Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Are there BELUGA WHALES in Lake Champlain ?

The  PLESIOTURTLE   by Thomas Finley

With all the modern technology
hearing aids of the 21st Century
listening into the quiet
And lo - this is no longer a world of amber and silence.
This is a world full of voices and songs.
Ancient melodies modulating to a 200 million year old beat
And now that we have heard the songs and voices in the
amber what would they tell us
and are we going to listen ?

    by Dr. Jacqueline Giles 
   Australian Turtle expert

   For over 10 years, some Lake Champlain Champ investigators have recorded, with underwater hydrophones, unidentified animal audio that some claim resembles that of Beluga Whales. Could it be that Champ is actually a whale, or is it possible that not only are there ancient, long necked aquatic reptiles swimming around Champlain, but a species of cetacean could be occupying the lake as well ? After all, more than 30 fossil specimens of Belugas have been unearthed in the area around the 490 square mile lake, a reminder of a time not long ago when Champlain was still directly connected to the sea, with easy passage for all marine life until the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.
The Charlotte Whale
   Whale- like bioacoustics were first recorded by Fauna Communications investigators working for the Discovery Channel in 2003. Since then, Fauna boss Liz Von Muggenthaler has claimed to have recorded some 200 examples of 15 individual unknown animals of the same species that are in a fresh water lake producing high amplitude, high frequency signals resembling echolocation of cetaceans. 

Liz Von Muggenthaler
   So what in the world could be making the racket that has been professionally recorded in the past and is still being compared to Beluga Whales ?
What animal can make these sounds in a fresh water lake, and is the statement we've heard many times, "that only whales can produce aquatic echolocation" correct, or is there scientific data that disputes this conclusion ? 
Are there other possible candidates that are not being considered ?
Is everything in Champlain that quacks like a duck really a duck ? 

Pink River Dolphin
   As far as something like Beluga Whales living in Lake Champlain, one must come to terms with the notion that whales could exist in a landlocked freshwater lake populated by 100's of thousands of people and visited by 100's of thousands more each year, who despite sometimes seeing strange activity, have never actually noticed whales before. Taking into account how cetaceans behave in general, is it plausible that any whale could exist in a lake like Champlain and not be seen often ? 

Beluga Whales at Nova Scotia
   Whales are not exactly unnoticed mammals in the wild. They need to surface regularly for air, and when they do it's usually in boisterous fashion.
They refund your money at nearby Cape Cod if you don't see a whale on a whale watching cruise, and if Belugas, or something related were living in Champlain you could expect to hear folks shouting "thar she blows" on much of the lake. And of course historically, whales have never been hard for us to find.
   Not to say that whales have never ventured into rivers and tributaries connected to the ocean. There are accounts of wayward
appearances of whales in rivers around the world. When they do, it usually becomes a media event with the animals being quite visible to observers on the shore as they come up for air. On some occasions the journey ends tragically for the whale, as they are disoriented to the point of being unable to return to the ocean.

 Whale in the Sacramento River
   But getting in and out of Lake Champlain to the ocean is another story, and being air breathers, the whales would have to vacate the lake in winter. Usually by February, the locals are having fishing parties out on the ice, which can be thick enough to drive a truck on.

Champlain Ice Fishing Party
   The ocean to the Champlain connecting Richelieu Canal is pretty much out of the question for whale passage. Too many dams and shallow water rapids would thwart the effort of any large animal to pass and would also be quite noticeable to Canadian canal locals.

Shallow waters on the canal

   At the dams there are fish ladders in place to allow spawning fish passage, but they can't accommodate larger animals.

Chambly Chutes Eel ladder
   For a whale going up and down the 100 foot level change of the Richelieu Canal it would be a daunting and ultimately impossible procedure. One of the more imaginative ideas embraced by some whale believing researchers such as the late, great Professor Roy Mackal is that the whales might traverse the 30 mile distance through an unknown (to us), underground tunnel that connects the lake with the ocean going Saint Lawrence Seaway. Problems with this idea are that any tunnel large enough to allow a whale passage would produce a water flow rate that should have been located by hydrologists who have studied the lake. The 100 foot elevation of Champlain would create a one way draining from the lake to the ocean that Dr. Timothy Mihuc of the Lake Champlain Research Society remarked would be like "pulling the plug on a giant bathtub, draining the lake to the lower elevation."
He found the idea of tunnels as "highly improbable."

Roy Mackal's hypothetical long necked whale of Champlain 

   Also problematic is the idea of a whale holding it's breath and knowingly diving into an aquatic subterranean tunnel, and then swimming the 30 mile distance to the Champlain Valley. Although whales can temporarily stray under polar ices at times, such behavior as using underwater tunnels over long distances has never been seen in a cetacean before.  

                                                   A whale expert responds         

   In 2013, Dr. Lance Barrett Lennard, a research scientist from the  Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center and a qualified expert on whale acoustics took a look and listen to  the Fauna Lake Champlain Champ "echolocation" charts and pointed out signals that were not exactly what he has seen previously with whales. Dr. Lennard concluded that the patterns were not of whales and probably not mammal and ultimately unknown to him.

         So if it isn't whales, then what else could be making these whale-like signals ?
    In 2003, an Australian turtle researcher named Jacqueline Giles discovered  that the Australian Snake Neck Turtle (Chelodina Oblonga) could also produce what was thought to be high frequency echolocation in an  aquatic environment. After many recordings and 2 years of study her 240 page report was examined by the Acoustical Society of America and confirmed to be actual. The ASA scientists further confirmed that there was also a  complex language being expressed that showed signs of high intelligence and social order. The level of complexity, although not quite on par with whales, was surprising, and was something no one had ever thought possible by turtles before.

Large Roti Island Snake Neck 

   Physically, the similarity of these animals to reported lake monster sightings is striking. The idea that the family chelidae resemble aquatic long necked cryptids was first written about over 100 years ago by naturalist, writer JW Buel, who upon seeing one for the first time exclaimed, "what a marvelous, miniature sea serpent the snake neck turtle is !"
South American Tectafera
   When you consider the snake neck turtle, no other still living reptile so resembles a Plesiosaurus as this long necked order of pleurodira. The Plesiosaur of course being the animal most identified with Champ (and Nessy). Paleontologists usually scoff at the idea of animals that are said to be extinct still being alive and even the Coelacanth is under fire these days, with some DNA experts declaring them NOT to be the "living fossil" previously claimed. 
Indonesian Coelacanth

Turtles however, are still alive (extant, not extinct) and some fully aquatic species can get to be over a ton in weight. Could a species of unclassified, flippered, giant snake neck turtle be responsible for the sounds being recorded ? 
Some paleontologists, like Kenneth Carpenter, director of the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum and author or co-author of a number of books on dinosaurs and Mesozoic life, say they might consider a still existing order of animal to be the mystery beasts.

Large Snake Neck Turtle demonstrating stealth breathing.
   An un-classified, giant snake neck turtle could be a possible candidate for the secret identity of a lake monster. Turtles can -  have a long or short neck as described by Champ witnesses, practice quiet stealth breathing, hold their breath for over a day, use supplemental breathing through gills in it's anus, tolerate the cold, hibernate over 6 months, have fins and swim fast and deep, get big, be omnivorous, bury themselves and be an order of animal that has never gone extinct for the last quarter BILLION years (250,000,000 years).
There are at least 5 species of aquatic loving turtles now living in Champlain, turtles being the only reptile known to live in the lake already. 

One ton Leatherback Turtle from the land of Loch Ness, Scotland.
    Perhaps most importantly, some turtles are now known to be able to produce complex underwater signals that may resemble cetacean echolocation. 
These are just some of the scientifically known abilities of the amazing Chelonians.
   So next time you hear the statement that "only whales can produce aquatic echolocation," remember that new evidence also includes an animal that looks exactly like what many of the reports of lake monsters seen around the world are said to look like.                                   That animal is the Snake Neck Turtle.

Birds of a feather ?


  1. Spectacular article, Chuck! While I think the Chelodina oblonga acoustic findings are tentative in their current state and that the claims of Lake Champlain echolocation certainly warrant more scrutiny, these are tantalizing thoughts. Great point on the debate over coelacanths being legitimate 'living fossils' genetically, by the way, I hadn't taken that into consideration previously.

  2. Thanks Jay ! Yes the researchers have a lot of catching up to do to get a handle on what these turtles are saying, but even now another Pleurodira, Podocnemis has been found to be doing the same thing. Until recently turtles were called "the silent group" by zoologists. And the Coelacanth DNA studies seem to be a strike against relict reptile fans. The DNA researchers make it a point to tell us that the Coelacanth is not a reason to believe in surviving extinct animals anymore.