Gary Hanna
Hunting a Monster

Two fascinating nonfiction texts explore the fact and fiction behind everyone’s favorite fantastical creatures

By Mackenzie Carro
From the March 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to synthesize information from two nonfiction articles

Lexile: 930L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, key ideas and details, tone

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As you read the articles and study the images, think about how stories about fantastical creatures can be explained.

Hunting a Monster

Stories of a giant, human-like creature lurking in the forests have long fascinated and terrified us. Here’s the fact and the fiction behind these famous tales. 

On a February night in 1962, Robert Hatfield found himself standing in his sister’s backyard in Fort Bragg, California. Her dogs were howling, and he had gone outside to see what had them so spooked.

That’s where he saw it. In the shadows lurked a giant figure—over six feet tall and covered in hair.

Thinking it was a bear, Hatfield ran to wake his brother-in-law, Bud Jenkins. Then Hatfield went tearing back into the yard and—POW!

He ran smack into the beast.

As Hatfield fell to the ground, he realized the creature was no bear. His heart pounding, he bolted back to the house, the creature at his heels. Jenkins rushed to help. The men struggled briefly with the beast.

Then it turned and stalked off into the night.

Later, a group of locals went looking for the monster but found no trace of it. Still, several of them were convinced they knew exactly what Hatfield and Jenkins had encountered: Bigfoot.

No Evidence

For thousands of years, people around the world have been telling stories of a giant forest-dwelling creature like the one Hatfield and Jenkins claimed to have seen. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first written texts in history, tells of a man who lived in the woods among animals and had “hair that sprouted like grain.” The Sherpa people in the country of Nepal have long traded tales of a snow monster known as the Yeti. Many Native American peoples in the Pacific Northwest share a legend of a large ape-like creature sometimes called Sasquatch.

And then, there is Bigfoot.

There is no scientific evidence that Bigfoot exists. Yet a 2014 survey by Chapman University found that 20 percent of Americans believe Bigfoot is real. 

Gary Hanna

The Dragon

Many cultures have stories about fire-breathing dragons. What inspired these legends? Ancient peoples may have found dinosaur fossils or whale bones and thought they belonged to dragons. Or the stories may have been inspired by the Nile crocodile, which can grow to be 20 feet long and weigh as much as 1,650 pounds. Today, Nile crocs live in parts of Africa, but in ancient times, they may also have lived as far away as southern Europe.  

Bigfoot Mania

The legend of Bigfoot took off in America in the late 1950s, after several massive footprints were found at a logging site in Bluff Creek, California. (A logging site is a place where trees are cut down and shipped off to be sold.)

Inspired by stories of Sasquatch, several loggers became convinced that the prints belonged to some sort of beast—not quite human, not quite animal. One man even claimed he had seen a hairy creature with long arms crossing a nearby road. The loggers began to call this monster Bigfoot.

Soon, newspapers published articles about Bigfoot sightings, which excited and fascinated the public. By the 1960s, the number of Bigfoot sightings in California had skyrocketed. Some, like Hatfield and Jenkins, claimed to have actually seen Bigfoot. Others reported hearing strange noises in the forest. Still others said they had found Bigfoot scat or hair. In 1967, at the height of Bigfoot mania, someone released footage of Bigfoot strolling through the woods. Could it be possible that something really was out there?

In fact, most of these stories are easily explained. The scat and hair were likely left by real animals. The famous footprints in Bluff Creek were later revealed to have been planted by a man named Ray Wallace as part of a giant hoax. No one has admitted that the footage from 1967 is fake, but most believe the film shows nothing more than a person in costume.

The truth, scientists say, is that if Bigfoot were real, we would have found him by now. Humans inhabit virtually every corner of the planet. It’s unlikely that such a massive creature could elude us for so long. Plus, if Bigfoot creatures did exist but were so few in number that they were rarely seen, how would they breed? A few Bigfoots stomping around the woods would not be enough to keep the species going.

Magic and Mystery 

Today, Bigfoot still captures our imagination. Bigfoot sightings have been reported in every state—and as recently as last year. Google “Bigfoot,” and you will get more than 50 million hits. The show Finding Bigfoot ran for six years, until 2018, and was one of Animal Planet’s most successful programs.

And people pay to go on so-called Bigfoot hunts. On these trips, groups are led through the woods by a Bigfoot-hunting “expert” to search for evidence of the creature. Not surprisingly, none of these enthusiasts have ever found Bigfoot. So why do so many people still believe?

Maybe because they want to.

Despite all that modern science and technology have revealed about the world, something in us continues to long for magic and mystery. It’s as though we want the world to be full of fantastical creatures that science cannot explain.

Plus, some fantastical creatures have turned out to be real. European explorers once told stories of flesh-eating lizard monsters in Indonesia that few believed to be true. In fact, these lizards were Komodo dragons. The kraken—a monster with a sharp beak and powerful tentacles—was thought to be a figment of sailors’ imaginations until the discovery of the giant squid.

And there are still discoveries to be made. Scientists find thousands of new species each year and speculate that millions more are still out there. After all, we’ve explored less than 20 percent of our oceans—and even less of space. In truth, we don’t know what dazzling creatures might exist beyond our reach.

As for Hatfield and Jenkins, we may never know what they did or did not see. Perhaps they were in on a hoax. Or maybe they did think they saw Bigfoot. Maybe, like so many of us, they just really, really wanted to believe.

Gary Hanna

The Mermaid

The ocean has inspired many stories of mermaid-like creatures. The ancient Babylonians and ancient Syrians worshipped gods that were half-fish, half-human. In The Odyssey, an ancient Greek poem, creatures called sirens lured sailors to their deaths. In the 1500s and 1600s, as Europeans began sailing to the Americas, the number of mermaid sightings skyrocketed. These “mermaids” were probably dugongs or manatees, gentle cow-like mammals that live in the water.

Monster of the Deep   

How scientists discovered the truth behind a mythical sea creature no one believed was real 

Gary Hanna

On a moonless January night in 2003, Olivier de Kersauson was racing across the Atlantic Ocean. He was trying to break the record for the fastest sailing voyage around the world when suddenly his boat came to a mysterious halt.

In the darkness, de Kersauson’s massive, 110-foot sailboat shook violently. The mast rattled and hull shuddered. The crew ran up and down the deck, shining flashlights into the water, trying to figure out what was going on.

Below deck, first mate Didier Ragot peered through a porthole into the ocean.

Then he saw it: an enormous tentacle snaking around the boat.

The creature was like something out of a horror movie. Some 30 feet long, it had glistening skin and long arms covered in toothy suckers that left impressions on the sides of the boat. It seemed to be wrapping itself around the vessel, which creaked and groaned under the strain.

Just when the crew thought the boat would snap into pieces, everything went still.

The creature was gone.

“I’ve been sailing for 40 years, and I’ve always had an answer for everything—for hurricanes and icebergs,” de Kersauson would later say. “But I didn’t have an answer for this. It was terrifying.”

What the crew claimed they saw was a giant squid.

But are giant squid even real?  

A Tall Tale?

Sea monsters have captured our imaginations for thousands of years. There are countless movies, novels, and legends about fearsome beasts that attack ships and drag everyone onboard down to a watery death.

Some of the most outlandish stories have come from sailors. For centuries, men have returned home from long voyages with terrifying tales of enormous squid-like beasts. These creatures, some said, were larger than whales and stronger than elephants. One of the most feared was the kraken, which could supposedly trap a ship by creating a gigantic whirlpool.

Scientists thought these stories were little more than tall tales—or hallucinations brought on by sunstroke.

Then in 1873, a fisherman off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, returned to shore with a 19-foot tentacle. Scientists realized that the kraken—or something like the kraken—really was out there.

Eventually, scientists deduced that what sailors were probably seeing was a kind of giant squid. Every so often, large squid body parts would wash up on a beach or become tangled in fishing nets. Yet no scientist had actually seen a living giant squid.

In the 1960s, oceanographers developed the technology to explore deeper in the ocean than ever before. Teams of scientists called “squid squads” started combing the high seas in hopes of glimpsing one of these elusive creatures. For them, giant squid represented all that we don’t know about the ocean. (About 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored today.)

Still, no one could find one. 

Unlocking the Mysteries

Marine biologist Steve O’Shea has been trying to find giant squid since 1996, when a fisherman showed him the corpse of one. Step into O’Shea’s office or home, and you might think you’ve walked into a mad scientist’s lab. Jars of squid parts line his shelves; unblinking squid eyes stare out at you. In his garage, he keeps boxes with squid carcasses that have washed up on beaches around the world.

Over the years, O’Shea has managed to unlock a few of the many mysteries surrounding these creatures. For one thing, giant squid are indeed giant. They can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to be almost 60 feet long.

O’Shea also knows why giant squid are so hard to find. They live thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, far deeper than any human can go. They have enormous eyes—larger than those of any other animal—which enable them to flee at the first sign of trouble. And thanks to their highly developed nerves, they can react in an instant, darting away from a net or camera.

The closest O’Shea has ever come to capturing a live giant squid was in 2001, when he caught 17 babies—each about the size of a grasshopper. His plan was to raise them in captivity. But by the time he reached shore, all the babies were dead.

Crying, O’Shea pulled the corpses out of the tank he had been keeping them in. He later learned that the tank was made of a material that is toxic to squid.

Living Specimen

In 2004, researchers finally had a breakthrough. Two Japanese scientists were tracking a pod of sperm whales off the coast of Japan. They had a hunch the whales might lead them to a squid’s lair.

They were right.

After days of searching with an underwater camera, they caught sight of something stuck under a large rock: a creature the size of a school bus. Its eyes were as big as basketballs. It had eight flapping arms and two long, sinewy tentacles. It thrashed so wildly to break free that one tentacle broke off in the struggle. Before it got away, the scientists snapped more than 500 photos. They also hauled the 18-foot tentacle onto their boat.

In 2005, the same team found another giant squid 3,000 feet below the surface—and managed to film it with a robotic camera. In 2012, another Japanese team captured footage of a giant squid. But to this day, no one has been able to capture a living specimen to study.

There still remain many mysteries about the giant squid. One thing is certain, though: This incredible creature is real. 

Gary Hanna

The Loch Ness Monster

The Loch Ness monster—or “Nessie”—is a creature that supposedly lives in a lake in Scotland. Sightings have been reported for centuries. Some say that Nessie is a sturgeon (a type of large fish) or a plesiosaur—a long-necked reptile that became extinct millions of years ago. But the lake has been searched extensively and nothing has been found.

This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue.

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Literature Connection: Novels featuring mythical creatures

Ice Dragon 
by George R.R. Martin

The Hobbit 
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Peter Pan
by J.M. Barrie

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