Monster of Port Isabel by
monster showed up in the Gulf of Mexico off the small fishing village of Port
Isabel in the summer of 1938. |
That Aug. 10, in a short article buried
on a back page, the Brownsville Herald devoted five paragraphs to “the sea monster
that is attracting so much attention in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.” Rumor
swept the little town at the southern tip of Texas
like a storm surge: Captains and crews of fishing boats and assorted other vessels
claimed to have seen a massive 40-foot creature in waters where landing a fish
less than a quarter of that length would be headline news.
had used the words “sea monster,” it made no further inferences that some undiscovered
giant had surfaced from the deep. Still, those two words used together are evocative
of some saltwater version of the Loch Ness monster and it got people talking.
Port Isabel was famous
for its big tarpon and off-shore bill fish, but none of the many species that
made that part of the state a world-class fishing destination ever got as long
as a four-story building is high.
Reading between the lines of the contemporary
newspaper coverage all these years later suggests the “monster” sightings also
got certain people thinking of a possible publicity windfall for Port
Isabel and a five-year-old annual event then known as the Rio Grande Valley
The first clue that Valley promoters saw opportunity in
oddity came in the Brownsville
daily’s initial article on the mystery creature. Sally Crowe, identified as a
stenographer (1930s speak for today’s “administrative assistant”) on the payroll
of the Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo (now the Texas International Fishing Tournament)
weighed in with the theory that the what’sit was a basking shark.
a fish, she pronounced, is one of the larger members of the shark family, sometimes
reaching 40 feet. Despite its size, it ate minute marine life, not other fish
or people. It was called a basking shark because it liked to lay on the surface,
as if basking in the sun.
Asked how she had come up with her theory, she
explained: “I just started at the front of [a dictionary] and stopped at every
picture of a fish—and there it was on page 180!”
The following day, still
keeping the monster story inside, the Herald found someone with better credentials,
a Brownsville man named
Alton Hutson identified as “an authority on fish species.” In Hutson’s opinion,
the whopper in the Gulf was a whale shark, not a basking shark.
fish in the sea, whale sharks can reach 40 feet or longer. Whales are bigger than
whale sharks, but whales are mammals.
Whatever it was that people were
seeing in the Gulf, folks started talking about organizing an expedition to catch
On Aug. 12 the Brownsville
newspaper carried its longest story yet on the monster: “Women May Seek Sea ‘Monster’
If Men Do Not.” The article quoted Mrs. Charlotte Sewell, winner of the Valley
fishing tournament’s women’s division championship in 1936 and again the following
year, that she was willing to join a search party. And if the men of Port
Isabel were not up to the challenge, she continued, she just might put together
an all-women monster hunt.
Three days later a decision had been made.
An expedition in search of the great whateveritwas would be mounted. Indeed, scouts
already were out looking for the fish. Once its generation location had been determined,
a vessel equipped with harpons and 500 feet of rope affixed to “tightly plugged
barrels” would stand to sea to bring the monster to the dock for all to see and
The Herald reported Aug. 15 that the U.S. Coast Guard would
“keep a protective eye on the sea monster expedition when it sets out to capture
the mysterious creature.” Capt. Pablo Valent, commander of the Padre Island station,
said, “We do not contemplate that the party will run into trouble, but it is in
line of our duty that we be ready to profer aid should it be needed. Our boats
will be within reach from the time the fish is sighted until he is lost or returned
Well before dawn on Aug. 16 a big cabin cruser named the Andrey
left Port Isabel for
the Gulf. Battered by a rough sea that led to higher-than-anticipated fuel consumption,
the expedition’s flag ship criss-crossed the area where the creaure had last been
seen but to no avail. The boat’s skipper, B.B. Burnell, just happened to be the
vice-president of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. Also on board was T.R.
Hunt, town mayor and that year’s fishing rodeo president; tournament founder Dr.
J.A. Hockaday and 10 other Valley residents.
“Monster Hunters Return Empty-Handed,
But Plan Another Big Expedition,” the Herald proclaimed on Aug. 18, giving the
story its largest headline yet.
Despite their failure to find the “sea
monster,” Burnell seemed upbeat.
“We know he exists and we believe he
again will put in his appearance here,” the chamber of commerce official said.
“When he does we will be ready to go after him.”
But if that ever happened,
it didn’t make the local newspapers.
© Mike Cox
August 12, 2010 column
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