually be called “Bobo,” or “The Old Man of the Sea,” which is most often described as a massive seal-like creature with a strikingly simian or human looking face. One of the earliest accounts of this creature or something like it was made in 1922 by a fisherman named Sal Colletto, who was aboard a 45-foot sardine fishing rig, the Dante Alighieri, near Monterey Bay some distance off a place called Moss Landing when he noticed something odd bobbing about out in the water that he at first took to be a piece of debris or possibly even a man floating in the ocean. As he approached to investigate, Colletto claimed that he could see that it was no hunk of floating garbage or man, but rather a mysterious marine creature with a head the size of a “50-gallon barrel,” a duck bill, and a bulging forehead.

Monterey Bay

Colletto would keep this story to himself at the time, but amazingly he would see another sea monster in 1938 in the same general vicinity while aboard his boat along with his brother-in-law. The scenario was very similar this time around, and on this occasion they both saw something bobbing out amongst the waves and went to investigate. They reportedly pulled up to within 50 feet of it, and noticed that it was a sea creature the likes of which they had never seen before. It was described as being as long as the 45-foot boat and covered with thick, wrinkled brown skin, but the most startling detail was that it had a face they said looked like that of a monkey or an old man. Interestingly, the creature did not even seem to notice their boat at first, and appeared to be merely floating on its back with its eyes closed as if sleeping or relaxing. After a few minutes of this, it purportedly suddenly opened its large, pink eyes to glare at the startled crew before emitting a loud snort and disappearing below the calm surface of the water and out of sight.

Having seen the beast, or at least two different strange creatures in the same area, Colletto became rather obsessed with finding it, but he never did make another sighting. However, in the wake of his report other fishermen and boaters began to report seeing something similarly odd in these waters, usually making mention of a long body with fins or flippers and a humanoid or ape-like face that was often described as looking sad or forlorn, and some reports saying that it had a mane of red hair around its head. In one such case from 1939, fishermen aboard the albacore fishing boat the Santa Anna were in Monterey Bay and approached what they thought at first to be a huge log in the water, which they actually reportedly poked with a fishing gaffe only to find out that it was actually an enormous seal-like beast “50 times larger than an elephant seal” and with a face like a gorilla.

There have been many possible explanations for what The Old man of the Sea could have been, such as an elephant seal, an oversized salmon, a rare deep-sea oarfish, which also happens to have a red mane reminiscent of some of the reports, some out of place sea animal, or even just a piece of misidentified garbage, but none of them really perfectly match up to what any of the reports describe. It is unlikely that we will ever know, as sightings of the creature withered away to nothing in the 1940s.


Interestingly, at around the same time as the Old Man of the Sea was originally sighted there were other sightings of a strange creature in the area of Santa Cruz, which lies in the same area as Monterey Bay and is often lumped into the Monterey Bay Area. In 1925, a Mr. E.J. Lear reported to the Santa Cruz Sentinel that he had been driving along the coast when he had witnessed a commotion out on the water where some sea lions appeared to be battling some mysterious creature. He would say of what happened thus:

I was driving a team toward Capitola, when suddenly I was attracted by some young sea lions not far out. They were lined up and several large lions were swimming back and forth in front of them. Much farther out I saw the water being churned to foam and thrown high up in the air. It was shiny and I took it for a big fish. A dozen or more lions were battling it, and every once in a while all would raise out of the water. It looked to me as though all the sea lions were attacking it beneath as the monster came out of the water several times. In telling of the battle of that night I estimated its length at 30 feet. The battle continued as long as I could see it from the road.

At around the same time of this sensational sighting a bizarre beast was found by a Charles Moore washed up at what is now known as Natural Bridges State Beach. The carcass was rancid and badly decomposed, but was generally reported to be of an unidentified beast with a duck-like head, a long neck, a tail like that of a whale, and legs “like an elephant” complete with toenails, although the descriptions differed depending on the publication. Reports of the size of the thing also varied fairly considerably at the time, with some sources saying it was 30 feet long and others claiming it was more like 50 feet or more, and the serpentine neck was listed as being anywhere from 6 to 20 feet long.

Natural Bridges State Beach

News reports at the time claimed that a man named E.L. Wallace, who was described as a respected naturalist and former president of both the Natural History Society of British Columbia and the Natural History Society of British Columbia, had examined the body and come to the conclusion that it was a type of plesiosaurus, which was a long-necked marine reptile that supposedly went extinct around 65 million years ago. Wallace would allegedly say of his examination of the beast:

My examination of the monster was quite thorough. I felt in its mouth and found it had no teeth. Its head is large and its neck fully twenty feet long. The body is weak and the tail is only three feet in length from the end of the backbone. These facts do away with the whale theory, as the backbone of a whale is far larger than any bone in this animal. Again, its tail is too weak for an animal of the deep and does away with that last version. With a bill like it possesses, it must have lived on herbage . . . I would call it a type of plesiosaurus.

These reports generated quite a lot of excitement at the time, and they captured the public imagination. It was all widely viewed with wide-eyed wonder as proof that dinosaurs still ruled the oceans, although to be fair Wallace was said to think it may have been regurgitated by a melting glacier, where it had been encased in ice. Unfortunately, a few years later an article in the November 1929 edition of the Journal of Mammalogy diverged from this media furor, giving the more down-to-earth and mundane story that a Dr. Barton Warren Evermann, of the California Academy of Sciences, had come in to investigate the carcass and had the skull shipped off to the California Academy of Sciences, where it was discovered to be that of a Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii Stejneger). According to this report, the carcass had merely looked more mysterious due to its advanced stage of decomposition, which can make carcasses look quite bizarre indeed. As to why there had been so many varying descriptions of the mystery beast, this was chalked up to exaggeration, sensationalism, over-excitement, misidentification, and probably a good dose of wanting to sell copies on the part of the newspapers.

The Santa Cruz sea monster

But what about the “respected naturalist” Wallace? Surely he would have known the difference between a beaked whale and a plesiosaurus, wouldn’t he? The thing is, there has never been any evidence to show that this man ever existed, and he seems to be a shadow, an entity purely made up by the newspapers. Of course there are those who think that there was a cover-up involved, with Wallace’s account the true version and that pesky California Academy of Sciences trying to bury what would have been one of the most amazing zoological discoveries of the century, but who are you going to trust? The seemingly nonexistent naturalist who said it was a sea-going dinosaur or a respected, very real journal and scientific institute?

Of course the mystery is more alluring, and there are still those who claim that the creature was an actual plesiosaurus or other unidentified sea monster, and that Wallace was real and correct. As extra ammunition they point to the similarity of the creature described in the news reports of the 1922 sighting by Colletta, which also featured a duck bill, as well as the report made by E.J Lear of a strange creature being attacked by sea lions within days of the finding, suggesting that it may have died of its wounds and washed up on shore. Whatever it was, what has come to be known as the Moore Beach Monster or the Santa Cruz Sea Monster is surely a curious case that has been much discussed.

Rounding out our look at the anomalous monsters of Monterey Bay area we have what is perhaps the most dramatic of them all. In January of 2009, an episode of the first season of the Animal Planet TV cryptozoology series Lost Tapes told the story of a woman named Sharon Novak, who on July 17, 2007 was allegedly in the process of making a round-the-world trip in her sailboat the Artemis when she supposedly received a distress call as she passed Monterey Bay. Novak then purportedly went to investigate the call and found an abandoned sailboat called the Kahuna adrift and with no sign of the crew. As she tried to figure out what to do, Novak’s boat was apparently hit by something very large underwater, after which she fell in and never resurfaced. According to the story, Novak was attacked and killed by a sea monster, and also that one of the ship’s cameras actually captured footage of something massive lurking underwater at the time, along with a piece of supposed footage from her life vest camera that is claimed to show a large fin amongst all of the panicked splashing.

The Lost Tapes episode featured a dramatic re-enactment of the alleged incident, which really goes overboard with the creepiness of it all, as well as the purported footage that was captured on the cameras, all of which is presented with all seriousness as being totally real. It is all very dramatic and intriguing, but there are a lot of red flags with this particular story, not the least of which is that Lost Tapes has gained a reputation of playing fast and loose with supposed “real events,” changing details, twisting the statements of experts, and straight making things up. Then there is the fact that the alleged “real” footage of the accident looks very staged, and perhaps most damning of all is that there is not a single piece of evidence that corroborates any of the story or even shows that Sharon Novak is a real person. There are no news reports of this incident, no mentions of it anywhere, nor any indication that there was ever a Sharon Novak on a boat called the Artemis at that time or ever. Indeed, the only place this account seems to be mentioned is on that Lost Tapes episode, and all mentions of the case seem to originate from that. None of this looks good for the veracity of the tale, and it is most likely hoax or piece of fiction made to look like a documentary, but it is still talked about as being perhaps real.

The idea that Monterey Bay could hold a new species of large animal is not in and of itself so absurd. One of the largest underwater canyons in the world runs through here, called Monterey Canyon or Monterey Submarine Canyon, stretching 249 miles long and plunging down 1 mile into the black depths. The canyon supports a wide variety of marine organisms, and there are thought to be myriad undiscovered species still to be found here. The bay itself, with its rich food resources and nutrients, is also home to great biodiversity and numerous species of wildlife, including larger animals such as pinnipeds such as harbor seals and elephant seals, as well as dolphins, whales, and sea otters, making it an attractive destination for marine biologists and research institutes, and there are numerous marine conservation and protected areas in the region. The bay absolutely is capable of sustaining a large marine organism, and with the canyon there would possibly be plentiful places for an unknown mystery creature to hide.

The problem is that in the end there is no real evidence to point to these accounts as being anything other than amazing stories that do little more than stir the imagination, although they are all rather intriguing nevertheless. One can’t help but read these and wonder if there are strange beasts of the sea that once called Monterey Bay home, or still do. If so, what are they and where did they come from? There is really nothing we can do to verify some of these weird tales, but they do show that the sea is a wellspring of strange stories and mysteries, and probably always will be for as long as we look out over the waves and wonder what lies out there.