Meandering through 310 miles of wetlands, swamps, and cypress forests in wilds of the U.S. state of Florida is the St. Johns River. The longest and widest river in the state, it is known for the incredibly flatness of its entire route, as well as its very slow, lazy flow, and its unusual feature in that it flows north rather than the usual south. The river and the numerous lakes that branch off it or feed into it have become a haven for outdoor recreation, yet what many people might not realize is that the river has a bit of a history of a menagerie of strange creatures lurking within its muddy waters.
What is most often collectively called simply the “St. Johns River Monster” is mostly known mostly from a spate of sightings that began pouring in during the 1950s onwards up to the 1990s of something very large prowling the murky depths here, most often seen on the stretch of river between Astor Park and Lake Monroe. Fishermen, boaters, hikers, reports of the creature came from all walks of life and from all ages, yet oddly descriptions of the beast varied widely, ranging from something like a whale or manatee, to a creature more like some sort of prehistoric dinosaur like a brontosaurus or bipedal sauropod, to a reptilian beast, to a shapeless blob, pointing to the possibility that there was more than one “monster” in the river, but one thing they all have in common was that the thing seen was supposed to be immense, and was definitely no fish.
Although sighted through the 50s, the 1960s saw a surge of sightings of the monster pick up in quick succession, sparking the public consciousness. It began when a man at the riverside saw a lumbering, grey skinned creature “like a dinosaur” in some reeds and mud, claiming that it had seemed to be feeding on the vegetation there. The hulking monstrosity would then go crashing through the brush back into the water, leaving behind a swath of flattened, crushed vegetation. There was also a sighting made by a local woman named Mary Lou Richardson, who was out bow hunting with her father and a friend when they all sighted a bizarre looking beast swimming along with a large flat reptilian-looking head on a longish neck, described as looking very much like a dinosaur. That very same day would see an additional four sightings of the same creature in the same general area, all by disparate witnesses who did not know each other.
Some of the highest profile sightings of the St. Johns River monster come from the 1970s, and perhaps the most well-known is a report from May 5, 1975. On this day a boat carrying five passengers was going down the river near Jacksonville when “a dragon-like creature” rose to the surface to break its head above the water before diving down again out of sight. One of the witnesses would give an incredibly detailed description of what was seen, saying:
We saw it had a neck about 3 feet long. It had two little horns on top of the head like a snail. It was about three or four feet out of the water and about the color – a pinkish color – like boiled shrimp. It had a real ugly looking face on it. It had snail like horns, and it had this little jagged thing going down its back. The head turned on it. It just turned and looked around at us. Then it came closer. It was checking us out. It was really curious what we were and it wasn’t scared of us! The horrible thing disappeared, then came back up about 20 feet away. It was so ugly-looking, like pictures you see of dragons. It had a large head with horns like a snail, fins along the back of its long neck and a mouth that turned down at the corners.
The other witnesses mentioned a long neck, visible gills on the creature, which were covered by hanging flaps of skin, as well as a large, downturned mouth and black, slanted eyes. This particular creature was dubbed “Pinky,” and made a splash in the media at the time. That same year, on December 15, 1975, two witnesses named Bobby Holt and Larry Atkinson were out for a relaxing day of fishing at the Fuller Warren Bridge when they had an encounter which left them utterly baffled, describing the creature they saw as having humps and being around 20 feet in length. The monster would be described thusly:
I’ve been fishing out there a lot of years and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was black and shiny and slippery-looking. This was one particular object and it wasn’t a sea cow because they’re bulky and usually stay closer to shore. The thing I saw was out in the middle of the channel under the bridge and as it swam, its humps came completely out of the water. It looked like a sea serpent. We were both baffled.
I have no earthly idea what it was. It was round like a big snake, but it wasn’t a snake. I saw a head, a round head like you see in pictures of those prehistoric dinosaurs or like a giant eel of some kind. It wasn’t an otter, wasn’t sea cows and it wasn’t a snake. Snakes swim sideways and this thing, whatever it was, had humps and it was moving in an up-and-down motion. Snakes don’t do that.
This very same day would bring in two more sightings of something strange in the water. It was also seen by a team of Public Works workers in the San Marco area, when they sat down to have some lunch and noticed something very odd out in the water. Whatever it was had dark coloration and a “watermelon-sized head” that protruded slightly over the surface and sprayed water from an opening. The creature was also heard to make a loud snorting noise, and team foreman John Baumgartner would say:
What drew our attention was the snort. It came up and snorted and I could see the spray come off its nose. It hung there for a second and down it went again. It stayed up just long enough to where you could see it good. It was like a snake, a big, thick snake, a good foot in thickness, going up and down. When it came up and snorted, it was so close, I could see the spray. He [the creature] just looked around, took a breath and the rest of his body went down. Its head looked like a big football, real dark. He was humped up in the water and all I could see was the head and a little bit of the back as he went down. It looked sort of like a walrus or a sea lion like you see up in Canada, but it was real long, with a snout or something like that. It went down in sections, like a hump and then finally the tail came over. The tail was flat, like the rudder of a plane. I’ve read a lot of nature books, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It was nothing like a sea cow and there’s no way it was otters. I’ve hunted otters before and I know one when I see one.
The crew was so fascinated and puzzled by what they had seen that they lingered in the vicinity for the next half an hour with their eyes glued to the water, but whatever it had been never did resurface again. A mere hour after this sighting, witness Dave Green was driving over the Fuller Warren Bridge and looked out over the water to see a long-necked thing swimming out in the river, which looked like “an eel with a rigged hump down the middle of it.” Green claimed that he had been so startled by this anomalous thing that he had almost driven his car straight off the road. In July of the following year a strange creature would be sighted by at least 25 people from shore near Stockton Park. In this case it was described a distinctly serpentine creature with a “basketball-sized head,” and witnesses claimed that it had frolicked out in the water in front of everyone for a full 10 minutes before diving down and disappearing. One of the many witnesses, Kathy Kirkland, believed it was feeding, and would explain of the outlandish creature:
I had a line in the water when it first came up and I thought it was headed toward my bait. At first I thought it was three sea cows, but after watching it a while, I realized it was all connected together. Wherever the head would go, the tail would follow.
One fisherman supposedly really did have the creature take her bait, when another strange encounter occurred on November 21, 1976 near Chicopit Bay. The witness claims she had been fishing when she had a tug on her line and felt something very strong on the other end. At first she thought it was a very large fish, but as it approached she and some others who had gathered around to watch saw something under the water that was no fish. It was described as being around 8 feet long, dark green in color, and which one observer noted “looked like a prehistoric animal with high ridges on its back and an alligator tail with a white round head like a basketball.”
After the 1970s, sightings of the monster or monsters petered out, becoming rarer and rarer, and one of the last real official reports came in 1993, when a Pamela Hicks was sitting out on the balcony of her high-rise apartment building overlooking the river. She claims that the day had been clear and the water very placid, like the surface of a mirror, but then she had noticed something stirring beneath, before a head broke the surface. She would say of her experience:
It was dark grey with a long, skinny neck and the first thing I thought of was the Loch Ness Monster. You know, it was years ago that I saw it. Still, every time I look out across the river, I can’t help looking for whatever it was. But, I know I’ll never be lucky enough to see it again.
There are still very rare sightings of strange things in the river to this day, but it seems that mostly the St. Johns River monster has become somewhat of a forgotten local oddity. Theories on what people have seen vary wildly. Misidentified manatees, otters, alligators, giant snakes, some sort of large aquatic iguana, oversized catfish, out of place dolphins or whales, you name it it’s been put forward as a candidate. A popular theory is that whatever it or they were probably came in from the ocean, to which the river connects, and that these creatures are sort of just visiting. One wetlands preservationist has said of this possibility:
The river starts in the marshes, and streams, some fed by deep springs, flow into it all the way to the ocean. In some places, the St. Johns is two miles wide and in other places, it’s 80-foot deep. The river flows slowly and it’s affected by the tides that cause a reverse flow and brackish water miles from the ocean. I suppose what I’m saying here is that if, and that’s a big ‘if,’ these things exist, they could be saltwater creatures entering the St. Johns from the ocean. Assuming this is the case, then they would probably enter the river only periodically which could account for why they aren’t seen very often.
With the disparity in descriptions of the various sightings along the St. Johns River it is quite possible that we are looking at a range of different creatures at the root of it all, but what makes it odd is that so many varying accounts should be made along this stretch within the same relatively narrow time frame. Why would all of these mystery beasts suddenly start popping up, only to sort of fade away all in tandem? Is there some explanation for it? It is really hard to come to a conclusion as to what these people saw when there are so many disparate descriptions of the creatures, and so we are probably going to just have to wonder on this one, and speculate on why this river was such a refuge for the strange and unexplained.