The Loch Ness Monster, Nessie to its friends, ranks equally with Bigfoot and the Yeti as a superstar of cryptozoology, known worldwide as the central figure of an enduring natural mystery. As such, its passing—if, in fact, the creature does exist, or ever did—should rate star treatment on a global scale.
And yet ....
The broad strokes of Nessie’s public history, spanning some fourteen-hundred years, are common knowledge. Its brush with Saint Columba, sometime in the mid-sixth century; Duncan Campbell’s encounter with “a terrible beast” in the 1520s; scattered reports of sightings between 1862 and 1930; then the opening of floodgates with construction of a road along the loch’s south shore in 1933. The rest, as someone said, is history.
But what of Nessie now, in the twenty-first century’s second decade?
No one believes the ancient fable of a lone, undying cryptid dwelling for eons on end in Loch Ness—or anywhere else, for that matter. If Nessie exists as a flesh-and-blood being, it must be mortal. And at some time in the not-so-distant past there must have been a breeding population.
Is Nessie dead and gone?
* * *
The first hint of Nessie’s demise was equivocal, at best, sparked by rumblings from the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club. In September 2007 club member Mikko Talaka warned Glasgow’s Sunday Mail of a “massive turndown” in Nessie sightings, rating it as “a potential crisis.” Steve Feltham, a fixture at Loch Ness since 1991 with his mobile home-cum-library, opined that the loch’s original population of twenty to thirty cryptids had dwindled to “the last half dozen,” which were “gradually dropping off because of old age.” Those grim forebodings notwithstanding, fan club president Gary Campbell assured reporter Billy Paterson, “From our point of view, Nessie and her kittens are alive and well.” (1)
Longtime researcher Robert Harvey Rines wasn’t so sure.
A true Renaissance man—attorney, physicist, prolific inventor, musical composer, university professor, founder of a private law school—Rines devoted nearly half his life to the pursuit of Nessie, after logging a personal sighting in June 1971. Thirty years later Rines photographed something resembling a large animal’s carcass in Urquhart Bay at a depth of 333 feet but subsequent attempts to locate the object proved fruitless.
By February 2008, at age eighty-five, Rines was prepared to throw in the towel. Branding his own Nessie sighting a “misfortune,” Rines had narrowed the scope of his inquiries to a search for skeletal remains, declaring Nessie dead. “Unfortunately,” he told Glasgow’s Daily Record, “I'm running out of age too.” (2)
Time ran out for Rines on 1 November 2009, but the mystery remained.
- December 1933—Big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell faked “monster” footprints at Loch Ness, using an umbrella stand made from a hippopotamus foot.
- July 1951—Forestry Commission employee Lachlan Stuart photographed bales of hay wrapped in tarpaulins, allegedly depicting three “humps” in the loch.
- March 1972: Staffers from North Yorkshire’s Flamingo Park Zoo (now Flamingo Land Theme Park) dumped a dead elephant seal in Loch Ness, then “discovered” it and proclaimed it an unknown species.
- October 1972 through July 1974: Frank Searle produced a series of dramatic “Nessie” photos, progressing from floating tree trunks to cut-and-paste dinosaur images.
- May 1977: Showman Anthony “Doc” Shiels photographed a long-necked cryptid rising from the loch, its image so peculiar that critics have dubbed it “The Loch Ness Muppet.” (It has to be said, however that opinions are still divided on this photograph Ed)
- May 2001: Persons unknown deposited two large conger eels—a saltwater species—in the freshwater loch, to pass as “young Nessies.”
- July 2003: Pensioner Gerald McSorley literally stumbled over fossilized plesiosaur vertebrae at Loch Ness, embedded in limestone foreign to the Highlands—in short, another drop-off by unknown hoaxers.
- March 2005: The supposed discovery of a “monster tooth” embedded in a deer carcass beside Loch Ness, soon identified as the antler of a muntjac deer, proved to be a publicity stunt for author Steve Alten’s new horror novel, The Loch.
While journalists around the world were quick to seize upon the tale and trumpet it as proof of Nessie’s non-existence, simple fact-checking should have revealed glaring holes in the Boyd-Martin story.
- While billed as a “deathbed confession,” Spurling’s tale was recorded two full years before he died in 1993.
- Spurling’s “confession” fails to account for a second, rarely published Wilson photo of the creature, caught on film in a very different posture. When challenged on that point, Boyd and Martin hedged that “Christian was vague, thought it might have been a piece of wood they were trying out as a monster, but [was] not sure.” (3)
- Spurling’s claim that the photo was snapped in a small Loch Ness inlet is clearly false, as uncropped prints reveal a shoreline in the background.
- Published claims that Dr. Wilson “retreated” from his original description of the incident are likewise false. His testimony remained consistent from 1934 until his death in June 1969.
- While various descriptions of Spurling’s toy submarine describe it as fourteen to eighteen inches long, an exhaustive review of antique toy catalogues reveals no wind-up toys in that size range offered for sale during the early 1930s.
- Finally and decisively, the patented medium known as “plastic wood” did not exist in April 1934. (4)
01. The “surgeon’s photo”—hoax or evidence?
BBC News was next in line to bury Nessie, in July 2003. Employing six hundred separate sonar beams, plus orbiting satellite technology “to ensure that none of the loch was missed,” the team went looking for a plesiosaur—allegedly “convinced that such an animal could have survived in the cold waters of Loch Ness, despite the normal preference of marine reptiles for sub-tropical waters”—but emerged from the survey to declare Loch Ness monster-free. (5)
Expedition member Hugh MacKay said, “We got some good clear data of the loch, steep sided, flat bottomed. Nothing unusual I’m afraid. There was an anticipation that we would come up with a large sonar anomaly that could have been a monster, but it wasn’t to be.” Colleague Ian Florence was even more emphatic: “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.” (6)
True or false?
Enter Jan-Ove Sundberg, cantankerous and controversial founder of Sweden’s Global Underwater Search Team. Sundberg’s team delved Loch Ness three times between March 2000 and April 2001, once arriving with a trap that sparked protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Hot on the heels of BBC’s announcement, Sundberg contacted Erik Stenersen, product manager for Kongsberg Maritime, producers of the gear employed by BBC to declare Nessie missing in action.
The result was unexpected.
Stenerson declared that Kongsberg’s “simrad” underwater scanning gear had a maximum range of 325 feet, and was thus incapable of fully sweeping Loch Ness—whose registered depths range from 433 feet to 786 feet (some reports claim 812 feet) at the deepest known point. “If they did [scan the whole loch],” Stenerson said, “they used a technology we never heard about, but we are world-leading in the area.” (7)
As for tracking Nessie from the void of outer space, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) declared that while “instruments on satellites in space, hundreds of kilometers [sic] above us can measure many things about the sea: surface winds, sea surface temperature, water color [sic], wave height, and height of the ocean surface,” they cannot track live animals running submerged. (8)
In sum, reports of Nessie’s death were premature.
* * *
The fleeting YouTube furore sparked new rumblings from the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club. Increasingly discouraged by a dearth of recent sightings—and an episode of MonsterQuest titled 'Death of Loch Ness,' aired by the History Channel on 4 February 2009—club president Gary Campbell told reporters from Glasgow’s Daily Record and Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury that Nessie “may well be dead.” (10)
Despite that pronouncement, Campbell worried that “If people start to believe this, it might affect tourist numbers. Whether you believe in Nessie or not, the monster is one of the most important tourist attractions we have. Perhaps, though, the answers are to be found underwater instead of on the loch’s surface. Unknown sonar contacts happen all the time. Maybe Nessie is just keeping her head down.” (11)
Rather than abandon Scottish monster-hunting altogether, Campbell urged enthusiasts to try their luck at Loch Morar (home of “Morag”), Loch Arkaig, Loch Suaniaval on the Isle of Lewis, and other scenic spots.
* * *
Intrigued by Gary Campbell’s turnabout, and ever anxious for another chance to breathe clean Highland air, I embarked on my eighth trip to Loch Ness in April 2010. While never favoured with a sighting of my own, I’ve been enthralled by Nessie from my first childhood encounter with the beastie in a 1957 Reader’s Digest article.
That introduction—and Bigfoot’s headline premiere in California the following year—spawned a lifetime fascination with cryptozoology that has produced eight books so far, with three more in the works, and some two dozen magazine articles. I was married at Loch Ness in March 2003, during the same week when U.S. troops invaded Iraq—mission accomplished in my case, at least—and the place, overall, feels like home.
08. The author at Urquhart Castle.
09. The Royal Scot, captained by Nessie witness/researcher Richard Macdonald.
Nothing felt any different upon arrival for the latest expedition. If Nessie had indeed expired, the Scots seemed unaware of it. In one form or another—models, plush toys, key chains, T-shirts, pens and pencils, children’s books, headgear with long spiked tails, shortbread and fudge—the world’s most cheerful “monster” may be found at every turn, from Glasgow’s airport shops to its more familiar Highland haunts.
Ensconced in comfort at the lovely Inchnacardoch Lodge Hotel, outside of Fort Augustus, I proceeded to explore the countryside in search of evidence for Nessie’s passing. The classic starting point is Drumnadrochit, on the loch’s west shore, located at the foot of Glen Urquhart. Here, two Nessie exhibitions stand within a hundred yards of one another, although separated by a yawning chasm where their viewpoints are concerned.
One, the Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre, greets all comers with a message clearly stating: “We Believe.” That much is obvious immediately, as a visitor embarks upon the tour—£5.50 per adult, £4 per child, or £14.50 per family—which includes classic photographs of cryptids and strange creatures from around the world, paintings by U.S. crypto-artist William Rebsamen, and a concluding cinematic presentation that combines historical background with eyewitness interviews, some including monks from the former Fort Augustus Abbey (now the Highland Club Scotland luxury self-catering apartments). Cruises aboard the Nessie Hunter may also be booked from the visitor’s centre, sailing daily from Easter Friday through till December 31.
Next-door to the “original” Nessie exhibition, attached to the Drumnadrochit Hotel, stands the “official” Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, launched by British adventurer Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in the 1970s and run today by Loch Ness & Morar Project leader Adrian Shine. More sophisticated and elaborate than its neighbour—and slightly more expensive at £6.50 per adult, £4.50, £18 per family—Shine’s exhibit presents a relentlessly sceptical view of Nessie. In Shine’s view every photo taken of aquatic cryptids is a hoax; each of the several thousand sightings on record is either fraudulent or a result of mistaken identity.
But what is mistaken for Nessie?
Common candidates include boat wakes and wind-driven waves, floating logs, aquatic birds swimming in tandem, and the odd dog-paddling deer, but Shine himself suggests large fish. Sturgeon might fit the bill—and Shine, coincidentally, has tried his hand at rearing them in a pond near his own exhibition. “This is a bit embarrassing,” Shine said in January 2000, “and I would rather that there is not too much publicity about the fish. It is all part of an experiment I am conducting. The fish occasionally breaks the surface in the summer and is spotted by visitors and we are recording their description of what they see.” (12)
Nessie fan club spokesman Gary Campbell looked askance at Shine’s experiment, declaring, “It’s no wonder that he doesn't want any publicity. This experiment has the worst overtones of pseudo-science that have been seen at Loch Ness for years. What happens when the fish grows too big for the pond? It might be unfair to suggest that the fish may end up in the loch, be spotted and then be caught, thus proving Mr Shine correct all along, but the coincidences are a bit much to take.” Waxing conspiratorial, Campbell added, “It may be that he is raising a sturgeon because he didn’t like goldfish, or he may be moving into the production of Loch Ness caviar, but given the contempt with which he treats any theory other than his own, I think that something slightly more sinister may be going on.” (13)
* * *
Next stop: Urquhart Castle, where Scottish history and mystery collide. As with the first reports of Nessie, Urquhart Castle dates from Saint Columba’s time, when King Brude built an outpost for his northern Picts. The castle’s legacy of blood and fire spans four long centuries, from its capture in 1296 by England’s Edward I—“Longshanks,” of Braveheart infamy—to 1692, when supporters of William III frustrated Jacobite invaders by blasting the keep to smithereens.
Only photogenic ruins remain, maintained as a tourist attraction by Historic Scotland, but Urquhart has produced more than its share of modern Nessie sightings—nearly two dozen on record since the 1930s when a group of school children saw the monster on land, waddling over swampy ground to enter Urquhart Bay. Lachlan Stuart faked his hay-bale photograph at Urquhart Castle in 1951 and Doc Shiels snapped his “muppet” photo there, a quarter-century later.
Hoaxes aside, researchers still puzzle over Lorna Taylor’s photo of a rising head and neck, taken near Urquhart Castle in September 1995; a group sighting from the cruise boat Jacobite Queen on 19 June 1998; another from the Nessie Hunter on 5 September 1998; and a seven-witness sighting near the castle on 30 March 1999.
On 20 June 2000 Canadian monster enthusiast Gavin Joth spent his lunch break watching a Loch Ness webcam at work and captured several frames of an unknown object crossing Urquhart Bay. Analysts from the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club discounted fakery, along with the “usual suspects,” and Joth subsequently banked a £500 prize offered by William Hill bookmakers for the year’s best photo of Nessie.
On 23 May 2003 local auxiliary coastguard skipper George Edwards watched a six-foot creature paddling offshore from Urquhart Castle for two or three minutes in bright sunshine. Nine months later, on 5 February 2004, another webcam witness snapped Nessie at Urquhart Bay. Most recently, on 27 March 2007, tourist Sidney Wilson photographed two passing vessels from the rear deck of his own cruise boat, later noting the head and fin of an unidentified creature when the photos were developed.
As on prior excursions, Nessie declined to surface during my latest visit to Urquhart Castle, but I nurture no hard feelings. Hope springs eternal. The dark waters beckon, ripe with mystery and promise.
* * *
One local who harbours no doubts about Nessie’s continued survival is Richard Macdonald, captain of the Royal Scot tour boat based at Fort Augustus since 1983. Sailing hourly from April through November—£11 per adult, £6.50 per child, £33 pounds per family of four—the Royal Scot features sophisticated depth-ranging gear and boasts multiple sonar contacts with large unknown objects in transit, but Captain Macdonald’s personal accounts enter another realm entirely.
Despite repeated sorties on the Royal Scot, I saw Macdonald in action for the first time on 16 April 2010. Commanding the attention of an unruly crowd below decks, he reeled off details of personal sightings—the most recent occurring at 6:01 p.m. on 28 June 2007—and described a population of seventeen specific cryptids dwelling in the loch, identifiable by size and behavioural traits. The proof was on his mobile phone, in the form of multiple photographs, all but one reportedly snapped by Macdonald himself during years of research conducted, he says, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA.
Why MIT? Perhaps because Boston native Robert Rines spent years on the university’s faculty, conducted underwater searches at Loch Ness with MIT’s professor of electrical engineering Harold “Doc” Edgerton, and had an MIT distance learning center named in his honour during 1997.
Why NASA? That requires more of a stretch, for a federal agency whose mission is simplicity itself: “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” (14) How does that goal, pursued since NASA’s creation in 1958, mesh with studying Nessie? Does the strange overlap explain NASA’s eagerness to contradict the BBC in 2003?
In any case, Macdonald says his research is classified, with copies of his photos—one portraying an apparent severed tail—held exclusively by MIT, at NASA headquarters, and in his personal archive.
One of the photos on display this afternoon, however, is familiar. It depicts a rotting carcass dangling from a shipboard crane. Macdonald says that it was snapped off New Zealand in 1994, scientifically dismissed as a giant squid’s remains in an apparent effort to conceal “the truth” about sea monsters. He’s right about the venue but mistaken on the year and final diagnosis. In fact, the photograph depicts remains of a creature hooked by the Japanese fishing trawler Zuiyo Maru on 25 April 1977, subsequently identified as a decomposed basking shark from traces of the protein elastodin found in its rotting tissue. Objections to that finding continue in some quarters, particularly among fundamentalist Christians who seek proof of “young Earth” creationism in the possible survival of prehistoric reptiles. (15)
The Royal Scot’s captain offers no such religious trappings for his endorsement of Nessie. Macdonald, in his own words, has devoted his life “to study of these creatures,” and withholds opinions on their similarity to other cryptids seen around the world, including “Champ” at Lake Champlain and “Ogopogo” in British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake. To him the presence of a breeding cryptic population in the loch appears as certain as the bloom of heather during spring.
Is there, in fact, some covert study group in place? A classified project linking MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Royal Scot’s wheelhouse at Fort Augustus? For now, at least, the answers to those questions lie beyond our grasp.
* * *
Three days before my scheduled departure for the States, Mother Nature pulled another trick out of her hat, unleashing Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. I never glimpsed a speck of ash as it disrupted flights throughout the bulk of Western Europe, but I found my working holiday extended for the best part of another week.
There are, in fact, worse fates than being “stuck” in Scotland. Listening to crazed “tea party” loons at home, for instance, as they try to stop the clock on efforts to place U.S. health care on par with powerhouse states such as Singapore, South Korea, Cuba, and Brunei.
While waiting I was moved to wonder: how will any cryptids lurking in Loch Ness respond to Iceland’s drifting plumes of ash? Will those new deposits hasten extinction of a species still unrecognised, as Robert Rines suspected global warming had, years earlier?
Perhaps.10. Nessie and friend follow the Royal Scot.
And yet, as my flight belatedly lifted off from Glasgow International Airport, I could imagine Roger Allam as Lewis Prospero in V for Vendetta, bellowing a slightly altered version of his trademark battle cry across the Scottish landscape. It echoes from the Highlands, through the pass at Glencoe, to the world at large.
“Goddamn it, Nessie prevails!”
1 Billy Paterson, “Is Nessie Dead?” Sunday Mail (Glasgow), 30 September 2007.
2 Bob Dow, “Veteran Loch Ness Monster Hunter Gives Up.” Daily Record (Glasgow), 13 February 2008.
3 Michael Newton, Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology (McFarland, 2005), p. 447.
4 Karl Shuker, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (Blandford, 1995), p. 87.
5 “BBC ‘proves’ Nessie does not exist.” BBC News, 27 July 2003.
7 Newton, Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology, p. 330.
9 Lindsay Selby, “Is Nessie Dead?” Still on the Track, http://forteanzoology.blogspot.com/2009/12/lindsay-selby-is-nessie-dead.html.
10 Diane Maclean, “Nessie is dead, long live Morag, Lizzie, etc., etc.” Caledonian Mercury , 11 January 2010. 11 Linda Engels, “The end of Nessie: Researchers fear Loch Ness monster may be dead.” Daily Record (Glasgow), 6 January 2010.
12 “Formally unqualified monster man grows his own Nessie,” Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club Nessie News, http://www.lochness.co.uk/fan_club/news.html.
14 “About NASA,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/what_does_nasa_do.html.
15 Malcolm Bowden, “The Japanese carcass: a plesiosaur-type animal!” http://www.mbowden.surf3.net/plsfin13.htm; John Goertzen, “New Zuiyo Maru Cryptid Observations,” Creation Research Society Quarterly Journal 38 (19-29 June 2001): 19-29; Pierre Jerlström, “Live plesiosaurs: weighing the evidence,” Journal of Creation 12 (December 1998): 339-346.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Note: With the obvious exceptions—Nos. 01, 02, and 10—I own all rights to the photos submitted. They should be credited to Heather Newton as the photographer.