Skull Island, Canada: Could One of History's Most Famous Films Have Inspired Two of Our Most Enduring Monster Legends?

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SKULL ISLAND, THE SETTING FOR THE SECOND ACT of King Kong, is an utterly nightmarish place--a steaming jungle packed with prehistoric beasts and crawling with unlikely monsters. It is a place where even the insects can drag you away for dinner.

It's not surprising that this exotic, terrifying place awed Depression-era movie audiences. When Kong opened in 1933, no one had ever seen anything like it. While its animated puppet monsters may seem quaint by today's standards they were revolutionary special effects for the time. This, along with the scope of imagination and the depth of immersion in another world, created a stunning experience that still echoes in the popular imagination today.

That same year, another legend was born on Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada in the provincial capital city of Victoria. Today the city is a bustling tourist destination with a busy cruise ship port, but in 1933 Victoria enjoyed worldwide fame for something altogether more spectacular--an 80-foot sea monster, called Cadborosaurus.

Imagine yourself in 1933 for a moment. The Great Depression was causing tremendous hardship, while newspaper headlines carried alarming news about the rise of Adolf Hitler and the increasing likelihood of war.

People needed a diversion, and in Victoria, that came in the form of headlines proclaiming, "Yachtsmen Tell Of Huge Serpent Seen Off Victoria."

Two civil servants named Langley and Kemp told the Victoria Daily Times that they'd each independently seen huge sea monsters. Langley's initial account was not likely to inspire a legend. He and his wife were out sailing when they heard "a grunt and a snort accompanied by a huge hiss," and then "saw a huge object about 90 to 100 feet off," of which "[t]he only part of it that we saw was a huge dome of what was apparently a portion of its back." It was, he said, only visible for a few seconds before diving.

What strikes me about this report--and contemporary critics were quick to point this out--is that it swam like a whale, it sounded like a whale, and it looked like a whale. Whales definitely live in the area: Humpbacks, grey whales, sperm whales, and others. Even today, boatloads of tourists leave Victoria's Inner Harbour every few minutes to go whale-watching.

His sustained daylight sighting fueled a Cadborosaurus media frenzy in Victoria and across the continent, inspiring a rash of copycat sightings--and launching an enduring legend.

According to Kemp, he and his family were picnicking one afternoon in 1932, on a group of tiny islands just off Victoria, when they saw something extraordinary. A huge creature swam up the channel between Chatham and Strongtide Islands, against the tide, leaving an impressive wake. Kemp recalled, "The channel at this point is about 500 yards wide. Swimming to the steep rocks of the island opposite, the creature shot its head out of the water [and] on to the rock, and moving its head from side to side, appeared to be taking its bearings. Then fold after fold of its body came to the surface. Towards the tail it appeared serrated, like the cutting edge of a saw, with something moving flail-like at the extreme end. The movements were like those of a crocodile. Around the head appeared a sort of mane, which drifted round the body like kelp."

Kemp estimated the animal was over 60 feet long, although it was hard to see at the distance--it was at least 1200 feet away, maybe 1500. This was no fleeting sighting. According to Kemp, they watched the monster for several minutes before it slid off the rocks swam away.

What was it? It sounds to me like a group of sea lions sprawled among the distant kelp, viewed from a great distance and interpreted with a large dollop of imagination. …