Turtles of Extraordinary Magnitude; Giant Turtle Sightings from Hawaii, Ohio and Kentucky Rivers

I have to admit I’ve been fascinated by turtles of all shapes, sizes and species my entire life. As a child of rural central Illinois, I had ample access to ponds, lakes and streams where I could find plenty of turtles including painted turtles, snapping turtles, box turtles and my favorite the softshell turtle which to my parents’ chagrin was brought into the house on more than one occasion, leading to a virtual zoo in a particular area of the house.

The adoration of these shelled reptilians is not an uncommon one, and myths, legends and folklore of giant turtles have been passed down for generations and have been the protagonist of several creation stories.

Please note that marine turtles (those that live in the ocean) have flippers, and freshwater turtles (terrapins) have webbed feet. It’s not a critical anatomical difference concerning these sightings but it is good to know the difference.

Directly following the three National Cryptid Society Case Files in this article will be some notes and analysis on each.

Jesse Durdel, NCS Founder (Yes, the last name rhymes with turtle)


NCS Case File #63: Massive Sea Turtle at the Bottom of a Lagoon on Big Island, Hawaii

pexels-photo-847393.jpeg

Location sighting occurred: Hilton Waikoloa Village Lagoon, Big Island Hawaii

Date sighting occurred: Early August, 2008

Submitted by Brian (I found this account on Reddit, then contacted the witness who submitted their encounter via the NCS submission page)

“When I was 14 my family stayed at a hotel on the Big Island that had a lagoon in the center. Its three hotels were accessible by boating across little aqueducts connected to the lagoon. The large part in the center was mostly green and murky, but they cheerfully advertised, “There’s a tunnel that connects the lagoon to the ocean, so SEA Turtles can get through! Don’t cha want to swim with SEA Turtles kids?” Well, how big was that tunnel to let sea turtles through? Big enough to let them through comfortably I’d imagine. And let ANYTHING else that wants to escape the ocean currents.”

Screenshot (5)
Aerial view of the lagoon and hotel complexes from Google Maps from March 2018

“Well me, the youngest, and my older sister and brother went to snorkel in the lagoon. In general, visibility was about 12 feet. In shallow water it had a blue tinge, when we got to the deeper area everything had a dark green shade, still with 12-ish feet visibility.

At the time we were there they were having a problem keeping up the hotel: we changed rooms 5 times in one day because the scent of mold was setting off my brother’s allergies. This might explain why, when we were there, the lagoon in general wasn’t the bright clear blue you see in the photographs.

Anyway, we swam over to the deeper area near the outdoor lobby. On the way back, I was looking down through my snorkel goggles at the dim, murky water. About 50 feet away from the back porch of the lobby, I saw a turtle with a round shell, not shield-shaped like a leatherback, just on the edge of visibility resting on the bottom. It was larger in diameter than I was tall, for sure, I swam over it. By my estimation it was 8-10 feet across. I didn’t panic, I thought it was cool but at that moment I was definitely thinking “Well, what ELSE is in this water?”

To be more detailed, the turtle was resting on the bottom facing the same direction I was going. Its head, as I remember, was round. Its shell wasn’t one big smooth surface, I remember seeing a geometric pattern similar to what you’d see on a typical sea turtle. Being that I was above it, I couldn’t tell you whether the shell was dome shaped or flat, but my impression was that it was not flat. I didn’t get a good look at the flippers, as their tips were obscured by the haze in the water. When I picture it in my mind I recall the flippers being smaller than what you’d see on, say, a leatherback in relation to its body. But that’s a moot point, as I didn’t see it so well.

For record, at the time I had heard of leatherbacks reaching 9 feet in length. This graphic demonstrates some larger historic turtle species” (below):

archelon-protostega-size
Archelon compared to other marine turtles from prehistoricwildlife.com

“It had a more rounded shell, like the first two, rather than the leatherback on the right. So I think I saw an “extinct” turtle.

On the way back to shore I separated from my siblings and a rock-looking stingray with a 4-5 foot wide body and a 20 foot tail jetted past me, over my right shoulder, from behind. It was there and then gone into the abyss in a flash. So I freaked, got out, and my siblings were very mad at me for ruining their fun.

They say even whales show up in their lagoon sometimes. I’m kinda surprised people are encouraged to swim in it. Not to hype or trash talk the place. But maybe someone knows “Oh yeah, they put a statue of a giant turtle underwater” but I’ve never found anyone saying that.”


A rather large loggerhead turtle blissfully ignoring divers.


NCS Case File #64: Unusually Large Terrapin Surfaces in the Ohio River, Union County Kentucky

common_map_turtle_graptemys_geographica-850x500.jpg
Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica) (Photo from earth.com)

Location sighting occurred: Ohio River, Union County Kentucky 37.697008, -88.121486

Date sighting occurred: 2/15/2018

Submitted by Dylan

“On February 15th of this year at approximately 4PM – I witnessed what appeared to possibly be a Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) or False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) that was far beyond the accepted size for the species. It was swimming near the bank of the Ohio River in KY, at the Shawneetown/Blackburn boat ramp – and was a size that would rival the largest & oldest known Alligator Snapping Turtles.

The rain swollen river had a fair amount of logs & branches passing by – so I at first thought I was looking at the end of a log being carried by the swift current. But I then realized it was moving in a straight, deliberate course, staying closer to the bank – then abruptly submerged – briefly revealing what I first thought was some sort of fluke, or tail. Shocked, I fumbled for the smart phone in my pocket – hoping to catch site of whatever I had just witnessed. I walked along the bank, scanning to see if it resurfaced – when it poked its head above the surface – it was a very large turtle.”

“As I attempted to zoom in with my phone, it apparently noticed me, and rapidly ducked back below the churning, brown waters. I tried looking for another several minutes, but its trajectory, and the river’s current would’ve placed it beyond the clearing of the boat launch, and safely beyond my prying eyes. At first, I thought it surely must’ve been an Alligator Snapping Turtle, as the head was so large (I estimate it was 8″ or longer in length, and probably 12-14″ in circumference, with enough neck length to stand perhaps 3-6” clear of the water without the top of the carapace rising above the surface). But it was not the mottled, “dinosaur looking” head of a big snapper.

It was very clearly striped, like a river cooter or painted turtle. Also, when it had first submerged, I did not note the pronounced carapice ridges that an A.S. Turtle should have, as it had seemed rather smooth – and what I mistook to be a tail fluke had been the upturned, trailing edge of a surprisingly large carapace. As I failed to capture this on on my phone – not only am I kicking myself for my slow reflexes… but it also relegates it to an eyewitness account. An anecdote, with no physical or photographic evidence. But I am 100% certain that what I saw was not a snapping turtle of any sort – it was something outside of the recognized scientific standards for any of the other known freshwater turtle species.”


NCS Case File #65: There is more than just water under the bridge in Beattyville, KY

Location sighting occurred: Beattyville, KY

Date sighting occurred: 2005

Submitted by Shelly (no pun intended)

“I was working at Riverside Restaurant (it’s now a furniture store) and I was opening that morning. It was early and I was the only one there. The Kentucky River runs directly behind this establishment. There was also a bridge that stretches over the river at this point. I opened the back door to empty a pan of dirty water when something caught my attention. I looked under the bridge when a large black hump rose up out of the water. It was at least 5 feet wide and it was shiny and looked slippery. All I saw was the hump so I have no idea how big the creature really was. It stayed in that position for about 10 seconds and then it sank back down into the brown water and I never saw it again.”

“The hump was in the middle of the river directly under the bridge. It didn’t move. It just came up to the surface and then sank back down. The water was as still as it is in the photo. That was all that I could remember of it, but I looked for it every day after that hoping to see more of it, but I never saw it again. Even now when I cross that bridge, I’ll stare at the water hoping to see it again.”


NCS Notes:

In reference to the sighting in Hawaii:

  • The witness stated that the turtle they observed was swimming in the lagoon around which were three adjoining hotel facilities. Current satellite imagery from Google Maps show the location as such. However, it has been a decade since the sighting, and although the satellite imagery may be current, it may not be the same as when the witness had their encounter.
  • There a few species of large marine turtles that are known to be extant that possibly represent what the witness observed. The witness differentiates between what they saw and the profile of a Leatherback turtle in the report, stating the shell pattern was dissimilar to a leatherback’s, however upon seeing the pattern of the shell of a green sea turtle, they acknowledged the pattern “looked like the one I saw.
  • The hotel’s website does state that green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are plentiful in the area.

    screenshot-6.png
    From the hotel’s website
  • Green sea turtles are an endangered species and are classified one of the largest living turtles. National Geographic puts the average life span of a green sea turtle at 80+ years, weight up to 700 lbs and have a carapace (shell) that can reach 5 feet in length[i], although there is always the possibility that there are larger specimens out there.
  • It is possible that the witness’ estimation of the turtle’s size was distorted due to the principle of light refraction. Simply put, when objects are submerged in water and observed from above the surface of the water, they appear larger than they are. Although the witness was underwater at the time, the principle still applies as the witness was snorkeling in the lagoon wearing a mask which provided the air between the water and the witness’ eyes. In general, things viewed through a snorkeling mask can appear 28% larger than what they actually are.[ii]
  • However, it is just as possible that the witness saw exactly what they described, and that their visual perception had adjusted to account for refractory magnification from snorkeling most of the day.  Perhaps the witness did indeed see a turtle of extraordinary magnitude (further discussed below).

In reference to the sighting in the Ohio River:

  • In the witness statement, the date given if February 15, 2018. One may think that during the depths of winter in this area that any turtle (gigantic or not) would not be moving let alone swimming in the Ohio River. However, this past February saw some unseasonably warm temperatures. In fact, the high temperature for the closest town to the location of the sighting on that date was around 70 degrees.

Screenshot_20180307-095657_2

  • The sighting of a turtle of any size would have been plausible even if the weather had been more “wintery.” Contrary to popular belief, turtles can and do remain active even at freezing temperatures. Many terrapins have incredibly efficient winter survival mechanisms[iii].

In reference to the Kentucky River sighting:

  • There’s really not too much to say about the sighting itself, other than the shape of the hump is the reason why I am including this account with the other turtle sightings. However, Kentucky surely has its share of cryptids, although not many of the aquatic nature and none reported in the past in the vicinity of Beattyville. The following are some interesting tidbits of information which are not meant to “fluff up” the report, but they did catch my eye even if the chance these incidents are connected are minuscule or nil.
  • One interesting cryptid I ran across during doing some research on reports of large aquatic and unidentified animals in Kentucky was a report of a pig-snouted creature in Herrington Lake in the 1970’s.

    “the lake is also known for a creature best described as an “eel-pig;” a strange monster that is 15 feet long and has a distinctive pig-like snout and curly tail. The eel-pig is said to be able to swim at speeds that rival a boat.” ~Denver Michaels

  • The description of the snout of the creature reminded me of the snout of a soft-shelled turtle. Although the North American softshell turtle species are known to be smaller, South American giant softshell turtles can reach a shell length of almost 3 feet and weigh close to 200lbs.closeup-of-florida-soft-shelled-turtle-trionyx-ferox-swimming-in-wetland-habitat-wakodahatchee-wetlands-south-florida-usa-141
  • Also, the description of the snout while I was thinking about turtles… led me to this ancient turtle whose fossil was found in Utah, and although the description is too small for the sightings of the Henderson Lake Monster,” it does have that unique “pig-like” snout:

    Screenshot (7)
    Arvinachelys goldeni: “The ancient turtle lived during the age of dinosaurs, existing alongside the likes of tyrannosaurs and armored ankylosaurs, creatures that left behind a treasure trove of fossil remains in the Southern Utah survey area that Lively, of the University of Utah, and other researchers studied. The animal stretched about 2 feet long, head-to-tail, and its streamlined shell was suitable for an environment full of rivers. What makes the creature stand out the most compared with modern-day turtles is its pig-like nose: a broad snout with two bony nasal openings. All other turtles, in their 250-million-year evolutionary history, have just one opening, separated into two nostrils by a bit of flesh.” ~CBS NEWS

Some Giant Turtles from the Past:

  • Carbonemys cofrinii: A terrapin whose fossil was discovered in northern Columbia had a head the size of an NFL regulation football and a shell length of over five and a half feet. This massive semi-aquatic turtle appeared an estimated 60 million years ago; after the estimated extinction of the dinosaurs.
finalpaintx-1024x722
Artist’s conception of Carbonemys eating a small crocodylomorph (Artwork by Liz Bradford)
  • Archelon: This largest of all sea turtles lived around 80.5 million years ago. It is unique in that unlike most extant sea turtles, instead of a solid shell, its anatomy featured a skeletal network that acted as one. The largest fossil ever found measured 13 feet wideand 16 feet long (flipper to flipper).

    Archelon_skeleton
    Archelon (from Greek roots meaning “ruler turtle”) Image via Wikipedia
  • Choconsaurus: an extinct genus of herbivorous sauropod dinosaur belonging to the group Titanosauriformes, which lived in the area of present-day Argentina at the end of the Cretaceous.


How Big can Turtles Grow?

  • A typical reaction to hearing of animals of extraordinary size would to propose the the explanation of gigantism as the reason for the creature’s great stature. While human gigantism is considered a medical disorder that can lead to a number of maladies, it is not as commonly identified in the animal world. In the animal world two types of gigantism are well known, deep-sea gigantism and island gigantism, but they are evolutionary effects that occur over many generations and I do not believe either is applicable to the above three reports. Although the formerly mentioned biological “condition,” gigantism, may still have a place in a possible explanation of why these turtles are so big if indeed they exist as described.
  • One commonly held belief of fish, reptiles and amphibians is that of indeterminate growth.

“In zoology, indeterminate growth refers to the condition where animals grow rapidly when young, and continue to grow after reaching adulthood although at a slower pace. It is common in fish, amphibians, reptiles, and many molluscs.” ~Source: Wikipedia

  • In some instances, not all reptiles “enjoy” the benefits of indeterminate growth. In recent studies, American alligators had a definite growth end-point. However, in a study of freshwater turtles conducted in 2002 using data from nearly 30,000 turtles in a mark-and-release program, “Data from both mud turtles (K. subrubrum) and slider turtles (T. scripta) demonstrate unequivocally that some reptiles have indeterminate growth.” (EXAMINING INDETERMINATE GROWTH IN FRESHWATER TURTLES by RIA NICOLE TSALIAGOS)
  • Indeterminate growth in reptiles was further explored in the 2013 The fourth edition of the textbook Herpetology where depending on a number of factors (including the age of sexual maturity), the growth of turtles may slow down but continue as the animal ages. So typically, the older the turtle, the bigger it is on average.
  • Speaking of age, depending on the source the average age of turtles of various species in North America is widely variable. Of similar terrapins including the painted, northern map, and false map range between 25 and 50 years.
  • In 2016, a comparable terrapin, a Blanding’s turtle found in a University of Michigan forest preserve, was determined to be at least 83 years old. 

    oldest-well-documented-blanding-s-turtle-recaptured-at-u-m-reserve-at-age-83-turtle-20160525
    An 83-year-old Blanding’s turtle at U-M’s E.S. George Reserve near Pinckney. The turtle was first captured in 1954 as part of a long-term study of turtle life histories and reproductive success. Image credit: Christopher Dick

Could a Giant Turtle Exist?

  • Given the above information, and the fact that giant turtles did indeed exist in the past, I’ll engage in pure speculation on a hypothetical set of situations and conditions in which a turtle of extraordinarily magnitude could possibly come into existence. Keep in mind that I am not a herpetologist, merely a cryptozoology enthusiast with a science education background.
    • A turtle’s growth is accelerated by a rare case of animal gigantism, and assuming it survived predation or otherwise life-ending events, it grew to an enormous size prior to reaching sexual maturity, with it’s growth slowing after that.
    • Perhaps this particular turtle’s genetic disposition gave it a propensity to be large, even massive at the point it became sexually mature. I don’t want to say it’s DNA would be “mutated” because that term is overused and it would conjure up images of adolescent martial arts reptiles. After it reached sexual maturity, it might be assumed that it would be physically too large to mate with others of the opposite sex, therefore stopping any chances of its gigantic genetics from being passed down to subsequent generations.  However… “life finds a way.”
    • An especially stubborn and long-lived turtle that refuses to die grew naturally to a massive size after outliving most or all of its fellow species.
    • For whatever reason, a turtle never reaches sexual maturity, and continues accelerated growth beyond turtles of its age and continues to grow as it gets older.
    • An ancient species of giant turtle survived extinction and is observed in modern times.
  • As I stated before, the above hypothetical examples are purely speculation and should not be referenced as proof that giant turtles exist.

Turtles in Cryptozoology

  • The Beast of Busco: Between 1948 and 1949 there were sightings of a turtle with a shell allegedly “as big as a dining room table” in Churubusco, Indiana. Loren Coleman wrote an article on Cryptomudo documenting a visit to the little town.
  • Scott Mardis added in the National Cryptid Society Group: “This was seen off Vancouver, BC, in 1969, allegedly 38 feet long.”  Scott was referencing a sighting he detailed in an article on the cryptozoology site CRYPTOMUNDO.gl1
  • He also added “[the witness] said the carapace was not like a leatherback, which would be the obvious candidate, so i don’t know. Leatherbacks have very distinctive backs, with three ridges running down the center. The Cretaceous turtle Archelon got 12 feet long.”
  • Mardis sent an interesting link to an article from The Pine Barrens Institute titled “The Father of All Turtles.”  It is an interesting read and the screenshot below links to it. Screenshot (8)
  • Denver Michaels added: “This reminds me of the giant turtle reports in Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico. There have been reports there of Volkswagen-sized turtles.”
  • Denver Michaels and Andrew McGrath continued the conversation and a story of a sighting Michaels remembered came to light.  It was a mariner’s description of what was thought to be “The Father of All Turtles” off the coast of Sumatra. On the 18th of September, 1876, Commander John W. Webster, Commander of the S.S. Nestor wrote the following passage about what he observed during a voyage between Malacca and Penang:

    Screenshot (9)
    John Webster account from Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents: A Classic Study of the Evidence for …
    By Charles Gould

Summary

Witness accounts of giant turtles are scant, yet they remain fascinating to me as I explore various stories of creatures that defy explanation.  Perhaps one day there will be undeniable evidence that proves the existence of turtles of extraordinary magnitude.  in the words of author Denver Michaels:

“Giant turtles are a bit of an underrepresented cryptid. I’d like to learn more about them.”



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