Thursday 10 June 2010

The San Clemente Sea Serpent

San Clemente Island is in the Santa Barbara Channel, which separates the mainland of California  from the northern Channel Islands. During the early 1900s there were rumours that a strange creature had been seen in the waters and lots of people had seen the monster, but were reluctant to talk about it. Then this story appeared in Esquire Magazine 1934.(this is an extract)
It was in September, 1920. I was fishing for marlin swordfish at San Clemente with the late Smith Warren. We were staying at Mosquito Harbor where the fish camp used to be. It was early in the morning—about 8:00 o'clock. We had worked close in shore the three miles from the camp down to the East End. We had then turned back up the coast and worked along about a mile and a half to two miles off shore. The sea was glassy with just a little roll coming down the island.. Smithy was down in the cockpit doing something or another. I was perched on top of the cabin looking for fish. My bait trolled along astern, the rod tied to the fishing chair. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something huge lifting up out of the sea. Turning swiftly I was face to face with something I had never seen before—will probably never see again! A great barrel shaped Thing, tapering toward the top and surmounted by a reptilian head strangely resembling those of the huge, prehistoric creatures whose reproductions stand in various museums. It lifted what must have been a good twenty feet. Widely spaced in the head were two eyes—eyes such as were never conceived of even in the wildest nightmare! Immense, at least a full foot in diameter, round, slightly bulging, and as dead looking as though they had seen all the death the world has suffered since its birth! No wonder those who had seen it close by could speak of little else but the eyes! This was the picture that came into the lenses of my seven power binoculars the moment I clapped them on to the Thing—knowing what I was looking at. At the same time I yelled to Smithy to head for it. Through the glasses the head, those awful eyes, that portion of the body showing—and it must have been at least six feet thick, perhaps more, appeared scarcely a hundred feet away. It was covered with what looked like stiff, coarse hair, almost bristles. Strangely enough, considering the light, I gained a distinct impression of a reddish tinge. Remember that. The bulk of the Thing simply cannot be told. To this day I don't believe that I saw anything but the head and a section of the neck—if it had a neck. What was below the surface only God knows. But listen to this. You will recollect that I mentioned a little roll coming down the island? The Thing did not rise and fall in that roll as even a whale would. The waves beat against it and broke. As we drew nearer, the great head which had been slowly turning, stopped. The huge, dead eyes fixed themselves upon us! Even today, after fourteen years, I can still see them—yes—feel them. For seconds—it seemed like hours—they stared at us incuriously, dull and lifeless. Then, without convulsion of any sort, it started to sink, slowly, majestically—and disappeared beneath the surface. There was no swirl, no whirlpool, no fuss, no nothing. The waters closed over it and it was gone. With its disappearance I think we breathed for the first time. I looked at Smithy—Smithy looked at me. "J——!" I croaked. Only a week later I was talking to N. B. Schofield, head of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries of the California Division of Fish and Game. Schofield is an ichthyologist of considerable reputation and a pupil of the late Dr. David Starr Jordan. He suggested that I was said to have seen a strange monster and asked me about it. After I had described the Thing he was silent for a minute or two then went on to say that fishermen out of Monterey, California, swore that they had been seeing a similar creature only recently. I was never closer to the Thing than three hundred yards—perhaps more. I know two men who have been closer than that but there is no material variance in their stories and mine other than one of them thinks he saw a mouth with teeth. I am quite sure that I did not. As to how large the Thing is—your guess is as good as mine. I have a feeling, probably a sort of sixth sense, which tells me that I saw only a small portion of the beast—that beneath the surface was a body greater than that of any known creature, a whale included. However, that is nothing more than an unprovable hunch. I do not know whether it was serpentine in form or not. I again have a feeling that it was not. If it was—then we had better revise our views on serpents. I have told all I know about the Thing. Now, I will lay all my cards face up upon the table. Smith Warren is dead; his lips are sealed. Neale is still living but was never as close to the creature as were we. True, there are a number from out of the ranks of those twenty-five or thirty who have seen the Thing who are still alive. Some of them might come forward in defense of my story—but I shall not ask them to.. From Esquire Magazine for Men, June 1934
Then this story was published in 1975 in the book "From The Ozarks To Aliso" by Karen Wilson Turnbull.( Bound as From the Ozarks to Aliso with George Wesley Wilson, O.H. 1430, Community History (Laguna Beach))
 Grace Wilson aged 88 was interviewed for the oral history book and this is her story:
Grace: "...Howard and I were looking out the window at the same time and we saw this huge horses' head sticking up out of the water. It stuck out way up high, and it just sailed along. It was quite a ways out, but it was close enough that we could see it's head bend. It was just going along."
Karen: What did you think it was?
Grace: "A Horse!" (laughter)
Karen: Now they call it the Loch Ness Monster, don't they?
Grace: "Well, I don't know. You see these sea horses on television and they're little bitty things...nothing big...but this was a real big thing. I'll never forget how that thing looked. Howard and I both know what it looked like. Has he said anything about it?"
Karen: Yes, he drew a picture of it once.
Grace: "We just called it a "sea horse", because we couldn't think of nothing else."
Howard confirmed the above account, and also told me that they both decided that it was probably some kind of creature "that got lost...maybe it came down from Alaska". He told me of how he too would never forget how big it was. And how the colossal head looked left and right, how the neck would bend, and how the big eyes even blinked a few times. I asked if it could have been a tree trunk that might have washed out of one of the rivers to the north, but Howard said no. "It was much bigger then a tree. It would bend it's neck almost in two", as the gigantic head would occasionally dip down to the water, "then straighten back up. It turned it's head to look directly at the shore, and I saw the eyes blink." "No," he said, "It was alive. "It wasn't just drifting along with the current either. "You could see the white water splashing up the front of the neck, and the wake water trailing along behind as it swam south. It was moving along pretty fast. It must have been powerful" he said.
It was  also observed in 1935 by  J.A.Coxe and described in his book, "Men, Fish and Tackle" (1936).He described the creature as having very large eyes, a long neck, about 6 inches( 15cms)   thick and a reptile like head, with red bristle like protrusions on it The  eyes were  expressionless and cold   and when he approached , it slid beneath the water leaving no ripples on the surface. Which is very similar to the Esquire account.
Apparently the local private fishing club( Tuna club started in 1898) also holds several accounts of the creature being  seen, but I have no access to them (If anyone does please post a comment). The story in Esquire sounds like just, that a story, but the oral history project sighting sounds more real. So what did they see? It may have been a leopard seal or an elephant seal that had indeed come down the coast from Alaska or beyond , or a long necked pinniped ( you will have seen this discussed elsewhere , the possibility of their existence)after tuna perhaps. The problem is memory  is fallible and things grow larger  or smaller with retelling(usually larger) and we convince ourselves of things that may not be strictly true. When the stories are this old it is difficult to decide what is true and what is not. The only truth we can define is that about 30 people saw something strange and large in that stretch of water between the 1920s and 1930s.

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