TAMPA — Massive hammerhead sharks have been spotted and caught in the Gulf waters between Naples and Tampa Bay for over a century, but one ornery, impossible-to-catch creature has become a legend.
Fish tales have been passed down for decades about an elusive, 25-foot-long great hammerhead that is bigger than a pickup truck and covered with battle scars from encounters with boat bottoms, propellers, harpoons, countless fish hooks and even a machete.
Nicknamed “Old Hitler,” this hammerhead would be more than 70 years old if all the stories were true and all were about the same shark.
“He is Florida's version of the Loch Ness Monster,” said J. Scott Butherus, an outdoor writer for the Naples Daily News who is featured on a new documentary, “Monster Hammerhead,” debuting during the annual “Shark Week” on Discovery.
Butherus, 33, who was born and raised in Port Charlotte, has heard stories about Old Hitler since he was a kid hanging around his grandmother's bait shop. As an adult, he has researched and documented stories about this mythical shark.
This granddaddy of all hammerheads, according to stories, has broken 400-pound fishing leaders; almost jumped into boats to steal tarpon off hooks as the fish were being hauled in; and chased fishing boats to steal dead stingrays being used for chum. One story attributes Old Hitler with dragging a jeep off a bridge after snagging the vehicle's tow wench, which had been tossed into the water. The shark has never harmed any human but he's scared a few folks, Butherus says.
“It's such a great piece of Florida folklore and it's fitting that Old Hitler is finally being featured during 'Shark Week,'” added Butherus, a former sports producer for TBO.com and The Tampa Tribune.
On “Monster Hammerhead,” debuting at 10 p.m. Monday on Discovery, Butherus and two shark researchers look at the legend as they head out into the Gulf of Mexico to tag a great hammerhead shark with a satellite tracking device. Butherus also is scheduled to appear live on the “Shark After Dark” special at 11 p.m. Monday.
On the trip are marine biologist Dr. Matt Ajemian and Dr. Greg Stunz, professor of marine biology and endowed chair for fisheries and ocean health at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Houston.
The “Old Hitler” nickname came about during World War II when German U-boats were attacking American ships off the Florida coast.
“The United States Coast Guard and Navy used blimps to try to spot these submarines,” Butherus said. “Many reported sightings turned out to be big hammerheads swimming near the surface. And the 'Old Hitler' reference to Adolf Hitler stuck. And then the legend grew with the shark's exploits getting more outlandish.”
People even claimed they saw Old Hitler with a scar on his head that resembled the Nazi swastika. Popular local TV and radio outdoor celebrities Salty Sol and Capt. Mel Berman kept the legend going with Old Hitler reports from anglers.
“While it's unlikely that all the stories involve the same shark, the existence of 20-foot-long great hammerheads that can do this kind of damage is within the realm of possibility,” Butherus said.
Hammerheads feed on tarpon and stingrays that gather along the Gulf coast in spring and summer. The sharks frequent the waters from the Sunshine Skyway to Boca Grande Pass. Since the turn of the century there have been reports of fishermen landing 20-foot-long hammerheads weighing more than a ton. The hammerheads were thought to live about 20 to 30 years, but scientists found one estimated to be 49 years old.
Since the International Game Fish Association started keeping world records, the biggest hammerhead caught was in 2008 at 13 feet, 6 inches long and 1,360 pounds.
“Hammerheads are rarely a threat to humans,” said underwater photographer and shark expert Joe Romeiro. “Actually, the great hammerheads are facing extinction because of their limited diets which limits their food supply.”
Romeiro, who has photographed just about every kind of shark, is involved with several of the “Shark Week” productions. He says this 27th year of shark stories is bigger and better than ever.