The Fresh Water Octopus of Oklahoma
On the Fourth of July weekend 2009 five people drown in the waters of Lake Thunderbird, Oklahoma, and a few other close by bodies of water. Three years later five more people drown in the same locations also over the Fourth of July weekend. And in October 2013 another person drowns in the Lake Thunderbird, this time near the boat ramp. Anytime a person is lost in such a tragic way it causes grief and sorrow, but according to some the deaths were not accidental, but the work of a mysterious predator. One unlike any found in any other lake or river around the world, an Octopus.
Never heard of such a thing as an Octopus in Oklahoma? I would stand to guess no one had until a few years ago. Then all of a sudden the idea of a species of octopus, and a murderous one at that, seems to spring forward from out of nowhere into the collective consensus of Cryptozoology. Why?
I remember the first time I heard of such a thing was from an episode of the Animal Planet series Lost Tapes. The series was way more fiction than fact with “found footage” of people in various situations. How convenient they had such a supply of missing people’s last moments stockpiled in their archives and they all happened to be Cryptid related. So to take what they have to say at face value would be unwise. But it did prompt me to want to look into the story a little more and see if I could find any kind of truth to what they had to say.
The story I have seen on a few websites, all of which seem to have been written after the airing of the episode of Lost Tapes, states that the Natives of this region have reported for decades about a huge leathery creature that is reddish-brown, about the size of a horse, and with long arms living in the local waters. And while I’ve seen this story published, almost verbatim, on a number of sites no one can give a source for its origin. And in fact I have found a grand total of zero people, historical or contemporary, who have claimed to see anything at all resembling an octopus in this lake. Not even a story that talks about a friend of a friend who saw something. Nothing!
And what about the creature’s favorite home, Lake Thunderbird? Lake Thunderbird was created between 1962 and 1965 by damming up the local water to create a reservoir. So how could a creature be reported for so long that it has ties to Native stories if the lake is less than half a century old? Yes it is possible that whatever was already living there could have been trapped inside the lake when it was transformed into a reservoir, but there really isn’t any proof that anything unusual was living there prior to the construction.
And let’s take a look at these drownings, the reason for this mystery. Many sites promoting the idea of an Octopus cite the many unexplained deaths, but if you read the police reports concerning the investigations into the deaths, they start to become far less mysterious. Take the five deaths in 2009 for example.
One man, Shawn Thogmartin, age 37, went under after complaining about very low blood sugar. Vincent Tate, age 43, fell off his jet ski after a collision. Even though he was wearing a life jacket, have was knocked unconscious when he hit the water. Another in Lake Thunderbird went under after his co-workers said he tried to swim too long a distance without stop. Only two of the five drownings of 2009 where classified by police as having unresolved deaths.
What about the 2012 deaths? One man drowned after jumping off his pontoon boat and couldn’t get back in. Another died while rescuing two boys from the strong current of a nearby hydroelectric plant. How sad he was able to save two complete strangers, but lost his own life in the process. Three of these five deaths have had no official explanation. And the death in 2013 was the result of a man falling out of his boat at night and being unable to get back in. So most of the deaths that some sites have tried to attach to a supposed Octopus-like creature have perfectly normal, albeit tragic, explanations.
Yes, a few have unresolved causes of death. But what body of water doesn’t? In addition, some sites claim that a few drowning victims were found to have scars on their legs like something was tightly holding on to them. Proponents of the Octopus theory use this to support their ideas, as such scars are sometimes found on people and other animals attacked by cephalopods in the ocean. But almost all the bodies, deaths resolved or not, have been collected and none show such marks according to police reports.
Also, I have seen some of the same websites claim some victims just before they went under, asserted that it felt like something was pulling them down. One such tale goes back to 2007. Yet upon looking into it I could find nothing about this ‘incident’ other than what these websites where saying about it. No name for the boy or his family. No official police report of the incident. No signs of any kind of investigation at all. The more I looked into the more I questioned if this incident even took place at all!
Even if this story is true, and the more you look into it the more it looks like it isn’t, it would be explainable without an Octopus. One explanation is that they could have been caught on some debris or underwater plants. The resistance of trying to get free may have felt like someone pulling on them. But I have a much simpler explanation.
Most of us, myself included, have never known what it feels like to almost drown. But I have a longtime friend who does know what it is like. He was sixteen at the time and had a severe cramp while swimming in a public pool while in the deep end. If not for his father he would have surely died. I once asked him how it felt. He said no matter what he tried to do or how hard he tried to swim, it felt like someone was constantly trying to pull him under. So it seems that this kind of response is a very natural thing to feel if you are drowning, even in a small man-made pool.
But know let’s take a quick look at the history and biology of cephalopods and see if there is any kind of precedent for their existence. Cephalopods lack the glands that allow for survival in low saline level waters, like fresh water. Sometimes on rare occasions a cephalopod will come into brackish waters, but they will either retreat back into pure salt water or die if they go too far inland. It is possible to have a species mainly adapted for ocean life to adapt to a fresh water life,Craspedacusta sowerbii is a kind of jellyfish that is found around the world and often in fresh water, but there is no precedent for any kind of cephalopod.
Some people like to point to the idea of an octopus in Oklahoma, because there have been similar sightings of such creatures in other bodies of water around the U.S. But how good are these sightings? On Christmas Eve, 1933, just outside of Charleston, West Virginia, two fisherman reported fighting with a three foot long octopus that had attached itself to the bottom of their boat. They managed to pull it in, but it died soon afterwards. The story was gaining both local and national fame until it was revealed to be nothing more than a hoax. Other less famous cases have come from New York, Tennessee and Oregon, but all have proven to be either hoaxes or disagreed remains. So it seems that none of these other fresh water cephalopods have any weight behind them at all.
A couple of sites have proposed that the culprit (if there is one) might not be a kind of cephalopod. They suggest a kind of giant catfish. Admittedly this is a lot better of an explanation for a mystery creature in an Oklahoma lake than a cephalopod. After all some pretty big catfish have been caught in the waters of Oklahoma.
Proponents of this theory state that the whisker-like barbels of a catfish might be what is catching onto people. Yet I don’t think that any kind of catfish is responsible for these deaths, because as previously stated none of the bodies recovered show any kind of scar patterns like that. Nor has anyone reported seeing anything resembling any kind of large fish in these waters. Not even mysterious looking waves.
Having looked over the evidence and every reported death attributed to the ‘Octopus’ I think I can say firmly that there are in fact NO SUCH CREATURES in this or any other lake in Oklahoma. All the evidence points to it being a fraud. And I have to say a puzzling one at that. Why would so many people just jump right into “Oh a species of freshwater octopus that makes perfect sense to explain these deaths”?
There are no eyewitnesses, no sources to back up the supposed legend, and (almost) all the deaths have easy explainable explanations. And while unexplained drownings are up 40% from 2003 to 2008, they fall far short of being caused by Octopuses.
But is this all for naught? Not necessarily. If there is any good to come out of this I believe that it is we are witnessing the creation and progression of a new 21st Century myth. Often times when you hear a ghost story or a local tale about an unusual creature you have to wonder just when, where, and why did this story originate? Here I believe we have the rare opportunity to witness this kind of phenomenon being born. To be able to study the human mind and try to see just what makes a person believe in the unusual in spite of hard evidence to the contrary is a rare opportunity that I believe a good psychology student could write an entire thesis paper on.
Are there unknown creatures living in the world today? I definitely think somewhere out there, there are still amazing creatures left to be discovered. Is it likely that they include a species of cephalopod living in a man-made lake in Oklahoma? That is another matter altogether.
Editor's note: This is surely the kind of well-researched , investigative article cryptozoology sites should be producing and encouraging. Zachary Mann is to be congratulated on this piece.