Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Defining Ogopogo

This is a good report on one man’s efforts to gather valid information regarding the oft seen creature of Okanagan lake.  For starters, his first and only convincing observation allowed him to discern real ridge lines that eliminate explanations that are not a live creature.  He got lucky.

The second bit of luck is that after years of ‘fishing’ using remote sensing gear he was able to once detect a moving object that conformed to a plesiosaur in shape.  It is not a sea serpent.  That turns out to be important because a sea serpent is likely migrating between spawning beds and the sea which may presently impossible or rather difficult for this lake which feeds ultimately into the Columbia.

A plesiosaur turns out to have live births like mammals and obviously to support and protect its young.  This is a recent discovery in the fossil record.  That means that such a colony of plesiosaurs living in Lake Okanagan would never have to actually leave.  In fact, that explains their survival in deep lakes around the world.

Such a plesiosaur, would be an eater of fish, be generally nocturnal and be able to breathe water through apparent external gills.  Since they are aquatic, their body temperature would be ambient deep water temperatures which explain their clear preference for such lakes.

They have no enemies and no competition.  They produce dens to reside in and to bear their young who likely stay with parents until fairly grown.  They are surely long lived.

The interesting question is if they ever go to the sea at all in search of new mates?  Whatever their habits, it is much clearer why they are not often seen at all although the actual number of sightings suggest otherwise. Many of those could well not be Ogopogo at all.

We have a deep water animal spending much of its time in its own den and coming out rarely to make a feast of fish of which it requires a small amount only.  It may well come out in the summer to take advantage of warmer waters for play.

Best of Summer: Search for the storied serpent

Bill Steciuk stands along the shore line of Okanagan Lake in Kelowna , B.C. on Wednesday August 3, 2011. He has dedicated himself to locating the elusive mythical sea monster Ogopogo in Okanagan Lake since his first sighting in October 1978. Jeff Bassett/National Post

  Aug 13, 2011 – 8:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Aug 12, 2011 6:02 PM ET

In this summer-long series, Post reporters take us to places with a claim to fame, obscure or otherwise.

By Kevin Libin

In the parking lot outside Bill Steciuk’s Kelowna apartment building is a delivery van. It belongs to a dry cleaner, but on its side is painted a whimsical, childish sea serpent. Mr. Steciuk isn’t pleased at all, seeing cartoonish, comical depictions of a creature he’s dedicated his life to proving the existence of. But they’re everywhere.

Ogopogo was the second tourist blessing bestowed on British Columbia’s Okanagan region, after the great, sun-dappled lake dropped strategically between Vancouver and Calgary, drawing beach-seekers and boaters from B.C. and the prairies. (The wineries came third.) Some people, a lot of people, believe Ogopogo dwells in the waters here, skulking deep beneath the surface, poking a rump or a head up only briefly, and occasionally, enough to tease. Others just recognize a good commercial opportunity when they see one.

Of course Kelowna’s touring parade float features a smiling, frog-faced Ogopogo. Souvenir shops off the beach hock everything from T-shirts and teaspoons featuring the fabled lake monster to salt-and-pepper shakers, colouring books, beer cozies, stuffed dolls, and green jellybeans labeled Ogopogo Poop. Local amateur sports teams bear its name. Downtown, a car-sized sculpture of the scaly sea-dragon with the goat-like face has been clambered on by local and vacationing children for generations.

“I’m not happy with that statue,” says Mr. Steciuk, his brow slightly furrowing. He asks not to be photographed near it. “It is what it is. But it’s not a true replica of what the serpentine form [of Ogopogo] looks like.” Still, he says, “I certainly can’t blame the city of Kelowna for advertising it.”

Actually, it’s like this up and down the long Okanagan shore. From Penticton on the lake’s southern end, through the lush tourist magnets of Summerland, Peachland, and Vernon in the north, the beast moves merchandise. For a creature made famous by its very evasiveness, Ogopogo, in his kitschiest form, is impossible to avoid on shore.

“I’ve probably approached this more scientifically than most people have,” Mr. Steciuk says. He’s been researching the storied creature since he was captivated by it in 1978 when, driving past the lake one day, he spotted what he recognized as three humps in the water. He stopped his car, jumped out, and watched the great mass move through the water. Having left his car blocking traffic, he recalls, dozens more people stopped and joined him. “They all saw it,” he says. When the local newspaper ran his story the next day, asking the other witnesses to come forward, it didn’t get a single call.

“I think at that time in ’78 and the early 80s, the attitude was, ‘Hey, you saw Ogopogo? You must be on drugs, or you were drunk, or it was a goof,’” he says. Some people, it seems, are still reticent: Mr. Steciuk recently caught word that his next-door neighbours spotted Ogopogo just days ago from their lakefront balcony right next to his. They didn’t tell him about it then, and he says they’ve refused his questions about it ever since. Yet there are hundreds upon hundreds of reported sightings going back to the 19th century and the story has links to local aboriginal tales of a lake demon called N’ha-a-itk. Mr. Steciuk says many of them tell him they don’t much care for the commercial exploitation either.

“There have been so many people have come here to commercialize it to try and make money from it, and of course the First Nations get their back up,” he says. “They never liked that.”

Mr. Steciuk insists that Ogopogo—that name somehow migrated to the creature from a local vaudeville-era show—be taken far more seriously. He has launched, over the last 11 years, a series of major search expeditions to scour the lake for the creature, complete with divers, submersible cameras and sonar. It’s a daunting operation: Lake Okanagan stretches more than 90 miles, tip to tail. Its depths reach 800 feet before you hit sediment. The sediment drops in places another 2,000 feet to bedrock, which matters if you believe, as Mr. Steciuk does, that Ogopogo burrows in the silt.

There are underwater caves, too. And the species—and he is certain it must be a species, not a single monster—is clearly shy, he explains, which is why such scant evidence of the thing exists, particularly in a lake that, in nearly every hour of summer daylight, is almost everywhere churned by thousands of ski boat and Sea-Doo motors. There are blurry, indistinguishable photos, but even Mr. Steciuk acknowledges that they can’t always be trusted. Okanagan Lake can look as smooth as a mirror, and yet a rogue wave can suddenly come rolling along as if out of nowhere.

“We see them all the time,” Mr. Steciuk says. “If you’re close to the water and the light’s hitting them right, by God they look like humps, and they look like they’re moving in the water. And it’s very easy to mistake that. Especially if it’s somebody doesn’t live by the lake and doesn’t see it a lot.” His own first sighting was different, though: “I could actually see the ridges on the humps.”

Despite his certainty of the creature’s existence, Mr. Steciuk stops short of total credulity. He has copies of some cryptic photos, but only offers a shrug as to whether they’re legitimate proof or not. He won’t say for sure. He’s willing to admit that it is passing strange that no lake monster carcass has ever been found. “It’s a good point,” he says.
When divers on one of his searches found an small unidentified carcass on a rock ledge 60 feet below the lake’s surface near Rattlesnake Island, the rumoured home base of Ogopogo, Mr. Steciuk maintains he was the only one among the enraptured crew to dismiss it instantly as a shriveled Kokanee, the inland salmon of Okanagan Lake, rather than a baby Ogopogo. Lab tests later proved him right.

He does, however, keep a thermal printout of a sonar scan from one of his searches of something he spotted moving at high-speed off the boat’s bow. Its shape is not entirely unlike a plesiosaur, roughly 40 to 50 feet long. (Reports of sightings have the creature either looking like the ancient marine reptile, with a finned, whale-like body and long neck, or with a serpentine shape, featuring three distinct humps; Mr. Steciuk thinks it’s possible they’re two developmental stages of the same species.) Even this image he stops short of calling definitive proof, though it would seem, he suggests, to be as close as anything.

Despite the fact that legends just like this one persist in so many large lakes—obviously Nessie of Loch Ness, but just here in Canada there are stories of Manipogo in Lake Manitoba, Memphre in Lake Memphremagog, and Champie in Lake Champlain—and that Ogopogo’s reputation has been so sent up and distorted by all the merchandising around it, Mr. Steciuk reports that his work is taken more seriously today than ever. There was a time he’d have to tolerate the occasional tease, he says; “Not anymore.” He thinks people, generally, are far more open-minded today about the possibility of an undiscovered species in Lake Okanagan than when he reported his story 33 years ago.

“Science has gone just galloping every day. I think people are starting to think maybe there’s something else out there,” he says. “We’re finding new species of stuff all the time, all over the place: butterflies, frogs. I mean, it goes on and on. Why couldn’t there be something in the lake?”

Over the decades, TV crews from Japan, Canada and the U.S. have descended on Lake Okanagan to launch investigations into Ogopogo: A Current Affair, In Search Of…, Unsolved Mysteries. For a while locals lucky enough to capture a bizarre enough bit of footage did well: Hollywood producers might pay thousands for an exclusive shot of something sufficiently peculiar, and a cottage industry of local researchers sprung up, ready and willing to consult on the projects. The creature, for a time, seemed to fit well in a more anxious and wide-eyed culture, where we creeped out at stories about the Bermuda Triangle, killer bees and alien invasions. But while the gallop of science and information has since deflated a number of those popular canards, no one has yet proven the negative in Okanagan Lake: that Ogopogo doesn’t exist.

Mr. Steciuk, too, set up a production company to film his lake searches and market the videos. He’s not entirely immune to the commercial urge: his documentaries have a weakness for gratuitously suspenseful string music and, at the end of our interview, he asks if his website, ogopogoquest.com, might earn a mention in the story. But there is, he insists, no profit motive here. Maybe a cost recovery motive. For all he’s spent on his research—though he won’t reveal just how much—he doubts he’ll ever break even.

That, anyway, isn’t his goal. “My goal is to prove the existence of an aquatic creature in the lake,” he says. “Conclusively.” That probably means finding a DNA sample, he thinks. After Labour Day, the tourists will be gone, the lake and the souvenir shops will quiet down, and he’ll head out to find evidence of the real Ogopogo once more.
National Post

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