Read This Before You Swim in Lake Tahoe

That might be Tessie at your toes.

lake tahoe tessie
Chris P. Grinder

A Lake Tahoe tour company offers a two-hour boat ride (for $69.75) called the M.S. Dixie II Emerald Bay Sightseeing Cruise that promises to share the “fascinating history” of Lake Tahoe. It even throws in a video presentation about “sunken treasures” that are hidden beneath the water’s surface. At no point on this overpriced, boring tour is there mention of the massive prehistoric creature said by some to lurk the depths of the lake.

For $69.75, that floating video presentation should have included footage of Tahoe Tessie.

California’s lakes and beaches are likely to be packed this Memorial Day weekend, especially considering that the pandemic kept us home and mostly alone last year. As we pile coolers and beach balls into trunks and tote bags, those of us headed to stunning Sierra might want a refresher course in one of California’s lesser-known legends.

Tales of Lake Tahoe’s mythical (or at least unidentified) underwater inhabitants span centuries. Indigenous folklore from the region includes descriptions of water babies, dangerous and powerful creatures whose cry can serve as an omen of death. Following the gold rush, when white settlers pushed their way west and grabbed land around Lake Tahoe, murmurs of curious scaly monster sightings began to pop up in local lore—and in the news.

In 1897, San Franciscan I.C. Coggin wrote a riveting first-person account of an encounter with what he reported to be a 600-foot monster serpent in the woods near Lake Tahoe some 30 years earlier. In the 1950s, two off-duty police officers cruising the lake reported a large creature swimming under their boat at a whopping 60 miles per hour. Sightings continued in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, including by a water-skier who swore he saw a 10-foot-long creature swimming beneath him and the owner of a local television station who spotted something with brown humps plodding through Zephyr Cove.

Resident Bob McCormick took advantage of the popular legend and nicknamed the creature Tahoe Tessie, a nod to the famed Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie, of Scotland. McCormick’s 1985 children’s book, The Story of Tahoe Tessie: The Original Lake Tahoe Monster, continues to sell at local gift shops. People dress in cartoonish Tessie costumes for parades, races, and events, and tourists buy Tessie toys. Tahoe Tessie has become a small industry unto herself.

At a maximum depth of 1,644 feet, Lake Tahoe is the second-deepest lake in the country (Crater Lake, full of its own mysteries, is the deepest), so it is possible that there is much we don’t know about what lurks beneath. But in the mid-1980s, a researcher at UC Davis proposed one possible explanation for the legend of Tessie: she’s a really big sturgeon.

The prehistoric bottom-feeder can grow as large as 12 feet long, weigh up to 1,500 pounds, and have a back covered in scales. This logical explanation is about as satisfying as that Dixie cruise.

There are some who still insist that Tahoe Tessie isn’t a sturgeon or a fun local legend but rather a dangerous unidentified underwater creature. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau undertook a number of Lake Tahoe mini-submarine dives in the mid-1970s and when asked what he found, Cousteau reportedly said, “The world isn’t ready for what is down there.”

Do you have a photo of the real Tahoe Tessie that you’ve kept secret for decades? If so, please email it to us at letters@altaonline.com.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday. To sign up, click here.

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