Discovery Channel Documentary Confirms 70-Year-Old Legend of Cuban "Monster Shark"

As legend has it, in 1945, six fishermen embarked from the seaside town of Cojimar in Cuba to find the underwater monster that was devouring their fish. The crew took off in a small boat, armed only with ropes and harpoons. After they hooked the creature, they spent the night and following day battling it in an epic struggle. When they arrived at the port, the townspeople flocked to witness the catch: a 21-foot, 7,000-pound great white shark, forever remembered as "El Monstruo de Cojimar." Someone even took a photo of the beast.

Now, 70 years later, a Discovery Channel documentary crew says it has confirmed the tale, making El Monstruo the largest great white ever caught — only 90 miles off the Florida coast.

Since great whites generally range from 11 to 16 feet, the finding left many Cuban and American scientists baffled. And 15 years after El Monstruo was caught, the embargo was set in place, cordoning off a crucial chunk of the Caribbean shark puzzle from American scientists. It left many wondering if Cuba is a hotbed for monster sharks.

The documentary crew began work two years ago, before the restrictions were lifted. Executive producer Ian Shive had gone to Cuba on a trip with the Environmental Defense Fund. He was mesmerized by the seemingly untouched nature of the reefs around the island. "Cuba is essentially a time capsule, and we wanted to put it on film,” Shive tells New Times. Discovery Channel shared his vision and helped bring together a dream team of filmmakers and underwater cinematographers to document it.

"I was so moved by it. No one has really had an opportunity to see it like this," he says, adding he is grateful that the crew was able to film just as Cuba and America have begun to normalize relations. "No matter how many conservation initiatives, things change as they grow."

The permit approval process was maddening, he says. The team went through the Treasury Department and then through the Cuban government. Then, in December, Obama announced the U.S. would begin normalizing relations. In February, the crew began filming.

It was a joint effort between shark scientists at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and the University of Havana. Over the course of 15 days and two trips, the team was able to track down a 78-year-old man who was present the day the monster shark was brought in. A black-and-white photo shows ten kids sitting comfortably on the shark’s corpse, and the old man was able to point to himself — a slouching 8-year-old sitting on the head of the giant fish.

Once the photo was verified as legit, the scientists examined it carefully. Dr. Bob Hueter, a senior scientist at Mote, led the group from Florida. Hueter has seen a lot of big sharks in his research. He looked carefully at the photo and noted that El Monstruo looked larger than any 16-foot great whites he’s been around. (It's unclear what happened to El Monstruo's remains, but rumor has it that one of the shark's teeth is in a vault at a museum in Washington, D.C.)

The crew then took off with measuring tape in search of other sharks. On their voyage, they satellite-tagged the first shark in Cuba with the help of Noel Lopez Fernandez, known by the crew as a "shark whisperer," who was able to gently tag sharks with his bare hands without the use of hooks or ropes. A few days later, the crew tagged the extremely rare long-fin mako, making it one of only two long-fin makos that have been tagged in the world.

The research compiled by the team was a feat for shark science, the group says. Cuba is home to more than 60 species of sharks. And the data that comes in from the tagged sharks will help create Cuba’s first national plan of action for the conservation of sharks.

"Diving in parts of Cuba is like taking a step back in time. You'll find healthy populations of sharks here that have been decimated elsewhere, like in the U.S.,” Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund tells New Times. "Many sharks travel very far, so protecting sharks in Cuba impacts other countries like the U.S."

Cuba’s deep water off its northern shore, well-maintained coral reefs, and lush underwater biodiversity have helped sharks grow large. Even though the crew wasn’t able to find another 21-foot great white, the documentary concludes that "it’s not if we find a monster shark in Cuba, but when.”

The documentary about the new research — Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba — airs tomorrow night at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. 
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson