Six Spooky Stories from the Sanctuaries

From ghostly galleons to phantom felines, the National Marine Sanctuary System is full of terrifying tales, perfect for spooky season: 


A photo of the Ironsides, built in 1864. Photo credit: Alpena County Public Library

The wreck of the Ironsides in Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary: Ironsides, a 218-foot wooden steamer, launched in 1864 and sank by September 1873. On August 6, 2000, members of the US Coast Guard aboard the Mackinaw heard a child calling for help and sent for a rescue boat to search for the child in the dense fog. They exhausted all of their resources, including asking local boaters for help and checking with local law enforcement to see if there were reports of a missing or distressed child.  Later, the Mackinaw’s crew learned that they heard the cries when passing over the Ironside’s sunken remains. Were the cries they heard those of a young boy’s ghost who lingers after the sinking of the Ironside in 1873? 


A view of St. Simon’s Lighthouse, located on the Georgia coast. Photo credit: Elise Robinson


The St. Simons Lighthouse near Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary: Maybe it’s the fog, maybe it’s their remote locations. No matter what the reason, lighthouses are perfect ground for spooky stories. Standing on Georgia’s coast since 1872, the St. Simons Lighthouse is the setting of one of the most well-known ghost stories in America’s southeast. Two families lived in the Lighthouse in 1880 to keep the light running 24/7. A confrontation one night between the lighthouse keeper and his assistant led to the murder of the keeper, though a jury later acquitted his assistant of all charges. Soon after the incident, reports of a ghost on St. Simons Island began to appear in records. Some say Osborne, the murdered lighthouse keeper, continues his routine of inspecting the lighthouse. 


A secluded beach on Ofu Island, National Park of American Samoa. Photo credit: US Department of the Interior


Stories of the To’aga Aitu in American Samoa: Aitu are spiritual beings Samoan people often relate to spooky experiences. In establishing National Park of American Samoa, residents on Ofu warned park planners not to wander To’aga beach at high noon or after sunset because of aitu. In 1924, according to written records, a Navy pharmacist and his wife experienced repeated knocking at their door, though no one was there. One night, the story goes, the pharmacist opened the door to see a beheaded spirit. The next day, his wife, home alone around High Noon, noticed loud sounds and moved furniture, with no explanation of the sources. A few nights later, on a journey across To’aga, Navy pharmacists and nurses and the High Chief of Ofu approached a haunted spot and saw headless figures dancing in the moonlight. 


A diver offshore Cannery Row in Monterey. Photo credit: Eric Wahl


The Hovden Cannery in Monterey, CA: The Monterey Bay Aquarium sits on the site of the former Hovden Cannery. Guests and aquarium staff have reported mysterious happenings over the years, which some claim are the doing of ghosts of workers from the Cannery. Some say this is because structures from the original building were preserved and incorporated into the Aquarium. Mysterious sounds, opening doors, and a napping ghost are just a few of the anomalies seen throughout the aquarium.



A photo of the crew aboard the USS Monitor. Photo credit: NOAA


The black cat on the USS Monitor in Monitor National Marine Sanctuary: Black cats bring bad luck, or so the saying goes. The ironclad ship, Monitor, is a well-preserved shipwreck off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. One of the wreck’s survivors wrote about the night the ship sank in 1862. He saw and heard a black cat on board that he placed in one of the ship’s large guns, though he did not explain why. Preservationists from the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia searched for the remains of the cat in 2005, though they never did find them. 




A historical marker in Galveston, Texas, that tells the tale of pirate Jean Lafitte.


The Ghost of Jean Lafitte in Galveston, TX: Jean Lafitte, a pirate hired to help defend New Orleans in 1815, is said to haunt Galveston, Texas, along the coast of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. He was known as “The Terror of the Gulf of Mexico” due to his gentlemanly charm and dastardly deeds spanning from smuggling to swashbuckling, but no one knows exactly how he died. We do know that his ship and dogs were set aflame after a conflict with the US Navy in 1821. Lafitte was never seen again, but eulogies were published in 1824. His remains may lie with his ship, the Maison Rouge, off the coast of Honduras, and, according to local legend, his specter occasionally wanders the streets of Galveston.