San Clemente Sea Monster Sighting

I Saw a Sea Monster, by Ralph Bandini

From Esquire Magazine for Men, June 1934

Have any of you ever seen a sea monster? No? Very well—I have!

It is an amazing story—and true in every detail. I am quite aware that it takes square issue with science. I have no illusions as to inevitable scepticism. Nevertheless, I know what I saw—and I tell it as I saw it.

Just at the moment sea monsters constitute what is known in newspaper parlance as "hot copy." Almost any week in the daily papers, in Sunday supplements, in magazines, the reader can find some yarn telling of this or that strange creature seen in the sea. It is almost as though all the hidden monsters of the depths had suddenly taken it into their heads to pop up to the surface.

Of course there is nothing new in this matter of sea monsters. For hundreds, even thousands of years, sailormen have brought to port tales of sea serpents—but their stories have been scoffed at. Scientists have gravely declared that no such creatures exist. To a layman such certainty cannot help arousing wonder. We know that strange and monstrous forms of life existed on land when the world was young—and in the sea as well. Granted that the land creatures are long ago extinct by reason of revolutionary changes in living conditions, nevertheless, those same changes have not been so pronounced in the sea. It would not seem beyond the realm of possibility that some of them may have survived. For good and sufficient reasons, as will be seen, personally I believe they have.

Be all that as it may be, however, the fact remains that recently there seems to have been a sudden revival of these intriguing tales.

We have the serpentine creature allegedly seen by some hundred-fifty more or less reliable persons in Loch Ness, Scotland. There are those two with the Louisa Alcott names said to disport themselves off Juan de Fuca Straits. In Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, there is another one, sufficiently credited by the authorities that they offer facilities to anyone who will go after the thing in a spirit of true scientific research. Then, from Acapulco, comes that amazing story of the track of a great, three-toed creature coming up out of the sea and returning, all between tides; of the deep furrow plowed by its dragging tail; of the deep, barrel-like depression in the wet sand where it rolled and wallowed! I happen to know the man who saw those tracks. He is not a liar.

Quite probably some of the reported sea serpents—I do not mean those which I have specifically mentioned—are inventions pure and simple. Others may have been illusions. After all, a flight of low-flying birds along the horizon, bits of floating stuff (it's queer the shapes that flotsam on the surface sometimes takes), might, in poor light, take on the semblance of an undulating sea serpent. However, one would not go far amiss to accept that queer creatures have been seen upon the face of the sea.

Now most of the above mentioned beasties, with the possible exception of the one near Acapulco, have been given wide publicity. However, there is still another, about which little or nothing has been told or written. This is that huge Thing sometimes called the "San Clemente Monster"—and monster it truly is if ever there was one! I have seen it—and I know whereof I speak.

San Clemente Island is a lonely, wind-swept bit of rock and sand lying some fifty miles south of Los Angeles Harbor. It is little frequented except by fishermen. Its waters are lonely, too. Days can go by when one will never see a boat. The Thing, itself, appears to like this remote bit of the ocean—that windy channel between San Clemente and Santa Catalina.

Just why so little has been said about so strange a resident of so publicity-minded a community as Southern California it is hard to say. Certainly it has been seen by enough persons—some twenty-five or thirty that I know of and many of whom bear reputations for veracity beyond reproach. Furthermore, it has been seen periodically over the last fifteen or twenty years. Perhaps this paucity of detail is mainly due to the fact that the Thing is so monstrous, so utterly incredible, so impossible, that any sane man shuns the incredulity with which his tale is inevitably received. In fact, I know this to be true. Some of my intimate friends have seen it. They know that I have seen it. Yet, despite friendship, despite this mutual knowledge of one another's experience, I find most of them reluctant to talk, even to me. One interesting phase of the matter is this. Whenever I have been able to persuade one of these friends to do so, we have independently drawn sketches of what we saw. Barring differences in artistic skill these drawings show one and the same thing!

About fifteen or twenty years ago rumors began to be current around Avalon that there was something queer out in the Clemente Channel. There were guarded hints of some huge, unnameable Thing lifting up out of the sea. These rumors were shadowy, difficult to run down. No one credited with having seen the Thing would admit it. Still the rumors persisted. Perhaps the very evasiveness encountered was tantamount to admission.

I was out in the Southern California channels a lot during those days, fishing for tuna and swordfish. Naturally I heard about the Thing. Being by nature curious. I proceeded to ask questions—but learned nothing. My boatman, Percy Neale, an old timer at Avalon, was said to have seen it. I asked him. Percy looked out to sea—made some irrelevant remark—then, when pressed, muttered something about "eyes as big as dinner plates" and changed the subject.

Then came my first view of the Thing!

We were fishing for tuna about ten miles off Catalina in the Clemente Channel. It was a windy afternoon—the channel a welter of breaking seas. Suddenly Percy let out a yell.

"Look! Look! Over there!"

He pointed to seaward. I saw it! About a mile away something huge, wet and glistening, was lifting up out of sea! Higher and higher it raised until I felt my skin crawl. To this very day I vividly remember that queer, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Why should I be scared! Just picture it for yourselves. A tumbled, broken sea, flecked with white, and stretching away to the horizon's edge. Catalina looming through the golden haze of afternoon. San Clemente a vague shadow far to southward. Sea birds wheeling, hovering, darting. That monstrous Thing rising up out of the sea!

I don't know how long he stayed up. Perhaps a minute—perhaps less. Fascinated, spellbound, we watched him. Then, before our very eyes, majestically, slowly, he sank back into the depths from whence he had come.

There was a scarcity of small talk aboard that ship from then on. Tuna fishing seemed to have lost a lot of its charm. Swiftly developed a multitude of perfectly good and sufficient reasons why we should forget further fishing for that day and go home early—leaving that particular bit of the world to whatever might care to claim it.

As we slipped up the coast toward Avalon through the quiet waters of the lee side—as we began to encounter other boats—to meet again man and his handiworks, the horror of what we had seen seemed to lessen and our tongues were loosed. We talked grandly about how we would go ashore and spread the wonder of what we had seen to the world at large—possibly make our everlasting fortunes out of it. But we did no such thing! Somehow or another, face to face with the orderliness of Avalon town, with the smug scepticism of the Tuna Club, we found our lips sealed. Words would not come. Instead we slunk furtively to the nearest bar and tossed down two stiff drinks.

Two or three years passed. Others saw the Thing. Some, braver than their fellows, talked. Little by little the earlier discoverers came out of their shells and talked, too. All accounts from those who had been really close to the Thing agreed upon three fundamentals: that it was enormous; that it possessed huge and horrible eyes; that it was something absolutely unknown to man. A composite description of the Thing was forwarded to the late Dr. David Starr Jordan of Stanford University. He replied by suggesting it probably was a sea elephant! Our descriptive powers must have been woefully weak. It was no more a sea elephant than I am. I have seen them, many of them—roaming around the sea—in their native rookery at Guadalupe Island. Sea elephants look like seals except that they are larger and have a prolonged, hooked upper nostril. This Thing was not a sea elephant nor did it remotely resemble one.

Then came my second and only close-up view of the Thing!

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. Overhead it was overcast—one of California's summer fogs. Objects on the surface showed black in that light. The brown slopes swept up abruptly to almost meet the gray mist. We passed Mosquito and the white tents of the camp and were nearly abreast of White Rock. 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!

Here it is—just as I saw it. Take it or leave it.

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.

He threw out the clutch and we lay to—staring at the empty sea. I was wringing wet and my knees shook. Smithy, normally a voluble man, was speechless. Mechanically he stooped down and picked up a little piece of wire leader from the cockpit floor, tossing it overboard. Around us was the same gray sea, the same sea birds, the same lonely, brown-sloped island. Overhead was the same gray fog. But everything was different. All the friendliness had gone. We, two frail humans, had looked into the eyes of the Past—and looking was not good.

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.

So frightened were some of them at what they had seen that they refused for days to go to sea. I drew a sketch of the Thing which Schofield pocketed to show to them. I haven't heard whether or not they identified it as one and the same thing. Mind you, Schofield in no wise accepted my story or theirs.

From my own experience and from those of others I will say unequivocally that the Thing is very shy.

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.

I shall never ask any man to put his neck into a noose of ridicule on my behalf. There is one man who has been closer to the Thing than any of us—but he refuses point blank to talk, even to me.

So—there you have it. Just as I wrote earlier—take it or leave it. It is all one to me. Smile if you want to—laugh if you want to. I have taken it before—I can take it again. But, when you laugh, if you do—just remember those old immortal lines— "There are stranger things," etc. Also, remember one other thing. You have not been out alone upon the sea and seen a monstrous Thing lift up out of the depths and close beside you—you have not felt the baleful stare of those awful eyes—you have not sensed the cold breath of ages past upon you. I have—and that's that. Adios.


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