Does Nessie, Scotland's fabled Loch Ness monster, have a cousin?

A handful of sightings of huge serpentlike creatures in Lake Erie were recorded in 1985 and 1987. But things remained quiet until Sept. 4.That's when Harold Bricker and his family returned from a fishing trip with a new sighting, and monster mania began spreading along lakefront communities.

The Brickers said they saw a large creature moving in the water about 1,000 feet from their boat. They described it as black, about 35 feet long and with a snakelike head. It moved as fast as their boat.

"I told my son that I wanted to get a look at it," the 67-year-old Bricker said. "My son said, `No way, that thing is bigger than we are.' So we stayed where we were."

Bricker, his wife, Cora, and son, Robert, told rangers at East Harbor State Park about what they'd seen.

The creature has since been reported by five people on three separate occasions, including a Huron firefighter and a 50-year-old woman from Pennsylvania vacationing at her Lake Erie cottage.

John Schaffner, editor of a weekly newspaper in Port Clinton, has set up a toll-free phone number forpeople to call if they see the serpent.

He also ran a contest to name it. South Bay Besse was chosen in part because of the location of the Davis Besse nuclear power plant near Port Clinton - not to mention that Besse rhymes with "Nessie."

The story of the monster in Loch Ness in north-central Scotland dates back centuries and is worth tens of millions in tourist dollars to the region each year. Three years ago, a million-dollar scientific expedition to find her turned up just vague sonar readings, but the legend remains.

Any similar effort to find a creature in Lake Erie would be even more difficult - at 240 miles, it's more than 10 times as long as Loch Ness.

Thomas Solberg, owner of Huron Lagoon Marina, has offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who captures South Bay Besse alive. He also posted a sign at his marina calling it the future home of the Lake Erie sea serpent.

But while some people are having fun with the creature, marine researchers remain skeptical.

Fred Snyder, a researcher with the Ohio Sea Grant, an organization that examines Great Lakes issues, said it is highly unlikely a monster is living in Lake Erie.

He added that he's "not trying to be the sour old guy who throws a bucket of water on things" and loves stories about the Loch Ness monster.

But he noted that Loch Ness is old, while Lake Erie is a youngster, geologically speaking.

"A lot of people kind of assume, like most places in the world, it must be millions and millions of years old," he said. "It's not the case. The glaciers receded and the area stabilized about 12,000 years ago, which, geologically, is just yesterday.

"So the monster really can't be anything left over from the dinosaur days, because it's just too young."