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Sea monsters may not be real, but they're good for business

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The Vermont Lake Monsters, a single-A baseball team out of Burlington, use their mascot, Champ, named after Lake Champlain's resident sea monster, to attract fans. (Courtesy of The Vermont Lake Monsters)

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The Vermont Lake Monsters, a single-A baseball team out of Burlington, use their mascot, Champ, named after lake Champlain's resident sea monster, to attract fans. (Courtesy of The Vermont Lake Monsters)

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When strange blobs of rotting flesh wash ashore, such as this one found in Newfoundland in 2001, a call goes out to Dr. Sidney Pierce, a University of South Florida biologist and the "Ghostbuster" of sea monsters. ***Please note small file size: 1313 pixels x 734 pixels*** (Courtesy of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA)

When strange blobs of rotting marine animal flesh wash ashore, Sidney Pierce usually gets a call.

Pierce, a University of South Florida biologist, has analyzed monster samples from Chile, Tasmania and Bermuda, and one piece of carcass originally found on a beach in St. Augustine, Fla., that spent more than a century in storage at the Smithsonian Institution. But in every case, DNA analysis has revealed the mystery mush to be highly decomposed whale blubber.

“It’s getting a little tedious now because it’s always the same thing,” Pierce said. “I keep hoping for it to be a monster, but it hasn’t so far.”

Sea monsters may or may not exist, but they definitely have captured people's imagination. The 2006 South Korean film “The Host,” which features a sea monster that emerges from Seoul’s Han River to terrorize the city, became the country's highest-grossing film to date.

In October, National Geographic will release an IMAX film about sea monsters that lived in western Kansas millions of years ago. U-Haul has decorated the sides of its moving trucks with colorful images of a giant squid; Archelon, a 15-foot wide marine turtle from the time of the dinosaurs; and Champ, the resident sea monster of Lake Champlain, located on the New York-Vermont border, where sightings date back to the 1600s.

Lake Champlain is just one of the many bodies of water that have their own sea monster myths. The Chesapeake Bay has Chessie, whom witnesses claim is dark gray, humped and about 30 feet in length. The Kraken, which had a cameo role in last year’s film “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” is a giant squid thought to be 150 to 200 feet long that lurks in the waters off the Bahamas.

Cadboro Bay in British Columbia claims Caddy, or Cadborosaurus willsi, a serpent-like creature that to this day remains the only monster ever described in a scientific journal. And, of course, there’s Nessie, the famous monster of Loch Ness, whose existence many scientists consider doubtful, but which still attracts tourists to the remote lake in the Scottish highlands.

“From a scientific standpoint there has never been a shred of proof for any of these things,” said Robin O’Keefe, an assistant professor of biology at Marshall University in West Virginia and an expert on plesiosaurs, sea monsters that lived during the age of dinosaurs. As for all the sightings, “After a few beers, if you’re not a marine biologist and don’t know what your looking at, it could be anything,” O’Keefe said.

Monsters can also be good for business. The Vermont Lake Monsters, a Single-A baseball team, uses Champ, its green and purple mascot, to attract fans. At Centennial Field, in Burlington, you might see Champ skydive onto the field or be pulled in by huskies while riding a wheeled sled. Fans can snack on the Monster Dog, a quarter-pound hot dog. At the team’s gift shop, Champ piggy banks, kickballs, foam visors and bobblehead dolls are all for sale.

“Baseball is boring,” said C.J. Knudsen, the team’s general manager. “One way for us to market toward families is Champ.”

The team, not wanting to reveal Champ’s true identity, instead refers to the person inside the mascot's costume as “Champ’s trainer.” For the past 11 summers that job has gone to 35-year-old Jeff Moulton. “The job is pretty fun,” Moulton said. “You can act as goofy as possible.”

Ellen Marsden, a fisheries biologist at the University of Vermont, has become the default expert on Champ, but she says that most of the more than 300 sightings can be attributed to something else. Possibilities include oar fish, giant eel-like ocean animals that could have gotten lost and ended up in Lake Champlain. Sturgeon are common to the lake and can grow up to six feet in length and look strange when breaking the surface. Groups of smaller fish like carp can darken the surface when swimming together, making schools appear like one large creature when seen from afar.

“The [sightings] that disturb me,” Marsden said, “are when it’s the ferry captain, because you think he would know something.”

And just what have the ferry captains seen?

“I’ve seen some big fish,” said Heather Stuart, a skipper with the Lake Champlain Ferry Service who has more than 20 years of experience, “but I’ve never seen Champ.” However, she said a rival company, Lake Champlain Shoreline Cruises, has reported sightings of the monster. Their skipper was unavailable for comment.

Marsden is no stranger to unusual sightings. She once momentarily mistook a spinning illuminated sign at a grocery story for a UFO.

“It’s more fun if it’s a monster,” Marsden said. “I would be thrilled if somebody came up with something completely unknown to science that’s living in this lake. I think the probability is close to zero.”

E-mail: jdn2108@columbia.edu