Here at Tet Zoo we’ve looked at lake monsters on a couple of occasions now: at alleged Nessie photos here, and at the sad death of the Lake Khaiyr monster here. For a while I’ve been planning to add to this list, and to write about one of the most famous, most iconic lake monster photos: the Mansi photo [detail shown in adjacent image: © Sandra Mansi]. This reasonably good colour photo is well known to everyone interested in cryptozoology, but I suppose is not so familiar to those who haven’t read the cryptozoological literature. So if you’re familiar with lake monster literature, nothing I’m about to say will be new to you. For the rest of you, here we go…
Taken by Sandra Mansi at Lake Champlain (Vermont, USA) in July 1977, the Mansi photo has always been really popular because (unlike so many alleged lake monster photos) it’s not too blurry or ambiguous but clearly shows something that looks very much like a large, long-necked grey aquatic animal. Rising from the water, it seems to be curving its neck over its rounded back, as if looking behind itself [whole image shown below: © Gamma Liaison/Sandra Mansi]. Most people imagine that the object in the photo resembles a long-necked plesiosaur, or maybe a sauropod, so it’s been taken to heart by those who contend that such Mesozoic animals are still around today. The background story to the photo has been much documented in the literature, most recently by Coleman & Huyghe (2003), Radford (2003, 2004) and Newton (2005).
While at the lake edge with her then-fiancée (Anthony Mansi) and two children, Mansi was watching her children playing in the water when she noticed the emergence of a large object ‘less than 150 feet’ away (Radford 2004). Whether she was scared or not depends on which report you read, but she and Anthony quickly got the children out of the water. A single photo was taken with a Kodak Instamatic camera and, after taking it, Mansi stayed to watch the monster for the 5-7 minutes it was visible (a surprisingly long time). Its head appeared to be turning as if it was looking around, and it was described as having slimy, eel-like skin according to the interview incorporated into Coleman & Huyghe (2003), and as having a bark-like skin texture according to the Mansi quote reproduced in Radford (2004). It did not turn to look at the people, despite the fact that the children were making noise and that Anthony shouted on seeing it (Radford 2004). After getting the photo developed, Mansi kept it in an album (she later discarded the negative), and this is essentially where it stayed until 1981 when it was brought to global attention by way of its publication in the New York Times.
The ‘animal hypothesis’
It soon became much-reproduced and much-discussed, and an entire seminar devoted to Lake Champlain’s monster – ‘Champ’, as it’s known – was soon held. Cryptozoologists have generally said very positive things about the photo, concluding without exception (so far as I know) that the object photographed by Mansi was an unknown animal. Joseph Zarzynski, an author and expert on Champ, referred to it as ‘the single most impressive piece of evidence’ for Champ (Zarsynski 1988, p. 61), and cryptozoological investigators like Roy Mackal and the late Richard Greenwell were apparently convinced that the photo depicted an ‘unknown animate object’, by which I assume they meant an animal. It has been suggested that a submerged sandbar is visible in the photo (Anon. 1982, B. R. Frieden in Zarzynski 1988), in which case the object might be resting on it [adjacent image shows Sandra Mansi, from Radford 2004].
As mentioned above, writers have mostly intimated that the object in the photo might be a living plesiosaur, but we also have the usual clutching-at-straws crap, with my most/least favourite idea being that the object in the photo depicts a living Tanystropheus (did the originator of that idea bother to do any research at all on what Tanystropheus really looked like?). Mangiacopra et al. (1994) concluded that Champ is most likely a giant detritivorous invertebrate, though they didn’t say anything more specific than that!
In a TV documentary produced for Discovery’s series Out of the Unknown, it was suggested that the object in the Mansi photo might be the bifid tail of a whale, with the ‘neck’ representing the tailstock and the ‘back’ representing the leading edge of one of the flukes. This is a bizarre and crazy idea, apparently favoured because Discovery wanted Champ to be a surviving basilosaurid whale, and it’s a total non-starter. For it to work, the ‘head’ would have to be emerging from the water’s surface ahead of the ‘back’, and this is not the case: the ‘head’ and ‘neck’ really are standing proud of the water and higher than the ‘back’.
Problems with the ‘animal hypothesis’
Anyway, all is not well for the ‘animal hypothesis’. Some things are not right about the photo. For a start, the ‘neck’ and ‘back’ don’t appear to be in the same plane: rather, the ‘neck’ is further from the viewer than is the ‘back’. Secondly, the twist in the ‘neck’ is exceptional for a tetrapod and doesn’t look natural. Possibly significant, but possibly not, is what appears to be an amorphous dark object (we’ll call it ‘object 1’) to the left of the ‘creature’. Furthermore, the left side of the ‘neck’ has a sloping ‘shoulder’ at its base, while another ‘shoulder’ on the right joins the neck base with the ‘body’. I’m not the only person to note these features: Peter Suthers, used as a photographic analyst in the Discovery documentary, noted them, the International Society of Cryptozoology drew attention to them (Anon. 1982), and Paul LeBlond (1982) illustrated ‘object 1’ in his analysis of the object’s size, even illustrating ‘object 1’ as if it were one of the animal’s flippers.
If we accept these additional details as part of the same object as the ‘neck’ and ‘back’, they essentially ruin the plesiosaur-like shape, with ‘object 1’ in particular defying any anatomical explanation [the ‘problem areas’ are shown in the adjacent (poorly scanned) image, though note that they are accentuated in darkness compared to the original photo. From Naish 2001]. Taking account of all of these problems, I concluded in an article on aquatic cryptids that ‘the object is a large mass of wood with a neck-shaped branch: according to Mansi’s testimony, this momentarily burst through the water surface before turning and sinking’ (Naish 2001, p. 88). So there you have it, the idea that the object is not an animal, but a floating bit of wood, is mine
However, by far the most rigorous and compelling amount of work on the photo has been produced by author and investigator Benjamin Radford. He’s interviewed Mansi, has tried to locate the exact observation site*, and has worked hard to estimate the dimensions of the object in the photo by performing field tests on-site. His conclusions are that the behaviour, morphology and look of the object don’t match an animal, but are most convincingly explained by the emergence of a floating log (Radford 2003, 2004). Driftwood is common in and around Lake Champlain, and indeed several bits of wood resembling serpentine necks and heads have been found at the lakeside and photographed [Radford photo of a monster-like Lake Champlain log shown below]. Radford has also been able to show that the object in Mansi’s photo is not immense as some authors have proposed (LeBlond (1982) estimated it at between 4.8 and 17.2 m long), but modestly sized at 90 cm tall and 2 m long (Radford 2004). Radford interprets the area between the ‘neck’ and’ body’ as shadow. He might be right, but I think it’s also possible that the dark area here represents part of the object which is only slightly submerged, or sat just at the water’s surface.
* It is argued that the exact site cannot be located. Dick Raynor, well known for his examination of lake monster photos, has – I think I’m allowed to say – some interesting thoughts on this, though his information on this is as yet unpublished. To find out why go here.
Radford expresses in his articles (and presumably in his book, which I regret to say I haven’t seen) the point that no-one really doubts that Sandra Mansi honestly reported what she really saw. In fact, it seems that she did not jump to conclusions on seeing it but simply tried to work out what it was, and did not assume that it was a plesiosaur-like animal to begin with. But as we all do from time to time, she misunderstood what she saw. Nobody is ever really going to know for sure that the object in the Mansi photo really was a piece of driftwood, but this is a sound hypothesis and I’m in strong agreement with Radford that it’s almost certainly right.
Some time I must tell you the story of the Lake Dakataua ‘migo’ footage!
Refs – –
Anon. 1982. Lake Champlain monster draws worldwide attention. The ISC Newsletter 1 (2), 1-4.
Coleman, L. & Huyghe, P. 2003. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.
LeBlond, P. H. 1982. An estimate of the dimensions of the Lake Champlain monster from the length of adjacent wind waves in the Mansi photograph. Cryptozoology 1, 54-61.
Mangiacopra, G. S., Smith, D. G. & Avery, D. F. 1994. A Champ trilogy: part three – but hunting what? Of Sea and Shore 16 (4), 209-212, 243-246.
Naish, D. 2001. Sea serpents, seals and coelacanths. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 75-94.
Newton, M. 2005. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. McFarland & Company, Jefferson (N. Carolina) and London.
Radford, B. 2003. The measure of a monster. Skeptical Inquirer 27 (4). Online here.
– . 2004. The lady and the Champ… Fortean Times 182, 44-48.
Zarzynski, J. 1988. Champ: Beyond the Legend. Wilton, New York.