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Lake Champlain Monster

Sandra Mansi’s photograph of ‘Champ’, Lake Champlain’s celebrated inhabitant, is often held up as the best evidence we have of the existence of lake monsters. Benjamin Radford has been taking a long, hard look at this famous picture and argues that the Mansi photo isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Lake Champlain, knifing through the north-eastern United States between NewYork, Vermont, and Canada, is said to be home to ‘Champ’, America’s equivalent of the Loch Ness monster. Long-time investigator Roy Mackal has concluded that of all the alleged lake monsters in the world, “the best case is that made for the existence of a monster in Lake Champlain.” 1

There are only a few photographs and videotapes purporting to be of the creature known as Champ, the best of which (and, indeed, the best photograph of any lake monster) is the picture taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977. John Kirk, of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, states: “The monster of Lake Champlain... has the distinction of being the only lake monster of whom there is a reasonably clear photograph” and that the photo “is extremely good evidence of an unidentified lake-dwelling animal.” Joe Zarzynski, author of Champ: Beyond the Legend, considers the photo to be the “best single piece of evidence on Champ,” while Jerome Clark writes that: “By any standard the Mansi photograph remains a genuine mystery and a serious obstacle to any effort to reduce the Champ phenomenon to mundane causes.” 2

With so many writers and researchers believing in the authenticity of the Mansi photograph, it seems appropriate to take a fresh look at the evidence.

Eyewitness sightings of Champ are relatively rare, and a sighting accompanied by a photograph of the calibre of Mansi’s is perhaps unique in the whole field of cryptozoology. Rather than rely on published accounts for the story, which are often fragmentary and mistaken as to details, I went directly to the primary source, interviewing Sandra Mansi in detail and at length in August 2002.

According to Mansi, her family’s encounter with Champ took place on Tuesday, 5 July 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. They passed by some farmland and, around noon, made their way to a small bluff overlooking the lake. 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 ft (46m) 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 didn’t panic: “I wasn’t even scared, I’m just trying to figure out what I’m seeing. Then when Tony came over the field he saw it and started screaming, ‘Get the kids out of the water!’” The children scrambled up the bank and headed toward the car. As Anthony helped Sandra up the bank, he handed her the camera. She knelt down, snapped one photo, and then put the camera down to watch the creature. After several minutes, the head and neck slowly sank into the water and was gone. The Mansis headed home. They didn’t report the sighting to anyone, but took the unfinished roll to a local photomat to be developed. The photograph was tucked away in an album for four years before it came to the attention of cryptozoologists and was published in the New York Times on 30 June 1981, to great fanfare. Soon, a well publicised ‘Champ Seminar’ was held to discuss the creature and the photograph.

In Port Henry, New York (the self-proclaimed “home of Champ”), there is a sign listing “Champ Sightings in Bulwagga Bay Area” (see p46). A timeline of these sightings provides insight into how Mansi’s photo appears to have spawned further sightings. Almost half of the 132 sightings listed on the board (as of August 2002) are dated 1981 or 1982, immediately following the photo’s publication. It’s not much of a stretch to state that the Mansi photo launched the modern Champ phenomenon.

Given the importance of the photo (and despite several analyses, notably by B Roy Frieden of the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona and Paul H LeBlond of the Department of Oceanography at the University of British Columbia), remarkably little progress has been made in identifying its subject. The Mansi photograph by itself is intriguing but reveals very little usable information. Whether by accident or design, virtually all of the information needed to determine the photograph’s authenticity is missing, lost or unavailable.

For example, Mansi cannot provide the negative, which might show evidence of tampering, neither can she provide other photographs from the roll (which might show other angles of the same object, or perhaps ‘test’ photos of a known object from an odd position). Mansi is unable to locate the site of the photo, which would help to determine a number of things, including the size of the object, and the photo itself shows virtually no objects of known scale by which to judge the creature’s size or distance.

All we are left with is a fantastic story whose only supporting proof is a compelling but ambiguous photograph of something. But what is that something, that tantalising, mysterious curved object in the lake? A close examination of Mansi’s account and photograph provides some revealing clues.

The most fundamental question is whether the object is alive or not. There are a number of puzzling facets to the story that make little sense if the object is truly a large, living animal, but which present no difficulties if it is not.

Morphology


The neck and hump of the creature (if that’s what it is) are at a very unnatural angle and position to each other. It is difficult to picture how the gently sloping hump on the right could be anatomically connected to the neck, which emerges from the water at an angle of roughly 85 degrees. The hump it is supposedly connected to slopes down toward the base of the neck just a few feet away. The neck portion does not align with the hump and, in fact, clearly emerges from the water away from the hump (and supposed body). There does not seem to be enough space between the base of the neck and the hump to plausibly account for the rest of the submerged body. It is hard to conceive of a large, aquatic animal whose morphology would allow for such a tortuous positioning. (Including a plesiosaur, one of the most popular Champ candidates).

The object is supposedly a head and neck, yet (unlike all other known animals) has no discernable organs – no mouth, no eyes, no nose, no ears, no sensory organs at all. It is simply a curved, ambiguous shape in the water, not identifiable as a head and neck other than by inference. It does seem to have a vaguely head-shaped tip, but a root sticking up from a partially submerged tree stump would look virtually identical. Roots and branches can take many gnarled, twisted, and fantastic forms, such as the shape in the photo. In fact, through the years many people have found natural roots that resemble the heads and bodies of lake monsters. One striking photo of a serpentine (but wooden) head and neck can be found on page 99 of Joe Zarzynski’s Champ: Beyond the Legend (1984). Another – actually found near Lake Champlain – is reproduced on the opposite page, from an undated photo in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

Behaviour and Movement

As in the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, the Champ creature provides us with information about what it did not do: the object was apparently oblivious to noise. Despite two children playing in the water less than 150 ft (46m) away, and a grown man shouting at it, the object did not turn its head toward the sources of the noise and was apparently unaware of the four large human animals directly behind it. As Mansi reported, “It did not even look our way – and the kids were loud, they were having a great time… It didn’t know I was there. I’m sure it didn’t.” This detail strongly suggests that the object Mansi saw was not a living creature. Sound moves at a faster speed in water (about 1,500 m/4,921ft per second) than in air (about 340 m/1,115ft per second), and some whales can hear at distances of 20 miles (32km) or more. A living creature of the presumed size and complexity of Champ should be able to easily hear and sense two young children splashing and playing in the water nearby. Mansi attributes Champ’s distinctly un-animal-like behaviour to deafness: “I really don’t think it could hear because wouldn’t you think that if it heard the children [it would turn its head]?” A simpler explanation is that the object could not hear because it was inanimate.

Mansi said the creature, after surfacing six to eight ft (1.8 – 2.4m) out of the water, turned its head, apparently looking over the countryside. But what would an aquatic animal be doing scanning the shoreline and countryside? Animals that live in the water are unlikely to have good terrestrial vision for such distances. Sea turtles, for example, have excellent eyesight underwater, but are nearsighted on land. The idea that Champ would stick its head up to “have a long look around” (except, perhaps, toward the loud noises behind it) seems unlikely behaviour for an actual living creature.

The creature held its head out of the water and was essentially stationary for “at least five to seven minutes.” Even given the fact that eyewitnesses tend to overestimate the duration of sightings, this is a remarkably long time for any large, living creature to remain motionless. Large animals in the wild rarely stay immobile for long periods of time unless they are sleeping or eating. The majority of Champ sightings last less than a minute – usually just a few seconds. If the Champ creatures (and there must be dozens of them to constitute a breeding population) habitually stick their necks 6 ft (1.8 meters) or more out of the water for five minutes or longer at a time (whether people are nearby or not), it is amazing that they are not routinely sighted.

The object’s movements are not characteristic of an animal. From Mansi’s description, the head and neck were always more or less fixed in the same position. Although the head was said to move to some degree, it did not, for example, slide its head back or around as a snake might. The object moved less like a flexible, pliable neck or appendage than a stiff, stationary object turning slightly on its axis. Many reports – including Mansi’s – very specifically point out that Champ “sank – it did not dive – under the water.” 3 This is an interesting characteristic, and exactly the behaviour one would expect from a protruding root or branch of a partially submerged tree being roiled by waves: a neck-like object sinking back into the water instead of diving forward.

Size

Most of the previous size estimates suggested the neck was six to eight ft (1.8 to 2.4 m) out of the water, and 15 to 65 ft (4.5 to 20 m) long. But recent field experiments and analysis 4, using Mansi’s own account and testimony, find the object to be protruding just over three ft (90cm) out of the water, with both segments together at about 7 ft (2m) in length. This sheds a whole new light on the object Mansi photographed; if the size of the object is, as seems likely, much smaller than previous estimates, the range of possible candidates grows larger.

Surface Texture

Finally, we have Sandra Mansi’s description of the object’s texture. In her words, the object was wet and glistening and its texture was “like bark, like crevice-ey...” Perhaps, then, it was bark.

The Mouth

There is only one specific detail in Mansi’s account that argues convincingly for a living creature as opposed to a root or tree, which is the presence of a mouth: “I could see that it was living. I could not see detail... I remember the mouth was open when it came up and water came out.”

This feature is indeed hard to reconcile with a stump or log. Yet, later during our interview, Mansi admitted that the mouth was closed when the creature came up: “When it came up, its mouth was closed, but you could see water [coming from the head].” This suggests that perhaps she only inferred the presence of a mouth. Since Mansi was interpreting the top of the “neck” as a head, this is a perfectly reasonable and perceptually sound assumption. Given that she thought she was seeing a creature’s head, her mind supplied the rest. The process by which the human mind fills in perceptual details that are not in fact present is well documented. 5 If you look at the downward curve of the nose and head, it is easy to see how water draining off the lowest point could be interpreted as coming from a hidden mouth.

The Best Candidate

It seems clear that the object had none of the characteristics of a living animal, whether a plesiosaur, zeuglodon, or any other. The object that Mansi saw and photographed, I now believe, was almost certainly a log or tree stump that happened to surface at an angle that made its identification difficult. How could someone mistake a tree for a living creature? For anyone knowledgeable about eyewitness testimony, it’s not difficult to imagine. Forteans may recall that in 1986 hiker Anthony Wooldridge saw (and photographed) what he believed to be a living giant creature in the Himalayas. He described its body shape, head, and fur, and many believed the photo (which was genuine) to be solid evidence of a Yeti. Later investigation revealed he had simply seen a dark rock outcropping that looked vertical from his position. [FT48: 38-43, 53: 3].

Driftwood and logs are common in and around Lake Champlain. Much of the shoreline is heavily wooded, and washed-up driftwood can be found littered along the shores (see photo on p48). Many of these logs are roughly the size and shape of a long, sinewy creature; it doesn’t take much imagination to see how some of the literally thousands of logs, trees, and stumps along the lake’s nearly 600 miles (965 km) of shoreline could be mistaken for a living creature if roiled up by waves and currents.

There is another compelling reason to suspect that many of the sightings (including Mansi’s) are in fact of logs: Lake Champlain has a large and powerful seiche. A seiche is a single, underwater wave moving back and forth between the sides of a lake. While the surface of the lake can remain very calm, an enormous wave, as large as 300 feet (90m) high, can bounce back and forth beneath the surface. Seiches can occur in just about any body of water, but, as writer Dick Teresi pointed out, “the ideal lake for really big seiches would be 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.” The seiche in Lake Champlain can easily bring debris, logs, and vegetation from the lake’s bottom up to the surface.

Part of the reason the photo is so striking is that we are used to seeing good, professional, unambiguous photography – images from magazines and advertising that are crisp, clear and easy to interpret. But photographs are simply two-dimensional representations of an object. We do not do nearly as well when confronted with ambiguous photos where tricks in perspective can easily fool the eye.

I believe that Sandra Mansi is an honest person who may have done what we all do from time to time: she misunderstood something she saw. The only thing that makes her case special is that she managed to get a photograph of it. If the form she saw and photographed in the water was obviously a floating tree stump or log, it would likely have been ignored or filed away. Instead, the same visual ambiguities that tantalised Sandra in 1977 remain in the photo today, ensuring its place in the mythos of the Lake Champlain monster.

Some have suggested that the object cannot be a log because that possibility was ruled out by ‘expert analysis’. This misunderstanding may be the result of journalistic errors. For example, a UPI report asserted that “experts at the University of Arizona say an analysis indicated the picture is real and shows the image of a live animal”. 6 According to another ill-informed writer, “The photograph was examined at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, and investigators at both schools said it showed some sort of animal life. While it was confirmed the creature in the Mansi photo was alive, its identity was not confirmed.” 7

Yet these findings do not appear in Roy Frieden’s report (or anywhere else). What Frieden wrote was that the object did not “appear to be a montage or superimposition” and that it was almost certainly a real object in the lake; there was no suggestion that the object was definitely alive. It’s also a fair question to ask why the object looks like Champ in the first place. After all, this is supposedly the best image of the creature, and many eyewitness descriptions of Champ do not resemble the object in the Mansi photo at all. While searching the lake, guided by a long-time Lake Champlain fisherman, Norm St Pierre, I showed him a copy of the Mansi photo and asked him what it looked like. “It looks like Champ,” he replied. I realised that it does indeed – and that assumption feeds a sort of loop, where uncorroborated and uncertain evidence is used to support other suppositions. We don’t know quite what Champ looks like, but if we get an unusual photo of something in the water we can’t explain, well, we’re happy to call it Champ. Thus, unverified reports, mistakes, and misidentifications all get thrown into the mix, with little justification for inclusion or exclusion.

When I pressed for Norm’s best non-Champ guess, he replied: “Maybe a drifting tree.” He estimated that the object was about four feet (1.2m) out of the water, closely matching the estimate we eventually calculated.

I cannot conclusively prove the object is a tree; fortunately, I don’t have to. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the Mansi photograph is of the Champ lake monster. I don’t know exactly what Sandra Mansi saw and photographed in the waters of Lake Champlain, though I think the least likely explanation is an unknown creature that has managed to elude detection for decades. If, as many of the experts claim, the Mansi photo is the best evidence for the existence of lake monsters, the field is even more desperately short of proof than previously suspected.

Acknowledgements

Many people helped in researching and preparing for the Champ phenomenon investigation. I wish to thank, in no particular order, Robert and Paul Bartholomew, Tim Binga, the people of Port Henry, NY, and Sandra Mansi, as well as my investigative partner, Joe Nickell. The investigation was conducted with support from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.


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Lake Champlain Monster
Seekers after cryptozoological fun can clue themselves in with this list thoughtfully provided by local traders. Image: Fortean Picture Library / Joseph W Zarzynski


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Lake Champlain
Sandra Mansi shows off her photo of ‘Champ’. Image: Benjamin Radford
  Lake Champlain Monster
A model of a plesiosaur. Image: Benjamin Radford
Lake Champlain Monster
A convincingly monster-like tree branch on the shore of Lake Champlain.
  Lake Champlain Monster
Lake Champlain Monster
 
Author Biography
Benjamin Radford is a writer and investigator living in New York. He is co-author of Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias and author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us; for more see radford reviews.com. Last year Radford and co-investigator Joe Nickell appeared on The Discovery Channel discussing their investigation of the Lake Champlain monster. This is his third article for Fortean Times.
NOTES:
ARTICLE SOURCES:
  • B. Roy Frieden: “Interim report: Lake Champlain ‘monster’ photograph” – Appendix 2 in Joseph Zarzynski: Champ: Beyond the Legend (Bannister Publications, NY, 1984).
  • John Kirk: In the Domain of the Lake Monsters (Key Porter Books Ltd., Canada, 1998).
  • Yasushi Kojo: ‘Some ecological notes on reported large, unknown animals in Lake Champlain’ in Cryptozoology (1991) v10 pp42-45.
  • Paul H. LeBlond: ‘An estimate of the dimensions of the Lake Champlain Monster from the length of adjacent wind waves in the Mansi photograph’, Cryptozoology (1982) v1 pp54-61.
  • Jack Rabbit: ‘Native and Western eyewitness testimony in cryptozoology’ in The Cryptozoology Review (Summer 2000) v4 n1 pp11-18.
  • Benjamin Radford: ‘The Measure of a Monster’ (July/August 2003) Skeptical Inquirer v27 n4.
  • Dick Teresi: ‘Monster of the Tub’, Discover (April 1998) pp87-92.
  • Joseph Zarzynski: Champ: Beyond the Legend (Bannister Publications, NY, 1984).
  • Joseph Zarzynski: ‘LCPI work at Lake Champlain, 1991-1992’ in Cryptozoology (1992) v11 pp102-108.

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