On Globsters and Blobs

A meditation on unidentifiable mounds of flesh

A giant glob of a carcass. It washed up in November, 1896. Weighted down by its seven tons of pasty flesh, the blob had sunk, halfway, into the St. Augustine sands. The lump of protoplasm had a pinkish, pearly sheen beneath the Florida sun. It was huge, mystifying, and aggressively decomposed. In 1962, biologist Ivan T. Sanderson would coin the scientific name for these masses of unidentifiable organic matter that washes ashore of a body of water: a globster. But in 1896, the thing was simply a monster.

Stumbling upon this particular globster, two boys bicycled back to the city to report their finding to Dr. DeWitt Webb, a local physician. Entranced, Webb roped off the blob. Local scientists, naturalists, photographers, and spectators pointed out how the lumpy lobes looked like what could have been a head, a tail, arms, and tentacles. Two months later, a storm tide would sweep the fleshy blob back to sea. But it would soon wash up again, two miles down the beach. To preserve his specimen this time, Webb gathered men, four horses, muscular tackle, and a windlass to drag the globster forty feet up the beach. Webb hacked off gobs of the carcass, sending them in jars of formalin to Addison Verrill, the nation’s foremost expert on cephalopods, and William Healy Dall, the curators of mollusks at the Smithsonian. There was more than enough globster to go around.

Drawings of the monster abounded in local newspapers, crudely etched in pencil or shaded in charcoal. Looking at the drawings now, it seems inconceivable that no one noticed the striking similarities between the globster and the head of a sperm whale. But it’s hard to connect the dots when you’re staring at a mutilated mound of stinking flesh that stands 18 feet high. Still, scientists tried. Verrill pronounced the blob a new, undiscovered species of giant octopus, Octopus giganteus, with little more than quixotic yearning to back up his claims. Dumped in preservative goo, the tissue samples from the St. Augustine globster festered for decades at the Smithsonian.

These unrecognizable white blobs washed ashore all across the world. Their enigmatic qualities transfixed scientists of the 20th century, who sought proof of sea monsters and kraken but found only questions of species, origin, and the pragmatic issue of getting rid of seven tons of decaying flesh from a beach. Early accounts of globsters even vivified the masses, notably in one newspaper covering the sighting of the 1960 Tasmanian Globster:

STRANGE SEA FIGHT was observed off the coast of Natal, South Africa, by a resident of Margate. The sea was quite calm, and he saw what he took to be two whales fighting some sea monster. He got his glasses and was surprised to see an animal which resembled a polar bear, but, in size, was equal to an elephant. This object he observed to reare out of the water fully 20 feet and strike repeatedly at the two whales, but with, seemingly, no effect. The fight went on for fully three hours, gradually nearing the shore, but it grew too dark to make further observations. Next morning the man found the monster high and dry on the beach. He walked right round the creature, but could find no head!

What the man saw was simply two orcas feasting on the carcass, which would later wash ashore and make tabloids as a “SEA MONSTER,” “NEARLY AS BIG AS A HOUSE,” and “COVERED WITH FINE HAIR.” No one could place the globs. In 1972, one scientist wondered if the St. Augustine glob had come from outer space — an amoebic messenger from another planet traveling without a spaceship.

No two globsters are alike. Most reach the shore at a state of severe mutilation, giving the carcasses the appearances of many arms, legs, or appendages in a posthumous sense of convergent evolution. The St. Augustine glob appeared to have four arm stumps, resembling a massive octopus. The first blob that washed ashore on Bermuda in 1988 (known formally as Bermuda Blob 1) had five outstretched limbs like a disfigured sea star. Most have slimy “hair” four to five inches thick, giving the appearance of a sopping sheepskin rug. This strange hide is simply the aftermath of the animals’ exposed connective tissue fibers. The flesh feels like slimy rubber, as hard to cut through as a car tire.

The terms “blob” and “globster” are fungible. Globsters and blobs are a staple of cryptozoology, a pseudoscience concerning the hunt for animals who may not exist. Cryptozoology is a science for dreamers — for men and women who can look at literal tons of briny, amorphous flesh and see a squid, an octopus, a plesiosaur.

The ocean is the only credible arena left in the world to have hidden monstrous megafauna for hundreds of years. We know less about what lurks in the deep trenches of our seas than we do about our own galaxy. Sea dragons and serpents and gargantuan squid graced our medieval cartography and persisted in our collective imagination for centuries.

Now DNA technology has squashed the fantastic, in what marine biologist Richard Ellis termed a “requiem for blobdom.” Almost every globster or blob ever recorded — one can find a chronological list of 24 “Notable globsters” on Wikipedia — has been proven genetically to be portions of dead whales, specifically cellulose and adipose tissue. In other words, whale fat. It’s sad, in a way. These humps of biomass gave us hope for a world populated, secretly and benignly, with monsters. And every globster, with its tentacular lobes and furry fibers and odorous air of mystique, has turned out to be yet another decaying chunk of a dead cetacean.

But there’s still something awesome about these ogres of flesh. We live in an age where scientific discovery now means innovation, not discovery. Science must work hard now to stupefy us. But globsters’ gargantuan magnitude and nebulous form stir wonder in anyone who spots them. Just imagine stumbling upon a gigantic mass of rotting white flesh as tough as rubber and as large as a school bus — even a blobologist might believe she had discovered something incredible and new.

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