Seljord and the sea-serpent

(By Peter Fjågesund)


In the middle of Telemark, the county which has always been associated with fairy tales, folk songs, imagination and creativity, lies the Seljord Lake, brooding over its great secret. What is actually hidden under that blue and friendly sheet of water?

For 250 years, and probably even longer, people have claimed to see a large and serpent-like creature in the lake. The first written documentation goes back to 1750. Then a certain Gunleik Andersson Verpe from Bø rowed a removal load, with one boat in tow, from Ulvenes to Nes, at the south-eastern end of the lake. When he was at the middle of the lake a sea-serpent appeared, which attacked one of the two rowing boats and overturned it. How Gunleik Andersson Verpe fared is not known. A few decades later, in his book An Account of Seljord Parish in Upper Telemark in Norway (1786), the local parson Hans Jacob Wille also describes a strange creature. He does not specify the size of the animal, but it is "very peculiar, and one of the most poisonous of all. It moves under the surface like an eel, and some years ago it bit a man in his big toe while he was wading across the Laxhøl River." Since then several people have claimed to hit the sea-serpent while rowing on the lake, whereas others have seen a large animal sliding down from the rocks at the water's edge and into the lake. Some compare its head to that of a crocodile, some to that of a horse or an elk, while the estimated length varies from about ten to more than a hundred feet. Regardless of this there is a considerable number of observations; on average several each summer. Not least during the last few decades there have been several observations, and nearly always during the warmest summer period.

However, sea-serpents are not a phenomenon confined to Seljord alone. They have been observed virtually all over the world, and over the centuries both large and mysterious creatures have been seen along the Norwegian coast. As a matter of fact, this coastal strip is particularly rich in observations, even in global terms. Olaus Magnus (sixteenth century), Erik Pontoppidan the younger (eighteenth century) and many others have offered both dramatic and detailed accounts of what the various creatures looked like. Not least from the nineteenth century there are many observations, whereas from the twentieth century there are relatively few. There are also interesting accounts from several freshwater lakes in various parts of the country, but today it is primarily in the Seljord Lake that people observe strange movements in the water.

All these obervations raise a number of questions: How likely is it that the Seljord Lake contains a serpent-like creature? How may such an animal have found its way there? And is the Seljord Lake in any way different from other lakes of the same size? Some basic information about the lake does not seem to provide any answers: it is roughly fifteen kilometers long and nearly two kilometers at the broadest. The greatest depth is around 150 meters, whereas the average depth is between 50 and 75. In a Norwegian context the Seljord Lake is thus relatively shallow. Furthermore, its altitude is 116 meters above sea level, and it lies about 70 kilometers from the coast. The rock formations in the area are about 1,000 million years old, and consist generally of quartzites, which provide a rather poor soil and water of a low nutritional value. The scientific verdict is clear: there is no way in which the Seljord Lake could possibly contain a sea-serpent (assuming such a creature exists). There are two main reasons for this: First, the lake is much too small to provide enough food for an animal, and preferably a group of animals, of a length of thirty or fifty feet. All research on the relationship between the size of animals and the size of their home range or territory indicates that the Seljord Lake would be far too small for a large sea-serpent. Second, about 10,000 years ago there was no Seljord Lake, because it was completely filled with ice. The ocean at that time reached the Øvrebømoen, at the present south-eastern end of the lake, but it is unlikely that it has ever enetered the lake itself.

Despite these rather decisive arguments against there being a sea-serpent in the Seljord Lake, both local people and visitors continue to observe inexplicable phenomena in the water, and the attention has not diminished since the international expedition in the summer of 1998, when Discovery Channel bought exclusive rights to cover the search for the monster. Some may have expected the expedition to make a sensational discovery. That did not happen. But the analyses from the registrations that were made with the advanced technical equipment used by the expedition are now available, and they do contain more than enough to keep the mystery alive, at least for those who believe ... .