A Study of Evidence for the Lake Champlain Monster (“Champ”) and Pseudoscientific Claims
Psych 499: Why We Believe Weird Things
Lake Champlain was formed by glacial retreat approximately 10,000 years ago. It extends from Quebec through Vermont, then into New York. Some believe that an unknown species of dinosaur-like creature has been trapped in the landlocked body of water; believers have named it Champ. Sightings go back so far as to be local tradition, though sightings entered into the written record are scarce until the 1900s. Burlington, Vermont has made a bustling tourist trade out of Champ while the pseudoscience community continues to present new evidence and review past evidence.
Evidence prior to 1900
There is a tradition of misinformation surrounding Champ, much of which has been recorded by the local tourism board. Tradition holds that Samuel de Champlain was the first white person to record the creature. However, the reading of his journal indicates that he probably saw a relative of the sturgeon known as a garfish, in the St. Lawrence River, not Lake Champlain (Champ History). According to Nickell (2003) Champlain‟s report of a “twenty-foot
serpent as thick as a barrel with the head of a horse” is actually attributable to “Vermont Life”
write, Marjorie L. Porter in the 1970s.
Perhaps the most infamous of sightings comes from Captain Crum who in 1873 reported the creature as, “about 187 feet long and with a head resembling a „sea horse‟ that reared over 15 feet out of the water…had three teeth, eyes the color of a „a pealed [sic] onion,‟ a white star on its forehead, and „a belt of red around the neck‟” (Champ History). Without reporting the use of
a telescope or binoculars, that is remarkable detail for being over 200 yards away. The same year saw three more reports, including an incident in which a steamship ran into the “creature,” nearly
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flipping the boat according to tourists aboard. P.T. Barnum couldn‟t stay away, and offered a
$50,000 reward for the creature‟s carcass (Champ History).
Thanks to advances in photography and video recording, the 20th century produced evidence for review by the community at large. The most famous image of Champ was produced by Sandra Mansi in 1977. Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine,
has interviewed Sandra Mansi and retells her story:
According to Sandra Mansi, her family‟s encounter with Champ took place on Tuesday,
July 5, 1977. Sandra and her fiancé Anthony Mansi, along with Sandra‟s two children
from her previous marriage, were taking a leisurely drive along Lake Champlain…The
two children went down to the water while Anthony returned to their car to get a camera.
As Sandra watched her children and the lake, she noticed a disturbance in the water about
150 feet away. She thought at first it was a school of fish, then possibly a scuba diver.
“Then the head and neck broke the surface of the water. Then I saw the head come up,
then the neck, then the back” (Mansi 2002)… Mansi did not panic: “I wasn't even scared,
I'm just trying to figure out what I'm seeing…She knelt down, snapped one photo, and
then put the camera down to watch the creature. The head and neck turned slightly, then
slowly sank into the water and disappeared (2003).
Samantha Swindell, in her lecture entitled “Why we believe weird things” added additional
background details about Ms. Mansi, notably that she claimed to be an avid photographer, yet didn‟t keep any negatives, citing storage issues (2009). No explanation has been given as to why
this avid photographer took only one photograph of the creature. Ms. Mansi says she waited until 1981 to reveal the photograph because of fears of being ridiculed, and at that time released the photo to renowned Champ hunter, Joe Zarzynski. Radford points out several additional inconsistencies with this scenario: Mansi cannot produce any test photos, that the only shot of Champ is so clear is remarkable; there are no known objects in the frame to give reference to
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help researchers determine the object‟s size; and she cannot remember the approximate site where the photo was taken (2003).
Joe Zarzynski is an archaeologist who specializes in shipwrecks in Lake Champlain, as well as a cryptozoologist specializing in Champ. He writes in, “Champ: Beyond the Legend
(1984), [he] considers the photo „the best single piece of evidence on Champ.‟” (Champ History).
But as evidence, it‟s fairly weak given the inconsistencies noted above. Mr. Zarzynski was also
the first person, aside from the Mansi family, to see the photo and three years later published his book about the creature. Since he‟s built a career and reputation on this photo it‟s difficult to
eliminate the appearance of bias in his statement.
Radford suggests that this is not a living creature of any kind based on his analysis of the picture. He states that if the picture was taken at approximately noon, then the shadow from the “head” would have given the appearance that the neck was connected to the creature‟s hump. He stops just short of dismissing the possibility of a creature outright, “Even if the neck and hump are part of the same object, the positioning of the segments makes it very unlikely it is a living creature‟s “head” and “neck” connected just under the water” (Radford, 2003).
In May, 2009 a low-quality video of “a creature” was posted to YouTube by username
“Mookiebone.” In the 1m58s video a living creature makes its way through the water from
screen left to screen right. Like the Mansi photo there is little information to use to determine the size of the creature in the video, only at the end when the creature is near the shore do we have any visual markers. Notably, the author of the video doesn‟t say what happened after the cell
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phone stopped recording. He does give one clue that researchers would be able to use to gather data if they so desired, he identifies the location as Oakledge Park.
Zealous searchers have “found” Champ in the most unlikely of ways. Google Maps
provides astonishing detail of the planet‟s surface and if conditions are favorable will show detail underwater. At champmonster.com a commenter by the name of “Robert” posted that he found something odd using Google Maps, at location Lat: 44?7‟3.59”N; Long: 73?23‟40.83”W (in
decimal: 44.117664, -73.394675). The site administrator was a little more enigmatic, stating that he would embed the map into his page “so that our readers can decide for themselves” (Charlie).
When the user zooms in on the coordinates, there is a rather surprising “squiggle” on the map,
which could be mistaken for a sea monster. However, if the user looks just to the right, they will find another “squiggle” of the same approximate size and shape. Using the distance guide on the
maps also gives pause- each of these “squiggles” is over 200 feet in length, nearly ten times the reported size of Champ.
Without going into too much detail about what these unknown creatures might be, there are several plausible theories. Nickell relates an anecdote from a fisherman who was taking a group of sightseers out on the lake who saw Champ. A little investigation proved that “Champ” was instead a large log, bobbing in the water, propelled by the current (2003). Radford posits that the Mansi photograph and most Champ sightings are of logs swept from the lake bottom by a seiche. A seiche is an underwater wave up to 300 feet high, that moves from shore to shore, kicking up debris. Radford quotes Dick Teresi, “‟the ideal lake for really big seiches would be
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one like Champlain... long, narrow, and deep, and routinely subjected to a severe winter so that the lower level of water can stay cold while the upper layer warms up in the spring‟” (Radford,
In Pseudoscience and the Paranormal Professor Hines states, “Deer are common around
[Loch Ness] and have been known to swim across it. A deer swimming in a lake is not something most people expect to see and so, if the lake happens to have the reputation of housing a monster, a monster will likely be perceived” (2003). Radford picked up on this immediately
and titled his rebuttal article America‟s Loch Ness Monster? Or a Swimming Deer? (2009). He
proceeds with a thorough dismantling of the video, and a discussion of plausible alternative explanations. Descriptions of the creature as having a “horse like head” (as above) lend credence to the theory. To test the hypothesis, I collected several photos of deer and filtered the images to demonstrate how even slight distortions can give the appearance of the “unknown,” when the reality is an event “not commonly experienced by the observer.” The results are in Appendix A.
The most common explanation is that Champ is a fish in the sturgeon family. Nickell again reports that fishermen on the lake have caught gar that were over six feet long, weighing nearly fifty pounds (2003). That people have difficulty estimating the size of objects in the water, especially fish, should not take much convincing- tales of “the one that got away” are common
among fishermen. A young man off Brighton beach in England reported seeing a fifty foot sea monster. Years later, as a marine biologist, he realized that what he had seen was a pod of dolphins swimming in formation (ibid.).
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Finally, Nickell proposes that large waves may be to blame for “sea serpent” sightings.
According to a deckhand on the Valcour ferry, when large boat traffic was removed from the lake the frequency of sightings decreased substantially. “A barge‟s wake often traveled across the lake, he said, mystifying anyone who might encounter it without seeing its cause” (Nickell,
Radford comments on the sightings board at Port Henry, NY that, “almost half of the 132
sightings listed on the board (as of August 2002) are dated 1981 or 1982, immediately following the [Mansi] photo‟s publication” (Radford, 2004). Nickell uses a term, “expectant attention”
which he describes as, “the tendency of people who, expecting to see something, are misled by anything having some resemblance to it. For example, a log may be mistaken for a lake serpent under the right conditions, especially in an area where reports of such a creature are common”
(2003). This is similar to Hines‟ supposition that the creatures may be deer, but observers expect to see a “monster.” These “expectant attention” events resemble the “dog swimming with stick” photo in the discussion of characteristic #8 from the “Why we believe weird things” lecture,
“[pseudoscience] relies on after-the-fact explanations that seem like predictions, but lack predictive power” (Swindell, 2009) The claims of photographers and videographers also fall into the trap of “[using] either-or arguments and claims that „unexplained‟ equals „inexplicable‟” (ibid.).
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The Mansi photograph was presented as proof-positive of the existence of Champ, and Zarzynski built a career around it. For over thirty years the Mansi family has sustained the story that the photograph is of a lake monster. When suspicions have been raised about the photo‟s authenticity their lawyer Alan Neigher has rebutted, “they could no more have constructed such
a hoax than put a satellite in orbit” (Radford, 2003). This attitude places the burden of proof on the critic to come up with an alternate explanation strong enough to change the proponent‟s
perspective- pseudoscience characteristic #6.
Conclusions and lessons
Though there have been many examples of record-sized fish in Lake Champlain, there is yet to be any concrete, irrefutable evidence of an unknown species. The photos and videos presented for public scrutiny have had ready, mundane explanations. The explorations have doubtless resulted in better understandings of characteristics that are unique to lakes (like seiches) as well as the known fauna and the lake‟s coral reefs, but have yet to turn up even the slightest
evidence for a heretofore unknown creature living in Lake Champlain.
Prior to the mid-1990s coverage of lake monster sightings had been relegated to “fringe” publications and word-of-mouth. Today, low quality images of what is likely a deer swimming to a new food plot have circled the globe, netting tens of thousands of viewers, thanks to the wide availability of the Internet. Occasionally, though, stories of the paranormal enter the mainstream. In 2006, ABC‟s “Good Morning America” ran a segment about two fishermen on Lake
Champlain who claimed to have caught photographic evidence of Champ swimming near their boat. Claims of the paranormal by large, reputable media outlets are momentary distractions, and
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are presented as entertainment. Unfortunately a conflicting opinion is rarely given the same amount of time as the spectacular claim, and this is how a picture of driftwood can become “proof” that a lake monster exists. The burden is on researchers like Ben Radford and Joe
Nickell to review the facts with a critical eye, then to present their rebuttals to a public that has already consumed the story as truth.
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The following images and photoshop filtering is designed to show the reader that even slight imperfections in an image can create an “unknown” if the reality is that the situation is not commonly viewed by the observer.
Retrieved from http://www.abc6.com/weather/weatherblog/19852659.html
Level 7 (of 100) lens blur photoshop filter
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