Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Some Years ago we were involved in a hunt for giant eels in the Lake District, and in the wake of that particular investigation I was commissioned to write a piece for a regional news magazine about it. Although they paid me, for some reason or other they never published it. I forgot clean about it, but whilst rootling about in my archives in search of something else entirely, I found it and decided that it might as well see the light of day at last:

Without question the most iconic unknown animal [cryptid] is the Loch Ness monster. For centuries there have been reports of giant creatures seen occasionally in the largest lake of the British Isles, but it was only in the mid-1930s when monster fever hit the United Kingdom in the wake of the original King Kong movie, and the improvements to General Wade’s military road on the south shore and the new road on the north shore made Loch Ness accessible to the general public for the first time, that monster sightings began to proliferate. It would be a great mistake to see the events at Loch Ness in isolation. There are several other lakes in Scotland, quite a few in Ireland, and others dotted across Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Northern Russia, Canada, and parts of the U.S. where 'monsters' have been reported. Generations of theorists have speculated that these creatures are surviving prehistoric marine reptiles, but this hypothesis just does not make sense.

These animals would have been air-breathers. There are just not enough sightings to support a viable population of air-breathing animals.
There simply is not enough biomass in many of these lakes, including Loch Ness, to support a viable population of large creatures.
It is highly probable that animals such as plesiosaurs would have given birth on land. There have been land sightings but again, not enough.
The vast majority of these lakes would have been frozen solid during the last Ice Age.
There is no evidence whatsoever that any of the giant reptiles, or indeed any non-avian dinosaurs survived the mass extinctions which occurred – possibly after the earth was hit by a meteor - 65 million years ago. (KT extinction event).

My colleagues and I at the Centre for Fortean Zoology [CFZ] – the world’s largest mystery animal research organisation - have believed for many years that if there are indeed giant creatures in these northern lakes, they would have to be enormous fish; probably eels.

On 23rd July 2006, between 12 and 1 o’clock, Steve Burnip, a holidaymaker from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, was standing with his wife and some friends on Watbarrow Point, a small rocky promontory just below Wray Castle on the western shore of the lake. It was a fine July afternoon and one of the warmest on record. They saw a disturbance in the water that looked like a boat wake. It was caused by an animal that appeared to be at least twenty feet long and was moving faster than a rowing boat. They saw what appeared to be a head and two portions of a long grey body, and although they watched the animal for approximately a minute, no visible eyes or facial features could be seen. Steve had a camera in his pocket – a powerful digital instrument with 8 mega-pixel capacity, but by the time he thought of using it, the creature was too far away. He did take a photograph, which we have seen. It appears to show several slate grey humps in the water, approximately fifty yards away, but for personal reasons Steve – at the moment at least – is loathe to release the picture to the press.

Another incident was reported by a Mr and Mrs Gaskell who had also seen the creature whilst boating on Windermere during July. They told us that the weather was dry and fine, with little breeze and the surface water was warm and calm. They have, on many occasions, seen fish jumping and surfacing in the lake, but on this particular day they were travelling about 4 knots near the yellow 6m/h marker at the entrance to the Ambleside basin, at the north end of the lake, when they both saw a disturbance in the water, about 20 yards astern. Mr Gaskell told me that they had seen something very large surfacing and diving again, which looked like a seal or dolphin without the fin, leaving a large wake and ripples. They did not see it again that day, or anything similar since.

Over the next month we received six further eyewitness accounts. Interestingly, one was from the late 1950s, and another from the early 1980s. The other contemporary sightings followed in much the same pattern as Burnip’s, but – for me at least – the most exciting account came from Kevin Boyd, an amateur diver who is extremely conversant with the wildlife of the area, and has seen eels of over six feet in length on a number of occasions, both in Windermere, and in the neighbouring lake of Coniston Water. He was enthusiastic about our quest, and offered to help us dive.

On 11th October a five-person team from the Centre of Fortean Zoology travelled to the Lake District for a three-day fact-finding mission. We were also accompanied by Jon Ronson: journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and radio presenter. He has been a mate of the CFZ’s for a decade and has long wanted to accompany us in the field.
On the evening of Thursday 12th October, just before dusk, Kevin placed a number of baited sacks out in the bay. Each sack contained cut up fish and squid, Predator Plus (a chemical that attracts predatory fish) and some rocks. Richard and I had carried out a similar exercise at Loch Ness the previous November, but were surprised at how difficult the process on Coniston was going to be. The currents were very strong under water, and the bait sacks drifted considerably.

Just after dark, he went back in the water, this time armed with an underwater camera, to see what he could find.

Richard and I had been planning this episode for many years. OK, we didn’t know it was going to take place in the Lake Distict but since the late 1990s we have been putting plans in place to do a dive for giant eels as and where it became appropriate. Despite claims made on our behalf in the media, we never had any great hopes of catching or even seeing an outsized eel on this occasion. The main point of this three day expedition was to meet the eyewitnesses, suss out the lie of the land, and – as far as the diving was concerned – carry out something of a dress rehearsal. No matter how many times you plan something back in the office, the reality is always going to be significantly different. It soon became clear that there were a number of things we had never even considered.

Firstly, we had always planned to dive during daylight or at dusk. Kevin explained that the eels come out to feed just after dark, and this was a contingency that we just had not planned for. The first thing that we realised was that on any future dives we would have to put lights on the buoys, and preferably on the bait sacks themselves. This will be easy to arrange using proprietry light sticks – tubes of chemicals that, when broken, emit quite a strong light for several hours – but this had just not occurred to us. Kevin was finding great difficulty in locating either the buoys or the bait sacks in pitch darkness, and I regret to say that this part of the experiment was a failure.

Another problem was the time of year: whilst all of us were aware that by early October eels usually either disappear to sea or go to the deepest part of the lakes to stay for the winter, we had hoped that because it had been one of the hottest summers on record and because the water of the lake was allegedly eight degrees warmer than usual, the eels would still be there. Sadly, this was not the case, and the anguilliform population of Coniston Water had followed the normal biological imperative and were nowhere to be seen. The water was also higher than normal – Kevin estimated by eighteen to twenty-four inches, and this would have affected the distribution patterns of the aquatic invertebrates on which the eels feed. Sadly it would appear that we were looking in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kevin did manage to get some remarkable pictures of the lake floor, of pike and of perch, and all in all, although we didn’t either catch or photograph any eels, we felt that our first exploratory dives had been a qualified success.

The night was very quiet, and very still. Sitting and standing on the shore where the only illumination were tiny pinpricks of light from torches and the ethereal ghostly glow from Kevin’s underwater light, which would intermittently illuminate the water before us with a yellow green haze, was an enthralling, exciting, and oddly humbling experience. There are some people in the cryptozoological community who are scathing about investigations carried out in the United Kingdom. They seem to believe that true adventures can only be found in the jungles or deserts of the tropics. On this Thursday afternoon and evening I think that we have proved them wrong. David and I had come close to being shipwrecked, and here was Kevin risking life and limb forty feet below the surface of the water in pitch blackness. Surely, one could not ask for much more intrepid behaviour than this?

If we are to succeed in our endeavour in proving that there are indeed eels considerably larger than they are supposed to be in the deep waters of the Lake District, it is going to take a considerable amount of effort.

I am hoping that Eric Gaskell’s friends will come up trumps, and that we will have several boats to play with on Windermere itself. If we do, and if we can get permission from the relevant authorities to dive, I want to seriously consider carrying out a project similar to Operation Deepscan, which was carried out in Loch Ness in the 1980s by Adrian Shine.

I am also giving serious consideration to approaching the ferry companies. I wonder if they would be prepared to donate us season tickets and allow us to use sonar of the ferries that traverse large sections of the lake including the places where huge eels were seen during June and July this year. Kevin has pledged his support, and we are hoping that we will be able to get donations of time and equipment from other divers.

I am also hoping to involve various community groups like the boy scouts, the sea cadets and the angling clubs. As we scan the depths of the lake and attempt to the beasts with Predator Plus, I want as many ‘foot soldiers’ as possible stationed on the banks, and on the islands, with binoculars, long range cameras, and notebooks. This could be the largest cryptozoological investigation ever mounted on British soil.

If there are indeed large eels in Coniston Water and Windermere we are damn well going to find them!


Dave McCabe said...

I am surprised at you Jon, having such mainstream views on the Loch Ness Monster. I will counter your arguments: the low frequency of sightings is, I believe, due to the animals having a huge air storage capacity, so they seldom need to surface. There may well be enough biomass because, as you know, reptiles need very little food and can go for a year or more without eating. There is no reason to think these animals could not give birth to live young in the water (although reptiles all have eggs, some hatch inside the body). The fact that the Loch was frozen in the Ice Age does not matter as these animals have been seen at sea and leaving the loch in the River Ness, so may have colonised it afterwards. You say there is no evidence of giant reptiles surviving since the mass extinctions, but there have been THOUSANDS of recorded sightings of plesiosaur-type animals. As for eels, this is an insult to the many witnesses who have reported seeing huge-bodied animals with a long neck, distinct head, huge eyes and flippers. When has an eel ever been seen to stand vertically several feet out of the water, as per the monster head-and-neck sightings?

Geordie-dave said...

I thought reptiles are cold blooded creatures and need heat to live. Ever been to Loch Ness and dipped a toe in? Even in summer the water is freezing, brrrrrrrr!! Pardon my ignorance but surely a reptile would not last 10 minutes in such cold conditions?

Dave McCabe said...

Some scientists now think dinosaurs were not cold-blooded like modern reptiles. See this article at http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/2aa-7d9-b-b
It is also known that big animals can survive better in colder environments due to their low surface area to volume ratio. I also have another theory about Nessie: the indications are that it has a huge air storage organ, and it must then be able to regulate the volume of this to adjust its buoyancy like a swim bladder in a fish. Compressing the air by muscular action would generate heat like in a bicycle pump.

Jon Downes said...

RICHARD FREEMAN WRITES: Re Dave McCabe's comment on the Loch Ness Monster.

Firstly, no one has reported a plesiosaur type creature in the Lake District. All the sightings I have heard of, and all the witnesses I have spoken to, describe an animal like a huge eel or a massive catfish.

Secondly, we now know that plesiosaurs did not rear their necks up out of the water like the classic sea serpent. When breeching they would only raise the head or nostrils from the water. The long neck was used to capture fish and other prey via stealth rather than as a long snorkel.

Dave McCabe said...

I never said anyone had reported a plesiosaur-type creature in the Lake District. Although the general subject was sightings of something in Cumbrian lakes I was specifically commenting on the views expressed about the Loch Ness monster. As for what 'we now know' about plesiosaurs, the kind of detailed behaviour Richard is talking about is clearly just conjecture.
By the way, could you lot fix the time on your computer please - it makes it look like we are all habitually awake in the small hours.

Dale Drinnon said...

In the case of my arguments, I was not criticising the current Lakes Districts comment, I WAS criticising the comments as being made about Loch Ness, which WERE essentially parroting off old slogans without bothering to think about the old slogans. The statements being parroted off are often simply not true and it is a constant source of annoyance to me when somebody goes off on the standard party speech about "well we know the Loch Ness Monsters cannot be Plesiosaurs because of blah, blah, blah" and saying NOTHING that is a valid argument.

For the record, I also support the Giant eel theory. But that does not negate the other, nor yet EVER excuse sloppy thinking or regurgitated argument by rote.

Best Wishes, Dale D.