Real Otter Sense

Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 16th, 2007

I asked for a clear photograph of some otters swimming-in-a-line in the water, demonstrating what Joe Nickell had only drawn as the explanation of some of the classic sea serpent and lake monster sightings. None could easily be shown me from Nickell’s or others’ research. No one from the skeptical community could come forth with a good example.

But cryptozoologists are always looking for all sides of the picture, pun-intended, and now I’ve been sent a clear instance where this behavior has been observed and photographed.

The evidence of this has not been forwarded to me by a debunker, but by none other than Ogopogo researcher John Kirk! Please see below.

Tony Markle Otter Photo

Click on this Tony Markle photograph for a larger view of the article and image.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

27 Responses to “Real Otter Sense”

  1. jerrywayne responds:

    What a silly notion. Otters? Can’t be. No way! That is the best single photograph I’ve ever seen of Ogopogo, the prehistoric whale.

  2. Bob Michaels responds:

    Kohn Kirk is the Crypto man, great shoot, final proof?

  3. Pvolitans responds:

    Still doesn’t account for the large mass seen trailing the purported neck/head in the Holmes video.

  4. elsanto responds:

    Kudos to John for finding the photo… I’m sure it took no small effort.

    This still doesn’t really support Nickell’s theory… it’s a still photo… the behaviour would have to be sustained for a reasonable time, and in such a way that it couldn’t seem like four distinct, individual animals in order for Nickell’s theory to swim, rather than sink. This photo only proves that a still photo of otters could be mistakenly held to be proof of the existence of an aquatic cryptid. Nickell would need to produce film footage to clearly illustrate his point, which isn’t holding too much water, in spite of this photo.

    Just my two cents.

  5. Daniel Loxton responds:

    I was only very modestly interested in this tempest in a teapot about how often otters literally “swim in a line.” After all, it’s already known that otters sometimes move in groups, and that they sometimes follow each other (however loosely or closely). It’s also known that otters and other watergoing mammals can be, and sometimes are, mistaken for cryptids.

    Even if known misinterpretation errors weren’t a matter of record, it’s a danger most of us can relate to from our own daily experience. (For example, I’ve seen groups of seals, sea lions, and porpoises which, under those particular viewing conditions, appeared astoundingly similar to sea serpents.)

    All the same, this photo certainly does make Nickell’s general point very forcefully, and is a useful addition to the literature.

    Thanks for digging it up, John!

  6. CryptoGoji responds:

    They don’t necessarily look to be swiming do they? Jumping in shallow water is more like it. I’ve seen them do that in the Ozarks now and then, but never in water more than three or four feet deep (and not really at that depth either) Still doesn’t disprove anything in the Holmes video.

  7. sasquatch responds:

    I thinks it’s pretty obvious they are otters. There are two tail tips visible and a head-which incidentally; does NOT have the same longish neck that the Holmes creature appears to. I can see how from a distance this might fool someone, but not at the range this (otters in a row)was photographed at.

  8. Daniel Loxton responds:

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this otter controversy bears very directly on the Holmes video. (Honestly, I can’t begin to tell what that provocative smudge might be; I don’t think anyone can.)

    On the other hand, I think that Nickell’s specific point about the Holmes video is also well-taken: if we saw this same video in any context other than Loch Ness, few viewers would think “lake monster” before more mundane explanations, such as birds or otters.

  9. springheeledjack responds:

    I disagree with comments up there. If you look at the photo, the otters are not evenly spaced out, and I would guess that if you take the time to look long enough at that scenario in the wild, then you would be able to pick out that there are four swimming critters instead of one.

    Once again we have come full circle and we are back to the eye witness. Depends on length of sighting, who saw it, where when, and the witness’ familiarity with their surroundings…unfortunately, in reports we do not often get as many details as we need because cases are reported after the fact (people coming forward months or even years after they have seen something), or the extensive questions were not asked of the witness, or the sighting was so brief as to bring in to question whether the witness was seeing some normal phenomenon or not.

    Good photo though.

  10. Lyndon responds:

    We must remember this is a photograph. A still. It’s not shown moving. Anybody who is going to be looking at a similar scene will not be doing so for just a second. The objects (in this case otters) are going to be moving, even changing their alignment. If somebody were to see this for a second or two they might be fooled but if somebody is viewing this and thinking “lake monster” initially well then they are going to be observing if for a lot longer and it won’t remain looking like a lake monster during the rest of their observation.

  11. Daniel Loxton responds:

    When considering sources of possible misinterpretation errors, we should remind ourselves that the real question is not, “Looking at this right now, does this look to me more like a monster or more like an otter (or group of otters, or cormorant, or log, or whatever)?” We’re much better served to ask, “Are there any conditions (light, distance, hope, imagination, inexperience) under which a tiny subset of observers might interpret this as a monster?”

    We already know the answer to this: it’s a fact that misinterpretations happen.

    This has real implications for cryptozoology. If a vanishingly small percentage of, for example, otter sightings are misinterpreted as monster sightings, this can very quickly swamp the cryptid eyewitness database. Set the error rate however low as you think plausible, and it’s still a problem: after all, the world is full of otters (and cormorants, and beavers, and ducks, and all the rest) and sighting events involving these known animals happen countless thousands of times a day. That’s a lot of opportunity for rare mistakes. It’s a numbers game. (As Michael Shermer put it, “one-in-a-million miracles happen 295 times a day in America.”)

    If the goal here is to separate the signal from the noise, the first step is really taking it to heart that the noise exists.

  12. mystery_man responds:

    Misinterpretations happen even with known animals and even in areas other than crytpozoology. It does not automatically mean that cryptids are not there. It is just something that we are going to have to accept happens and then more thoroughly review eyewitness accounts as well as reliability and expertise. Remember, there are still many, many lakes with this same wildlife that do not have an alleged monster.

  13. mystery_man responds:

    Even in some lakes with an alleged monster, the reports can seem to exclude animals such as otters. An interesting example is Lake Illiamna in Alaska. The area around this lake abounds with wildlife of all sorts including bears, caribou, moose, and even a rare type of freshwater seal which is only represented by one other population in Russia’s Lake Baikal. What is interesting is that even with all this wildlife that could potentially cause misidentifications of vastly differing appearances, the supposed monster of Lake Illiamna is most often reported as a large, submerged, fish like creature that is not known to break the surface. Often reports speak of a large underwater mass which I can imagining looking similar to whatever is in the Holmes video. So if other wildlife could be to blame as in other lakes, why are these creatures in Lake Illiamna not reported as humped animals that frolic near the surface? Where are the other misrepresentations that one would expect if that is the case with all lake monsters?

    Of course the seals could be the culprit, but my point is that the other animals and phenomena that are blamed for sightings in other lakes are not immediately apparent as the cause of sightings in this particular lake even though the lake is well known to have a “monster” which could be argued would increase expectations. So where are all the varying reports that could match up with swimming moose or otters in a line? The reports seem to be fairly specific as a large, underwater mass. I’m not saying it is an actual monster, it could be seals, could be giant sturgeon, etc, but it is not immediately attributable to otters, wave formations, and other lake phenomena, which this lake undoubtedly has. This to me points to something truly perplexing going on and visitors who perhaps are able to tell when they are seeing otters as opposed to something that they really cannot explain.

  14. DWA responds:

    A couple of things are useful to mention here:

    (1) the “resident monster effect”;
    (2) the things-in-water effect.

    Loch Ness is where Nessie lives; it’s known worldwide. It may be that this is one of the world’s most widely-known “facts.” People travel thousands of miles to see where Nessie lives. The locals are well aware of that fact and proud – in a variety of ways – of the notoriety. And Nessie lives, predominantly, underwater. Its eager sighters are, well, generally above it.

    Under these circumstances, it’s possible for pretty much anything to be construed as a monster by someone who is by golly not gonna waste that plane ticket to Loch Ness! Or by golly not gonna see my monster die! Or by golly gonna see this thing that lives five miles from my house ONCE before I die!

    My main problem with Nessie and other lake cryptids is with the enormous inconsistency among sightings, and the incredibly divergent explanations of what this critter might be. You can think Bigfoot is a joke. But you “know” he’s a giant bipedal ape. We have no such consistency with any lake monster.

    As has been seen here, I’d be the last one to discount all lake monsters – this one in particular – as being known phenomena, blown out of proportion. But if I had to bet on a cryptid, a lake critter wouldn’t be the one.

    Which still leaves every caution I’ve expressed about loopy explanations using known phenomena fully operative.

  15. mystery_man responds:

    DWA- I think Loch ness and Lake Champlain, etc, where there is an undeniably famous monster supposedly lurking in their depths pose unique problems for the very reasons you mentioned. I seem to remember reading somewhere about a little experiment that was pulled by which a tour boat full of Nessie seekers were out on the water and the experimenters pulled a large log out across the water. Guess what? The tourists went nuts and all thought it was the monster they were seeing even though it was a log. If anyone else knows the details behind what went on with this, please enlighten me, because I can’t remember the specifics, if it was a log or a model. Whatever it was, I think you could call this an example of expectation in action. I don’t think it adequately explains all sightings, but I would think it definately has an effect on eager witness perceptions. I think it is hard to weed out any good reports with the rock star monsters like Nessie, Champ, and so on because the monster is undoubtedly on everyone’s minds when they look out across the lake.

    That being said, there are still lakes with pretty relatively obscure lake monsters out there and so I think maybe a thing to look at with some sightings is whether the witness was even aware that there was an alleged monster in the lake. As I said before, there are lakes that produce no monster reports, some that produce a very few, and some lakes that produce loads of reports. The amount of reported monster activity varies. It does not seem to me that number of tourists always effects the amount of sightings either as there are lakes with many tourists that do not produce monster reports. This may be due to any sort of lack of expectation in these lakes and therefore no real inclination to jump to a cryptid explanation for what they see out on the water, or is it? Maybe there is just something really odd going on that needs looking into, whether that something is a monster or not.

    I still think it is interesting that if purely mundane reasons are causing all reports of monsters, then why the discrepancies in number of monster reports between lakes? Is it directly related purely to how much expectation is there? Is there a relation to numbers of visitors or types of visitors? Or is there something else going on? Are hoaxes to blame for getting the ball rolling with reports of a resident monster in the first place? I often wonder how some lake monsters came about to be so remarkably famous where other lakes have no such claim to fame. It is interesting to think about.

  16. MattBille responds:

    First impression: given a short observation time and sufficient distance from shore make size hard to pin down, a sight like this could make an excitable witness think it’s something mysterious. During a longer observation, though, the line would likely break apart enough to how it’s not a single creature.

  17. DWA responds:


    There’s much in the discussion of lake monsters to which I’m admittedly not privy, and I am all ears for anything that might cast these sightings in a different light.

    I will say, however, that one reason I find sasquatch sightings so compelling – other than that the critter isn’t hiding under water – is that the vast majority of encounters seem to involve locals who had not an inkling of the animal’s possible existence in their neck of the woods before the encounter.

  18. mystery_man responds:

    DWA- A lot of this Lake Monster stuff I’ve only recently been looking into, so I don’t claim to know a whole lot about it either. Some of my hypothesis could be off base and I may get some sightings facts wrong, but I sure do love to discuss this stuff regardless. More of a Bigfoot guy myself, though. 🙂

  19. Lyndon responds:

    mystery man,

    I believe it was a Loch Ness monster replica which fooled the tourists and I think the tour boat captain was in on it too. It was all part of an experiment designed to test people’s reactions.

  20. MattBille responds:

    It would be an interesting experiment to take a bunch of volunteers (you’d pay their expenses – college students are always willign to do soemthing interesting on the cheap) and take them to a lake with no interesting monster sightings. You tell them there has been a spate of recent sightings, and see what reports, photos, etc. they turned in after a week of observation.

  21. Daniel Loxton responds:

    Mystery_man writes:

    I seem to remember reading somewhere about a little experiment that was pulled by which a tour boat full of Nessie seekers were out on the water and the experimenters pulled a large log out across the water.

    There have probably been other experiments along these lines, but you’re probably thinking of the 2003 BBC fence post experiment. A post was raised from the water in front of a busload of unsuspecting tourists, who were then asked to sketch what they’d witnessed. As we’d expect from the daylight viewing conditions and terribly crude “monster” (again, just a regular square fence post), many of the witnesses did pretty well. However, as we’d expect from the known history of misidentification errors which plague lake monster cases, other fence post witnesses recalled seeing a round “neck” complete with head.

    This confirms what we already know: given expectations primed by a lake monster legend, a significant subset of viewers will “see” ambiguous, relatively un-monster-like phenomena as lake monsters, even when viewing conditions are good.

  22. Carol Maltby responds:

    Swimming in a line would probably produce a slipstream effect, which could make the going easier for younger otters. I wonder what differences would be evident from looking at the turbulence created by multiple animals, as opposed to that of a single larger animal?

  23. Lyndon responds:

    “”There have probably been other experiments along these lines, but you’re probably thinking of the 2003 BBC fence post experiment. A post was raised from the water in front of a busload of unsuspecting tourists,””

    No Daniel I’m pretty sure he was thinking of the animatronic Nessie that was part of a Channel 5 programme and not the fence post one.

    This was 2005. A 16ft fake Nessie was paraded at various places around the loch and even in front of a boatload of tourists:

  24. mystery_man responds:

    Daniel Loxton, Lyndon- Thanks for the info regarding the experiment of witness expectations. I believe the one that Danial Loxton mentioned is the one I am thinking about. Any other interesting experiments done in the Loch along these lines?

  25. mystery_man responds:

    MattBille- Your experiment idea is a good one. I’d be curious to see what results would come up.

  26. sschaper responds:

    You can certainly see why skeptics would point to otters in line, based upon that picture!

    Of course, there are plenty of other ‘usual suspects’, and the recent film doesn’t resemble this at all, though -one- otter or beaver, it could be.

  27. Bob K. responds:

    I’ve been privileged to see river otters swim in a line, but the line soon breaks up as the critters go their separate ways to find food, roam, and play. Anyway, it’s apparent that this “otter line dance” is made up of separate creatures. I would think that you could tell the difference between one large creature moving around and several smaller ones if the sighting takes any length of time at all-and if the sighting is too brief and the details too indistinct, then it simply has no value since no real information can be gleaned from the event.

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