Few know what lurks the depths of the murky, brackish, crustacean-filled Lake Merritt. Few know what beastly beast, what cryptid, what leviathan, what man-eating monster could be swimming below, slithering through those fetid waters. Few know… but many have seen.
“It’s black, it’s big, it has spikes on its head and its tongue sticks out,” says Dr. Richard Bailey, local expert on the rumored Lake Merritt monster and executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute, a non-profit dedicated to cleaning the lake. “It’s got typical round monster humps.”
According to Dr. Bailey, who has a masters degree in zoology and a doctorate in natural resources, sightings of this Lake Merritt monster, which he fondly refers to as the “Oak-ness monster,” have become more frequent in the past five years. Dr. Bailey believes the creature prefers clean lakes, so perhaps it is no coincidence that he says these appearances come with massive lake clean-ups that make it easier for lake-goers to spot monster-like objects in the water. “There were reports of him years ago,” he says. “The water quality got bad for awhile, and then it got better.”
Various recent reports from people who insist they have seen the beast say that sightings begin with a slow roiling bubble on the surface of the lake. Then what appears to be a dragon’s head attached to an eel-like body with undulating humps emerges. It may stay aloft for several seconds and then will bubble back down, vanishing into the inky water.
Rumors have it that the best spot to catch a glimpse of this half-sea monster, half-fresh-water-dwelling megafauna is from the docks of the Lake Chalet restaurant, which sits on the southwest shore of the lake. Lake Chalet bartender Laurance Alvarado claims to have seen the beast a handful of times. “I remember the first time I saw it,” he said as he prepared drinks at the dockside bar last week. “It went in and out of the water, then disappeared. It was literally right there, I could’ve thrown a stone at it.”
Alvarado described the monster as about 8 feet long and said that it doesn’t surface often; it’s something you’d be lucky to see. And although some may doubt that such a mysterious creature actually exists, Alvarado just says, “It wouldn’t surprise me at this lake, some mutant thing.”
Cryptozoology is a touchy field of study, and scientists like Dr. Bailey have their work cut out for them in attempting to not only prove to a skeptical public that the monster actually exists, but in explaining how it got into the lake. Dr. Bailey says he’s consulted with experts, including someone he claims is a retired UC Berkeley geologist named Dr. Kenneth Spelunker who believes the monster could be an abominable reptile that crawled through an open fissure at the bottom of the lake.
“He thinks that climate change may have opened a crevice under the lake,” says Dr. Bailey, “and this thing may have swum in after that.” (For the record, there is no account of Dr. Spelunker outside of the Lake Merritt Institute’s own newsletters, which only adds to his mystery.)
Although sightings at Lake Merritt have only recurred recently, Dr. Bailey believes this monster is as old as time. “These things go back to antiquity era,” he says. Quoting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, he says the monster has probably been around since “joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy.”*
Recorded Lake Merritt monster sightings date back to the 1940’s. According to Jack Burroughs, a former reporter for the Oakland Tribune, the monster once inhabited the lake and then left (although, if Dr. Bailey is correct, he seems to have returned again). On June 21, 1946, Burroughs wrote in his weekly column:
The legend, which some go so far as to disbelieve, dates back to that far-off time when turgid streams snaked their way down from the hills to form the San Antonio creek. On a day of untoward lightnings and unseemly thunderings a vast, slimy, amphibious creature slithered along one of these water courses into San Antonio creek, waded along the creek till he came to the estuary, swam out the estuary into the Bay and thence out to sea. But before he left he hollowed out with a fillip of his tail, the basin that later became Lake Merritt. He must have been wired for sounds, for before he left he roared, in a voice that echoed from Mt. Diablo to the Farralons, a prophecy that has since been freely translated from the old Crow Indian dialect as follows: “Lake Merritt… home!”
This archival article was recently dug up from Oakland’s Main Library by Oakland resident and artist Justin Kanalakis, who has quickly become a monster buff and started making and selling t-shirts with the creature’s likeness. “He’s kind of a slithery dragon amphibian,” says Kanalakis describing the monster. “He’s wingless—he’s a water bearing creature.”
Cryptozoologists know that lake monster apparitions have been sighted all over the world. Of course, there’s the famous Scottish Loch Ness monster, and the Champs monster that supposedly lives in Lake Champlain in New England. Less famous sea beasts reportedly inhabit Oregon, Brazil and China. Dr. Bailey believes some of these monsters may be related and notes that the humps on the Loch Ness monster are strikingly similar to those on the Oak-ness monster.
Even though there are thought to be monster fish, sea serpents and waterborne hump-backed dragons in several countries, Dr. Bailey nevertheless says that such creatures are endangered species. Recently, he asked the Oakland City Council to write a proclamation to honor and protect the Lake Merritt beast. There’s been no response from the council yet, but Dr. Bailey remains hopeful. “It would be nice if the city council would recognize it,” Dr. Bailey says. “We’re lucky to have this rare creature.”
Dr. Bailey adds that despite the monster’s frightening appearance and prodigious size, he believes that it’s actually quite harmless. “We think it’s docile, it’s never really attacked anybody,” he says. “But we warn people not to get too close—just to be safe.”
*The interview with Dr. Bailey happened to be on June 16, Bloomsday, which is why he quoted James Joyce.