In, as usual, a desperate effort to bring in the hits, I thought I’d go nuts and see what posting about the Loch Ness monster might do for my stats. Hey, maybe I could throw the word sex in there as well. There: sex, there, I said it again. But seriously… anyone who’s anyone has heard of the Loch Ness monster. And most people know that various photos, allegedly depicting the Loch Ness monster, have been taken over the years. Many people have heard that some, or all, of these photos are dubious, or fake. But that’s where it ends for the vast majority of people. I would imagine that – as with the famous Patterson footage purporting to show sasquatch – most people see a given Loch Ness monster photo and think ‘Oh yeah, that’s that famous Loch Ness monster photo. I wonder if anyone’s ever worked out whether it’s a fake or not’.
Well my friends, you now need wonder no more, for here I’m going to do a quick run-down of some of the more famous images, and dish the dirt. If you know anything about the subject, or in other words if you follow the cryptozoological literature and have already read all the books and articles that discuss the pros and cons of the various Loch Ness monster photos, this will all be old-hat to you and you need to give up here and go do something more useful with your time. For the rest of you, here we go…
Just to get it out of the way, I shall begin with a bold proclamation: there is no good evidence supporting the existence of any large unknown animal in Loch Ness, and I am of the opinion that sightings and photographic and sonar evidence can be satisfactorily explained as mistaken or embellished encounters with known animals (including swimming deer, water birds, seals, and small cetaceans), waves, or other phenomena. I say this, not because I’m a knee-jerk debunker who cannot accept the idea that a big unknown animal might exist in a big body of water, but because I am familiar with the evidence, such as it is, and find it wanting. The expectation that there is an unknown animal in Loch Ness almost certainly explains the recent history of sightings from the loch – in other words, any weird bump or lump or shape that emerges from the loch is identified as a monster – but, contrary to some sources, there is no tradition of sightings, nor are there old historical reports pre-dating the 1930s (Magin 2001).
Easily the most iconic Loch Ness monster image is this one: the so-called Surgeon’s photo, or the Wilson photo [cropped version shown at the top]. Taken in April 1934 by, supposedly, London-based gynaecologist Robert K. Wilson while he was on holiday, it shows a dark, erect-necked object surrounded by ripples. Analysis of the wave patterns around the object indicate that it is about 1.2 m tall (LeBlond & Collins 1987). Some people say that the photo was taken on April 14th, others say April 1st. The version we usually see of this photo is cropped: the original image – shown here – is much larger, shows the opposite shore of the loch, and makes the ‘monster’ appear much smaller. A second photo is supposed to show the head alone as the object is submerging, but it looks nothing like the famous first image and I see no reason to think they really were taken within seconds of each other as has been claimed.
During the 1990s it was argued that the photo was a hoax perpetrated by Ian Wetherell and his stepbrother Christian Spurling using a toy submarine with a carved monster head mounted on its top (Boyd & Martin 1994, Martin & Boyd 1999). Wetherell was the son of Marmaduke Wetherell, the big-game hunter hired by the Daily Mail in 1933 to investigate the monster: he identified some footprints as having been created by the animal, but they were actually fakes made with a dried hippo’s foot. Wetherell senior then became fired for making such a rash mistake, and apparently planned to exact some sort of revenge. Wilson was co-opted as the alleged photographer because of his respectability, and agreed to be involved as he was ‘a great practical joker’. Some people have expressed scepticism about the Spurling and Wetherell story (e.g., Smith 1994, 1995, Shuker 1995, Bauer 2002) as there are various inconsistencies. Whatever the truth, I’m confident that the photo is a hoax and can’t take seriously the idea that it might depict a real animal.
This too-good-to-be-true photo was taken in May 1977 and was initially used in some publications as striking evidence supporting the monster’s existence. It’s one of two photos, the second of which shows the animal with a much straighter neck. A third photo – identical to the second one but showing the creature heading in the opposite direction – surfaced (ha ha) in 1983 and originated from an anonymous source (Bord & Bord 1987). In the photo shown here – sometimes affectionately termed the Loch Ness muppet photo – the ‘monster’ is translucent (yes, I said translucent), and note the white spot down at the base of the neck. The photographer is sometimes referred to as Anthony Shiels. However, Shiels isn’t just any old tourist, but Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, the famous Irish psychic entertainer, self-proclaimed wizard of the western world, author and artist. He is associated with several proven hoaxes, including photos of Morgawr (a Cornish sea monster) that turned out to be plasticine models. Apparently little known is that Shiels used these photos to promote a, shall we say, interesting theory about the Loch Ness monster… namely, that it’s an enormous freshwater cephalopod: the ‘head and neck’ we see in the photo here is actually a sort of proboscis sticking out of the squid’s head. The white blob is actually one of the squid’s real eyes.. to see what I mean you need to go here (and scroll down). Shiels produced an article in Fortean Times on the Loch Ness squid – he called it the elephant squid – but I can’t seem to find my copy (does anyone have the citation? I don’t keep track of non-tetrapod stuff). Oh yeah, the translucency of the image results from the way the image of the model was superimposed onto the water – though I’ve heard that it’s actually a genuine feature, reflecting the fact that Nessie isn’t just a giant freshwater cephalopod, it’s also a ghost. And no, I don’t think any of this is meant to be taken seriously.
The adjacent image is also iconic: it’s P. A. MacNab’s photo, taken in July 1955 but not made public until 1957 when it was published in Constance Whyte’s book More Than a Legend. MacNab was, so he has said, about to photo Urquhart Castle when he noticed a disturbance in the water. He quickly changed lenses and took one picture; his son was with him at the time but didn’t get to see the creature as he was busy looking at a car engine. This story is suspicious, as is the photo: the creature must have been huge (the part of it above the water is more than 16 m long, based on comparison with the castle), and, partly as a result of this, some writers have suggested that the image shows two monsters: a big male followed by a smaller female perhaps. The creature(s) is also notably (read: suspiciously) dark compared to the other dark objects in the photo. The story became properly undone when Roy Mackal obtained a copy of the negative on loan from MacNab and found a number of major discrepancies between it and the copy published by Whyte. The two images differ in the position of the castle’s reflection and in the presence of a clump of trees in the lower left corner (Mackal 1976). MacNab is on record as saying that he took two photos with two different cameras (Witchell 1974, pp. 87-88), but this can’t explain things as the ‘monster’ – which MacNab says was definitely moving when he photographed it – is in exactly the same position in both.
Peter O’Connor’s photo, taken in May 1960, has always been one of my favourites because it looks so plausible (ish). The story is that O’Connor, camping on the shore of the loch, got up in the early morning to relieve himself. He saw the creature, waded out waist-deep into the water, and took the photo. Apparently, he was able to get so close because – trained as a Royal Marine Commando – he could walk through water without making a sound (Binns 1984). O’Connor has often been regarded as a suspicious witness because, in 1959, he claimed that he was going to lead an expedition of 60 people – kitted out with harpoons, spearguns, canoe-mounted machine guns, bombs and a machete – to kill the creature. The image is problematical: the creature appears to be stationary, rather than moving forward as O’Connor said, the lighting shows that the flash came from about 4 m above the water surface, not close to water-level as it should have, and we should be able to see light in the background given that the photo was taken at 06:30 in May. Maurice Burton reported in New Scientist that, on visiting the spot where O’Connor took his photo, he discovered three polythene bags, a ring of stones tied together with string, and a stick which looked exactly like the alleged monster’s head.
Originally mooted by some as compelling evidence for the biological reality of the Loch Ness monster (Dinsdale 1973a, b, Witchell 1974, Mackal 1976, Scott & Rines 1975), the famous Rines-Egerton flipper photos (there are two) are undoubted fakes. We now know that genuine photos of the muddy bottom of Loch Ness were ‘enhanced’ in order to create the impressions of fin-shaped objects. This was suggested by Binns (1984) but has since been confirmed by Adrian Shine (respected long-time investigator of the Loch Ness monster phenomenon) and Dick Raynor (go here for more, including the original image). Exactly who did the enhancing remains unknown so far as I know. Needless to say, these facts negate the various interesting ideas that have been proposed about these alleged flippers and their owner. Because the flippers seem to have a stiffening rib that runs along the midline, they are unlike those of most other aquatic vertebrates. Shine (1989) noted that the fins of Loch Ness animals might not be the main propulsive organs for this reason and, noting the similarity with Australian lungfishes, suggested that the fin anatomy might indicate the creature to be a fish that crawls on the loch floor, rather than a tetrapod that frequents the water column. Often overlooked is the extraordinary size of the ‘fins’: each was estimated to be about 2 m long.
Remarkably, Peter Scott and Robert Rines used these photos as the main basis for the formal description (in Nature!) of the Loch Ness monster as a new species they named Nessiteras rhombopteryx (Scott & Rines 1975) [adjacent image shows Scott's interpretation of the images]. It’s well known that Nessiteras rhombopteryx is an anagram of ‘monster hoax by Sir Peter S’, but I think this is just a coincidence: Scott and Rines both wrote quite a lot on the Loch Ness monster (e.g., Scott 1980, Rines 1982), and there is every reason to think that they were actually quite convinced by the putative reality of the animal. In other words, it’s blissfully na´ve to think they pulled off the naming of the animal as a one-off stunt done for laughs.
Crap, I’ve written too much. There are lots of other photos of course, and there are several bits of film. Then there are the several land sightings, and the fossils, whale bones and dead conger eels that have been found at Loch Ness. Incidentally, the model shown in the teaser post is a sort of imaginary modern plesiosaur created for a British TV programme in which a special effects company sought to deliberately fool the public. I cannot congratulate the makers on their knowledge of plesiosaur anatomy, but let’s not worry about that.
Right, what’s next? Oh yes: that.
Refs – -
Bauer, H. H. 2002. The case for the Loch Ness “monster”: the scientific evidence. Journal of Scientific Exploration 16, 225-246.
Binns, R. 1984. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. W. H. Allen & Co, London.
Bord, J. & Bord, C. 1991. Modern Mysteries of Britain. Diamond Books, London.
Boyd, A. & Martin, D. 1994. Creating a monster. BBC Wildlife 12 (4), 22-23.
Dinsdale, T. 1973a. The Rines/Egerton picture. The Photographic Journal April 1973, 162-165.
- . 1973b. The Story of the Loch Ness. Allan Wingate, London.
LeBlond, P. H. & Collins, M. J. 1987. The Wilson Nessie photo: a size determination based on physical principles. Cryptozoology 6, 55-64.
Mackal, R. P. 1976. The Monsters of Loch Ness. The Swallow Press, Chicago.
Magin, U. 2001. Waves without wind and a floating island – historical accounts of the Loch Ness monster. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 95-115.
Martin, D. & Boyd, A. 1999. Nessie – the Surgeon’s Photo Exposed. Martin & Boyd, East Barnet.
Rines, R. H. 1982. Summarizing a decade of underwater studies at Loch Ness. Cryptozoology 1, 24-32.
Scott, P. 1980. Observations of Wildlife. Phaidon, Oxford.
- . & Rines, R. 1975. Naming the Loch Ness monster. Nature 258, 466-468.
Shine, A. 1989. A very strange fish? In Brookesmith, P. (ed) Creatures from Elsewhere. Macdonald & Co (London), pp. 66-70.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. Blandford, London.
Smith, R. D. 1994. Nessie not a hoax. BBC Wildlife 12 (8), 81.
- . 1995. The classic Wilson nessie photo: is the hoax a hoax? Fate November 1995, 42-44.
Witchell, N. 1974. The Loch Ness Story. Terence Dalton, Lavenham.