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On Science: The search for a sea monster named Selma

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2009 - It was with great sadness that I read of the death this month of Robert Rines, a prominent scientist and inventor who taught at M.I.T. and Harvard. Among the many things Rines invented was a silly idea that has burrowed into my mind and won't go away.

It's always a temptation as a scientist to immediately discount ideas that seem on the surface to be silly. Why? Because almost all silly ideas turn out to be just that -- silly. Every once in a while, however, a real lame-brain suggestion turns out to be spot-on.

Because there is so much that science doesn't know, and certainly a great deal that I don't, I try to keep an open mind.

Looking for Nessie

The story of Rines' idea begins in 1972, when he was in Scotland on his honeymoon. They were visiting a friend whose home overlooked Loch Ness when the friend pointed to the loch and said, "I say, is that an upturned boat?"

In a tale Rines recounted many times in the following years, they saw a large grayish hump, with skin like an elephant. The hump rose four feet out of the water, and seemed to extend 30 feet. For 10 minutes, it just lay there in the water, then submerged.

That was the beginning of what became an obsession for Rines. I'm sure that old stories of the Loch Ness monster further fueled his drive to find out what it was they saw that afternoon in 1972, and like a bull dog with a bone, he wouldn't let go of his certainty that they saw something real - and very big.

Unlike earlier monster hunters, Rines brought all the weapons of modern science to bear, applying sophisticated sonar and underwater photography in his search for "nessie." He even trained dolphins to carry cameras, and took underwater photographs so convincing that in the mid-1970s scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution flirted with joining the hunt. In 1976 the New York Times sent reporters to cover the season's search.

But after the 1970s, Rines never saw another trace of nessie, and he eventually became convinced it had died.

In Norway

But Rines' idea didn't die. Twenty-five years later, a team of seemingly reputable scientists in Norway announced that they were setting out to trap a sea monster like the one photographed by Rines.

I was tempted to laugh, write this off as just another Rines fiasco, and throw it into my "Loch Ness Monster" file. But I could not help but pause for a moment, and wonder why serious scientists continue to set out on such a quest.

Just too juicy an idea to resist, I guess. You be the judge.

Led by oceanographer Jan Sundberg, a team of scientists from the Oceanographic Institute of Bergen undertook to investigate a long history of claims that some sort of large sea creature inhabits one of Norway's deep fjords, the Seljordsvatnet, within Telemark township 40 miles from Oslo. The fjord is 12 miles long and 1 miles wide, similar in size to Scotland's Loch Ness.

Like the sea serpent that made Loch Ness famous, the Seljord sea creature is a longtime resident. The first recorded sightings were in 1750. In the 250 intervening years, many residents of Seljord claim to have seen something in the water. A fishing community, the sea is very much a part of life in Saljord, and the creature has been an integral part of its history. The town coat-of-arms is -- what else -- a sea serpent.

Sundberg's first expedition, an exploratory visit to the fjord in the summer of 1998, yielded no evidence of any large sea creatures, but the locals were more than eager to provide descriptions, based upon their personal sightings.

It would seem that the creature, nicknamed "Selma," is black and very big, somewhere between 10 and 40 feet long. Not at all serpent-like, Selma is a lot thicker in the middle (I know exactly what that's like), with flippers. Some say Selma has a head like a horse without ears, and huge black eyes. The description is roughly what a plesiosaur, an extinct marine reptile from the time of the dinosaurs, would look like.

The second expedition, which took place 10 years ago, involved a serious attempt to detect the presence of any large marine animals in the fjord. Acoustic microphones were lowered into the deeper waters of the narrow fjord in an attempt to record any noises the animals might make communicating with one another. Not such a silly idea, actually. Sound is how whales communicate over long distances in the sea. While these sorts of acoustic surveys in Loch Ness never yielded any sea serpent sounds, this was a logical place to start a serious search.

Unknown Mammal Sound

They hit pay dirt, or so they say. The expedition recorded what they describe as "an unknown sound of a mammal." I take it this means they recorded a sound somewhat like a whale makes, although not a whale sound exactly. They were not very clear on this point.

Anyway, it was enough to encourage the Oceanographic Institute to mount a third expedition in the year 2000, by far the largest. They were equipped with active sonar, to probe the fjord's depths. This can be a very effective way to "see" far down into the murky water past where any light can penetrate. A modern submarine uses active sonar to paint a picture of its surroundings, monitoring how pulses of sound are reflected back from objects around it.

Reinforcing this effort, a team of divers continuously searched the bottom, armed with cameras to record any sightings. Another team manned observation posts in the mountains lining the fjord, in case Selma surfaced.

Clearly optimistic, the expedition set out a specially designed sea monster trap, a labyrinth 18-foot-long tubular nylon net designed to snare a baby sea serpent. They even had two scientists on call to come and take DNA samples when the baby is caught. "We're trying to catch a little baby, because we think there is a whole family here," Sundberg said.

Nothing was caught in the trap that year, although more "interesting" sonar reading were recorded.

The search, in more muted tones, still continues. Sounds recorded by Sundberg in 2003 were submitted to independent labs for analysis. Researchers at the Institute for Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, and at the University of Copenhagen concluded after listening to the recordings that the sounds were made by a large mammal.

In 2004, Sundberg excitedly claimed to have photographed a small monster, one and a half meters long. Perhaps a baby of Selma's? What Sundberg saw was moving up and down in the water - but he was not able to focus the lens of the camera before the creature disappeared, so all one sees in the photograph is a vague tubular outline.

You see what I mean. It's all a little thin, but everybody seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Maybe the expeditions have uncovered other traces of Selma of which I am unaware. Or maybe the scientists at the Oceanographic Institute of Bergen don't have a lot to do in the summer. Or maybe Seljord, Norway, wants to start a tourist industry.

As I follow the yearly reports of Sundberg's quest, I try very hard to suspend my temptation to laugh and let the Oceanographic Institute's scientists go about collecting their data.

Of one thing I am sure. Rines wouldn't be laughing. He would suspend his disbelief and wait for better data. I will greatly miss Rines unyielding acceptance of the possibility of wonder.

George B. Johnson's "On Science" column looks at scientific issues and explains them in an accessible manner. 

Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biology at Washington University, has taught biology and genetics to undergraduates for more than 30 years. Also professor of genetics at Washington University’s School of Medicine, Johnson is a student of population genetics and evolution, renowned for his pioneering studies of genetic variability. He has authored more than 50 scientific publications and seven texts.

As the founding director of The Living World, the education center at the St Louis Zoo, from 1987 to 1990, he was responsible for developing innovative high-tech exhibits and new educational programs.

Copyright George Johnson