Lake Champlain's 'monster': it may be a zeuglodon

"We're completely in the real world -- no goblins . . . no supernatural . . . no UFOs." With that preface, Dr. Roy Mackal will tell you his theory about so-called "sea monsters" and the flurry of curiosity over "Champ," a phenomenon that's putting the quiet Lake Champlain village of Port Henry, N.Y., on the map -- a map of the real world.

It's a topic few have been willing to elevate above the realm of B-grade horror movies or high school pranks. But Dr. Mackal, a University of Chicago biochemist and zoologist, brings a new credibility to the "sea monster" phenomenon that could move it from the pages of sensational tabloids to scientific journals, agree some scientists.

Interest in the beast has increased with the recent documentation of a purported photograph of the serpent-like creature and a surge of sightings -- five in 1980 and an April sighting which rattled three Port Henry women chatting in a lakefront home. The sighters say they saw a long-necked animal surface on the lake, followed by several humps of its body.

Mackal believes there is a reasonable explanation behind the wide-eyed accounts of "Champ" -- accounts that show up in early Indian pictographs in the area as well as in the 17th-century journals of Samuel de Champlain, who discovered the lake that lies between the borders of New York and Vermont. Mackal's explanation also links the famous Loch Ness Monster in Scotland and dozens of other similar long-necked beasts reported in lakes all over the Northern Hemisphere.

He hypothesizes that there is a remnant population of zeuglodons, "primitive whales that have persisted from 20 million years ago."

The zeuglodon, thought to have been extinct, was a 30- to 40-foot snake-shaped creature with small flipper-like appendages; an oxygen-breathing, fish-eating mammal. Mackal contends that groups of the reclusive animal migrate from the oceans to lakes, possibly following salmon runs.

But skeptics ask just how likely it is that a prehistoric species could have survived what the dinosaurs didn't. It's not a far-fetched idea, considering that other species have survived from that time period, answers Mackal, author of a book titled "Searching for Hidden Animals, an Inquiry into Zoological Mysteries."

He explains that several breeds of animals once chalked off as "tall tales" have been scientifically documented as existent. It took years to verify tales of the existence of the giant squid -- a species that normally inhabits very deep water, like the zeuglodon, and is rarely washed ashore, he says.

"We do not turn up our noses when pygmies tell us of such and such an animal in unexplored regions of the Congo," says Mackal, noting that one such animal -- the okapi-johnstoni, a transitional breed in the evolution of the giraffe and antelope -- was discovered in Zaire, existing as it did 20 million years ago.

"Champ," which according to Dr. Mackal could be any one of a whole community of zeuglodons, was captured on film four years ago by a Connecticut couple.

Results of a University of Arizona photographic analysis of the picture showed that the photo had not been faked, university officials confirm. Although the photograph has not been released to the general public, a Smithsonian zoologist who has seen it told the Monitor it is a convincing piece of evidence that something unusual does exist in the lake.

Besides the photograph, evidence of "Champ's" existence is limited to generations of tales about the beast, eyewitness reports, and sonar data showing the possibility of the movement of a large object beneath the icy lake water. Joe Zarzynski, a local schoolteacher who heads the Lake Champlain Phenomena Investigation, says: "We've had a lot of doors slammed in our faces. . . . You have to be deaf to the laughter and blind to the snickers from time to time."

None of this, though, has dampened Mr. Zarzynski's devotion to the "romantic fun" of the search for so-called sea monsters. He has spent $20,000 and several years on shore watches and sonar searches for the Loch Ness Monster, as well as for "Champ."

It'll take more than scientific theories, however, to convince some determined skeptics, one of whom has offered a $500 reward for "Champ," dead or alive.

But Port Henry residents, who know a business angle when they see one, aren't taking any chances. While others haggle over scientific points, the mayor is selling "Port Henry, Home of Champ" T-shirts. And, just in case "Champ" is for real, the village has adopted a resolution to protect the elusive beast (or beasts) that has attracted network television as well as curiosity seekers.

On the Vermont side of the 100-mile-long lake, champions of "Champ" expect, by fall, to have state legislation of their own protecting the animal as an endangered species.

Meanwhile, if you're thinking you'll have to see it to believe it, you might reconsider upon the advice of the most recent "Champ" witness, Barbara Boyle. "I wouldn't want to come face to face with it," she says.

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