Seljord serpent


The serpent in Norway's Seljord lake has fueled local folklore for centuries, not unlike Scotland's fabled Loch Ness monster. And like those who have gone to look for Nessie, an international team of explorers hopes to give some scientific backing to the legend of the elusive creature in the murky Norwegian depths.

Swedish freelance journalist and veteran serpent tracker Jan Sundberg and his 11-man team plan to spend 17 days trawling the lake in southern Norway using state-of-the-art imaging equipment and a mini-submarine fitted with cameras. "It is a challenge to prove that people really have seen something and that it is not just fantasy or illusion," 51-year-old Sundberg told Reuters. "There are many witnesses going back 250 years who have seen the serpent. It is written in the history of the community, and every year there are new sightings by reliable witnesses. Why would people lie?"

Sundberg's last Seljord serpent expedition was in 1977, when echoing equipment detected large objects moving in unison and separating in various directions. "We were really excited about this. We had good results at the time but we couldn't follow up because we didn't have as much sponsorship as we have now," he said. For this trip, he has $200,000 worth of cutting-edge technology including an echo sounder, a side-scan sonar -- a torpedo-shaped object towed behind the boat that sends back horizontal and vertical images -- and a miniature submarine with three television cameras, a gripping arm and sonar. "I am really confident we have a good chance of getting instrumental results," he said. "But if we're going to see the creature above the surface and film it, it will take more than good people and equipment but a lot of luck." Sundberg assembled his team of intrepid explorers mainly via the Internet and describes them as "a mixture of rookies and more experienced searchers." The volunteers from Sweden, Norway, Britain, Ireland, Belgium and the United States will search round the clock in four-man shifts.

The creature gained its first recorded testimonial in 1750 when Gunleik Andersson-Verpe from nearby Boe was "attacked by a sea horse" while rowing on the lake. In 1880, Bjoern Bjorge and his mother, Gunhild, reportedly killed a "strange-looking" lizard as they were washing clothes on one of the lake's beaches. Descriptions this century have varied from a black log-like creature with several humps, a crested neck and an eel-like head to a beast with a head like a horse or the features of a crocodile. Other reports call it a snail-like creature with two horns on its head. Grainy amateur video taken in 1988 and 1993 show humps in the middle of the lake, but they could easily have been waves. Legend says the beasts came over land to the picturesque lake, set in steep pine-covered mountains 100 miles west of Oslo, when they outgrew a smaller one nearby.

Sundberg is skeptical of claims the creatures could be up to 150 feet long. He says the lake, at nine miles long by 1.2 miles wide and 510 feet deep, could not support such beasts. "People have told of enormous sizes of 25, 30, even 50 meters long. But realistically how could a family of animals of such size fit into a small lake like this?" he asked. "Creatures of between one and seven meters are more feasible. Maybe it would be possible to reach 50 meters if it is thin and snake-like like a python. But otherwise no way."

Sundberg rejects skeptics who claim shadowy sightings could be explained by the movements of moose, otters or beavers. "The serpent does not fit any species known to man. It has several qualities not seen before such as traveling on the surface at high speed and moving vertically up and down," he said. "It shows a back or a head or a neck or all three for long periods above the surface and travels very fast, maybe up to 25 knots."

The Seljord town council and local campsite owners are sponsoring Sundberg's hunt for the beast, hoping for a boost in tourism from the publicity. The village has already made some attempts to cash in on its monster myth by changing its coat of arms to a serpent in 1986 and building a serpent exhibition. A 23-member delegation went to Loch Ness in 1992 to discover why Nessie is such a hit. But Asbjoern Storrusten, the village council's coordinator, said boosting tourism was not the only point of the exercise. Definitive identification of something living in the lake would help locals who often shy away from admitting sightings for fear of being ridiculed.

" People are frightened to say what they have seen. Other people from outside the area don't believe in the serpent and they think those that have seen it are mad or maybe drunk," said Storrusten, who comes from Drammen, near Oslo. "I did not believe it before I came here and talked to people. These are responsible, serious people, and when they look you in the eye and say they have seen something, you cannot disbelieve it. These lakes are less researched than the dark side of the moon. Who knows what's there?"