Thursday, 27 September 2012

Thoughts on the Lake Labynkyr Monster

     Would you believe it? People in the mainstream media actually look at these sites! Someone at 612ABC, the government radio station servicing Brisbane, was intrigued by this report in the Daily Mail concerning a monster in Lake Labynkyr, of far eastern Siberia. She therefore conducted an internet search for a Brisbane cryptozoologist, and contacted me for an interview. So yesterday I got my 10 minutes of fame giving my opinion on the identity of the beast, as well as fascinating facets of cryptids closer to home. However, it seems a pity to allow all that sudden research to go to waste after just 10 minutes, when most of the world would not have been listening to our local station. Therefore, I have decided to share it with you.
     Before you go any further, however, may I suggest you read , not only the Daily Mail report, but the original report in the Siberian Times which it summarised, because it contains much more detail, and may inspire different conclusions from merely reading the British account.
     Read it? Good. You will see it is essentially based on three sources of information: comments by Prof. Emeliyanova on her 2002 expedition to the lake, an amateur called Vladimir, who explored the lake in 2000, and the results of an expedition in 2006 by a team who wished to remain anonymous.  It was this last source which provided the most detailed information, including the photos of the sonar screens. It is also clear that, in the summary by the Daily Mail can be slightly misleading. For example, it stated:
Images have also recently emerged from a 2006 scientific trip to the lake when strange objects - one of 21ft 4in (6.5 metres) in length - were recorded on a Humminbird Piranha MAX 215 Portable fish-finder at a depth of 138 to 197 feet.

     But what the 2006 team actually said - and I am converting metres to feet - was:
.....soon we registered a 'shadow' some 15-17 meters [ 49 - 56 ft] under our boat, it was about 6.5 meters [21.3 ft] long. It was pretty clear, it was not a fish and not a tree. There cannot be fish that big, and a log would have been registered in a different way. How can it swim under the water?
'The most active 'shadows' or 'bodies' were registered in certain parts of the lake when the depth was 42 to 60 metres [138 to 197 ft].'
     But this is perhaps trivial. The real issue is: what was it? Ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs were two ideas mooted, but I can think of three reasons for discounting them:
  1. Plesiosaurs last appeared in the fossil record 65½ million years ago, and ichthyosaurs about 90 million years ago. This is not an absolute bar (think of the coelacanth), but it is hardly a point in their favour. It is much better to look for something closer to our time.
  2. As cold-blooded reptiles, they could hardly survive in water which would be a few degrees above freezing for at least half the year. Yes, there is considerable evidence that many of the dinosaurs were at least partly warm-blooded, but I doubt if that applied to the marine reptiles, who evolved in seas much warmer than at present. In fact, a warm-blooded animal such as ourselves would suffer serious heat stress in the Cretaceous seas.
  3. Most importantly - and this something the proponents of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, archaeocetes (archaic, elongated whales), and hypothetical long-necked seals seem to forget - they would have to breathe. Anything which needs to come to the surface every 10, 20, even 60 minutes, even by just poking part of its head out for a brief moment, would be sighted so often  it would become commonplace to the local inhabitants - more so if there were a breeding population. But all the data indicate that whatever it may be is at home underwater, and comes to the surface only on rare occasions. A relict population of killer whales was also suggested. I assure you, if even a small pod of killer whales existed in any lake, there would be no way they would remain unknown to science. I cannot see how any overlooked reptile or mammal could possibly be responsible for any  "lake monster" legends. (The same does not, of course, apply to "sea serpents".)
     So what is it? The Daily Mail article evoked a comment from a Douglas of the USA:
Anyone who knows how to use a depth finder will tell you this is a big waste of time. If a fish is swimming in the same direction as the boat is travelling then it will appear as a long arch on the depth finder which is what you see here. It's a fish. If it's not then Lake Michigan is filled with "monsters" cause I see them all the time.
     Well, yes and no. The scientists weren't using a depth finder, but a fish finder: an instrument designed to detect fish. One would assume they knew how to interpret it. Also, his argument would more weight with the Daily Mail summary than with the more extensive details in the Siberian Times. The scientists both gave reasons for their, and also circumstances difficult to explain in this fashion. In one case, they were drifting slowly with the engine off. They also went over the object twice. And Vladimir told how his echo sounding device recorded something big moving around their net containing fish. Presumably it wasn't just travelling in the same direction as the boat.
     Nevertheless, it probably was a fish - only not necessarily a commonplace one known to exist in the area. My immediate impulse is to say "sturgeon": one of those big, archaic fish we use as a source for caviar.
No, I'm not so rash as to attribute all "lake monster" stories to sturgeons, but they definitely explain some. Lake Novato, a nondescript stretch of water north of San Francisco, had been the focus of "monster" stories for decades. Then, when it was drained in August 1984 in the course of dam repairs - lo and behold! - there was a 6.5 foot white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) flopping about. It was estimated to be 50 or 60 years old. And that, I might add, is not even close to the maximum size, for these things can live to be quite huge if left to themselves. The record is 12.5 feet.
     This whole area lies in the range of the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii. But there are two problems: it is such a common fish, one would expect it to be well known if it were present. Secondly, its maximum size is just 2 metres [6.6 ft]. Could something of that size appear three times as big on a scanner? Perhaps once, but it is unlikely to have appeared so big in as many different circumstances as reported.
     Apart from scans, what other reliable evidence do we have? There are local traditions which sound folkloric, but may have a kernel of truth. Among second hand reports is one of a group of geologists who were present when a huge head emerged, to be scared away when their companions ashore began shooting. That suggests a living creature, but provides no information as to its identity. (And, incidentally, although the paper printed a photo of an alleged head emerging, there is no indication that it related to this incident. And it could be anything.)
     There are stories of surges in calm water, as if a large object had risen just below the surface, and a heavy, 10 metre [33 ft] boat had its bow lifted by something. If that was the result of a living creature, and not some geological phenomenon, it must have been very big.
     All in all, the evidence is consistent with a predatory fish about 7 metres [23 ft] in length, maybe more. Although the Siberian sturgeon is a midget in comparison, there are larger sturgeons out there. The biggest of all is the beluga, or European sturgeon (Huso huso) which, in the days before the old, big individuals had been hunted down, was once recorded at 24 feet and weighed in at nearly a ton and a half. However, that was thousands of miles away. Closer to home is the now rare, overfished kaluga (Huso dauricus) of the Amur River system, which is alleged to reach 18.6 feet in length. Equally significant, it is both predatory and aggressive, known to capsizing fishing boats.
     No, I am not suggesting the Lake Labynkyr monster is a kaluga; the lake and the Amur River are still separated by hundreds of miles. But it is not outlandish to suggest that something similar has developed there. But don't expect the animal to give up its secrets lightly. I can't see it being pulled in on a hook, and casting a net over such a lake presents not a few logistic problems.

1 comment:

  1. I am pretty sure there is or was a toothy giant sturgeon there (among my top 5 cryptids) very closely related to the Kaluga, which is said to have capsized small boats. A new diving expedition is on its way to look for it, though I didn't remember if anything substantial was found during the first one :