Amateur Zoologists Say This Recording Is Vermont's Loch Ness Monster

A cryptozoologist couple recorded the sound of... something in Lake Champlain.

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Nov 13 2014, 4:00pm

A photo of an unidentified object or creature in Lake Champlain, Vermont. Image: Katy Elizabeth

It is reported to have a long, snake-like body that moves like a sea serpent through the waves. It might be shiny or drab, and black in color. (Or was it green? Or brown?) Its head is flat and horse-like, with eyes the size of dinner plates that may, or may not, glow. Most people agree that it most closely resembles a large snake, but some have compared it to a large dog, a yacht, a horse, a periscope, and a whale.

This monster isn't in Loch Ness—it's Champ, the creature thought to reside in Lake Champlain, the 490-square mile body of water on the border of New York, Vermont and Canada. Early reports of a monster in the lake first surfaced in the late 1800s but really hit their peak in the 1980s. Most evidence up to this point, and a famous photograph from 1977, have been discounted or questioned. But two cryptozoologists, or hobbyists who study unknown animals, on the hunt for the creature have made recordings of mysterious sounds that may constitute new evidence in favor of Champ's existence.

"It was wild. I had seen Champ before, but getting that communication from this animal made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," said Katy Elizabeth, a horseback riding instructor from Rhode Island who hunts for Champ in her free time with her boyfriend, fellow cryptozoologist Dennis Hall. "That feeling you get when you know a sound is made by a biological thing, that it's not a man made sound—that really fascinated me."

Since July, Elizabeth and Hall have made two underwater recordings from the lake using a DolphinEar Hydrophone system. The recordings sound very different, but Elizabeth has an explanation.

This first recording was made in July near a spot called Scotch Bonnet on the lake, and Elizabeth is pretty confident that this is Champ. "We started getting clicks, like a deep clicking. It was kind of scary, it was really loud in my headphones, so it was really close" Elizabeth said. She thought it might be fishermen using a fishfinder, a device that uses sound to locate fish. "But there was nothing in sight. There was no one near us."

Elizabeth says that Champ makes this sound because it uses echolocation to find its food in the murky lake waters. The time of day made sense, because Champ presumably feeds on fish and most fish are active when the sun is down. She made this recording right around dusk.

Elizabeth thinks that Champ is the dinosaur Tanystropheus, which lived in the mid Triassic, 232 million years ago. "That [hypothesis] is going by years of eyewitnesses accounts and observations," she said. "We call it Tanny for short."

Although there's no evidence that Champ any other reptile—ever used echolocation, Elizabeth isn't ready to rule it out. "We don't know if these reptiles could echolocate, it's one of those things that no one really knows," she said. "But something is echolocating."

The moment Elizabeth got the first echolocation recording of an unknown animal on July 31. Image: Katy Elizabeth

When it comes to Champ, though, others have deeper questions. "I'm one of those people that has a tendency towards the nonexistence of Champ because of the biomechanics of a creature like that in Lake Champlain lasting for close to 9,000 years," said Tom Manley, a professor of geology at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. Manley spends a lot of time on Lake Champlain, using radar to study the sediments at the bottom of the lake.

Even though Manley doesn't think that Champ exists, he's put a lot of thought into his reasoning. He doesn't doubt that a creature like Champ could end up in the lake—because of glaciers in the region as recently as 10,000 years ago, the Lake Champlain basin was so depressed that it was an extension of the Atlantic Ocean. At that time, the lake water was brackish, or a mixture of salt and fresh water; the fossil record contains marine microorganisms like foraminifera and even whales that reflect the freshwater lake's salty past.

When Manley refers to "biomechanics," he means that it's hard to imagine multiple Champs living in Lake Champlain for millennia. "There must have been multiple creatures in order for their progeny to exist over 9,000 years," Manley said. When they entered the lake, the dinosaurs would have been adapted to salt water, but then would have had to quickly evolve to live in fresh water, which is not easy. And under these stressful conditions, they would have had to reproduce in the lake and stay there. "It just does not make a lot of logical sense," Manley added.

Manley doesn't deny that fishermen have captured creatures living today that were thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago. "There are a lot of things we don't know about the depths of the ocean and what's in there," he said. But there are some more likely explanations for what people see when they think they see Champ. It could just be tall waves caused by boats or wind that oscillate on the surface, he says. "When you actually have those waves interact with each other, they can create this serpentine surface that seems to be traveling one way or another." Other people may be confusing Champ for a sturgeon, a fish that can grow to be six to 12 feet long. The subject of the 1977 photograph was later found to be a floating tree trunk, known to confuse and alarm observers in the past.

But Elizabeth made a second recording in late October near the mouth of Otter Creek that feeds into Lake Champlain. The sound is different, so maybe it can shed new light on the question of Champ.

But Elizabeth doesn't think she heard Champ this time. She thinks it's a beluga whale.

This theory is more reasonable than it may initially appear. Two years ago, a beluga was spotted in Montreal's old port, about 100 miles from Lake Champlain. Warming seas, Elizabeth says, have changed where species usually live or feed. Plus, although beluga whales live in salt water, they have been known to live in freshwater for short stints.

J. Ellen Marsden, a professor of fish and wildlife biology at the University of Vermont in Burlington, is skeptical of this theory. "There is a direct connection between the lake and the Atlantic Ocean (the Richelieu River), though the rapids are too shallow at most times of the year for something the size of a beluga to pass over them," she wrote in an email. Belugas aren't known to swim upstream in rivers, she adds, and their range doesn't extend as far south as one would have to go to end up in the lake. "Belugas have, rarely, been seen wandering into fresh water, but are apparently very stressed by the non-marine habitat."

So if the sound in Elizabeth's second recording wasn't made by a beluga, what was it? "Judging from the character of the sound, it seems to be a beluga whale. But there's no saying that whatever Champ is can't make those sounds," Elizabeth said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they don't know what it is—that's the best thing really."

Elizabeth plans to send her recordings to an expert of cetacean (whale) echolocation for analysis. "But I wouldn't be surprised if they don't know what it is—that's the best thing really," she said.

Even if experts can't identify the sounds, Elizabeth knows that this won't be enough to convince skeptics that Champ exists. "Someone would have to find a carcass of one, unless someone could catch one," she said. Manley agrees; he would need to see a body, or well-documented, unquestionable documentation like photos or video. "I would need to see something reproducible. That's the methodology of science—reproducing evidence to show it's repeatable," he said. "So far none of the evidence we have can be supported."

"It's such a big lake, it's amazing—a lot of people underestimate its size and depth," Elizabeth said. "There are some bizarre things out there. Belugas would be the least bizarre."