The Giant Penguin That Invaded Florida

Clearwater, Florida is a sunny city on the Gulf of Mexico, home to more than 100,000 people — and, as you’d expect from a city by the sea, a lot of marine life as well. Living in the waters just off its shores are dozens of sea turtles, dolphins, different species of fish, and, if you look back more than half a century, maybe even a giant penguin.


The picture above comes from the Tampa Bay Times, dating back to 1948. It’s a bit grainy, being originally in newsprint and in black and white. It depicts a man — a zoologist named Ivan T. Sanderson — holding a plaster cast he made out of a footprint found on one of Clearwater’s beaches. The footprint is huge: it measures more than a foot from heel to toe-tip, much larger than one would expect from any of the native fauna normally found in the area. 

Whatever made that footprint captured local attention. It wasn’t just one or two marks in the sand; as Mental Floss notes, “the prints came up out of the water, followed along the shore nearly two miles, and then disappeared back into the sea.” And the tracks ran deep, too, suggesting that whatever created them weighed more than a typical man, let alone a typical bird. Something — something large, foreign, and by extension, scary — was prowling the beaches near Clearwater.

Over the subsequent months, similar footprints would appear on more and more beaches in the area, some more than fifty miles from the original site. That’s when Sanderson came on the scene. He had made a name for himself as a tracker of mythical beasts (like, e.g., Bigfoot) and called himself a “cryptozoologist,” a title which would later come with derision. But at the time, he was the expert Clearwater desperately needed to explain these tracks. And in Sanderson’s judgment, Clearwater was being visited by a giant penguin.

Sanderson estimated that the bird stood a dozen feet tall and weighed hundreds if not thousands of pounds. He dubbed the mythical bird “Old Three Toes” and, as he investigated further, Sanderson claimed to have seen the animal with his own two eyes. Per the Tampa Bay Times, “[Sanderson] said he’d seen the thing himself while flying over [a nearby river]. Old Three Toes was grayish-yellow, about 12 feet long, with large, flipper-like arms. It made big waves, as if kicking with powerful legs.”

Few if any others made the same claim, though, and shortly after Sanderson made his pronouncement, the tracks appeared much more infrequently. They’d appear on-again and off-again for about a decade, but in 1958, all traces of Old Three Toes vanished entirely.

And then, in 1988, it came back — as a pair of shoes.

Old Three Toes wasn’t a penguin. He was a hoax, perpetrated by a couple of guys and some custom-made, cast-iron boots. 

Forty years after the tracks first appeared, one of the men behind the footprints revealed himself to the public. The footprints were made with the pair of shoes seen above — sneakers surrounded by 30 pounds of penguin-shaped “feet.” Two locals, a mechanic named Tony Signorini (pictured) and his friend (and boss) Al Williams, were the brains behind the prank. Mental Floss continues: “Using the tools in the auto repair shop, the men fabricated metal feet and attached tennis shoes to them. Then they rowed just offshore in the middle of the night so Signorini could disembark, wander along the beach, and climb back into the boat, leaving behind mysterious footprints that would often be reported by one of their friends the next morning.”

No penguins, giant or otherwise, were involved.

Bonus fact: The giant penguin of Clearwater was a hoax, yes, but there were once giant penguins. They weren’t as big as Sanderson suggested, though. In 2014, researchers in Antarctica found a fossil of a prehistoric penguin which was much larger than the typical penguin today. According to the Guardian, “from those bones, researchers estimated the species would have stood 2m (about 6’7″) tall from toe to beak tip, and weighed as much as 115kg (about 253 lbs),” or as Mother Nature News notes, about the size of LeBron James.

From the Archives: Penguins of Mine: How some non-giant penguins save lives.