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By Tom Marshall
In 1933, the world was abuzz with news of the sighting of a large, prehistoric-looking monster lurking in a Scottish lake named Loch Ness.
It was described as having a large head on a long neck with a huge body. A fuzzy photograph appeared in newspapers worldwide. Tourists flocked to the lake hoping to glimpse the beast.
A few months later, reports began appearing in Southern California newspapers of a large, ugly sea serpent being seen by fishermen off the shores of the small town of San Clemente. Sightings of the San Clemente Monster became a thing.
The story actually has its roots in reports dating back to 1914 of a large monster of some sort living in the waters between San Diego and San Clemente Island called “The Clemente Monster.”
Between 1914 and 1919, there were so many reported sightings that it came to the attention of a legendary Southern California fisherman named Ralph Bandini, who was a lawyer, a member of the California Fish and Game Commission and the Secretary of the Tuna Club, one of the most respected big-game fishing clubs in the U.S.
Bandini reported seeing the serpent himself in 1919 while fishing with a friend. “All of a sudden, I saw something dark and big heave up … a great columnar neck and head … lifting a good 10 feet.
“It must have been 5 or 6 feet thick (with) a kind of mane of coarse hair. But the eyes, those were what held me. Huge, seemingly bulging, round—at least a foot in diameter.”
As Bandini swung the boat around for a better look, the thing sank back into the water and disappeared. Others reported the same thing, one unnamed person telling a San Diego newspaper, “I’m still shaking. I never want to see eyes like that again.”
Keep in mind, these sightings occurred between the islands of San Clemente and Santa Catalina. It became known as the San Clemente Monster.
During the 1920s, the sightings faded into history and were largely forgotten. Then in 1934, noting the recent Loch Ness Monster hysteria, Esquire magazine ran a lengthy story of Bandini’s account of the San Clemente Monster.
With its wide nationwide readership, the Esquire story sparked a wave (no pun intended) of new sightings. Fishermen and tourists flocked to the town of San Clemente for a look themselves, apparently unaware that the “Monster” was seen from the island of San Clemente, not the town.
People started reporting seeing strange creatures near our beach and pier. Townsfolk, happy to welcome the crowds of onlookers and their cash during The Great Depression, did little to discourage the story, which was now appearing in newspapers all over the country.
Some scientists reported the sightings sounded like an ancient plesiosaur, but they became extinct 66 million years ago. Others opined they thought it all a hoax or, at best, hallucinations.
Once again, the stories faded into history. There have been occasional reports of weird creatures being spotted off our coastline, but nothing has caught the public’s eye. All good things (and scary things) must come to an end.
Or do they? Seen anything weird out there?
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.