The Giant Penguin: How one man created this iconic hoax

Last updated on March 13th, 2024 at 09:41 pm

There are many cryptids and mythical creatures in the world, folkloric creatures that many claim to have seen but that they are unable to prove exist: mermaids, Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and the Yeti to name a few. 

People who believe in these creatures have taken pictures, recorded videos, and offered up personal accounts, but no hard evidence to prove their existence has ever appeared. But, many different creatures over the years have been disproven as either fraudulent or simply nonexistent. 

Sanderson holding a plaster cast of the monster’s footprint after a sighting near Cross City in 1948. Tampa Bay Times files 

The Fiji Mermaid

A prime example occurred in 1822 when sailors bought what would become known as the Fiji mermaid. The sailors brought the corpse back to the United States believing they had purchased a rare creature.

However, the mermaid was the top half of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish. After a brief stint in London, the specimen was displayed by PT Barnum in his show in New York. 

While some believed it to be true, it was likely the result of an industry in Japan producing mermaid lookalikes. This is one of the most famous examples of the falsified existence of a mythical creature

The Fiji Mermaid from Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty) Witchcraft Tools

Footprints on the Beach

Another example emerged in Florida nearly a century later in 1948. In a suburb of Tampa Bay called Clearwater Beach, residents began to notice strange patterns on the beach. 

Three-toed footprints were noticed along a long stretch of the ocean. It seemed as though a giant creature had emerged from the ocean, strutting its path across the beach. 

The footprints measured 12 inches by 15 inches. Scientists who measured the footprints determined that the creature would need to be more than 15 feet tall and weigh over 2000 pounds in order to make prints that wide and deep. 

Soon after, similar footprints were found on the banks of the Suwannee River, over 40 miles from the ocean, which inspired both fear and wonder. People began to wonder what could possibly have made the prints, and how far it was traveling through Florida. 

Sightings of the Clearwater Monster

The Clearwater Monster, or “Old Three-Toes,” became a local cryptid and focus of folklore for almost a decade. Sightings began to occur of a large creature all around middle Florida. 

A group of people in a boat off the coast made the first sighting. They claimed that they saw a giant penguin-like creature floating on top of the water nearly out of sight. 

This began the frenzy of noticing the creature, as news articles began spreading the tale far and wide. 

Later that year, students from the Dunedin Flying School were doing a test flight near the Clearwater Bridge, where they saw an unknown creature. The fliers described the beast as large and furry.

It looked like a log with a furry head attached, although from a distance no one was ever clear on what they saw. This is what attracted the attention of famous zoologist Ivan Sanderson. 

Early Cryptozoology 

Sanderson was a renowned biologist. He had relocated from Britain to New York to pursue his studies. 

While he had studied real animals plenty, he had also studied mysterious creatures before. He even coined the term “cryptozoologist”: pseudoscience that studies unknown, legendary, or extinct animals of unsubstantiated existence. 

With extensive research experience, he closely examined the footprints, even making a mold and taking it home with him. After investigating closely, he ruled that the creature that made them was undoubtedly real, and most likely was an extinct version of an ancient giant penguin. 

Articles about the beast circulated for years, although no one was ever able to locate it. 

Florida Man Strikes Again

That is because the beast was actually the result of two local pranksters: Tony Signorini and Al Williams. Both men worked at Auto Electric. They were inspired to start the prank after Williams saw a National Geographic article about dinosaur footprints

The men decided to create some of their own and make it seem like a giant creature was roaming the shores. Using the auto equipment they crafted gigantic feet with 30-pound weights and attached shoes to them for the men to wear and walk around in. 

Originally, the two men traveled out into the water by boat so that Signorini could march out of the water and up the beach, mimicking a creature coming ashore. Their plan was then to bring their friends to the shore the next day and “stumble upon” the footprints to surprise everyone. 

The men continued their prank for years, progressively spreading out the footprints and inspiring people’s imaginations across the state. 

Self-taught zoologist Sanderson studies one of the mystery tracks on the jungle floor. Tampa Bay Times (1948) 

Wrapping Up the Con

The truth would not be revealed for 40 years after the first sighting. Williams died in 1969, and Sanderson died in 1973, but Signorini was prepared to share the tale in the 1980s. 

Jan Kirby, a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times broke the story by interviewing Signorini. He still had the giant iron feet and posed with them for all to see. Although the footprints were faked, the giant penguin theory pitched by Sanderson that once existed could have made similar footprints. 

These penguins, such as Pachydyptes ponderosus or Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, existed millions of years ago and hardly even encountered early hominids, let alone humans. They also existed in the South Pacific near Africa, not near North America, further disproving that the footprints ever could have belonged to a living creature. 

People are always intrigued by that which they do not understand. Almost everyone wants to believe in something unbelievable. When the truth came out, some people found joy in the prank while others were disappointed that the creature was not real. 

Regardless of how anyone feels, Signorini and Williams have gone down in history as legendary prankers.


Lammle, Rob. “Florida’s Giant Penguin.” Mental Floss, October 18, 2023.

Ulansey, Ben. “The Man Who Briefly Convinced Floridians That Dinosaurs Had Returned.” Medium, January 6, 2023.

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