Searching for a sea monster named Selma seems silly but serious scientists have set out to seek her

Its 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 lamebrain 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.

While an admirable goal, in practice I sometimes find it hard to achieve. So, I suspect, do we all. A case in point arises this summer in Norway, where a team of seemingly reputable scientists announced in August that they are setting out to trap a sea monster. Should we laugh, throw this one into the “Loch Ness Monster” file, and write the story off as patient nonsense? Or should we pause for a moment, and wonder why serious scientists set out on such a quest? You be the judge.

Led by oceanographer Jan Sundberg, a team of scientists from the Oceanographic Institute of Bergen have undertaken to investigate a long history of claims that some sort of large sea creature inhabits one of Norway’s deep fjords, the Seljordsvatnet, near the town of Seljord.

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.

The first expedition, an exploratory visit to the fjord two summers ago, 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 last summer, 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.

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 are not very clear on this point.

Anyway, it was enough to encourage the Oceanographic Institute to mount a third expedition, by far the largest. They are 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 will search the bottom, armed with cameras to record any sightings. Another team will man observation posts in the mountains lining the fjord, in case Selma surfaces.

Clearly optimistic, the expedition is bringing a specially designed sea monster trap, a labyrinth net designed to snare a baby sea serpent. They even have 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.

You see what I mean. It’s all a little thin, but everybody seems to be having a lot of fun. Maybe the expedition has 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.

I’m trying very hard to suspend disbelief and laughter, and let the Oceanographic Institute’s scientists go about collecting their data. But I’m not having much luck.

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