Friday, March 6, 2015

Here There Be Dragons: Sea Monsters of Kodiak Island

A little after four in the morning on a summer day in 2002, three setnetters pushed their 22 foot skiff off a beach in Uganik Bay on the west side of Kodiak and headed for their gillnet a quarter of a mile away. It was daylight, but barely; the difference between sea and sky and mountains still questionable, the shoreline and the greasy water and the buoys on the net visible only in shades of gray. Dave Little, Tollef Monsen and a third crewman had climbed into the skiff a few moments before with four hours sleep. This sliver of rest was not unusual for them during salmon openings, but they’d made the run out to the net hundreds of times that summer and knew the routine at a level beyond consciousness.  Dave Little, the fishing permit holder, was driving the skiff, just enough awake to keep the boat headed in the right direction and from hitting any floating logs. The two crewmembers focused on not falling in the water.   
And then suddenly, a couple skiff lengths off the port side bow, something stuck its head out of the water.
Nine years later Monsen would tell an interviewer, “There’s this neck and head, and it wasn’t like your hands around the neck big, it was like your arms around the neck big.”  
In the same interview, Little would say “I saw it do its movements, but I couldn’t tell you if the neck was a foot in diameter or three feet in diameter. It was all darkish but I was paying attention to driving the skiff.”
However big it was, it didn’t pay them any mind.
Monsen remembers that, “It didn’t really focus on us. It didn’t look at us, it didn’t make eye contact, no. And whatever it was didn’t stick around. In a few seconds it was gone, back under the water. I mean we were so tired that it was like, did I just see that? Did we just see that?”
So what does he think it was?
“Who knows?”

The next summer Monson stayed behind in the holding skiff one evening to clean it out while Little and the other crewmember went to pull a net. It was calm and sunny. He was crawling around scrubbing the fish totes when something hit the bottom of the skiff.
“All of a sudden it was like DONG! And the skiff kind of lurches, and I’m like what the hell was that?”
 There was no motor on the skiff, it was at anchor, and there were no whales nearby.
“It was big, like a log (hitting the skiff). But nothing goes DONG! and lurches this big old skiff like that. I don’t know what that was either.”

The sea creature observed in Uyak Bay in 1971
Thirty years before that, on a sunny day in the summer of 1971, another group of setnet fishermen in a skiff had also seen a large sea animal they did not recognize. In 1977 Eddie Pakkanin, who was in that skiff that day,  told  the Kodiak High School oral history magazine, Elwani, that the animal was about 30 feet long and “had a head on it like a horse and would blow through its nose.”  
Pakkanin said that another man in the skiff, DeWitt Fields, fired at the animal with a rifle as they approached it. The animal went below the surface then and turned and swam under the skiff before surfacing on the other side.
“We don’t know what it was, but it had a grayish color and we couldn’t see any fins or any tail and it never made any noise. It would just come up and you could see the head and part of the body.”
Another person in the skiff that sunny day, also quoted in the Elwani article, remembered recently that the animal was “hanging out,” when they first saw it, and like Eddie Pakkanin, he remembered that as the skiff crowded the animal against the shoreline it turned and came toward them on the surface, and then, about 25 yards out, dove and swam under the boat. They all had a good look at the animal as it swam two feet beneath the surface of the clear water.
In the Elwani interview this second witness says the animal was more like 40 feet long, “with a dull brown color, and it did have hair, sort of like sea lions, but not as thick. It had a real narrow and long head, kind of horse shaped with two nostrils. When it came up, the head and the neck and part of the back came up, with water covering the middle part and then the tail would come up.”
In a photo taken that day from the skiff by DeWitt Fields’ wife Wanda, reprinted here courtesy of Elwani and interpreted recently by that second witness, a long snout skims the water ahead of the eye, the nape of the neck behind the eye slopes down into the back beneath the surface, and the tail just behind it just breaks the surface. Big eye. Long nose. Nostrils way out in front. It looks like Alf, the late ‘80s Alien Life Form sitcom character.
Eddie Pakkanin told his interviewer that the animal appeared around two every afternoon for a few more days before disappearing forever. That other person in the skiff remembers seeing the animal one more time two or three years later. His family had closed up camp for the summer and were loading their skiffs for the 100 mile run back to town. They looked up and saw the animal right off their beach.
“If we hadn’t been trying to beat the tide we would have gone out for a better look, but we were pressed for time.” He never saw the animal again either.

Unknown object, perhaps a sea creature,  just above
 the bottom line on an echo sounder paper recording made
on the F/V Mylark in Raspberry Straits, April 15th, 1969
And finally, this. On April 15th, 1969, the Mylark, a 65 foot wooden shrimp boat working in Raspberry Straits recorded something on its echo sounder at 55 fathoms (330 feet) that the Kodiak Daily Mirror put on their front page five days later with the headline “A Sea Monster?” The tone of the accompanying article treats the paper recording with droll skepticism, and the incident comes up on a number of websites devoted to sea monsters, UFO’s and other not quite measurable things. But the skipper of the Mylark, Chet Petersen, did some calculations and judged in apparent good faith, that given the echo sounder’s field of view of the ocean floor at that depth, the strange dinosaur-like object just above the curving bottom line was over 200 feet long.
       But again, who knows?

This story, by Toby Sullivan, Executive Director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, March 3, 2015