The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology

From shipwrecks to beach-side ghost towns, the real world can be just as eerie as science fiction

A detailed closer look at the lake's red water from a NASA satellite image
A closer view of Lake Natron's blood-red waters in an image captured by NASA satellites. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens

From a boiling river in the Peruvian Amazon to the blood-red Lake Natron in Tanzania, bodies of water on Earth—and beyond—can be odd, disgusting, mysterious, frightening, deadly and even a little spooky. TikTok creator Geo Rutherford (@geodesaurus) has been highlighting haunted hydrology—everything from dangerously acidic waters to alien-like extremophile life forms—each day of October in her 31-day “Spooky Lakes” series. 

The daughter of a geologist, Rutherford is a Wisconsin-based artist and professor whose large-scale mixed media projects focus on the Great Lakes, often exploring pollution, erosion and climate change through natural and synthetic materials she’s found on the shores of Lake Michigan. She began sharing her artwork—reimagined artist “books” featuring sea glass, plastics and fish bones, for example—on TikTok in spring 2020, and as she gained more followers, curious commenters wanted more information about the science and history she explored in her art. 

“Because of my passion for the Great Lakes,” Rutherford says, “I began to explore other lakes and I kind of became a hobby limnologist.” A limnologist is a scientist who studies the biological, chemical and physical features of inland aquatic systems, including lakes, rivers, springs and wetlands. “Being a hobbyist means that I still have that spark of excitement when I learn new things,” she adds. “I spend a lot of time teaching myself so that I can teach others. I think that the best teachers are students themselves.” 

The first “spooky lake” featured on her account in the buildup to Halloween last year was Kazakhstan's neon blue-green Kaindy Lake, which contains 110-year-old trees that appear dead above the surface, but resist decomposition even though they are partially submerged underwater. The video has more than 700,000 likes, and Rutherford now has a million followers on her page. In her Spooky Lake series alone, she’s featured at least 60 lakes, with many more informational videos throughout the year. (She hopes to pivot to icy lakes this winter.) 

Just in time for Halloween, here are six more lakes and other kinds of haunted hydrology featured in Rutherford’s series:

Tanzania’s Lake Natron 

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Blooms of salt-loving bacteria, micro-organisms and algae tint the waters hues of red, orange and pink at different depths. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens

Water is essential for life on Earth, but the salty, alkaline waters of Lake Natron in Tanzania can be deadly. The lake first stands out for its blood-red waters, colored by salt-loving bacteria, according to NASA. Lake Natron gets its name from the naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonates called natron. Many cultures, including ancient Egyptians, used natron in embalming practices, which is pretty much what happens to critters that meet their end in the lake.

“Lake Natron has a reputation for mummifying creatures that fall in and die,” Rutherford says in a TikTok video

Likewise, the lake’s shores have at times been riddled with carcasses of dead animals, often migrating birds that make the fatal mistake of landing in the water. The lake water can reach temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and its high salt content is highly irritating to skin and eyes. Cyanobacteria, which gives the lake its bright red and orange hue, can also be toxic when ingested at high levels.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
A fish eagle posed on a branch at Lake Natron. Nick Brandt ©2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, NY

Photographer Nick Brandt, who visited the lake in 2011, told Smithsonian magazine two years later that he saw “entire flocks of dead birds all washed ashore together.” Brandt collected washed-up carcasses and posed them as if they were living, creating eerie images of statuesque birds, their feathers hardened with salt, paused in time. 

Surprisingly, Lake Natron is actually teeming with life. Salt marshes are critical habitat for all kinds of extremophile creatures adapted to live in or near their waters, like alkaline tilapia and flamingos. In fact, 75 percent of the lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) population have used the lake for breeding. 

Rutherford’s TikTok Rating: 7/10 Spookies

Lake Superior's Kamloops Shipwreck

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
The Kamloops at port circa 1920s.  Isle Royale National Park Archives

Referring to Lake Superior, it was folk singer Gordon Lightfoot who famously penned the lyric, “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,” which is an assertion that certainly seems to hold some water. 

“First, we have to appreciate how terrifying Lake Superior is,” says Rutherford in a TikTok. The frigid lake is too cold for certain bacteria to grow—the same bacteria that make a body’s internal organs bloat during decomposition and float to the surface. In cold water, bodies are slow to decay and may sink, especially in deep lakes.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Illustration of sunken Kamloops National Park Service

In early December 1927, the Kamloops, a steel freight ship, was lost in a furious blizzard made worse by subzero temperatures and strong winds, according to the National Park Service. A weeklong search would soon become fruitless, and the ship’s 22 crew members were presumed dead. Remains from victims of the wreck were not found until May 26, 1928, when a fisherman discovered several bodies donning life-vests with KAMLOOPS stenciled on them on Isle Royale. In total, nine bodies were found and five were identified by name. Minneapolis sport diver Ken Engelbrecht discovered the ship while surveying near Isle Royale’s Twelve O’Clock Point in 1977.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
A box of Livesavers that sunk with the ship. R.J. Polomski via MLive

Lake Superior’s Kamloops shipwreck is well-known in part because some divers say the body of one of the ship’s crew members allegedly still floats in the wreck’s engine room. The corpse is known as Old Whitey because a process called adipocere likely turned the body’s flesh into a bright, pure white waxy substance after nearly 100 years underwater. Official confirmation of these accounts is difficult to trace, but the claim was reported by Mike Steere of the Baltimore Sun in 1996. Reports of a body still aboard the ship are not included in official National Parks Service documentation of the wreck or searches of the wreck in 1977 and 1986. Some claim the body can be seen at the two minute mark of diving footage posted on YouTube in 2014, and a diver discusses seeing “Old Whitey” in the comment section of a 2019 dive.

“Due to the cold and lack of bacteria, the ship and its cargo are in excellent condition,” Rutherford says in a TikTok. Ironically, tubes of the candy “Lifesavers” sunk with the ship and can be seen in images from dives in shipping crates. 

Rutherford’s TikTok Ranking: 10/10 Spookies

Shanay-Timpishka, Peru's Boiling River

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
A section of the boiling river. ANIMAL TUBE, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For most of Andrés Ruzo’s life, a boiling river in the Amazon was just an intriguing detail of an Inca legend his grandfather told him—but he would go on to become the first scientist to study the source of the river’s heat. 

When Ruzo first began investigating the river’s existence, other experts were quick to point out such a geothermal phenomenon would only exist in the presence of volcanic activity—and there are no volcanoes in the Amazon or most of Peru. But the geophysicist later recalled the story at a family dinner, only to learn his aunt had swam in the river and her friend’s husband is the shaman who protects it. Local people use the river daily and it’s still considered a sacred and healing place to this today.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Geophysicist Andrés Ruzo stands near Yacumama, a sacred site on the river named after the "Mother of Rivers," where hot spring–fed water mixes with a cold section of stream. Soña Ruzo via YouTube

Ruzo was stunned, he explains in a 2014 TED Talk. But sure enough, his aunt later brought him to the river, and he’s been one of the only scientists studying the little-understood source of this hydrothermal heat ever since. (Indigneous legend says the serpent spirit, Yacumama or “Mother of the Waters,” births the hot and cold waters that regulate the river’s temperature, Ruzo told National Geographic’s Simon Worrall in 2016.)

Shanay-Timpishka is a four-mile-long tributary of the Amazon River. It averages a temperature of about 186 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t quite boiling, but it’s certainly too hot for most life forms to survive. “If you were to put your hand in, you would get second and third degree burns,” says Rutherford in a TikTok.

Ruzo describes seeing animals drown in the river and slowly cook from the inside out as they gulp hot water while gasping for air. But some creatures do live in the scalding currents. The water is remarkably clean—pure enough to brew tea in. Ruzos and his team have found lichens, cyanobacteria and other microorganisms thrive in this ecosystem. Because these microbes can survive in extreme heat, researchers hope studying proteins in these extremophile microbes will lead to medical breakthroughs, reports Brianna Barbu for the National Association of Science Writers. “Whenever we have new chemistry, we have a really high potential of finding new cures,” says Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a University of Michigan chemical biologist studying the microbes.

Rutherford’s TikTok Rating: 7/10 Spookies

‘Explosive’ Lake Kivu, bordering Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
A view of the Mount Nyiragongo erupting in May 2021 taken from Tchegera Island in Lake Kivu. Photo by ALEX MILES/AFP via Getty Images

Very few lakes on Earth are known to be capable of exploding in what’s called a limnic eruption. Limnic eruptions occur when dissolved gases—trapped under the pressure of water above—suddenly burst, releasing giant plumes of fast-moving toxic fumes into the air. Most living things within the radius of the blast will die of asphyxiation. A limnic eruption at Cameroon’s Lake Monoun killed 37 people in 1984. Two years later, nearly 1,800 people and 3,000 livestock died after an explosion at Lake Nyos, also in Cameroon. 

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
An aerial view of a flock of dead sheep following a limnic eruption at Lake Nyos in Cameroon. Image captured in 1986. Photo by Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

But Lake Kivu, located near Bukavu and Goma in the DRC and Gisenyi in Rwanda, is more troublesome—especially because millions of people live nearby. Though Kivu hasn’t exploded in recent memory, evidence of explosions are present in the fossil record between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago, per John Wenz for Knowable.

With a surface area of 1,000 square miles, Kivu—one of Africa’s seven Great Lakes—is much larger than Nyos and Monoun. Trapped beneath Kivu’s 1,500-foot depths are massive amounts of dissolved toxic gases, including methane and carbon dioxide (CO2). The lake holds 2.6 gigatonnes of CO2, which is about 5 percent of global annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Nature magazine. 

Limnic eruptions usually occur in close proximity to volcanic activity, which feeds CO2 into the waters. Lake Kivu, located in a rift valley, neighbors two volcanoes: Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. Mount Nyiragongo erupted in May 2021, killing dozens of people and displacing nearly a half a million more. Thankfully, the blast did not trigger Lake Kivu, but the recent eruption has some scientists fearful of its lethal potential. “This lake is a ticking time bomb,” says Rutherford in a TikTok video.

Not everyone sees the lake in a purely bad light, however. Currently, Rwandans use Lake Kivu as a source of electricity by extracting methane from the depths. 

Rutherford’s TikTok Rating: 10/10 Spookies

California's Salton Sea

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Salt covers the shore at the Salton Sea.  Joe Abbruscato via University of Southern California

On the southern end of the idyllic Coachella Valley, where celebrities and influencers attend a luxurious annual music festival, rests the Salton Sea: a salty, toxic lake that emits clouds of noxious dust into the air. Its shores feature piles of rotten, dead fish that release an eye-watering stench. “What’s left behind are ghost towns and a salty landscape covered in bones and death,” says Rutherford in a TikTok

In its current form, the Salton Sea—the largest lake in California—exists, in part, due to human error.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
An abandoned motel at the Salton Sea. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Salton Basin has been around for some 10,000 years, and the Colorado River has refilled the area many times. A body of water first appeared in 700 A.D. called Lake Cahuilla, which was used by Indigenous people until the lake drained 300 years ago. In 1901, engineers dug irrigation canals to direct water toward the Imperial Valley, located in the southern half of the Salton Basin, in hopes of fueling agricultural potential. But by 1905, spring snowmelt caused the Colorado River to flood and breach the canals, according to NASA. The Salton Basin filled with water for 18 months straight. By the 1950s, resorts dotted the shoreline and the sea became a lively vacation destination

But the Colorado River no longer feeds fresh water into the sea; instead, pesticide-loaded agricultural runoff from the Imperial and Coachella valleys feed the lake. Adding insult to injury, the Salton Sea is endorheic, meaning it has no outflow to release water either. So, as temperatures rise in the hot Imperial Valley summers, its waters evaporate fast, leaving its salt content behind. The Salton Sea is now more than 50 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Dead fish line the shore of the Salton Lake in a 2012 die-off dubbed "The Big Stink." AP Photo/Nick Ut

“By the year 2030, a third of the water will have disappeared and it’s leaving behind something even more terrifying,” Rutherford says in the video. All of that dried salt that evaporates off the lake is laced with other chemicals and pesticides and it accumulates on the shoreline—until wind carries the debris off, creating poisonous dust storms

“This is already making thousands of people sick and it’s only going to get worse,” she adds.

Rutherford’s TikTok Rating: 8/10 Spookies

Blood Falls in Antarctica

The Science Behind Six Spooky Lakes and Other Tales of Haunting Hydrology
Iron-rich water from a subglacial lake gives the falls their blood-red color. National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Antarctica’s Dry Valleys—the largest ice-free region in the continent—is considered one of the driest places and most extreme deserts on Earth. Standing out like a sore, gory thumb against what little glacial ice exists in the valleys is the aptly named Blood Falls. “It looks like someone stabbed the glacier,” Rutherford says in a TikTok.

Appearing as if the pristine ice is gushing blood, the falls run into the frozen Lake Bonney. But how can water flow in freezing temperatures? Blood Falls is nearly three-times saltier than the ocean, which prevents the water from freezing. And why does the water leave the ice so seemingly blood-stained? Trapped beneath a quarter-mile of glacier is an iron-rich lake—cut off from sunlight and air for millions of years. When the iron in the water reacts with oxygen in the air as it exits the ice, it tints the water red, just like rust. But that’s not even the beginning of what makes Blood Falls so out of this world. 

The Dry Valleys haven’t seen rain in more than 10 million years and low-humidity winds rapidly evaporate snow fall. “Blood Falls is a time capsule,” Rutherford says in the video. Because of this total lack of precipitation, some say the terrain—featuring wind-eroded rocks and jagged cliffs—is more like Mars than Earth. In fact, scientists are studying tiny, prehistoric microorganisms that leach out from Blood Falls to understand how life could exist on other planets, like Saturn’s sixth largest moon Enceladus

Rutherford’s TikTok Rating: 5/10 Spookies