BOCA GRANDE, Fla. (AP) - For decades, legendary hammerhead Old Hitler has been the subject of fishing folklore up and down the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Depending on the source, Old Hitler has a head as wide as a pickup truck, and is longer than most of the fishing boats it’s been spotted from.
The hammerhead is big enough to swallow other sharks in a single bite, and strong enough to drag a Jeep from the shoreline by its bumper-mounted winch.
His massive body is covered in scars from encounters with fishermen’s machetes, harpoons and boat propellers.
Even though the legend has evolved over the last century, what always remains constant - Old Hitler is the biggest, meanest shark to ever roam the waters from Everglades City to Tampa Bay.
The mighty shark has been the subject of numerous newspaper headlines and documentaries over the years. It has been immortalized in art and song. Stories of close encounters have been told around bait buckets for generations, passed down from father to son like heroic war stories.
Now the fabled fish is getting its own prime-time slot in this year’s Shark Week marathon on the Discovery Channel, which is in its 27th year of celebrating the ocean’s apex predators.
Although tales of massive hammerheads have been common up and down the coast since the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until World War II that those tales took on near-mythical proportions.
As the war efforts ramped up, German U-boats invaded American water, waging an all-out assault on any and all marine vessels. In 1942 alone, the German submarines recorded 56 attacks on American ships off the coast of Florida, 40 of which ended up on the ocean’s floor. Among them was the Baja California, a freighter carrying a load of military transport vehicles. The freighter was torpedoed and sank 55 miles off the coast of Marco Island.
To combat the invasion, the United States Coast Guard and Navy deployed dirigible blimps to patrol the coast. Merchant mariners and supply vessels, paranoid from the attacks, reported sightings of unidentified watercraft cruising around the major shipping ports. Many of those sightings were attributed to giant hammerhead sharks cruising along the surface.
As commercial fishing became one of the major local industries after the war, encounters with great hammerheads became more and more frequent. Anyone who spent time on the water seemed to have a hammerhead story, and they were just believable enough to be true.
When Tampa Bay became the dominant shipping port in Florida, the shark’s legend followed north where it became bigger than ever.
Tales of a 20-foot hammerhead circulated. The supposed shark was as dark as a shadow and covered in scars. There was a notch in its dorsal fin, a result of a run-in with a commercial mullet fisherman off the coast of Useppa Island in the early 1960s. The fisherman struck the shark with a machete after it mauled a net full of fish and began bumping the 15-foot vessel. The shark swam away with the large knife still embedded in its dorsal fin.
There was a swastika-shaped scar on its forehead, a result of either a propeller scar or the carvings of some wayward local youth, depending on the source. It was just one of many battle scars that covered its dark brown skin.
Johns Knight Jr., a Boca Grande historian, remembers one specific giant hammerhead that was seen year after year in the pass that had the head of a harpoon spear protruding from its back.