Death by Sea Serpent?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 3rd, 2007

In response to my “Sea Serpent Snatching?” blog, cryptozoologist Matt Bille, author of 2006’s Shadows of Existence, sent along a comment. He mentioned that there has been only one known case of the possible killing of humans by a Sea Serpent. I asked Matt to expand on this, and submit a guest blog on the account. He agreed and you will find his welcome overview of the incident below.

Matt Bille 1

Matt with a friend.

Matt Bille’s contribution on this intriguing Sea Serpent case follows.


Death by Sea Serpent?

By Matt Bille

In the modern history of “sea serpents,” we have only one report of involving human fatalities. This story appeared in the May 1965 issue of Fate Magazine.

In a first-person account, Edward Brian McCleary claimed to have had a terrifying experience on March 24, 1962 off Pensacola, Florida. McCleary and four friends paddled a life raft out to dive on a wrecked ship. A sudden storm came up, forcing them away from land. At night, a fog closed in on them. In the fog, they hear something moving, and then saw what looked momentarily like a “like a telephone pole about ten feet high with a bulb on top” in the fog. The object was, however, a plesiosaur-like animal. More specifically, “The neck was about 12 feet long, brownish-green and smooth looking. The head was like that of a sea-turtle, except more elongated with teeth. There appeared to be what looked like a dorsal fin when it dove under for the last time. Also, as best I am able to recall, the eyes were green with oval pupils.”

This creature proceeded to kill McCleary’s companions one by one. McCleary alone managed to make it to a protruding mast of the wreck they were diving (the U.S.S. Massachusetts), where he clung until daylight.

Some facts have been verified. The Massachusetts sits today in only 26 feet of water in the Fort Pickens State Aquatic Preserve, with portions of the ship still protruding from the sea. McCleary still lives in Florida, though he apparently has not spoken on the subject of the attack since his article came out. He did report the deaths at the time, says the authorities and reporters told him to leave out the sea monster. One body was recovered. The man had died by drowning.

What are we to make of this? If, as some crypto-researchers (myself included) believe, there is at least one large unclassified marine creature behind sea serpent stories, then it would not be surprising if a specimen occasionally took a man in the water, even if humans were not normally its prey. It happens with sharks, as we all know.

All we have as evidence is McCleary’s account. We know one man was drowned, not eaten, and the same may be true for the others. The case stands or falls on whether McCleary is truthful.

The plesiosaur-like creature striking its victims from the fog sounds like a scene from a bad horror movie, but then so does a shark attack. The very-plesiosaur-like sketch McCleary made of his creature shows the head joined to the neck at an unnatural 90-degree angle. It’s a very troubling detail that McCleary does not explain by what light he saw enough to his creature to describe it.

Assuming for a moment the tale is factual, though, some degree of observer error is to be expected. If we take his sketch as a general, not an exact, representation, than many reports might be of the same animal. (The 1893 report of the steamship Umfuli comes to mind, as does the report from the HMS Fly from the late 1830s.) Reports from the Gulf of Mexico are rare, although an online source reports the story of Ray Angerman, whose church youth group saw a similar animal from a bridge near Panama City.

The most impressive sea monster report from this area, made by naturalist/writer Thomas Helm in 1943, described a mammal which does not resemble McCleary’s sketch at all. (Bernard Heuvelmans classified this as an example of his “Merhorse” type, while the Umfuli’s was a “Long-Necked” and the Fly’s a “Marine Saurian.” Subsequent authors, though, have collapsed the sea serpent reports into fewer types.)

As so often happens in cryptozoology, we are left with a story with no corroborating evidence. That story, as unbelievable as it sounds, still could be true. But we don’t know. Until and unless we get a specimen of a creature that matches McCleary’s beast, the deaths of four young men will remain a mystery of the sea.

Helm, Thomas. Monsters of the Deep. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co. 1962.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill & Wang, 1968.
McCleary, Edward Brian. “My Escape From a Sea Monster,” FATE, May 1965.
Online sources including,,, and (for the Ray Angerman story)

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

24 Responses to “Death by Sea Serpent?”

  1. daledrinnon responds:

    Two specific comments: the head at a 90 degree angle to the neck is not impossible, several types of animals basically have a ball-and-socket joint at the base of the skull (this is possible in mammals, birds and reptiles but not in amphibians or fishes)

    Secondly, Angerman’s report is illustrated by a drawing by Dinsdale of a Loch Ness Monster report.

    Personally, I feel that Helm’s report is a plain pinneped and does not even deserve to be called “Sea Serpent”, but that is a separate matter. Its description is so different from McCleary’s that there is little chance of any direct relevance of the one report to the other.

  2. Sharm responds:

    I remember reading that report somewhere on the Net where someone suggested that the survivor made up the story to cover himself from what really had happened.

  3. sluggo responds:

    I don’t know. The “fog” is mentioned at least three times yet the person was able to tell the color and shape of the creature’s pupils. The deaths not being reported are a bit puzzling also.

    As much as I want to believe this, a small alarm is going off.

  4. theo responds:

    In Matt Bille’s otherwise intriguing article, he erroneously states that “In the modern history of “sea serpents,” we have only one report of involving human fatalities.” That is, if we assume that with “the modern history of sea serpents” Bille refers to 20th and 21st centuries. Just four decades before the case that Bille recounts, another account of a fateful encounter with a possible sea serpent was published nationwide in various newspapers in America.

    During my researches I discovered this early 1920’s case involving one Dorothy McClatchie who – according to one newspaper at that time – was mysteriously ripped apart by some unknown sea monster while swimming in Tampa Bay. She was an expert swimmer, being “the high school swimming star” and her high school team had recently won the state championship, as newspapers described her. A newspaper that published the most sensational article, wrote that “Experts who examined the girl’s shocking wounds say that they are just the kind which would be inflicted by the dagger-like teeth and powerful jaws of some sea monster.” Sharks and barracudas were ruled out and the unnamed scientists concluded, at least, according to the full page article: “In trying to clear up the mystery of poor Dorothy McClatchie’s death even many scientists will give consideration to the possibility of her having been seized by the jaws of a sea serpent.”

    Other, less sensational newspapers went for the more mundane explanation that a “monster barracuda” had attacked her. Others expressed doubt: “Just what it was that wounded the girl in the water is not known. Some say it is a shark, others a barracuda.”

  5. Judy Green responds:

    I am not usually interested in sea serpent stories, but this was a particularly interesting one as were the comments. Thanks!

  6. MattBille responds:

    Dale is correct on the 90-degree angle point, and that is my mistake.

    I have to mention that Cryptomundo techies (not Loren, not me) inserted the illustrations.

    The website with the Angerman tale did post an unrelated drawing. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before, although I did not think of Dinsdale. I left McCleary’s sketch out of the article because I assumed either he or FATE held the copyright to it.

    The McClatchie case sounds a lot like a reporter trying to sensationalize a shark attack.

    If I had to bet, I would choose as the more likely explanation that McCleary told or embellished a story to absolve himself of any responsibility for a traumatic event. But without knowing McCleary, I don’t KNOW for certain that’s the case.

    Matt Bille

  7. mahlerfan responds:

    One would think that if foul play were involved Mr. Mclearly would have come up with a more convincing story than a sea serpent attacking them. He could have easily said they drowned in the storm. And if they really drowned in the storm, why lie about it. Of course this doesn’t mean he didn’t lie about the sea serpent, its just something to consider. Matt great post and cool iguana!

  8. moregon responds:

    In regards to the fog, it says it closed in on them, but doesn’t say how thick it was. Visibility limited to under 100 feet might fee closed in, but certainly you can still see some distance from the boat described. I wondered how he could at least think he could see the color of the eyes, and body as well as the pupil shapes. I thought for a moment maybe he had a flashlight with him, but simply not mentioned. I checked a website where you can check the moon phases in the past and future and on that night there was a nearly full moon out. That makes for fairly good visibility on the open ocean.

    I agree with mahlerfan, what purpose would making up a story about a sea serpent serve? Shark attack, drownings due to boat overturning due to the storm, a number of other more plausible reasons. The impression I get is that he told the sea serpent story immediately upon his rescue. Why risk telling something like that with the possibility one of the others may have made it to shore or there was a chance they would be rescued.

    Sounds like a story we shouldn’t close the book on too hastily.

  9. Rillo777 responds:

    I agree with mahlerfan. It would have easier and more believable to say they were drowned or even attacked by a shark. But I do wonder if the apparent neck and head of the creature was perhaps the tentacle of a giant squid? very interesting story.

  10. DavidFullam responds:

    I’ve heard about this story for awhile now. Very disturbing if true.

  11. Remus responds:

    If a man is pulled and held beneath the water, his death will be from drowning. The cause of death here does not preclude the involvement of a marine creature. Dolphins and seals have both killed men in this manner.

  12. Snoggett responds:

    I wonder if anyone has attempted to find and talk to Edward McCleary? I know it says that since his interview in Fate Magazine he has refused to talk about the incident, but I reckon that it would be worth following up.

    Interesting that it is stated he became an alcoholic and drug user due to the severity of the events, whether that be from an attack by a sea serpent or other events.

    Was there an investigation into the incident? Some of the articles mention the victims names. I wonder what the death certificate listed?

    I think one point that makes this believable, or at least plausible, is the fact that McCleary said that they were attacked bt a sea serpent. Why, as others have stated, make up such an outlandish reason as to his friends death.

    If nothing else this would make a great film ala Fire in the Sky with a murder mystery sub-plot built around a re-enactment of the events.

  13. busterggi responds:

    Nope, don’t believe any of it.

    Blown far out to sea, yet conveniently he was still within easy paddling distance of the shipwreck they were planning to explore. Must’ve been a pretty punk storm if he was still in sight of the place he’d been when it started.

    At night, in the fog, he gives a detailed description of the beastie, even down to the pupils of it’s eyes. Are the nights that bright and the fog that thin in the area usually?

    And who were his four friends that no one even seems to have noticed went missing? You’d think their relatives might have noticed they were gone.

    Sorry, I’ve no reason to believe any such undocumented nonsense.

  14. Mnynames responds:

    They did notice they were gone, that’s why the Coast Guard went looking for them…and found the body of one.

    I for one find the story compelling, all the more so because he had nothing to gain and everything to lose in the telling of it. As others have pointed out, there was a full moon, and the dispersion of light within fog may easily have been enough for him to make out such details as he described.

    It reminds me also of a French case in which a man was accused of murdering his wife and child while swimming. Their bodies were never recovered, and he was the first to report their disappearance- He said they had both been swallowed up by an immense jellyfish! He was put on trial and refused to recant his testimony, even when facing a likely death penalty.

    Speaking of which, surely the trial must be over by now. Does anybody know if he was convicted?

  15. kaiju responds:

    At the creationist website we find the following:

    In late 1998, I was preaching in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. A lady came up to me after the service, and I told this story, and she said, “Mr. Hovind, my name is Val Bill. My step-son, Larry Bill, was one of the boys that was eaten.” She said his dad was involved in search and rescue for the president. He was real high up in Navy Search and Rescue. And he was in charge of trying to find his own son and they searched for days and didn’t find a clue. One body was found. One boy apparently panicked and drowned. The other three apparently were eaten. You can call Val Bill. Her address is 612 Powell Dr. N.E., Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547. You can write her a letter.

    I remember this story from many years ago and always wondered why it never got any attention. The only known animal that might be a candidate seems to me to be some kind of Pinniped. Might the wreck have been a territory the creature was defending?

  16. theo responds:

    Matt Bille writes: “The McClatchie case sounds a lot like a reporter trying to sensationalize a shark attack”, but was that the case?

    Several newspapers stated that a barracuda was more generally held as the culprit, although they expressed their uncertainty. As to the shark theory – that was refuted for several reasons which sound quite logical. Simply said, there was an element of doubt. A star swimmer who was lethally attacked by a shark was already sensational enough. By referring to a sea serpent as the possible culprit, there was not an element of sensationalising, rather, it was a risk taking. For this, one has to understand the dynamics of sea serpent reporting in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    But – what really killed that poor girl is not the issue; the issue is that this is the first modern account of a victim of an alleged sea serpent. The case clearly precedes the one Bille cites; both are equally uncertain as to their veracity and truthfullness. So, when it comes to the statement that “there is only one known case of a victim of an alleged sea serpent”, that is obviously in error.



  17. mystery_man responds:

    Some people here have asked why he would make up this kind of story and I have to because people do this kind of stuff all the time. People can be untruthful or embellish tales without having a reason. I think we should be very careful to not take his tale seriously on the basis of “why would he make it up?”. The lack of a reason does not mean he is telling the truth. I find several things abut this account suspicious. He was out there in the fog, obviously scared for his life, yet he was able to give an incredibly detailed account of the creatures appearance down to the color of its eyes and the length of its teeth. Now maybe the teeth would stand out, but I think in most instances, someone in this situation would not be observing the creature with this kind of meticulousness but rather trying to get out of there. Even with no fog, this is an amazingly detailed account. Second, they found a body that was drowned but we have no information on how he drowned. If he was held under by an animal like one poster said, then there would most certainly be some sort of marks on the body to indicate this as most likely the creature used its teeth. The article did not mention this so I guess this means he just drowned and was not killed by a creature. I think it is an interesting story but the only evidence, the body, does not seem to back up the witnesses sequence of events. Why would he make up the story? I don’t know. But I think there are a lot of other factors to be looked into, evidence to be examined before his story is taken at face value.

  18. busterggi responds:

    Why do we have no names for the other supposed victims?

    Found or not, their identities shouldn’t be secret.

    And citing Hovind as a source sure isn’t making it more believable.

    Nope still not buying it.

  19. springheeledjack responds:

    I read of this account in a book in our university library some time back that catalogued all sorts of sea encounters. It was very interesting, and I think it is about the only case I’ve read of where a person was actually killed by a USO.

  20. jchip responds:

    How old was McCleary supposed to have been when this event happened? There is one Edward B. McCleary listed in Florida on Zabasearch that would have been 16 in 1962

  21. MattBille responds:

    I don’t have a copy of the full article, but one of the online excerpts gives the names of three victims: Eric Sullay, Brad Rice, and Larry Bill. McCleary’s age is also a little fuzzy, but some of the sccounts refer to “boys,” so perhaps that is in fact THE Edward McCleary.


  22. jdwhitcomb responds:

    I agree with Snoggett about making up a sea serpent story. There is no doubt that his four friends died. But the only thing that seems left for an explanation (other than death by sea serpent) is multiple murders. What would Sherlock Holmes say? When you eliminate the impossible, what is left, however improbable, is the answer. It seems impossible that McCleary would make up a sea serpent story to try to hide murdering his friends; therefore, the sea serpent story is correct.

  23. MattBille responds:

    I can’t follow jdwhitcomb’s logic. There are other possible explanations, such as a shark attack that might have panicked and scattered the survivors in the fog, or a ship running them down. If – IF – McCleary was lying, he was presumably afriad he was going to be blamed for some negligent act, whether or not he actually committed one. Full moon or not, it continues to puzzle me that, if there was a fog, he saw his animal so well. One thing I think we can rule out is a mistaken identification: he either saw an unclassified marine animal, or he is lying.
    On another topic, I’m still impressed by the Helm sighting, even if his clearly mammalian creature had no connection to the McCleary case. The account in Helm’s book just rings true for me (in a way McCleary’s story does not). Helm and his wife were familiar with seals and sea lions, and his description of a head resembling a big cat’s seems like something different. I would, of course, be more impressed if there were other sightings that offered similar descriptions from the same region.

  24. jdwhitcomb responds:

    The March 9th suggestions by MattBille–shark attack or ship running them down–seem only reasonable if the survivor had a long-term mental health issue: something that would cause him not only to report a large sea monster soon after the tragedy, but continue to maintain that account for some time. Neither sharks nor ships would cause this detailed eyewitness-account of a creature with a 12-foot-long neck.

    Let’s first examine the acccount with the assumption that the witness is telling the truth, at least about what he believes that he experienced. Fog rarely seems impenetrable indefinitely; even a very dense fog may not last all night. If I understand correctly, the witness reported seeing the creature “in the fog.” Therefore at that particular moment, the fog was not dense enough to prevent that observation. If we have been informed correctly, this night had a moon that was close to full. Therefore nothing about fog IN GENERAL or the darkness of night IN GENERAL can discredit that part of the account.

    I maintain the immense improbability that the witness was both mentally healthy and telling lies. What sane person would make up such a story?

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