Ah, the Caribbean. Long a premiere location for cruise ships and romantic getaways, the area is known for its clear blue waters, fantastic scuba diving, year round sunshine, lush resorts, and stunning white sand beaches. Yet there is more to this paradise of tropical islands and sunshine that many don’t know about. Go beyond the bustling tourist areas of the many idyllic islands of the region and you will find that in addition to postcard perfect beaches and colorful reefs, the islands of the Caribbean are also home to mysterious creatures that hide from man.
The Caribbean Sea is located southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the mainland of the United States, and holds hundreds of islands, islets, reefs, and cays. The region has vast biodiversity, not only within its myriad coral reefs, but also inland as well, largely due to the incredibly wide range of ecosystems to be found here. Dispersed among the islands, one can find everything from rain forests to arid scrub-land habitats, all within relatively close distance of each other. The waters of the Caribbean also boast exceptional diversity of marine ecosystems, and are home to 8% of the world’s coral reefs by surface area. The biodiversity here is so astounding that the Caribbean islands have been classified as a biodiversity hotspot by Conservation International.
It is here among these sun-soaked islands and their clear, azure waters so imbued with natural beauty and diversity of life, that we will take our tour of Caribbean mysteries. In this extensive, 5-part series of articles, let us go out beyond the luxury resorts and throngs of tourists to take a peek at some of the mysterious denizens of these islands.
The start of our journey takes us to Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and also the second most populous after Hispaniola. Cuba may conjure up images of sipping mojitos on the beach or vintage 1950s cars cruising down old fashioned cobblestone streets, but it is also said to be inhabited by its share of mystery beasts.
The seas off of Cojimar, most famous for being the town where Ernest Hemmingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, have long been said to harbor enormous sharks known to terrorize fishermen of the area. In June of 1945, it was also the setting for a harrowing struggle with a huge shark that turned out to be one of the largest great white sharks ever recorded.
It was June of 1945, and a group of Cuban fishermen headed out from Cojimar early in the morning in their boat to fish for marlin and dorado, and tuna. Their boat was a humble affair, a wooden skiff measuring just 14 feet long. The fishermen went out about 3 miles from shore and set out baited long lines as was usual. As the morning wore on under the hot, tropical sun, the fishermen had no luck at all. Not a single fish took their bait, and they came to the realization that other boats in the area also appeared to have not caught anything. It was perhaps not so unusual, yet the fishermen thought it slightly odd that absolutely no fish should be in an area that had consistently produced plentiful catches before.
At around 9 Am, a startled crewman aboard the skiff pointed out across the water and the probable reason for no tuna or marlin in the area made itself apparent. Cutting through the sun-flecked water not far from the skiff was a huge dorsal fin the likes of which none of the fishermen present had seen before. These were all experienced fishermen who had seen a lot of sharks, but this dorsal fin caught their attention due to its sheer size. They decided that such a large shark may be worth some money, and subsequently went about trying to catch it.
Lacking the tackle necessary to pull in such a large shark, the resourceful fishermen cobbled together an improvised set up made of several other lines braided together and topped off with a heavy wire leader and shark hook. The hook was baited with fish and thrown overboard. At first the shark showed no interest, but then the behemoth began to approach the bait. It was then that the horrified fishermen realized that the shark was far larger than their boat.
The shark took the line and was so powerful that the fishermen had to use special wooden floats known as palangres in order to slow the beast down and wear it out. After an hour of the huge shark pulling the boat and floats around, it began to slow down and the fishermen moved in to harpoon it. However, at this point the shark did something highly unusual and actually turned around to attack the boat. It aggressively rushed the wooden skiff and began gnawing at the keel, which reportedly sent splinters of wood flying everywhere as the terrified crew looked on. After heavily damaging the keel, the enraged shark circled and made another rush at the boat, whereupon the fishermen were able to successfully harpoon it. Even after being harpooned, the monstrous shark continued its vicious attack, biting at the rudder and thrashing at the boat for some time before it finally succumbed to its wounds and was brought to shore.
It was then that the size of the shark truly became apparent. It was measured at well over 21 feet in length, around 23 or 24 feet by some accounts, and said to weigh around 7,100 pounds. Since great white sharks are known to reach around 17 feet on average, and attain maximum lengths of around 20 feet, the Cuban shark would be one of the largest, if not the largest, ever recorded. It was so large that locals called it El Monstruo De Cojimar, or “The Beast of Cojimar.” The specimen would certainly outclass the current record for the largest reliably measured specimen, which was a female caught in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence off Prince Edward Island in 1988 and was 6.1 meters (21 feet) long. The problem with the Monster of Cojimar is that, while many experts deem it as a reliable account, the accuracy of the measurements have been called into question by some and so it remains officially unverified.
This specimen may be enormous, but fishermen in the area have brought in unverified reports of even larger sharks prowling the waters of Cuba. Sharks up to 30 feet or more have been allegedly sighted on occasion, the claims of which are somewhat made more credible in light of the capture of the Monster of Cojimar. Perhaps when visiting Cuba, it may be a good idea to just stay on the beach.
The seas are not the only place in Cuba to hold mysteries. The skies are also allegedly prowled by large, unexplained winged beasts.
One Californian woman by the name of Patty Carson reported seeing something both inexplicable and frightening in the skies above Guantanamo Bay when she was a little girl living there at the naval base. In 1965, Carson was walking home one day with her little brother when they noticed something large rummaging through tall grass by the side of the road. She recounted how a featherless, winged creature that was as tall as a man and possessed a plenitude of small, needle-like teeth, as well as a long tail with a tip shaped like a diamond, suddenly popped its head and shoulders up over the top of the grass. She described it as a “flying dinosaur,” and said that it was very close, only about 30 feet away.
The creature was apparently just as startled as the two children were, and after freezing for a few moments, the thing soared up into the air and away with a swoosh of its massive wings as the two astonished children looked on. The woman immediately told her parents, who perhaps unsurprisingly, didn't believe her and admonished her for telling tall tales. Nevertheless, the memory of the event and of the creature’s appearance has remained fresh and clear in the woman’s mind to this day. Carson continues to insist that her story is true.
In 1966, only a year after this incident, Patty’s brother Tom Carson would have another separate sighting of the same beast. This time, the boy, who was 10 years old at the time, saw the creature when he was by himself. Although he only glimpsed it for a few seconds, Tom remembered that it had a tail that resembled “the shaved tail of a dog.”
At this point, one could be forgiven for questioning the reliability and veracity of these particular reports, but they becomes more intriguing when compared to another eyewitness account that occurred in the same area just a few years later in 1971. A U.S. marine by the name of Eskin Kuhn, who was stationed at the base in 1971, reported seeing what he described as two “pterodactyls” one day while taking a break outside of the barracks.
Kuhn described the creatures as having 10 foot wingspans, with leathery wings that had a structure similar to that of bats. The creatures were also described as having short hind legs attached to the rearward part of the wings, as well as long tails with what he called “tufts of hair” at the end and prominent vertebrate jutting out between the shoulder blades. The two creatures were flying in close formation at an altitude of around 100 feet. Kuhn said that he sketched a picture of the creature not long after the sighting. The marine’s physical description of the creatures closely matched that of Carson 7 years prior, a person with whom Kuhn had never had contact.
That these two sightings match each other so closely and occurred in the same area within the same time frame by two unconnected eyewitnesses certainly is interesting. Are these fabricated tall tales, or did these people really see something?
The Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Many of you are probably already at least somewhat familiar with the ivory-billed woodpecker of North America. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of the largest species of woodpecker in the world and was native to virgin forests of the southeastern United States. It was a striking looking bird, with a shiny blue-black body, white markings on the body and wings that stand out in stark contrast to the overall dark coloring, and a bright red crest on males of the species. The ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat was devastated by logging in the late 19th century, and the last known specimens were killed in Florida in 1920. Although thought to have been extinct from this time, the birds are occasionally sighted to this day and have become sort of a Holy Grail for birdwatchers and ornithologists.
What many people may not be aware of is that there was also a subspecies of the ivory-billed woodpecker native to the old-growth forests of Cuba. The Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker was once common throughout the island, but the clearing of much of the birds’ lowland deciduous forest habitat pushed them into ever more limited areas until they were practically extinct by the 1940s. The Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker was considered to be critically endangered by the 1950s. The birds were hardly ever seen and numerous expeditions to locate them at the time were often unsuccessful. In 1956, researcher George Lamb found only 6 viable territories within the heavily deforested Cuchillas de Moa range, which was one of the only places left to still have a surviving population.
There were conservation efforts to save the birds in the 1950s, but these efforts were hindered by the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The last confirmed specimen of the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker was a female that was found in a hilly pine forest of an area known as Ojito de Agua by a group of ornithologists in 1987, who were following up on recent sightings in the area. It was a hopeful find, but sadly would prove to be the last official sighting of one. In 1988, calls from ivory-billed woodpeckers were heard on 8 separate occasions in the area by ornithologists, but no birds were sighted during the expedition. The government immediately took measures to protect the habitat, but subsequent surveys of the area turned up no further signs of the bird. The Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker is thought to have become extinct in 1990 at the latest.
Much like its North American counterpart, the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker has since become a highly sought after, almost mythical animal. Sightings continue to trickle in to this day, and the birds’ distinctive calls are reported on occasion from remote pine forests on the island. A very reliable report of calls came in 1988 from high in the Sierra Maestra of southeastern Cuba. Follow up expeditions to the area not only found no woodpeckers, but also deemed the area to be a poor habitat for the birds, a dire assessment further supported by the lack of any historic sightings in the region.
To this day, the area originally set aside for the woodpeckers is still there. It’s a remote and little explored area that is now part of Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, and is still protected land. It is from this rugged wilderness that the bulk of modern day sightings of the woodpeckers originate. There have continued to be sporadic attempts to officially locate surviving ivory-billed woodpeckers in the area, but so far nothing has been found except what was thought to be perhaps the roost hole for one. It is fortunate that such a promising habitat has remained protected, but until more solid physical or photographic evidence for its continued existence comes to light, it seems that the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker will continue to remain officially extinct.
Nevertheless, sightings continue and with the unmistakable plumage exhibited by the ivory-billed woodpecker, birdwatchers who have claimed to have spotted the birds have little doubt of what they have seen. Maybe these majestic birds are still out there in the wilds of Cuba, far from the city lights of Havana and the prying eyes of humankind.
Well, it's time to depart Cuba and head to our next Caribbean destination in search of mysterious animals. Please be sure to read the upcoming next part in the series "Cryptids of the Caribbean: Part 2," and join us on the next leg of our Caribbean cryptid cruise which will be departing very soon!