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Lake Monster Lookalikes

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 17.2, June 2007

As a cryptozoologist—albeit a skeptical one—I have long been on the track of fabled creatures, culturally and historically (Nickell 1995; 2006) as well as investigatively. Among my quarry have been legendary leviathans like those supposed to inhabit lakes Champlain (New York and Vermont), Memphremagog (Vermont and Quebec), Utopia (New Brunswick), Okanagan (British Columbia), Simcoe (Ontario), Silver Lake (New York) and others.

Indeed, Benjamin Radford and I co-authored a major study of the phenomenon, Lake Monster Mysteries (Radford and Nickell 2006), which has received very good reviews—even from “believers.” For example, the newsletter of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club (of which we are both members) spoke of “the incredible amount of investigative work” we had “put into the field of cryptid investigations,” noting that we “have done more fieldwork than many cryptozoology enthusiasts and have been very diligent about it” (Kirk 2006).

The reviewer—respected cryptozoologist John Kirk, author of In the Domain of the Lake Monsters (1998)—did fault us a bit, finding that Ben was somewhat too dismissive of eyewitness reliability, and that I had perhaps “too broadly applied” a particular explanation for sightings of multi-humped creatures.

Actually, I feel that if we erred it was on the side of being too open-minded. Ben’s essay, “Eyewitness (Un)Reliability,” appeared as an appendix and simply demonstrated the fact that eyewitnesses are often mistaken. If further evidence is needed, consider a case that transpired in Rotterdam in 1978. A small panda had escaped from a zoo, whereupon officials had issued a media alert. Soon panda sightings—around one hundred in all—were reported across the Netherlands. However, a single animal could not have been in so many places in so short a time; in fact, no one had seen the panda, because it had been killed by a train when it reached railroad tracks near the zoo. How do we explain the many false sightings? The answer is, people’s anticipations led them to misinterpret what they had actually seen—a dog or some wild creature—as the escaped panda. (The publicity generated by the case may even have sparked some hoax calls [Nickell 1995, 43].) If such misperceptions could happen with pandas, surely they could also occur with aquatic cryptids.

Which brings me to Kirk’s criticism (mild criticism, to be sure) of my hypothesis regarding certain sightings. I had discovered that there was a notable lake-monster lookalike in the vicinity of many reported encounters. Consider, for example, the experience of a senior wildlife technician with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, Jon Kopp. As he explained to me, it had been dark and he was in a duck blind on a lake in Clinton County. Suddenly, he saw, heading toward him, a huge, snake-like monster swimming with a sinuous, undulating motion. As it came closer, however, Kopp realized that he saw not one creature but half a dozen—a group of otters swimming in a line diving and resurfacing to create the effect of a single, serpentine creature. “After seeing this,” Kopp said, “I can understand how people can see a ‘sea serpent’” (Radford and Nickell 2006, 38).

Ogopogo 1 Ogopogo 2

Figure 1. Author’s composite drawing of Ogopogo (top) is compared with otters swimming in a line (after Gould 1976).

As another example, one witness to a Lake Champlain sighting of 1983 stated, “It could have been one large creature or four smaller ones,” a concession underscored by the fact that the sighting was at the “mouth of Otter Creek”—actually Vermont’s longest river, but in any case aptly named as a habitat for the northern river otter (Zarzynski 1983).

That creature—Lutra canadensis—measures up to fifty-two inches long, and when treading water with its hind paws, can extend its head and long neck well out of the water. It thus invites comparison with the extinct plesiosaur, which is often cited as a possibility for supposed lake-monster sightings (Binns 1984, 186—191). Moreover, otters are playful and enjoy “chasing each other” and “following the leader” (Godin 1983, 173), thus being especially prone to creating the illusion of a single multihumped creature. Figure 1 illustrates how this behavior can help explain, for instance, many of Lake Okanagan’s fabled “Ogopogo” sightings.

Of course, otters are not responsible for all lake-monster sightings, any more than weather balloons are the only instigators of UFO reports. In fact, in Lake Monster Mysteries, I mentioned many possible culprits, such as sturgeon, gar, and other large fish; swimming animals like beavers; deer; long-necked birds; bobbing logs; clumps of dislodged lake-bottom debris; and additional possibilities, including wind sticks and boat wakes. Hoaxes are also possible, and there have been faked monsters on pulleys as well as phony photographs, like the celebrated Loch Ness monster photo, which was publicly revealed as a hoax in 1994 (Radford and Nickell 2006).

Nevertheless, in light of considerable evidence, I decided to see how well monster-inhabited lakes and rivers correlated with otter populations, and my research led to the map in figure 2. For this, I relied on the list of “Lake Monsters of the World” given by Kirk (1998, 293—303), and for otter distribution, I consulted the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals (Whitaker 1996).

Figure 2. This map shows the numbers of monster-inhabited lakes and rivers correlated with the distribution of otter populations.

Figure 2. This map shows the numbers of monster-inhabited lakes and rivers correlated with the distribution of otter populations.

For practical reasons,1 I limited my scope to North America, but it should be noted that otters (any of various aquatic carnivores belonging to the weasel family) are “found on all continents except Australia” (Webster’s 1997). At Loch Ness, for example, the European otter (Lutra lutra) is an often-cited potential lookalike for Nessie (Binns 1984, 186—191).

Clearly, there is a strong correlation as expected. Note that the large number of aquatic-cryptid sites in British Columbia (25), Ontario (16), and Quebec (21), are in prime river-otter territory. Of course it can be argued that lakes themselves are in abundance there, and that, conversely, where water is relatively scarce (e.g., the southwestern United States), naturally otters are also scarce. But I rather think that that helps prove my point: wherever there are lakes and rivers with “monsters”—especially of the long-necked multihumped variety—otters are usually known to the area. They thus become viable candidates for the apparent misperception—a variation on the old if-it-looks-like-a-duck adage.

However, we must continue to investigate claims on a case-by-case basis. Our aim must be to solve lake monster mysteries, not to foster or dismiss them.


  1. Including all the monster-inhabited lakes of the world on a simple map would have resulted in a large illustration with too much detail to be reasonably publishable in reduced size in a magazine or book.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at