Quest for the Giant Eel
On a six-day trip to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (in part for a television documentary), I encountered some very large creatures: several moose (the largest land mammal of the region), to whom I gave the right of way in return for their photos; a stuffed polar bear (towering upright almost nine feet tall), which had ambled into St. Anthony one spring; and, from a circus truck that overturned ahead of me on the Viking Trail, two camels and a sweet Asian elephant named Limba.
I did not encounter humpback whales, although I took an excursion boat out in very rough water to see great icebergs making their way south from Greenland. (I had better luck with humpbacks on an Alaska excursion [Nickell 2007a].) Neither did I catch a glimpse of another leviathan that occasionally haunts the region’s coastal waters:the giant squid, known at lengths in excess of seventy-five feet and the subject of numerous hair-raising adventures (Fitzgerald 2006, 50–71). (For our book Lake Monster Mysteries, Benjamin Radford [2006, 5] photographed the world’s best-preserved specimen at a museum in St. John’s.)
What I was really searching for—having been brought to the village of Robert’s Arm by a television crew for the History Channel’s popular series, Monster Quest (which later aired on September 17, 2008)—was a legendary lake monster said to inhabit the cold, deep, blue waters of Crescent Lake. It has been dubbed “Cressie,” and the village’s welcoming signboard proclaims it “The ‘Loch Ness’ of Newfoundland!”
Figure 2. Giant eel or otter lookalike?
Sightings of a “monster” in the lake date back to the turn of the last century when a resident known as “Grandmother Anthony” spied a giant serpentine creature while she was picking berries. From the 1940s to the present, there have been a dozen or so sightings, although without photographs to date. Most descriptions are of a dark, eel-like creature, up to twenty-five or more feet long (Bragg 1995; Radford and Nickell 2006, 89–95).
Its locomotion is typically described as “rolling” or “undulating” (Bragg 1995); indeed, “when the head was up, the back was down” (Colbourne 2008). Consequently, the contortions of the elongated creature seemingly produced “humps” (Short 2008; see figure 1).
A typical sighting occurred in 1991, when retired school teacher Fred Parsons (an engaging man whom I met in Robert’s Arm) saw a creature surface while crossing the lake. It was dark brown, swimming in an undulating fashion, and, Parsons estimated, over twenty feet long (Bragg 1995; see also Radford and Nickell 2006, 92–93). Of course eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. An experiment I conducted for Monster Quest, using a log of known length that we towed and anchored at a mid-lake position, demonstrated that people viewing something from a distance can easily overestimate its size by forty percent or greater.1
There are other reasons to be skeptical of a monster in Crescent Lake, one of which is that a single creature could neither live for centuries nor reproduce itself. A breeding herd of several individuals would be required for the species to continue propagating over time. But then where is a single floating or beached carcass? It is true that the lake is connected to the Atlantic Ocean, scarcely two miles distant, by Tommy’s Arm Brook. However as Bragg (1995) concedes, no great creature has ever been seen navigating the outlet.
Because “Cressie” is often likened to a giant eel (Bragg 1995; Eberhart 2002, I:114; Monster 2008), someone gave it the quasi-scientific name Cressiteras anguilloida (Eberhart 2002, I:114). Actually, this is unlikely as a scientific name that might be bestowed—if a giant-eel specimen were verified. Eels (a group of fishes having snakelike bodies and lacking pelvic fins) are of the order Anguilliformes, and true eels comprise the family Anguillidae. The American eel, for example, is Anguilla rostrata (Collins 1959, 475). Related eels include the marine conger eels (Conger oceanicus), which attain a length of six to nine feet, and the morays of tropical reefs. The Pacific moray (Thyrsoidea macrurus), up to a foot longer, “is probably the largest known species” (Colliers Encyclopedia 1993, s.v. “Moray”).
Now, while Crescent Lake does reportedly host freshwater American eels, these are normally under five feet long. Divers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who allegedly surfaced on the lake with “descriptions of giant eels as thick as a man’s thigh” (Bragg 1995), probably encountered a different creature—if indeed, the incident actually happened: The RCMP could not confirm the occurrence to Monster Quest. Indeed, whatever Cressie is, it is clearly not a giant eel. The eyewitness descriptions of a giant creature, swimming on the surface of the water and moving in an up-and-down fashion, are completely wrong for an eel.
Eels, in fact, are bottom-dwelling creatures (“Freshwater” 2008a, 2008b; “Eel” 2008), and their locomotion, while wavelike, is actually from side-to-side, as I confirmed by studying them at Aquarium Niagara in Niagara Falls, New York (where I am a member and once served as “Animal Trainer for a Day”). For my Monster Quest research, the aquarium’s exhibits supervisor, Dan Arcara, graciously allowed me to study an American eel and a moray eel, gently prodding the latter from its den with a pole so I could document on videotape its sideways-oscillating swimming style.
Moreover, the sightings of Cressie invariably occur during daytime, whereas the common freshwater eel “is nocturnal in its habits, sleeping or lying in the mud during the day” (“Freshwater” 2008a).
There is, in fact, an actual creature that is dark-colored, swims both under water and at the surface—where its wake can make it appear much longer, and moves in an undulating (rising and falling) manner. Its scientific name is Lontra canadensis,2 the northern river otter (Nickell 2007c).
In addition, multiple otters swimming in a line can give the effect of a single giant serpentine creature slithering with an up-and-down movement through water. This effect was observed as early as 1930 by a marine biologist (Gould 1934, 115–116) and has since been documented many times (e.g., Nickell 2007b). Newfoundland is shown (by the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals [Whitaker 1996, 782–785]) to be a definite habitat for the northern river otter. (See figure 2.)
I have been accused of seeming to suggest this effect as a solution to all lake monster reports (Coleman 2007), but in fact that grossly mischaracterizes my position. In Lake Monster Mysteries, I acknowledged other lake-monster imitators, including fish (such as sturgeon and gar), long-necked birds, windslicks, boat wakes, and logs (which may be propelled from the lake bottom by methane gas produced by decomposition [Monk 2004]). Swimming mammals like deer and beaver have also been mistaken for lake monsters. For instance, during the filming of the Monster Quest program, a mysterious and seemingly lengthy creature swimming under the surface of the lake created a brief sensation but proved to be a beaver.
I apply otters as a solution to some mystery sightings, according to the principle of Occam’s razor (that the simplest credible solution, the one making the fewest assumptions, is to be preferred). When a sighting could most credibly be explained as one or more otters, like some of the Cressie sightings, then that is necessarily the preferred hypothesis. Other sightings may be attributed to other causes. However, should Cressie surface in a more credible form, I would certainly be willing to reopen the case.
In addition to those mentioned in the text, I wish to thank the residents of Robert’s Arm, Newfoundland, who generously hosted a reception for the Monster Quest crew and me, complete with a wonderful seafood dinner and ceremony naming each of us an “Honorary Newfoundlander.”
I also wish to thank CMJ Productions—including producer Leo Singer, production staffer Saskia DeBoer, and the film crew, as well as CFI Libraries director Timothy Binga for their help.
- This was conducted on Saturday, June 14, 2008. Two of the three participants—Bradley Rideout and Effie Colbourne—had reported seeing “Cressie.” Brad estimated the 14.25-foot log at 18 feet, Effie at 20 (although first saying “20 to 30”), and the other participant at 20 feet.
- Formerly Lutra canadensis.
- Bragg, R.A. 1995. Have you seen Cressie? In Wanda Jackman, Bonnie Warr, and Russell A. Bragg, Remembrances of Robert’s Arm. Corner Brook, Newfoundland: Western Star Publishers, 14.
- Colbourne, Effie. 2008. Interview for Monster Quest (Monster 2008).
- Coleman, Loren. 2007. Otter nonsense. Available online at cryptomundo.com; accessed June 6.
- Eberhart, George M. 2002. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (in two vols.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CL10.
- Eel. 2008. From Wikipedia, available online at en.wikipedia.org; accessed August 20, 2008.
- Fitzgerald, Jack. 2006. Newfoundland Adventures: In Air, on Land, at Sea. St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador: Creative Publishers.
- Freshwater eels. 2008a. Available online at gamefishingguide.com; accessed August 8, 2008.
- Freshwater vs. saltwater moray eels revisited. 2008b. Available online at Saltaquarium.about.com; accessed August 20, 2008.
- Gould, Rupert T. 1934. The Loch Ness Monster; reprinted Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976.
- Monk, Jerry. 2004. Letter to the editor. Fortean Times 185 (July): 76.
- Monster Quest eyewitnesses. 2008. Transcript of preliminary interviews for Monster Quest, provided to author September 6.
- Nickell, Joe. 2007a. Mysterious entities of the Pacific Northwest, part I. Skeptical Inquirer 31:1 (January/February), 20–22.
- —. 2007b. Lake monster lookalikes. Skeptical Briefs. June, 6–7.
- —. 2007c. The Loch Ness critter. Skeptical Inquirer 31:5 (September/October), 15–16.
- Radford, Benjamin, and Joe Nickell. 2006. Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky.
- Rideout, Bradley. 2008. Interview for Monster Quest (Monster 2008).
- Short, Vivian. 2008. Interview for Monster Quest (Monster 2008).
- Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.