The Lake Utopia Monster: Giant Eel and Oarfish Theory
Much has been written and discussed about the legend of the Lake Utopia Monster, or what the Charlotte County, New Brunswick locals call “Old Ned.” Stories about its existence pre-date the arrival of the Europeans. There are many descriptions of this creature but one of the most common is that it is “serpentine” or eel-like according to Norma Stewart who has documented the sightings of the animal for over 25 years.
Stewart believes the animal travels back and forth between Lake Utopia and the Atlantic Ocean, appearing every 3-5 years, as if on some kind of breeding or feeding cycle. Because of this movement between the ocean and freshwater, she refers to it as a sea monster. Lake Utopia is connected to the ocean via a system of underground tunnels so it is theoretically possible for a sea creature to by pass the dam in St. George and move into the freshwater system.
While many believe that no such creature exits in the lake, many others do. Since Old Ned has been described as being eel-like, one common theory proposed is that it is a giant eel. Another, newer theory being proposed, is that Old Ned may be an oarfish. The oarfish theory is originating from Loch Ness, in Scotland. The possibility of Old Ned being one or the other will be discussed in detail below.
The Giant Eel Theory:
Known species of eels that are found in our East Coast rivers and lakes are catandromous. This means they grow and mature in our rivers and lakes for many years, migrate out to breed in the open ocean, and then they die shortly after. When the young eels hatch, they drift with the currents and end up in the rivers along the east coast of North America. There is no evidence that the young eels return to the original rivers or lakes of their parents. Once into a freshwater system, the eels stay and mature for 10 or more years (depending on the species) before they head back out to sea. This does not fit with the migration theory of every 3-5 years for Old Ned as was proposed by Stewart.
If a giant eel did manage to navigate into Lake Utopia via the underground tunnel system, one might suspect that the chance of sightings would increase given the fact that it might remain there for years. However, given the fact that an eel does not have to come to the surface to breathe, there is a possibility it might escape detection for long periods of time.
Eels also tend to overwinter in the bottom mud but may remain active at times during the winter. Could this be the source of the apparent incident where during the mid 1800s, witnesses state a giant eel-like creature broke through the ice, apparently trying to get at the men?
If Old Ned is a giant eel, what type of eel is it? Perhaps it is related to or actually is a type of conger eel. Conger eels are said to exist from Cape Cod down to Florida but there has been a sighting off of the coast of Nova Scotia. Conger eels can grow to over 3 metres and almost 140 kg. They are very aggressive and have large jaws lined with sharp teeth. Their head is very snake-like in appearance. Like their counter-parts however, conger eels die after breeding and do breed in the ocean.
Some speculated that this might also be the source of many of the Loch Ness Monster sightings. Two conger eels were found washed up on the shores of Loch Ness but it was considered a hoax by researchers, conger eels are not known to inhabit freshwater. However, if the loch is connected to the ocean via underwater systems, then it may be possible they made their way into the loch via a salt water layer, but once out of the this layer, succumbed due to their physiological limitations. Conger eels also seem to prefer deeper water than that found in Lake Utopia.
An interesting feature of conger eels is that they have been seen swimming on their sides, resulting in the body appearing as “humps’ in the water as they swim. This matches a sighting in 1996 by Roger and Lois Wilcox who reported something “undulating upward, not sideways.”
So, is it possible the Lake Utopia sightings are based on some sort of giant eel? Most of the evidence points against this theory based on the physiology of known eel species. There is always the possibility however, that there is some unknown species of giant eel (or other creature) out there, just waiting to be discovered.
The Oarfish Theory:
A few scientists are now considering the possibility that the Loch Ness Monster is actually an oarfish and are also drawing similarities between Lake Utopia to Loch Ness. These two lakes, among others that have reported mysterious aquatic creatures, share a proximity to the ocean and both lie between the 45th and 50th parallels. A big difference between Loch Ness and Lake Utopia is depth, with Lake Utopia being extremely shallow in comparison. Oarfish are thought to be very deep water fishes, frequently visiting depths of 1000 metres.
Why an oarfish? Oarfish (Regalecus glesne) are eel-like, being the longest bony fish alive and the record is said to be more than 15 metres long and over 300 kg in weight. This fish is found in all temperate and tropical oceans but vary rarely seen. They occasionally wash up on shore after storms and are seen struggling at the surface when apparently sick or dying.
In 2003, an oarfish may have been sighted off the coast of Nova Scotia by a lobster fisher. Andrew Hebda, Curator of Zoology at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History stated that an oarfish is "the closest fit" to the creature described by the fisher. But Hebda added, "There is always the possibility that it could be something as-of-yet unidentified."
To explore the possibility that oarfish could enter into Lake Utopia, I contacted two oarfish experts. Rob Robins, Florida Museum of Natural History, states, “I can attest that oarfishes cannot and do not enter freshwaters; a pelagic species, those found near the surface appear to be victims of upwelling currents or other deleterious phenomena as such fishes have often expired or are near doing so. Any animals noted in coastal environments are always dead or dying, making freshwater habitation exceedingly doubtful.” Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute confirms this, “They never enter fresh water and they apparently avoid oceanic areas with huge inputs of freshwater.” So, those previous statements seem to exclude an oarfish as a potential candidate for Old Ned. They would likely avoid entering any underground tunnels where the salinity levels dropped.
However a very distinguishing feature of the oarfish is a red dorsal fin that runs along the body. A report in 1891 by William Francis Ganong recorded in his notebook a description of a sighting some 20 years prior. "It was dark red in colour, the part showing above the water was 20 feet long (about) and as big around as a small hogshead; it was much like a large eel." Was this dark red colour reported from the dorsal fin?
Another sighting in 1996, by Roger and Lois Wilcox, stated they saw what looked like “humps (undulating upwards) going through the water and not undulating sideways like an eel.” This has often been attributed to the action of otters or even seals swimming in the water. The oarfish propels itself through the water in an amiiform mode of swimming. In other words, the dorsal fin is undulating while the body is kept straight. This would give the impression that the body is forming humps in the water as it moves.
Is it possible that the Lake Utopia monster is a large oarfish? Some of the evidence seems to point to this possibility but again, the physiological evidence seems to indicate no.
Both of the theories do not seem possible based on the physiology of known eels and oarfish. Perhaps this animal, if it exists, is different physiologically from what we know. So, for the time being, the true identity of the reported Lake Utopia “sea” monster remains a mystery. As Andrew Hebda stated, “the ultimate confirmation of what an animal is depends on an actual specimen.” Until then, we can only speculate.
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The Lake Utopia Monster: Mysterious Creature Spotted For Centuries http://www.suite101.com/content/lake-utopia-monster-a191354#ixzz1DHhnSZCp
COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the American Eel. (2004) http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/CW69-14-458-2006E.pdf
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Rob Robins, Florida Museum of Natural History (personal communication)
Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (personal communication)