June 5, 2009— -- Has the so-called Loch Ness Monster of North America reared his head, again?
For hundreds of years, residents of New York and Vermont have swapped stories of a mysterious underwater creature living in the expansive Lake Champlain. Although locals say it has been spotted more than 300 times, it has only been caught on camera once, decades ago. So skeptics abound, wondering how so many people can believe in something that has never provided proof of its existence.
But a cell phone video taken earlier this week of a creature apparently swimming in the lake has revived talk of the legendary "Champ."
Captured by Burlington, Vt., resident Eric Olsen, 37, and posted to YouTube May 31, the nearly two-minute video of the lake at sunrise shows an unknown object moving across, and ducking below, the surface of the water.
"I was just filming the water when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move, and I turned toward it and tried to zoom in on it," Olsen told the Burlington Free Press, which first reported the story Wednesday.
Along with the video, the Web site developer and musician posted the following comment to YouTube: "I shot this video (with cellphone) of SOMETHING in the lake at Oakledge Park on Sunday (05/31/09) early am (0530 or so). Was anyone else out and about around Oakledge on Sunday just after sunrise who saw this as well?"
In the past few days, the video, titled "Strange Sighting on Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT," has attracted more than 59,000 views.
Olsen did not immediately respond to requests from ABCNews.com for comment, but told the Burlington paper, "You can see that it is moving both horizontally, across the water, and vertically, going under the surface and coming back up. ... It struck me as something that was long, that it didn't have much girth."
The new video is already causing a stir among local residents and leading cryptozoologists, who study animals whose existence has not been proven, or "hidden" animals.
"If this pans out, this will be the most convincing moving picture of this creature," said Loren Coleman, a leading cryptozoologist and author of "The Field Guide to Lake Monsters. "And that's the kind of evidence we need to get closer to what these things really are."
P.T. Barnum Helped Spark Interest in Lake Monster
Although no one can pinpoint the first sighting, according to local lore, the native Abenaki people told Samuel de Champlain (the Lake's namesake) of its presence in the early 19th century.
In the 1880s, P.T. Barnum helped ignite interest when he offered a $50,000 reward for the capture of "Champ" or "Champy," dead or alive.
Although some think the Lake Champlain monster is a dinosaur-type creature or primitive whale, Coleman thinks Champ is likely a kind of unknown seal, and one of several have been spotted in different lakes across the region.
"The theory that it's a dinosaur is just ridiculous," he said. "This video reinforces the direction that a lot of people have been going in. That it's more like a mammal than a reptile."
Forensic analyses are needed to determine more about the creature, Coleman said. Later this week, a few of his colleagues intend to measure the buoys in the background of the film to get a better sense of the creature's size, he said.
To date, the most famous photograph of "Champ" is a 1977 image taken by Bristol, Vt., resident Sandra Mansi and published in Time magazine and The New York Times.
The daughter of a Vermont fisherman, Mansi, now 66, said she grew up hearing the stories of the lake monster but "didn't believe it anymore than I did the tooth fairy."
But while picnicking with her family one afternoon on the shores of Lake Champlain, Mansi and her family saw what they thought was a head and neck emerge from the water.
"I'm turned around and I'm looking at it and my knees gave out," she said. "At this point, the rationalization in my mind is that it's Champ."
Although Mansi didn't see the creature swimming, she said the subject in Olsen's video appears to have a similarly shaped head. The neck, however, seems longer than the one from her memory.
She has never spoken with Olsen but said, "I would love to welcome him to the club. It's a very small, exclusive club.
"For 30 years, I've been telling people that the lake holds a gift," she said. "It's just more proof that there is something there and we need to preserve the lake."
Biologists, Skeptics Say It's Local Wildlife
But area biologists aren't convinced the creature in the video is anything more exotic than the local wildlife.
"My guess is that it's a decent-sized animal, probably a deer or moose," said Professor Charles Kilpatrick, a biologist at the University of Vermont.
From watching the video, he guessed that a tired mammal was struggling to get its head out of the water.
Ben Radford, managing editor of the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer and co-author of "Lake Monster Mysteries," has investigated claims of lake monsters across the world and is convinced that the video shows nothing more than an elk or deer in the water.
It's ignorance, not evidence, that continues to fuel the myth of lake monsters, he said. Just as unknown creatures on land become "Bigfoot," and unidentified objects in the sky become UFOs, mysterious characters in the water become lake monsters.
"It shouldn't be surprising that people are still seeing things in the lake," Radford said. "It requires little or nothing -- anytime anyone sees anything that they can't identify on the lake, it becomes Champ."
In previous investigations of sightings on Lake Champlain, he said, floating logs, waves and other animals have been revealed as "Champ."
"There's no hard evidence," he said. "No teeth, bones, skeletons, or dead ones that wash up. At some point you ask, Why is that?'"
And, he added, it's not like there can just be one. A whole breeding population of Champs would have to exist.
But despite the dearth of evidence, the myth of the Lake Champlain monster persists. The creature has even become something of a local mascot, appearing on endless tourist T-shirts and with a minor league baseball team named for it.
"They make a lot of money on their Champ T-shirts, Champ boards and sandwiches," Radford said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that but there's definitely an incentive to keeping the idea alive."
But it's not just economics that drives the legend of the lake monster.
In 1982, the Vermont House of Representatives went so far as to pass a resolution protecting Champ "from any willful act resulting in death, injury or harassment." The New York State Assembly has adopted a similar measure.
Lake 'Monster' Inspires Interest in Environment
In educating youth and visitors about the lake and conservation efforts, environmental groups often rely on Champ to start conversations.
Linda Bowden, lifelong learning coordinator for ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, said her center engages visitors with discussions on Champ that present both sides.
Although hard evidence supporting the creature doesn't exist, she said the Megamouth shark was once embroiled in a similar debate until the body of the 15-foot shark emerged in 1976. The 25-foot-long giant squid was also considered mysterious until photographs were taken by Japanese scientists in 2004, she said.
As potential support for the lake creature, Bowden also points to a 2003 study by the non-profit Fauna Communications Research Institute that conducted audio research in the lake. Using sonar equipment, researchers found evidence of echolocation, biological sonar commonly used by whales and dolphins, which do not live in the lake.
That study, combined with eyewitness accounts, she said, "make you question."
Regardless of whether Champ exists, she said, it inspires interest. "We embrace the stories," she said. "We think it's great for people to take good care of the lake. It's a great habitat."