“Killer Crocodile!”

August 30, 2010

Holidaymakers raised the alarm: a 12-foot “killer crocodile” was spotted swimming ominously in the English Channel at the French port of Boulogne-sur-Mer on August 20, 2010. The report launched a major search not only by lifeguards, but by firefighters, and even soldiers. As well, local amphibian centers and zoos were checked for missing crocs, and nearby beaches were closed. Then, as abruptly as it began, the alert was canceled. Embarrassed officials discovered that the awesome creature was only a chunk of drifting wood [click for link here ], the toothless figure representing flora rather than fauna. In other words, it was the alert that was a crock.

Nor was this the first time driftwood caused mischief. Investigating many lakes reputed to contain monsters, I have often noted pieces and piles of driftwood along the shores—sometimes, as with an example at Lake Champlain (see accompanying news photo, ca. mid-1980s), looking quite monsteresque. (Photo by Bruce Rowland, courtesy of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.)

Indeed, the famous photograph of that lake’s legendary leviathan, “Champ,” taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi, may depict only a piece of twisted root. (Experiments also reveal the object to be much smaller than previously estimated. See my Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures , co-author Benjamin Radford, 2006.)

Water-logged wood can be dislodged from the bottom of a lake—for example by a seiche, a great, sloshing underwater wave—and so create “monsters” that suddenly appear and bob on the surface. Moreover, due to bacterial production of methane gas, rotting wood can rise and sink as pockets of gas alternately collect and, at the surface of the water, leak out again. Thus the monsterlike log “will gradually submerge, exactly as described by Mrs. Mansi” (according to British hydrographic surveyor Jerry Monk, quoted in Lake Monster Mysteries ).

That waterlogged wood can easily be mistaken for a lake monster, has been clearly demonstrated—for instance, at Loch Ness, where “Nessie” has sometimes proved to be nothing more than a floating tree trunk. Similarly, a fisherman at Lake Champlain told me how he had once been with a group of people who witnessed “Champ,” only to discover that it was actually a waterlogged tree trunk. Nearly forty feet long, it had a root resembling a monster’s head and seemed animated, bobbing along as it was propelled by the current.