For years, fishermen traded tall tales about the beast who lived at the bottom of the lake. He was huge, those who had seen him agreed, pulling ducks underwater and stealing fish from reel lines.
Old Bob, the giant alligator snapping turtle of Fullerton’s Laguna Lake, was the stuff of legend.
In September, workers dredging the lake as part of a restoration project found truth in the rumors as they netted the 4-foot-long, 100-pound turtle.
But as quickly as Old Bob surfaced, he disappeared again.
Old Bob is hiding out at an undisclosed location in Orange County, his whereabouts a closely guarded secret. Only the highest-ranking officers of the local California Turtle & Tortoise Club know how to find him.
And that’s how it’s going to stay.
“He’s in a secure, locked-down location,” said Sharon Paquette, vice president of the club’s Brea-based Orange County chapter.
Caught in limbo like a traveler without a passport, Old Bob is sitting tight until his handlers obtain the state permits they need to keep him.
“We’re just hoping that somebody will come through that can obtain the proper permits; we would like to keep him in Orange County,” Paquette said.
Alligator snapping turtles are native to the southeastern U.S., but, like most nonnative species, they are illegal to have in California without the proper state permits. Paquette, who kept Old Bob in her backyard until an appropriate pond was found for him, suspects that the turtle was a pet that got too big to handle and was released into the lake.
In the wild, alligator snapping turtles can weigh up to 250 pounds and live to 100. Paquette estimated that Old Bob is 40 years old and still growing.
When last heard from publicly, Old Bob was going to be flown to a preserve in Virginia. But Paquette and others charged with his care worried that he wouldn’t be able to adjust to freezing temperatures and light frosts.
They were also afraid he’d be bullied by bigger, older turtles with more experience foraging for food in the wild. Worst of all, they feared somebody would hunt him.
Living in Laguna Lake, Old Bob feasted on a year-round buffet of waterfowl and fish.
“He’s never had to fight for food, never had to hunt,” Paquette said. “He’s basically had a very cushy life.”
The turtle now lives in a private pond where Paquette and her husband visit him daily, replenishing his liquid pantry with shrimp, smelt and dozens of crayfish.
Since going into hiding, Old Bob has reemerged for two public appearances, ferried from place to place in his limo of choice: a galvanized steel feed trough with grating across the top. Besides being the star attraction at the California Turtle & Tortoise Club Show in Carson within days of being found, Old Bob drew thousands to the Fullerton Arboretum in October.
“People were very astonished,” Paquette said. “There were many people that saw him and said, ‘I used to swim in that lake’ or ‘I used to wade in that lake’ or ‘I used to sneak down there to go swimming, and that thing was roaming around in there?’ ”
With his powerful jaws, Old Bob could easily have bitten off fingers or toes if somebody stepped on him or antagonized him.
“He wouldn’t chase anybody out the side of the lake -- they don’t do that -- but if you came across his path, you could easily get bit,” she said.
Some have asked why Old Bob can’t be returned to the pond where he thrived for so many decades.
The answer: His cover has been blown.
“He could not go back,” Paquette said. “He’s illegal, and his safety would not be ensured. Somebody would definitely hunt him.”
She noted that illegal turtle poachers can fetch top dollar for turtle meat and bones.
Old Bob’s fans hope to save him from such a fate by keeping him in private custody. Already, the turtle club has received several offers from people willing to provide room and board.
But Old Bob still needs a restricted species permit from the California Department of Fish and Game, which costs $486 per year. Paquette said she could use some help with the 34-page application.
Steve Martarano, spokesman for Fish and Game, said Bob is in no danger of being deported right away.
“They need to get [the permit], but they’re in a good place and we’re not going to really push them,” Martarano said. “We’re taking them on their word.”
For the turtle club, which acts as a haven for abandoned turtles, Old Bob is the perfect emissary to show what happens when unwanted pets are abandoned in local ponds.
“We’re hoping Fish and Game will allow him to stay here as an educational tool,” Paquette said. “He’s definitely a hit with the public, and he sends a very good message.”
But she offered a word of caution: “It’s been fun to have this little legend, but don’t start up another one. It’s not fair to the turtle and not fair to people who use these parks.”