In 1948, what appeared to be giant three-toed animal tracks appeared imprinted in the sand on Clearwater Beach, Florida. The prints – about 35 centimeters (14 inches) long and 28 centimeters (11 inches) wide – appeared to emerge from the sea and took 1.2-1.8 meter (4-6 ft) strides along the beach for a few miles, before whatever creature had caused them to return to the sea again.
Shortly thereafter, sightings of strange creatures were reported. Students at the Dunedin Flying School claimed to have seen the beast – which looked like a furry log with a boar’s head – swimming in the water, while a couple strolling along the beach claimed to have seen a giant creature waddle close to the water before disappearing into the sea .
The traces were investigated by the police, for reasons that are quite unclear, who concluded that “if it was a prank, it was one of the most masterful ever carried out” in the area. Another investigator – the British biologist Ivan Terence Sanderson, who later strayed into pseudoscience and cryptozoology – conducted his own investigations, as traces continued to be found over the next decade. It was at this time that it was suggested that the culprit behind the footprints was a 4.5 meter giant penguin.
“The tracks always followed the gentlest gradients, even at the cost of considerable windings, and secondly, that they carefully avoided all possible nicks and obstacles down to the smallest bushes,” Sanderson wrote of his survey. “These are, one and all, typical animal characteristics.”
Sanderson dismissed any possible hoax as unlikely, arguing in favor of the much more plausible scenario that a giant penguin roamed the beach completely unnoticed.
“That any man or body of men might know so much about wild animals as to make the tracks just as they appear, but that they should also be able to perform this time and time again at night without any one seeing them or giving them away,” he wrote, “is honestly incredible.”
Flash forward to 1988, where local man Tony Signorini posed in his oversized metal penguin shoes and confessed to the elaborate prank.
Signorini and friend (and boss) Al Williams, who died in 1969, had seen a photo of dinosaur footprints in National Geographic, inspiring them for their large decade long joke. The two created giant three-toed metal feet, before attaching them to tennis shoes. The two periodically took out a small rowing boat just offshore, before one of them put on his 14-kilogram (30-pound) shoes and walked up the beach, before meeting the boat further up the coast.
To create a long enough stride for their fictional creature, Sigorini would stand on one leg and swing the other, building momentum for a jump. To guarantee that their efforts would not be missed, the footprints were often reported by one of their friends the next day.
After his death in 2013, Signorini’s family made sure his obituary included that “Tony was famous for being ‘The Clearwater Monster,’ a hoax that made national news.”