Lake monsters

Now that summer is winding down and people are heading home from the lake, it’s time to ask, “Did you see anything weird out there?” It wouldn’t be surprising if you did, since Canada has more lake monsters than any other country in the world.

“Lake monsters” are large unknown creatures said to inhabit many lakes around the world–usually very long, deep lakes. They’re often described as having long necks, narrow heads and a series of humps. In areas with aboriginal populations, the sightings may go back centuries.

Most peculiarly of all, nobody seems to be able to photograph one clearly and their bodies never wash ashore.

Every summer brings a rash of sightings. For example, the Great Lake Monster in Lake Storsjon, Sweden, was seen three times this summer. One couple claimed they saw it on July 31 from just 30 metres away, and described it as a greenish-black animal five to eight metres long, with shiny, scaly skin and large humps.

Of course, Scotland’s Loch Ness has the most famous monster. The modern era of Nessie sightings began on April 14, 1933, when the owners of an inn said they saw an enormous animal rolling and plunging in the loch. After that, sightings proliferated.

Not long after, a surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, produced one of the best photographs ever taken of a lake monster. You’ve undoubtedly seen it: it shows what looks like the long neck and head of dinosaur-like animal above the waves. Alas, it was revealed as a fake in 1993, when Christian Sperling admitted he and his step-father, Ian “Marmaduke” Wetherell, actually created and photographed a tiny model, consisting of plastic wood over the conning tower of a toy submarine, then passed the film on to Colonel Wilson, a friend of a friend.

Canada’s most famous lake monster is Lake Okanagan’s Ogopogo. The Salish Indians have legends of “Natiaka,” and when Europeans arrived in 1860, they reported seeing large objects moving and swimming about. Sightings were particularly prevalent in the 1920s. As with most lake monsters, no good photographs have been obtained.

Just next door to us, Lake Manitoba boasts “Manipogo,” again reported early on by Indians and settlers, and photographed (very badly, of course) in 1962 by two men in a boat. Analysis of the photo indicated it was probably a fake, but that didn’t keep interest from surging. A search for carcasses of the creature in the early ’60s found nothing.

The most popular theory to explain lake monsters, if they exist, is that they are surviving prehistoric creatures. Nessie, for instance, has been hypothesized to be a plesiosaur, an aquatic reptile from the days of the dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, you need several monsters to maintain a population, and most lakes simply don’t contain enough fish to support several giant predators. One theory is that the Loch Ness monster might actually be a sea-going creature (or a series of them) that found its way into the lake by accident–but that won’t work for Ogopogo!

Most likely, people simply aren’t seeing what they think they’re seeing. Often, they’re simply seeing waves. Boat wakes, for instance, can last a surprisingly long time and, in a narrow lake, even bounce off the shoreline and return to the middle, creating the impression of a dark mass rolling just beneath the surface.

Submerged logs bobbing to the surface could account for some sightings. When a pine tree sinks to the bottom of the lake, water squeezes the trunk, forcing out resin, creating a water-proof skin. As the trunk decays, gases form inside it. Eventually this gas causes the trunk to rise. As it nears the surface, the pressure decreases, and the gas escapes through the resin, producing foaming and an audible hiss, while the trunk rolls around. After just a moment, the trunk sinks again…while astonished viewers are still scrambling for a camera.

Perhaps unknown creatures really do lurk in lakes around the world. Unfortunately, lake monsters tend to attract hoaxers and people out to make a quick buck, and this circus-like atmosphere scares off serious researchers. What research has been carried out, while interesting (underwater photographs from Loch Ness that could be interpreted to show a flipper or a head, large sonar traces that appear, then vanish), are inconclusive.

The jury is still out. In the meantime, if you’re visiting a lake with a monster, do us all a favor: keep your cameras at hand, and before you take a picture or video, please, please focus.

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