Reality Bites: MonsterQuest

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

Admittedly, the concept of MonsterQuest initially struck me as woefully similar to that of...certain other reality shows, in that I was sure we'd be following around a bunch of yahoos using dubious technology and eyewitness accounts to further their beliefs that "something is out there."

So it was something of a relief to see that the makers of MonsterQuest do a surprisingly good job attempting to present both sides of the cryptozoological debate.

Such as it is.

Purely by coincidence, my first episode of MQ happened to be *the* first episode, entitled "America's Loch Ness Monster." At once I'm both excited and discouraged, for while I have been a Nessie aficionado since an early age, I also have bitter memories of taking a bus around that infernal body of water and staring unblinking at the surface for an hour and never seeing one goddamned plesiosaur.

Our version of Nessie (one of them, anyway) resides in Lake Champlain, situated between Vermont and New York. Hundreds swear to have caught a glimpse of "Champ." The first, or so we're told, was none other than explorer Samuel de Champlain, who, "according to one version of history," recorded seeing "a 20 foot serpent as thick as a barrel with a head like a horse."

Except that actually didn't happen. That account ends up being attributed to a newspaper story from 1970, while de Champlain's actual account describes something that sounds suspiciously like a lake sturgeon. Even in the 17th century, it appears the French were lousy at threat assessment.

A series of rapid eyewitness recollections follow. The consensus being Champ is between six and 25 feet long (that narrows it down), slender, with four sets of flippers and a snake-like head. Either everyone's seeing the same creature, or they've all been reading that same old dinosaur book I had as a kid.

Now comes the science: a mere 11,000 years ago, what's now Lake Champlain was connected to the Atlantic as part of the former Champlain Sea, as proven by the 1849 discovery of the "Charlot Whale" nearby. Biologists agree that some species could adapt from sea to fresh water, but researchers like Scott Mardis don't believe Champ is descended from a whale. They think he's some sort of dinosaur offshoot, which most biologists think unlikely, to put it mildly.

We hear about multiple 19th century sightings, which are naturally unverifiable, and P.T. Barnum even offered $50,000 for a carcass back when $50,000 could really buy something. But it isn't until we get into recent years that we start hearing from living eyewitnesses, none of whom seem particularly unreliable (B.J. Bombard captains a ferry across the lake, for example). Of course, the only one who snapped a photo only managed one ambiguous shot, and this after the alleged beast was reportedly in sight for "five or six minutes."

Much activity surrounds the MonsterQuest videographers as they team up with Mardis to set up camera and video traps to try and snag a photo of Champ. Apparently these yield nothing, or I'm sure they would've, you know, shown the footage on the actual show.

It's funny, I caught the tail end of a previous episode of MonsterQuest and half these guys have the same middle-aged Wolfman Jack hairstyle going on. Something about hunting strange species must cause one to go prematurely gray. Which is better evidence that they've actually peered into The Unknown than any photographic evidence they can provide.

I credit the History Channel for attempting to present a point/counterpoint-style approach to the show. In this case, eyewitnesses and "researchers" (whose qualifications are never detailed) are offset by marine biologists and sonar technicians who point out that no physical evidence has ever been found to support the idea of a plesiosaur living in the lake.

Frankly, these shows are kind of a bummer. Like a lot of kids, I relished the idea that things like Bigfoot and Nessie really existed, but after what, four seasons? You'd think if there were any actual monsters to scare up, we'd have heard about it by now.

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