Shark nicknamed ‘old hitler’ is legend on gulf ideal gas kinetic energy

The mighty shark has been the subject of numerous newspaper headlines and documentaries over the years. It has been immortalized in art and song. Stories of close encounters have been told around bait buckets for generations, passed down from father to son like heroic war stories.

As the war efforts ramped up, German U-boats invaded American water, waging an all-out assault on any and all marine vessels. In 1942 alone, the German submarines recorded 56 attacks on American ships off the coast of Florida, 40 of which ended up on the ocean’s floor. Among them was the Baja California, a freighter carrying a load of military transport vehicles. The freighter was torpedoed and sank 55 miles off the coast of Marco Island.

To combat the invasion, the United States Coast Guard and Navy deployed dirigible blimps to patrol the coast. Merchant mariners and supply vessels, paranoid from the attacks, reported sightings of unidentified watercraft cruising around the major shipping ports. Many of those sightings were attributed to giant hammerhead sharks cruising along the surface.

As commercial fishing became one of the major local industries after the war, encounters with great hammerheads became more and more frequent. Anyone who spent time on the water seemed to have a hammerhead story, and they were just believable enough to be true.

Tales of a 20-foot hammerhead circulated. The supposed shark was as dark as a shadow and covered in scars. There was a notch in its dorsal fin, a result of a run-in with a commercial mullet fisherman off the coast of Useppa Island in the early 1960s. The fisherman struck the shark with a machete after it mauled a net full of fish and began bumping the 15-foot vessel. The shark swam away with the large knife still embedded in its dorsal fin.

"They’ve got such a unique morphology with the hammer, and they are one of the biggest sharks in terms of ones that humans come in contact with, especially near the shore where encounters are prevalent," said Dr. Greg Stunz, director of the Harte Research Institute and also part of the Shark Week expedition.

Boca Grande Pass remains the primary grounds for large hammerheads, with the past three International Game Fish Association world records being pulled from the area — including the current record holder, Bucky Dennis, who caught a 13-foot, 1,360-pound hammerhead in 2008.

It became meaner and more brazen, often attacking a boat’s propellers unprovoked. Many fishermen claimed to be lucky to be alive after the encounter. And even though the frequency of the sightings increased, no one ever managed to catch the beast, which only perpetuated the myth.

In 1981, Old Hitler was featured on the World of Sports Afield television series. By that point, the shark already was a bit of a TV celebrity due to regular segments on Tampa’s Fox 13 News by longtime sportscaster "Salty" Sol Fleischman. Fleischman, an avid outdoorsman, regaled audiences with tales of the giant hammerhead, and birthed many of the legend’s most retold details.

The average life span of a great hammerhead is between 25 and 30 years, with some sharks believed to live up to 50. The massive shark that trailed the cargo boats that entered Boca Grande Pass around the turn of the century isn’t likely to be the same fish that fueled the paranoia.

In all probability, Old Hitler was never a single shark — even from the earliest days of the legend — but instead was a series of sharks that have managed to outgrow their brethren and claim this part of the Gulf of Mexico as their own, a behavior marine biologists refer to as site fidelity. It is a succession that continues to this day.

"There is a sense of knowing that there is something big out there. There is a mystery to the seas, and Old Hitler fits into that picture," said Scotty Lee Rexroat, frontman of the band Treble Hook, who tells the tale of Old Hitler in his song, Shark Fishing on the Skyway Pier.