Monster in Lake Storsjon, Sweden

Now that winter has put the lid back on Lake Storsjon in central Sweden, the locals around its shores are breathing something of a sigh of relief. For a few months the lake ice will maintain a welcome barrier between water dwellers and land dwellers; specifically, that means a temporary halt will be imposed on impromptu meetings between the people of nearby Ostersund and their monster.

Lake Storsjon is Sweden's fifth largest body of water, but like our own Loch Ness it is particularly deep and has a long tradition of a monster-in-residence. Storsjon's Nessie is called Storsjddjuret (or Storsie for short), and last year was something of a record-breaker in terms of personal appearances, with three good sightings in one week alone.

Around 15 full accounts were logged at the local museum and several muddy photographs published in the local papers, but the museum's Marie Olofson believes that this probaby represents just 20 per cent of the total number who think they saw something over the summer, but who don't dare mention it for fear of ridicule. Elizabeth Richardson from the tourist board is sceptical about Storsie's existence, but even she admits that, "I work with someone who is sure she saw it recently, and she's not the sort of person to make it up."

In the league of monsters, Storsie is hardly a world celebrity. Nessie was sighted five times last year and manages to attract at least 250,000 visitors to the area around Loch Ness, generating an estimated annual income of around £30 million through souvenir shops, boat trips, and the two official visitor centres. Storsie, meanwhile, with many tiems more personal appearances, has a small corner at the Ostersund museum where display highlights include a baby-sized "embryo" in a pickle jar, which looks like a giant yellow newt with horns, and the equipment employed in a 1901 attempt to trap the monster using a live pig as bait.

It seems the phlegmatic Swedes have preferred not to play up their monster attraction without the due science to back it up, even if it means turning down a major marketing opportunity for the lake and its surroundings. The possibility of an official Storsie visitor centre has been discussed and discarded; even if the money were to be found, the various communities around the lake would find it hard to agree where it should be sited. As a compromise they have recently erected monster observation towers at eight key points.

The Storsie tradition goes back to the 16th century when old people used to warn against planting turnips near the water's edge- apparently this was a monster that liked its root vegetables. The first really authenticated sighting was by a local member of parliament in 1863, who spotted something at least 29ft long sunbathing on the lake shore and sent his men for their shotguns. They pursued it in a rowing boat, but never got near enough to open fire.

Since then there have been 200 documented reports by 500 witnesses, generally in the warmer months of the year. Most accounts agree that the monster is snake-like and up to 40 ft long with humps and a small head with ears, or possibly fins, pressed against its neck. Its skin resembles that of a seal, and its colour is usually either grey/black or dark green.

Last year's Storsie-spotters included two boys on a school trip who thought what they saw was a submarine, and a family sitting down for coffee on their terrace who saw three moving humps. Tina and Patrik Happes were convinced of what they saw but their son, Rasmus, seemed more doubtful. "It probably was the monster, but it may also have been a fish."

Another sighting came from Karin Egebjer, who noticed a small shimmering green "island" from her bedroom window, in a place where there'd never been an island before. It was still there, unmoving, when she went to bed, but in the morning it was gone.

All of this renewed interest has attracted the attention of Swedish journalist and website impressario Jan-Ove Sundberg and his pseudo-scientific Global Underwater Survey Team (GUST). Jan-Ove believes Storsie is a sea serpent and says that the sounds he recorded on a high-powered underwater hydrophone at Lake Storsjon last summer directly relate it to both Nessie and Selma, another much-seen monster which supposedly inhabits Norway's Lake Seljordsvatnet.

Jan-Ove is well known in lake monster circles, and turned up on Loch Ness in 2000 with his specially designed monster net. It caught nothing, but it did earn him a warning from officials that interfering with the wildlife would get him arrested.

He might just find himself in a similar position when he returns to Lake Storsjon in the coming season. Storsie was officially protected by law in 1986, but Jan-Ove's view is that no animal that has never been finally proven to exist can be protected. "Anyway, this particular 'law' is only a local regulation," he says dismissively.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, Ostersund's marketing bodies are not unwilling to co-operate with the monster hunter. They know that, as far as the local economy is concerned, a bit of monster controversy and a few colourful characters (especially with film crews in tow) are not such a terrible thing.

Andrew Eames in The Times, January 12th, 2002.