TOLEDO, Ohio — Does Nessie, Scotland's fabled Loch Ness monster, have a cousin?
A handful of sightings of huge serpentlike creatures in Lake Erie were recorded in 1985 and 1987. But things remained quiet until Sept. 4.
That's when Harold Bricker and his family returned from a fishing trip with a new sighting, and monster mania began spreading along lakefront communities.
The Brickers said they saw a large creature moving in the water about 1,000 feet from their boat. They described it as black and about 35 feet long with a snakelike head. It moved as fast as their boat.
"I told my son that I wanted to get a look at it," the 67-year-old Bricker said. "My son said: 'No way, that thing is bigger than we are.' So we stayed where we were."
Bricker, his wife, Cora, and son, Robert, told rangers at East Harbor State Park about what they had seen.
The creature has since been reported by five people on three separate occasions, including a Huron, Ohio, firefighter and a 50-year-old woman from Pennsylvania vacationing at her Lake Erie cottage.
John Schaffner, editor of a weekly newspaper in Port Clinton, Ohio, has set up a toll-free phone line for people to call if they see the serpent.
He also ran a contest to name it. South Bay Besse was chosen in part because of the location of the Davis Besse nuclear power plant near Port Clinton--not to mention that Besse rhymes with "Nessie."
The story of the monster in Loch Ness in north-central Scotland dates back centuries and is worth tens of millions in tourist dollars to the region each year. Three years ago, a million-dollar scientific expedition to find the creature turned up just vague sonar readings, but the legend remains.
Any similar effort to find a creature in Lake Erie would be even more difficult--at 240 miles, it's more than 10 times as long as Loch Ness.
Thomas Solberg, owner of Huron Lagoon Marina, has offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who captures South Bay Besse alive. He also posted a sign at his marina calling it the future home of the Lake Erie sea serpent.
But while some people are having fun with the creature, marine researchers remain skeptical.
Fred Snyder, a researcher with the Ohio Sea Grant, an organization that examines Great Lakes issues, said it is highly unlikely a monster is living in Lake Erie.
He noted that Loch Ness is old, while Lake Erie is a youngster, geologically speaking.
"A lot of people kind of assume, like most places in the world, it must be millions and millions of years old," he said. "It's not the case. The glaciers receded and the area stabilized about 12,000 years ago, which, geologically, is just yesterday.
"So the monster really can't be anything left over from the dinosaur days, because it's just too young."
Snyder also noted that no sightings were reported before the mid-1980s. He said he doubts that a big sea creature could have gotten in from the Atlantic Ocean because of the difficulties of navigating the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The sturgeon, Lake Erie's largest fish, can grow to 300 pounds and 10 feet in length, but it is on the endangered species list and is a bottom-dweller, Snyder said.