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Loch Ness "monster"

The Loch Ness "monster" -- affectionately known as "Nessie" -- is an alleged plesiosaur-like creature living in Loch Ness, a long, deep lake near Inverness, Scotland. Many sightings of the "monster" have been recorded, going back at least as far as St. Columba, the Irish monk wThe Fake in the Lakeho converted most of Scotland to Christianity in the 6th century. Columba apparently converted Nessie, too; for it is said that until he went out on the waters and soothed the beast, she had been a murderess.

The modern legend of Nessie begins in 1934 with Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London physician, who allegedly photographed a plesiosaur-like beast with a long neck emerging out of the murky waters. That photo created quite a fuss and is still at the center of controversy (see the reader comments section of this entry). Before the photo, Loch Ness was the stuff of legend and myth. The locals knew the ancient history of the sea serpent and a few months before the publication of the famous photo a couple claimed they had seen a large "monster' in the lake.. But people came to the lake more to relax than to go on expeditions looking for mythical beasts. After the wilson hoax photophoto, the scientific experts were called in and cryptozoologists offered their opinions to any who would listen. Could be a plesiosaur. Yes, but it could be a tree trunk, too. Or an otter. In 1984, Stewart Campbell analyzed the photo in an article in the British Journal of Photography. He argued that whatever was in the photo could have been only two or three feet long. He guessed that it was probably an otter or a marine bird.* Later, there would be explorations by a submarine with high tech sensing devices. Today, we have a full-blown tourist industry said to have generated an estimated $37 million in 1993, complete with submarine rides (about one hundred bucks an hour in 1994) and a multi-media tourist center. Unfortunately, business has slowed down in recent years. In 2007, it was estimated that Nessie tourism brought in an estimated £6 million ($12.2 million) to the Highlands. Some are blaming skepticism and the fact that there have been only  two sightings in the first nine months of 2007. There were only three sightings in 2006. A decade ago, ten to twenty sightings a year was common.* The decline in sightings should concern the true believers, given the ubiquity of digital cameras, camera-phones, and the presence of webcams at various places around the lake. Adrian Shine, head of the Loch Ness Project, believes that one reason for the decline in sightings is that people are more skeptical about what they see. “I think we live in a more pragmatic age, and that people are becoming more aware of the sort of illusions that can occur on water,” he said.* If so, there may be hope for our species, after all.

photos and tabloids

There have been other photographs of Nessie, as well. The tabloids will pay good money for a photo of Nessie, and some enterprising souls have camped out for years in hopes of capturing the elusive beast on film. One good photo and they can retire for life! The Smithsonian even has a WWW page on Nessie, where it advocates continued scientific investigation into the matter. According to the Smithsonian,

Even though most scientists believe the likelihood of a monster is small, they keep an open mind as scientists should and wait for concrete proof in the form of skeletal evidence or the actual capture of such a creature.

We suggest...that those individuals interested in such a phenomenon...join the International Society of Cryptozoology, a scientific organization that critically looks at issues involving unknown creatures of unexpected form and size, and subjects them to technical review.

Keep on looking! Of course, this is the same Smithsonian which, in the January 1996 issue of its monthly magazine, ran a highly uncritical article on dowsing. We have come to expect the disingenuous defense of open-mindedness from the tabloids as they exploit our love of mystery and wonder, but we thought the Smithsonian would take a higher road and present empirical studies instead of uncritical wishful thinking. It may be the case that the Smithsonian has found that in order to compete and survive it must cater to the tabloid mentality of the general public and elected officials. What's next? Bigfoot T-shirts as part of their annual membership drive?

sightings and testimonials

In addition to the photographs of Nessie, there have been numerous sightings reported in the testimonials of unquestionably reliable witnesses. How could anyone look at all this "evidence" and dismiss Nessie as a figment of people's imagination, as just another case of pareidolia (another Virgin Mary in the tortilla)? Easy. Let's start with the photographs.

In a story not nearly as fascinating or obscure as the Piltdown hoax, but at least on par with the faked fairy photos that gulled Arthur Conan Doyle, the most famous photo of Nessie as a relative of the long-extinct plesiosaurs was reported to have been faked. The generally accepted story follows. David Martin, a zoologist, and Alastair Boyd were members of a scientific project to find Nessie. They are credited by the London Sunday Telegraph [March, 12, 1994] as having dug up the story of the faked photo, which was staged using a toy submarine. Christian Spurling, who died in the fall of 1993, was said to have made a deathbed confession of his role in the prank. The fake photo was not taken by Wilson--his name was used to give the photo stature and integrity--but by Spurling's stepbrother, Ian Wetherell. Ian's father, Marmaduke ("Duke") Wetherell, had been hired by the London Daily Mail to find the monster. Wetherell was a filmmaker who described himself as a "big game hunter." What bigger game could there be than Nessie? Except that the big game was actually a small model of a sea serpent made of plastic wood attached to a 14-inch toy submarine! Actually, the game did get big as the little prank created such a huge fuss that the pranksters decided that the best thing for them to do would be to keep quiet. Or so the story goes (see reader comments for some skeptical considerations).

Alastair Boyd, mentioned above as one of the researchers who uncovered the photo hoax, claims he made a genuine sighting of Nessie in 1979. His Nessie didn't look like a dinosaur, though. More like a whale, he said. It was at least 20 feet long and he says he saw it roll around in the water. Now, it's not likely that there are any 20-foot otters, but there are 20-foot logs. There are also errors in guessing at the size of things seen in the distance for a few seconds under less than ideal conditions. No matter, Boyd is convinced there are 20-foot long creatures in the loch. One would think they'd be hard to miss.

Whatever Nessie turns out to be, it is very unlikely that she is a plesiosaur. That marine reptile lived about 160 million years ago and has been extinct for 65 million years. Furthermore, Leslie Noè of the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, UK, who has studied fossils of the long-necked creature, says that "the osteology of the neck makes it absolutely certain that the plesiosaur could not lift its head up swan-like out of the water," which is how Nessie has been described. Noè thinks that the plesiosaur used its long neck to feed on soft-bodied animals living on the sea floor.*

Is it a fish, a wake, a wave?

Since the Loch Ness monster story has been around for more than 1500 years, if there is a monster it is not likely that it is the same monster seen by St. Columba. Or, are we to believe that not only is Nessie very big, she is very old as well, a veritable Methuselah among beasts? In short, there must be more than one monster. I'll leave it to the zoologists to calculate how many monsters are necessary to maintain the species over the years. One report I read claimed that a minimum population of ten creatures would be needed to sustain the population. The same report claims that Loch Ness is incapable of sustaining a predator weighing more than about 300 kg (about 660 pounds) [The Naturalist, winter 1993/94, reported in The Daily Telegraph]. Adrian Shine once said the monster could be a Baltic sturgeon, a primitive fish with a snout and spines (actually ridges of horn-like skin) which can grow up to nine feet long and weigh in at around 450 pounds (actually they can grow much longer and weigh much more than 450 lbs.). This may sound like just another fish story to some, but there is scientific evidence that Nessie is, at best, a big fish in a big lake, or a big wake in a big lake. Shine, who has been studying the Loch Ness story for some twenty-five years, now thinks that what people see when they think they see the "monster" is actually an underwater wave. A similar view has been presented by Luigi Piccardi, an Italian geologist "who is convinced that seismic rumblings far below the famous Scottish lake cause the roiling waves, deep groans and explosive blasts that have for centuries led people to believe that a giant beast lurks below the loch's murky surface ("Mystery unlocked? A scientist says he's solved a monster controversy -- the 'beast' in Loch Ness is merely an illusion created by earthquakes," San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2001 by Chuck Squatriglia)."*

some bare bone facts

The Naturalist reported on extensive studies of the lake's ecology that indicate that the lake is capable of supporting no more than 30 metric tons of fish. (The food chain of the lake is driven by bacteria, which break down vegetation, rather than algae like most lakes.) Estimating that a group of predators would weigh no more than 10 percent of the total weight of the fish available for them to consume, researchers arrived at the 300-kg (660-lb.) statistic. It strikes me as extremely odd that with all the sophisticated technology, the submarines, and the thousands of voyeurs that after all these years we still don't have a single specimen. We don't have a carcass; we don't even have a bone to examine. With at least ten of these huge monsters swimming around in the lake at any given time, you'd think that there would be at least one unambiguous sighting by now. You would think so, that is, unless you want to keep the hoax/myth/legend alive. I can't deny that there are good economic reasons for keeping the Loch Ness monster myth alive. It's good for tourism. And there are all those "scientific" investigations to be paid for with government funds and private donations: full employment for cryptozoologists. Then, of course, there is all that film sold to photographers in search of The Big One. But tourism grew out of the myth, not the other way around. This story would be told with or without multi-media centers and gift shops full of Nessie mementos.

Besides the photo which Mr. Boyd and others have exposed as a fake, there are many other photos of Nessie to consider. Not all photos of Nessie are fakes. Some are genuine photos of the lake. These photos are always very gray and grainy, taken of murky waters with lots of shadows and outlines. There is no question that in some of these there does appear to be a form which could be taken for a sea serpent. The form could also be taken for a log, a shadow on a wave, a wave itself, driftwood, or flotsam. Anyone who has traveled around Loch Ness will not be disappointed in the variety of forms which one will see when looking out upon the waters. The lake is very long, and on the day I was there it was very turbulent, even though the day was a rather pleasant one as far as Scottish summer days go. Obviously, since I was there for only one day, I had not come to Loch Ness to do any serious research into the monster. I'll confess that I didn't even bother to stop in Drumnadrochit to take in the Loch Ness Monster Exhibit, which, according to Fodor's guide book to Scotland, "presents the facts and the fakes."

I was on vacation, traveling with my wife, daughter, future son-in-law, and a dear friend. We headed down the B862, which affords intermittent views of the lake from the east side. It was a pleasant drive among moors and conifer spikes, but nothing spectacular in a land of glorious spectacles. The drive northward on the west bank along the A82 takes you right along the lake in many places and past the famous Urquhart castle, a "favorite monster-watching spot" (Fodor's).

Urquhart is on the tourist bus trail and gets more than its share of visitors. I had wanted to stop there and take advantage of its excellent location for monster watching but I couldn't get into the parking lot. I drove north past the castle, looking for a place to turn around, and after many miles finally found one. I drove south, past the castle again, as the parking lot guard waved me on by the castle: the lot was still full. I drove for miles looking for a place to turn around again, finally found one, and made a third pass with the same result. Was it a sign from Nessie? We had to do most of our viewing of Loch Ness from the road. While we didn't see any monsters that day, I still have a vivid memory of one of Scotland's longest (24 miles) and deepest lakes (750, 800, or 900 ft. in places, depending on which source you pick). I have no doubt that anyone who stared across those murky, wavy, shadowy waters would see many things that could be Nessie. I don't doubt that many, if not most, of the thousands of witnesses who testify to having seen Nessie are honest, decent folk who have interpreted their perceptions according to their wishes. They have come to the lakeside and they have been blessed with a visitation! They are truly special and their lives are now marked forever as unique. Best of all: they have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. In many ways they are like the young lady who declared that the highlight of her life was when she saw music icon Michael Jackson being whisked through a department store: "it was like seeing a UFO," she declared! I'll bet she'll be telling the story of her Michael Jackson sighting for years to come. Who knows to what epic proportions the young lady's tale might grow? Perhaps it will grow as big as Loch Ness itself, like the legend of Nessie.

postscript July 31, 2003

The BBC claims it has proved that Nessie the plesiosaur (a marine reptile) does not exist. What they did was use satellite navigation technology to aim 600 separate sonar beams through Loch Ness to ensure that none of the loch was missed and found no trace of the monster. The research team hoped their instruments would pick up the air in Nessie's lungs as it reflected a distorted signal back to the sonar sensors. The only signal they got was from their test buoy moored several meters below the surface.

"We went from shoreline to shoreline, top to bottom on this one, we have covered everything in this loch and we saw no signs of any large living animal in the loch," said Ian Florence, one of the specialists who carried out the survey for the BBC.* The show, called Searching For The Loch Ness Monster, was made for BBC One.

Will this end the belief in Nessie? Don't bet on it.

Anyway, to think of Nessie as a plesiosaur is a bit odd given the fact that plesiosaurs been extinct for about 65 million years. Also problematic is that Loch Ness was carved by glaciers during the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. Finally, if Nessie were a plesiosaur, she'd have to come up for air to survive. There ought to be several sightings a day, if that were the case.


reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Bauer, Henry H. The Enigma of Loch Ness : Making Sense of a Mystery (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1986).

Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 1985).

Brugioni, Dino A. Photo Fakery : The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation (Brasseys Inc., 1999).

Campbell, Steuart. The Loch Ness Monster - The Evidence (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 1985).

Ellis, Richard. Monsters Of The Sea: The Truth About the Loch Ness Monster, the Giant Squid, Sea Serpents, Mermaids, and Other Fantastic Creatures of the Deep (The Lyons Press, 2000).

Razdan, Rikki and Alan Kielar. "Sonar and Photographic Searches for the Loch Ness Monster: A Reassessment," in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books,1986).

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lake monsters in Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids

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