Tales of elusive creatures of the deep have captured imaginations for centuries. And one of those legends lives right here in Central New York. In this week's edition of Your Hometown, Tamara Lindstrom takes a look at what might just be lurking in the depths of Cayuga Lake.
CAYUGA LAKE -- The cool waters of Cayuga Lake have long invited boaters, swimmers and even divers into its shadowy depths.
"I would daresay I've spent more time underwater than any other human being in this area, in Cayuga Lake anyhow," said Jack Marshall, owner of Jack Marshall Professional Diving Service.
For more than 40 years, Marshall has trained aspiring divers, and even explored his underwater hometown history.
"People will research and find out where the old hotels were and they'd go out front and dump their garbage," Marshall said. "And people would find old bottles, neat things like that."
But beneath the surface lies much more than antique treasures.
At 38 miles long and more than 400 feet deep, the bottom of Cayuga Lake dips below sea level. And some say there's no telling what lives in the murky darkness.
"Of course the lake is very deep," Marshall said. "Not quite as deep as Loch Ness, but you know people have never been down there to see what's there. So who knows?"
"I've experienced on dead calm days, when there's not a ripple in the water anywhere. And we're sitting there with our engines off, pulling water samples and plankton samples out of the lake. Not a boat in sight," said Dennis Montgomery, cofounder of the Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom. "And all of a sudden, you look out in the lake and you see this big, soft ripply wave coming toward you, coming from the shore. Okay, so what causes that?"
A question asked by residents and so-called "cottagers" for more than two centuries.
"It goes all the way back, the first stories that I read about were from the 1800s."
An article printed on January 5th, 1897 in the Ithaca Daily Journal hails the 69th annual appearance of an elusive green sea monster.
The article claims a reputable citizen was taking a drive with a companion along the lake's shore, when he spotted what he said was "certainly the sea serpent" with a large head and long body that disappeared beneath the whitecaps.
And by this time, the creature had a name – Old Greeny.
It's the kind of story Jack Marshall would chalk up to a vivid imagination.
"I'm not a believer in that kind of stuff," Marshall said.
That is, until one day in 1979, when Marshall took some friends out on the lake in his new boat.
"And in front of the boat, I saw what appeared to be a log. I saw where it came up to the surface and part of it went down and back up again. And another fellow was driving the boat, and I told him to stop, quick, quick, stop!"
But it was too late. Expecting an impact that would wreck the motor, the boaters instead saw the water around the object churn, and the 20-foot hazard disappeared.
"Now, I've seen logs in the lake, and I've seen the appearance of what looks like a serpent the way they come up and down due to the curvature of the log and what have you," Marshall said. "But, I've never seen them disappear."
At a loss for an explanation, and unaware of the historic reports, Marshall dubbed the mystery creature.
"Cayuga Katie sounded cool. We just sort of gave her the name."
Stories of an enigmatic creature roaming the lake are not hard to come by.
Skeptics have guessed the sightings could be lake sturgeon. They can grow as long as 7 feet and weigh 300 pounds.
And although Marshall said he has seen sturgeon in Cayuga Lake, they're not quite the behemoth variety.
"One I actually held in my hand," Marshall said. "It was actually so small, I scooped it up and it swam off my hand."
So, could there be an ancient explanation?
"I would love it if there was some amazing prehistoric marine reptiles in the lake," said Rob Ross, director of outreach at the Paleontological Research Institute. "It's pretty difficult to imagine how that could happen."
Over the years, many have speculated that the creatures they see in lakes, like the Loch Ness monster, are actually descendants of plesiosaurs that somehow survived extinction.
"Sort of fuzzy pictures that look kind of like something with a long neck sticking out of the water," Ross said.
A relic of the Mesozoic era thought to have died out 66 million years ago. Perhaps a plesiosar became trapped in the lake at a time when the ocean covered this part of the country.
"However, that was around 380 million years ago," Ross said. "And the Finger Lakes have been formed over the last couple of million, gouged out most recently just about 20 thousand years ago."
So the timing doesn't line up. And while the scientist admits humans are still discovering new organisms we never knew existed.
"Missing something that's really big in a place that's relatively populated seems like a long shot," Ross said.
But that won't keep those who call the lake home, from keeping a weather eye on the horizon.
"Sometimes, when you're diving in Cayuga Lake, you'll see shadows," Marshall said. "Our visibility isn't all that great and we'll see a sort of shadow in the foreground and we'll wonder what that darkness is. And that makes you wonder."
While the cryptic resident of Cayuga Lake may remain a mystery, Dr. Ross said there are plenty of spectacular creatures that can be seen right next to the lake -- at the Museum of the Earth.