Covering 150km3 Lake Tahoe is certainly big enough to accommodate a few sharks. At 1,645 feet, it’s also deep enough to harbor a few far-fetched theories and unfathomable mysteries.
The famous diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau is rumored to have ventured down into the depth of Lake Tahoe back in the 1970s. However, when he resurfaced, he refused to speak of his experiences, saying, “The world is not ready for what I have seen.”
Whether he ever entered Lake Tahoe’s eerie waters remains another mystery. Either way, the story sparked a lot of interest in what might be found under the surface of this 2-million-year-old lake.
Lake Tahoe keeps many of its secrets submerged, leaving many potential visitors wondering if there could actually be dead bodies or even sharks lurking in its chilly waters.
Are There Sharks in Lake Tahoe?
Sharks are predominantly marine creatures that spend their lives in seawater. Only a few sharks can cope with life in a freshwater environment.
True freshwater sharks are only found in Australia and Asia, so the only sharks that would even give Lake Tahoe a second thought would be the notorious bull shark.
Would a Bull Shark Live in Lake Tahoe?
Bull sharks are euryhaline, which means they can adapt to different salinity levels. The bull shark’s body undergoes several adaptations when it shifts from salt to fresh water. A gland made up of salt-secreting tissue helps to remove excess salinity from the body while the gills absorb sodium and chloride to help regulate the shark’s internal organs.
Bull sharks in freshwater also urinate more frequently than those in salt water.
Based on the bull shark’s ability to survive in places like Lake Nicaragua in Central America, it seems possible that this tenacious shark species could adapt to life in Lake Tahoe. There’s just one problem.
Bull sharks prefer warm waters of around 68℉. Unfortunately, Lake Tahoe only reaches such balmy temperatures in the summer. For the rest of the year, the water in the lake rarely exceeds 50℉, making it unsuitable for the bull shark.
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Very few sharks could adapt to the winter temperatures which often drop below 40℉. But, on the other hand, those temperatures would be a little too warm for cold water shark species like the Greenland Shark.
Has There Ever Been a Shark Attack at Lake Tahoe?
Science rarely gets in the way of a good story and rumors of sharks in Lake Tahoe crop again every couple of years. Recently, the rumors shifted away from Lake Tahoe to the nearby Scotts Flat Reservoir, some 70 miles west of Lake Tahoe.
In February, a fake story emerged describing how a young paddleboarder narrowly escaped with his life after being attacked by a shark.
There appears to be no more truth to this story than there was to the first reported shark attack on Scotts Flat Reservoir back in 1863, but that seems to do little to put people’s minds at rest.
Officially, there has never been an official sighting of a shark, or any shark attacks recorded at Lake Tahoe. But, unofficially, there are all kinds of weird and wonderful monsters lurking in its depths, any one of which could be a shark.
Footage captured in 2016 revealed a “remarkably shark-like” creature swimming 1,100 feet below the surface. Researchers reviewing the footage noted that “the fish swam with a shark-like motion and some of the visible fins and mouth shape resembled a bull shark.”
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They soon dismissed that theory because a bull shark “would not be able to survive in Tahoe’s cold waters.” Instead, they believe it was probably a large trout whose appearance was distorted by the angle of the camera, poor lighting, and water.
There really aren’t any sharks in Lake Tahoe, but there might be a few other creatures you’d want to be on the lookout for.
Are There Alligators or Crocodiles in Lake Tahoe?
A huge body of freshwater sounds like the ideal habitat for alligators. Unlike the crocodile which prefers salt water, alligators are usually found in slow-moving rivers, swamps, and lakes.
However, there has never been one seen at Lake Tahoe, despite a number of alligator species in the surrounding areas.
Alligators are most commonly found in slow-moving waters in the southeastern part of the United States, but they sometimes do stray.
Just a few days before writing this, an alligator pitched up in the desert in west Texas. How it got there is anyone’s guess as these prehistoric creatures rarely travel more than around 3km per day.
Crocodiles live predominantly in salt water environments but do sometimes venture further inland, entering freshwater systems in southeastern Florida.
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However, the chance of a crocodile making its home in Lake Tahoe is extremely slim.
Are There Other Dangerous Animals in Lake Tahoe?
There are more dangerous animals around the lake’s edges than in its unfathomable depths.
As Laurel-Rose Von Hoffmann-Curzi found out late last year, bears and snakes are among the most dangerous creatures living near Lake Tahoe.
Hoffman-Curzi was staying at a cabin near the lake when the incident happened last November. Crashing noises awoke her and, when she went to investigate, she found a bear rummaging through the freezer.
Hoffman-Curzi lost sight of the bear almost as soon as she laid eyes on it but the pain in her face and upper body told her exactly where the bear was. After Hoffman-Curzi and her family managed to get the bear out of the house, it was time to deal with the aftermath.
With injuries “throughout her upper body and her back,” Hoffman-Curzi was lucky to be alive. According to her, he could have broken her neck when the bear attacked. Furthermore, “My carotid should have been ruptured,” she said.
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Bear attacks are surprisingly infrequent given the number of black bears living in and around the lake. One black bear, in particular, has been making a nuisance of himself over recent months.
Hank the Tank, a 500 lb black bear, may not be a killer, but he’s got a huge appetite that sees him ransacking homes in search of his favorite food – leftover pizza. Unlike the bear, Hoffman-Curzi encountered, however, Hank the Tank is far more interested in food than people.
According to one local resident, once he’s broken in, Hank the Tank “just sits there and eats. He doesn’t attack them. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t make rude faces.”
Hank the Tank has lost all fear of humans, which Peter Tira, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman, says creates “a potentially dangerous situation.”
In addition to bears, rattlesnakes are gaining new ground and becoming increasingly active in the Tahoe Basin area.
Rattlesnakes are more active during the summer months, which is exactly when visitors flock to Lake Tahoe in search of hiking and kayaking adventures.
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They won’t enter the water so don’t pose a threat to swimmers, but can be dangerous to those exploring the surrounding area.
Perhaps more worryingly, the warmer temperatures attracting the rattlesnakes are also drawing more ticks and rodents to the area. These threats are much harder to avoid than bears or rattlesnakes but can be equally deadly.
Are There Dangerous Fish in Lake Tahoe?
Ever since watching the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, I’ve had an irrational fear of piranhas. This is all I can think about if anyone mentions dangerous fish. Fortunately, piranhas prefer tropical waterways in South America, so are unlikely to drift into the chilly environment offered by Lake Tahoe.
In a lake as deep as Tahoe, there will inevitably be a few strange and potentially dangerous creatures. Unfortunately, for environmentalists and scientists, some of the most deadly are invasive species that don’t actually belong in the lake.
In 2013, a goldfish measuring 1.5 feet in length and weighing 4.2 lb was captured in Lake Tahoe. The scientists that found the fish said it was one of a school of around 15, which suggested the goldfish were “schooling and spawning” in the area.
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While unlikely to harm a human, these giant goldfish can have a devastating effect on other residents of Lake Tahoe. Believed to have been dumped by aquarium owners, the invasion of the goldfish is, scientists say, “resulting in the consumption of native species.” Not only that but Lake Tahoe’s clean, clear waters are also under threat.
Sudeep Chandra of the University of Nevada, Reno says the “invasive fish excrete nutrients that cause algal blooms, which threaten to muddy Tahoe’s clear waters.”
Another invasive species that has the potential to impact Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem is the alligator gar.
Gars are not indigenous to California but have been found in the region on occasion. These ferocious predators are at the top of the food chain in their native habitats and, should they stray into new habitats, will quickly establish their dominance there as well.
There are seven species of alligator gar, all of which “prefer warm, shallow, well-vegetated freshwater habitats in slow-moving rivers and lakes.”
While the cold waters of Lake Tahoe might keep them at bay, should they move in, they could have a devastating effect on native fish populations, including salmon and trout. Furthermore, the eggs of the alligator gar are also “poisonous to humans, birds, and other mammals,” even though the fish itself is edible.
The most dangerous fish you’re likely to encounter in this freshwater lake is the largemouth bass. As its name suggests, this species of black bass has a mouth large enough to devour prey up to half its’ size.
Fortunately, largemouth bass only grow to around 16 inches so pose little threat to humans. It’s nevertheless an aggressive predator that, because of its “willingness to strike a lure or bait with explosive force” is popular amongst anglers.
Is There a Monster in Lake Tahoe?
Nearly every large lake in North America has a mythical monster haunting its depths and Lake Tahoe is no exception.
For thousands of years, people have told stories of a huge serpent living in an underwater cave in Lake Tahoe.
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In 1897, the newspaper The San Fransisco Call published an account by a Mr. I.C. Coggin who reported seeing a “monster” making its way towards the lake. According to Coggin, the creature was “about 600 feet” long with a “monstrous head” that measured “about fourteen feet wide.”
Covered in “hard and tough” skin, the serpent was so huge that it crushed small trees in its path, and tossed “bowlders of 500 or 600 pounds weight” out of its way.
As unbelievable as it may sound, Coggin wasn’t the only person claiming to have laid eyes on the creature. At the end of his account, Coggin lists the names of eight other people he claims had seen the serpent, and the accounts don’t end there.
In the 1950s, two off-duty police officers reported seeing a “large, black hump” rise out of the water. Although the witnesses couldn’t identify the creature, they said it swam alongside them, keeping up with their boat which was traveling at around 97kph.
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An even more recent sighting of Tahoe Tessie occurred in the winter of 1979. An anonymous witness reported watching “a larger serpent-like creature feeding/hunting in a school of large trout.”
According to them, the creature was between 30 to 60 feet in length and, instead of swimming from side to side like a snake, it “was diving up and splashing down with its head/neck.”
Sightings of Lake Tahoe’s monster may be infrequent but there is little sign of them vanishing altogether. Since the 1970s report, sightings have been reported in the late 1990s, and in both 2004 and 2006. According to some, experts are currently analyzing footage of the beast before releasing it to the public.
Is Lake Tahoe Dangerous?
Who wouldn’t want to swim in one of the purest, cleanest lakes in the world? The water in Lake Tahoe is 99.994% pure, making it one of the “purest large lakes in the world.”
On a sparkling summer’s day, there’s nothing more tempting than swimming in such clean waters or taking part in some summertime water sports for the more adventurous among you.
Now we’ve established that there are no sharks in Lake Tahoe, and only one mythical sea serpent, most of us would feel confident about entering the water. However, there are still some invisible dangers you need to look out for.
Every year, rescue personnel are pushed to their limits, struggling to answer endless distress calls and perform heart-rending searches for missing persons.
By the end of the summer in 2020, “15 lives had been lost on Lake Tahoe.” None of these had been eaten by sharks or attacked Tessie. Most had drowned.
Lake Tahoe’s crystal-clear waters run deep and cold. In fact, they are so cold that many underestimate their potential danger.
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Deputy Ron Skibinski of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office says, “Cold-water shock, cold-water emersion, hypothermia, those dangers have always been here at Lake Tahoe, but it’s something that is now being brought to the forefront of our outreach,”
The inviting waters of Lake Tahoe can be deceptive, says Skibinski, even for those who have no intention of swimming.
Being such a large body of water, Lake Tahoe is prone to “strong, shifting wind patterns” that can whip up “ocean-like swells in a matter of minutes.” These can endanger boaters, swimmers, and water sports enthusiasts.
The water in Lake Tahoe is chilled by melting snow, and, if you’re not mentally prepared for it, can literally take your breath away. When that happens, “the body’s natural response is often an uncontrollable gasp for air, followed by intense hyperventilation.”
Suddenly, a quick dip in the lake becomes a potentially life-threatening situation. Worse still, “once someone drowns in Lake Tahoe, it’s unlikely their body will ever resurface on its own.”
Skibinski warns, “This lake can kill you. It doesn’t care. It will eat you up.”
How Many Bodies are at the Bottom of Lake Tahoe?
Anyone who becomes a victim of Lake Tahoe is likely never to be seen again. This is because the water at the bottom of the lake is so cold that it slows down the process of decomposition.
As a result, the gases that would normally cause a body to float are unable to form, causing the body to remain at the bottom of the lake.
Over the years, it’s believed that some have taken advantage of this fact and used it as a watery dumping ground for their victims.
Rumour has it that the lake is full of human bodies and that this is what Jacques Cousteau witnessed on his mythical dive.
Among those bodies are, theoretically, hundreds of Chinese immigrants that were brought in to work on the railroads near Truckee River. Once the work was done, rather than paying them and honoring their promise of US citizenship, the bosses “took the immigrants out to the middle of the lake and tied them together in big groups and weighed them down and dumped them in.”
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The Mafia is also reported to have used Lake Tahoe to dispose of unwanted bodies. For example, in the 1974 movie, The Godfather 2, a character is killed on the lake and dumped overboard. This is perhaps why the rumor persists.
There appears to be little evidence to back up these stories. Many Chinese workers were still on the Central Pacific Railroad payroll well after the railroad was completed, suggesting they survived the experience.
Furthermore, in 2016, divers from the Undersea Voyager Project spent a month trawling the depths of the deepest lake in America. They found little more than a few “sunken boats, ancient trees, and a form of algae they’d never seen before.”
There are no giant serpents or sharks in Lake Tahoe. It doesn’t even have any particularly dangerous fish or alligators, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe to swim in.
Every year, people leap into the lake’s crystal clear waters without considering how the chilly temperatures will affect their bodies.
Cold-water shock, cold-water emersion, and hypothermia are the biggest dangers lurking in the lake, and ones that should be taken just as seriously as any would-be sharks.
Lake Tahoe is as safe as it is pure, as long as you’re a strong swimmer who’s prepared for the cold.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.