Borneo’s Lake Monster Photos: Legend Come to Life? Or Hoax?

February 19, 2009

Two recently released photographs of a huge snake-like creature allegedly taken in Borneo is causing locals to wonder if a local legend may have come alive. One photo, of a serpentine shape in the Baleh river, was taken from a helicopter by a member of a disaster team monitoring flood conditions. The   Daily Mail (UK) published a story that began:

According to legend, the Nabau was a terrifying snake more than 100ft in length and with a dragon’s head and seven nostrils. But now local villagers living along the Baleh river in Borneo believe the mythical creature has returned after a photo of a gigantic snake swimming along the remote waterways has emerged. The picture,  taken by a member of a disaster team monitoring flood regions by helicopter, has sparked a huge debate about whether the photos are genuine or merely the work of photo-editing software. Even the respected New Straits Times newspaper in Kuala Lumpur has asked readers to make up their own minds about the photos. Villagers who claim to have seen the snake say they have given it the name of Nabau, after an ancient sea serpent which can transform itself into the shapes of different animals. People who have studied the photograph of the shape taken from the air have dismissed suggestions that it’s a log.

As a longtime lake monster expert (and co-author, with Joe Nickell, of Lake Monster Mysteries), I was asked by to review the photos. The first thing I noted was the immediate link made to local folklore. Linking modern photographs and eyewitness reports to native stories and legends is a common mistake among cryptozoologists—those who look for evidence of mysterious or unknown creatures such as Bigfoot or lake monsters. But legends and myths may not have any connection to real events. Just because a native culture has a name for a strange monster or creature doesn’t mean that the beast ever actually existed. Fairies, dragons, and leprechauns populate our modern storybooks and legends, but we don’t assume they are real.

One of the first red flags to go up when considering any extraordinary photograph offered as evidence (of UFOs, Bigfoot, or lake monsters, for example) is an image submitted anonymously. The photographs were taken by an unnamed "member of a disaster team," at an unknown location and date. Two photos were released; one was taken from a helicopter, the second one wasn’t, suggesting that the creature was sighted on two separate occasions. That raises the question as to why there are only two photos; one might expect that a person seeing such an extraordinary creature might snap more than one picture each time.

 Readers can find my full analysis at