The monster in the Nelson Lakes

A visit to Lake Rotoroa in Nelson Lakes National Park is rewarded with a remarkable sighting.

Sea monsters are real enough; I have even caught one. Years ago a friend and I found a live oarfish (Regalecus glesne) stranded on a reef in Tasman Bay. This is one of the candidates for sightings of the Great Sea Serpent and at over 5m long it was certainly impressive. It was still alive though injured by its struggles on the rocks.

However the oceans are large enough to support populations of giant creatures, and new ones are still being found. The colossal squid is a fairly recent example.

Lake monsters however are supernatural beasts. Enthusiasts seem to imagine they are seeking a single individual that could hide in a large body of water. But animals exist as populations and no lake is large enough to support a population of giant creatures. Lakes are also ephemeral; very few are more than tens of thousands of years old; Lake Baikal is a rare exception to these rules.

However this has not stopped people from claiming sightings of monsters in lakes. They have suggested plesiosaurs (which died out around 65 million years ago) exist in lakes that are less than 20,000 years old. The Loch Ness Monster is perhaps the best known of all these myths. It was a deliberate fabrication or rather a series of fabrications for the simple purpose of making money. There is an extensive literature on the subject.

It is perhaps odd that New Zealand with a large number of lakes has had so few claimed sightings of lake monsters. The Taniwha is part of Maori superstition, but few claim to have seen one, much less describe it.

The overseas literature includes a large number of sightings in lakes which were thought mysterious by the observer. Otters, clumps of vegetation, ducks seen in mist, offer simple explanations for many sightings, but these are rejected by those of mystical leanings. One favourite is an odd number (usually three or five) of dark humps showing above the surface and apparently moving through the water. Anybody used to small boats will recognise this common phenomenon as the intersection of two wakes from craft that may not be visible.

However nearly 40 years ago I did see monsters in Rotoroa in Nelson Lakes National Park. It was a very close encounter yet for some time I could not identify what I was seeing.

We used to have an annual fishing trip to the head of Rotoroa, which is accessible only by boat or a walk of nearly 18km. One year we had a weekend of heavy rain; both the D’Urville and Sabine Rivers were unfishable and pouring muddy water into the lake. I fished the lake edge with some success on the Saturday but the next day, which was calm and cloudy, I decided to experiment. We drifted at the edge of the deep water and jigged. That is, we bounced small heavy lures vertically under the boat and close to the bottom. I had not brought my small portable echo sounder and we were not very successful because the technique works best where there is a sharp change of depth. The sounder is needed to find the right spots.

The water was gin-clear once away from the river mouth and we could see many vertical metres down, though not to the bottom which we discovered was about 60 metres below by measuring the length of line needed to reach it.

I was peering over the stern when a huge pale green-brown object rose out of the depths. It got to within a few metres of the surface then turned down and dived out of sight. I was literally speechless. Then another one rose. This time I looked for a head, fins, anything, but it seemed featureless. Down it went like the first but soon another came up – there was an endless procession of monsters.

I looked up and saw that we had drifted to about 250 metres directly off the mouth of the D’Urville River and the truth dawned. The monsters were waves of muddy water appearing much greener than the brown river when seen through the clear upper water of the lake. It was April (our trips were always at this time of year); the lake surface water was warm, but the river water very cold.

In summer, surface water warms up but unless the lake is shallow, the main body of water stays cold. The warm water floats on the denser cold water and there is often a sharp temperature gradient called the thermocline.

Under the calm conditions, dense, cold, river water was not mixing with the lake surface but flowing in below the warm water. What I was seeing were ‘thermocline waves’, a well-known phenomenon but one which is rarely so dramatically visible. Furthermore, relatively small, fast-moving thermocline waves like these are probably not terribly common. The lake surface was glassy, so I had not been thinking about waves.

This was a remarkably convincing monster display and I expected that eventually somebody else would spot this phenomenon and claim they had seen genuine lake monsters. I would then be able to counter with a rational explanation. However I have never seen such a claim either in NZ or overseas. Mind you I have not looked too hard; ‘Lake Monsters’ in a web search produces over 7.5 million results and it is clearly not worth wading through such a huge amount of nonsense.


Biologist expelled from ‘Expelled’

The Intelligent Design (ID) movie Expelled (Editorial, NZ Skeptic 86) has scored a spectacular public relations own-goal at a screening in Minneapolis (New York Times, 21 March). University of Minnesota developmental biologist PZ Myers, best known for his blog Pharyngula, was one of many who took up the offer to register on-line for the pre-release public screening.

A vocal critic of creationism, he appears in the film, and is even thanked for his participation in the credits. But, when he turned up at the theatre, a security guard refused him entry. Myers’ wife, his daughter and her boyfriend, and his guest were, however, allowed in. No one seemed to recognise the guest, who was … Richard Dawkins! He also appears in the film, along with Eugenie Scott from the National Centre for Science Education, and skeptic Michael Shermer. All say they were interviewed under false pretences, having been told it was a film about the interface between science and religion, to be called Crossroads. On Pharyngula, Myers recounts how Dawkins, who was in town to attend the American Atheists conference, used the question and answer session at the end to challenge the film’s producer, Mark Mathis, on Myers’ expulsion. What Mathis must have thought when he spotted Dawkins in the audience one can only guess. The irony of someone being expelled from a movie called Expelled-a movie which purports to defend intellectual freedom-has been lost on no one.

Except, possibly, the ID lobby group, the Discovery Institute. In full damage control mode, they’re accusing Myers and Dawkins of trying to sneak in without a ticket, in what they call a sophomoric stunt. But this was a screening where nobody had tickets, and Myers had registered, in the approved way, under his own name. Dawkins was not asked for identification, although he had his passport ready. In any case, surely these two are justified in attending a film they both appear in? The hypocrisy of the people behind this movie defies belief.

New Age fair does roaring trade

“Psychic medium” Sue Nicholson was picked out for special attention by the Nelson Mail (25 February) in their coverage of a recent New Age fair, the Festival of Opportunities. Best known for her appearances on Sensing Murder and TV One’s Good Morning show, Nicholson was selling copies of the book she has written to capitalise on her TV-enhanced fame. On the first page of each copy she wrote a brief message-two purchasers reported themselves happy with their messages, declaring them accurate and relevant. She also held psychic workshops on both afternoons of the fair.

The Wellington-based Mrs Nicholson said she had seen spirits from an early age but only “came out of the closet” as a psychic 13 years ago. She claims everyone is born with a sixth sense and just has to learn how to develop it and be open to it.

Festival organiser Debby Verdonk estimated the event attracted about 1800 people, despite the drizzly weather.

New twist on Nigerian scam

Nigerian scammers seem to be getting craftier (Dominion Post, 4 March). Dawn McKee, a US-born Auckland woman seeking a partner on the website, was contacted by a man calling himself Robert Thomas, and claiming to be a 41-year-old, Italian-born man who had gone through a “messy divorce” in the US before coming to New Zealand. He provided photographs, including some with friends, and the pair developed a rapport.

Two weeks later, he said he was going on a business trip to Amsterdam … then Nigeria. And not long after that, Ms McKee received an email from him asking her to lend him money, saying his cheques were useless in the country as only cash was used there. She sent $400, then $900 to help with airline tickets. When he asked her for another $400 to cover “flight tax”, alarm bells rang and she cut off contact.

Ms McKee, a computer programmer, told her story to the paper to warn others against fraudsters during Fraud Awareness Week.

“He said all the right things,” she said. “I feel a bit stupid … and really angry. How could people be so non-caring that they hurt somebody else like that?”

Fraud Awareness Week was organised by the Commerce Commission and Consumer Affairs Ministry, who were promoting the message: “Fight the Scammers. Don’t Respond” to educate people about those trying to fleece them.

Commission spokeswoman Deborah Battell said it was impossible to say how many people were targeted as fewer than five percent reported their experiences-most were too embarrassed. Most scams originated from outside the country and probably cost the economy millions every year, she said.

“People have been scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They need to be extremely careful and not respond.”

Scams can be reported at

Kennedy conspiracies still hold appeal

More than 40 years later and half a world away, the assassination of John F Kennnedy continues to fascinate. Now three young Palmerston North film-makers have concocted an 88-minute documentary, titled Imagining the Kennedys (Manawatu Standard, 10 March).

The film is the work of school friends Matthew Keenan and Seamus Coogan, now in their 20s, and Agnieska Witkowski, who “wandered into their lives from Nova Scotia, Canada.”

In the years immediately following World War II America was unquestionably The Good Guy, Coogan said. Now, this has eroded to distrust and events such as the assassination and 9/11 have become wreathed in conspiracy theories. “The result has been the birth of a conspiracy industry and the dehumanising of the victims.”

The trio point out their documentary doesn’t set out to solve any mysteries. Rather, it looks at the impact of the event on people like Coogan thousands of miles from Dallas. The documentary follows him as he travels to the US and talks to Americans about the event.

Seamus Coogan admits to having had a fascination with the assassination since he was about eight. He said he believed Oswald was set up to be caught as a cover for another shooter.

“My mother always said there was something more to it and the moment I saw the Zapruda film I said ‘Holy guacamole, there’s no way that shot came from behind.'”

In one of those coincidences science can’t explain, I watched an episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! last night on conspiracy theories. The pair showed, with the aid of a honeydew melon, how a shot to the back of the head will propel the head backwards. Hard to see where any second gunman could have been standing, then. Certainly not on that grassy knoll.

Foreskins and the universe

There was plenty of interesting reading in the Sunday Star Times‘ Sunday magazine recently (23 March). First, a cover story on the circumcision debate-remember, you read it here first (NZ Skeptic 86).

Circumcision is still seen as a rite of passage in some Polynesian cultures, and there have been calls for the procedure to be publicly funded. But the Ministry of Health says that won’t happen any time soon. Says Auckland University of Technology pathology lecturer Ken McGrath: “We spent 50 years turning it [circumcision] off, and we don’t want to see that sort of nonsense again.”

The same issue also discussed Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book, The Secret, which states the universe will give you anything you ask, if you truly believe. It recommends downloading a blank cheque made out to the universe from the book’s website, and believing the money into existence. Writer Angela Barnett wrote out a cheque for $100,000; all she got was a $25 library refund. The Secret has a handy explanation, she says-she must not have believed enough that she really deserved the money.

The article concludes by quoting Einstein: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not so sure about the universe.”