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Tristam, Idaho

Sea World
Stefan Kiesbye

6 things i want to see more of

Stefan Kiesbye is the author of the novel Next Door Lived a Girl. Stefan currently lives in Ann Arbor with his wife Sanaz, and is working on a new novel. You can visit him at

Photo: "Water Tower" (Hobart, OK) by Weston Sewall

There’s no sizable lake in Tristam, Idaho, no wide river, no swamp, no whiff of a lagoon. Yet everyone is talking about Taffy, the sea monster. Taffy is the reason why Tristam’s water park – closed to bathers – is making more money now than it did in its early, mundane incarnation.

Opened in 1991, Tristam’s Seaworld was the brainchild of former mayor Ed Mitchell, a slim man in his seventies, and a millionaire who made his fortune selling self-help books. He has long, white hair and wears denim and cowboy boots. Every day, he drives by Seaworld to check on new sightings. “You know, it’s silly for an old man like myself to go monster hunting. And it’s a shame this beautiful park isn’t used for what it was built. And yet, I can’t stop myself from looking for Taffy.”

Nor can anyone else. For a fee of $2, you can sit by the wave pool and wait for Tristam’s monster to emerge. During sunny days, hundreds do.

When Seaworld was built, Mitchell matched any public funding and created – for a town of 65,000 – a lavish water park. Waterslides, lazy rivers, surfing, diving, and a wave pool lured Tristam’s children, their parents, and day vacationers from as far away as Ketchum to Seaworld.

One feature Mitchell added last minute was the Giant Grotto, a series of three enclosed pools with domed ceilings and underwater lighting, connecting wave pool and kiddie pool. Teenagers especially loved the grotto. Despite the presence of lifeguards in each pool, the light was dim enough to make the young flock into the soft darkness. It was the ideal spot for making out.

Then came July 2, 1998. The wave pool was lifting screaming children off the ground, families were picnicking noisily, and it took the lifeguards outside the grotto several minutes to notice shouts from within. When blood, brown and light as smoke, dispersed into the wave pool, they finally reacted. At the end of the day, three teenagers and one lifeguard were dead, and the monster of Seaworld had established its presence.

Descriptions differ, but the color of the monster is commonly referred to as gray, or granite. It seems to have arms and legs – some say tentacles – but how many is unclear. Unclear is also the number of heads, with estimates as high as seven.

Brandon Engstein, one of the teenagers present when the monster struck first, recalls that, “the stink was unbearable. Like an intense garbage smell.” His friend Veronica Small has called it “an overwhelming fart.”

Engstein, now a college student in Ketchum, remembers distinctly “Three thrashing heads, each with one shining red eye and jaws like those of dragons, with rows of tiny, but metallic, teeth. The body was long, like that of a serpent.” His description has been challenged by a lifeguard, now 22, who pulled a thirteen year-old girl to safety after she’d been attacked.

“One head, definitely just one,” Roger Abbot says sternly. But he too mentions the gleaming teeth, snake-like body, and red eyes, only that in his version, the monster had two eyes, set wide apart. Abbott also remembers large spikes on Taffy’s head, and two tails or tentacles, each ending in something “resembling a spiky ball.” Yet, he concludes, “It happened too fast and it was too dark to be 100 percent sure.”

An hour later, after the pools had been evacuated and the fire department had removed the bodies, the search for Taffy began. How could a sea creature of that size have entered the water park? Where had it been hiding? Where had it come from?

The basins were drained; the park, pump house, and the many miles of water pipes, were taken apart, but for the next two months, the water creature remained elusive.

At the end of August, just before Labor Day weekend, Malcolm Cowell and his girlfriend Jessica Munster climbed over the fences of Seaworld to take a look for themselves.

When Jessica arrived at Tristam’s police station that night, she couldn’t utter a word. She was barefoot, with glass splinters piercing her soles. Her clothes had been torn, and three fingers of her left hand were missing. The ensuing search for Malcolm turned up nothing. Yet what had been believed to be glass shards turned out to be scales of an unknown kind.

Scales were found all along the empty wave pool, and the police, encouraged by their find, set out once more to hunt for the serpent, which Tristam by now had christened Taffy. Jessica Munster never recovered her speech, and today lives in a private clinic in Tristam, watching entire seasons of The Simpsons in her room. It is the only noise she can tolerate.

The renewed search for Taffy, however, did not turn up the sea monster, and in October of that year, the police and fire departments called off their investigators. As if to mock Tristam’s Finest, the day after police gave up on Taffy, she reappeared. This time, two contractors erecting electric fences around the pool area, were attacked in broad daylight. One of them, Ray Tuttle Jr., was dragged into the grotto by the serpent, where a rescue team later recovered only Tuttle’s right arm, his watch still ticking. The other worker, Eddie Gomez, was found dead near their van, without his head. Before Gomez and Tuttle were buried, an armed taskforce had completed work on the fences.

Many in Tristam called for the pools to be filled with concrete, others wanted the area to be dug up and explored. Hobby scientists suspected a cave system beneath Seaworld, or even an underground passage to the Pacific.

Ed Mitchell, who felt personally responsible for Taffy, came up with a plan to profit from Tristam’s catastrophe. “Security was important, but you know why people go to the racetracks. They want to see a good race, and then they want to see a good crash. So we built our modest arena.”

Stadium seating was erected, concession stands re-opened. “And we got lucky, kind of,” Mitchell winks mischievously, his brown eyes framed by what seems like a thousand wrinkles. “The water park was, you know, I can admit that know, not such a great idea for Idaho. We’re not a big city, and we have such a short season. But Taffy is a great attraction all year round.”

Tristam convinced their high schools to play football on a new field adjacent to Seaworld. The County Fairgrounds were moved across the road, and have enjoyed increased popularity.

“Taffy holds it all together,” Mitchell says. “She’s the magnet. We even have plans to build an amusement park next door. Something grand, something wild.”

Demand for tickets to watch Taffy is still high, but Mitchell knows that sooner or later, she has to show again, or else she will fade to legend.

“The amusement park will help,” Mitchell is certain. “All that noise, the smells, the lights. Who wouldn’t want to come out and have a look?”