Another Real-World Example of Eyewitness Unreliability

February 19, 2010

On February 11, a group of people on the shore of Maine’s Moosehead Lake encountered a terrifying sight out on the (mostly) frozen lake: a drowning snowmobiler in desperate need of help.

The figure, dressed in black and wearing a black helmet, was partly submerged in the freezing water and struggling to climb back onto the ice. The three witnesses called 911, and emergency crews were immediately dispatched to the scene in an airboat. But when the rescuers arrived, they saw no sign of the drowned snowmobiler– nor, for that matter, any sign of a snowmobile or anything wrong at all. Instead searchers found pieces of crawfish and a small bloodstain on the ice: clear evidence that one or more otters had recently been feeding there. Furthermore, there were no reports of any missing persons in the area.

How could three eyewitnesses mistake an otter for a drowning man?

Actually, it’s quite easy: They misjudged the distance to what they were seeing, and therefore overestimated its size. This same process occurred in the investigation that Joe Nickell and I did into the most famous photo and sighting of Lake Champlain monster: the eyewitness dramatically overestimated the size of what she saw. The bright sun’s glare reflecting off the ice made it difficult to see the animal clearly, and it’s likely that once one person decided it was a drowning snowmobiler dressed in black, the others agreed with that interpretation. Joe has demonstrated that otters can be —and have been– mistaken for lake monsters; now we can add drowning snowmobilers to the list of otter doppelgangers.

Examples like this remind us of how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be, whether it’s a witness to a crime in a court of law, or a hunter who claims he saw Bigfoot in the Oregon woods: You can’t always trust your eyes.