From the archives: The monstrous myth at Loch Ness Steuart Campbell The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 1, Issue 3, from 1987.

In 1933 the world learned of the belief that ‘a fearsome-looking monster’ had ‘for generations’ inhabited Loch Ness. In fact nearly every Highland lake (sic) was believed to be inhabited by a ‘water kelpie’, an evil spirit which lured travellers to their death by drowning. But now the spirit was incarnated in what the local water bailiff likened to a plesiosaur! Furthermore it had been seen cruising at the surface making a huge wash. Surely this was the zoological find of the century, or any century?

It is curious therefore that in the subsequent half-century, and despite strenuous efforts by individuals and teams, no reliable evidence for the Monster’s existence has appeared. Nessie buffs point to the existence of numerous photographs, taken both above and below water, a famous cine film and many sonar contacts as proof of Nessie’s existence. However, when subjected to close scrutiny, all this so-called evidence crumbles to dust. It can be shown that all the still photographs are either hoaxes or pictures of conventional objects or phenomena, sometimes both. For example, the famous ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’, taken in 1934, which is repeatedly used to illustrate books and articles (as the definitive picture), shows an object less than one metre high about 30m from the camera. Furthermore its resemblance to a picture of the tail of an otter as it dives leads to the conclusion that that is probably the explanation. Most of the above-water still pictures are hoaxes, and they are still appearing!

It is less easy to fake cine film and buffs have long exhibited Tim Dinsdale’s 1960 film as prime evidence. Their case was strengthened in 1966 when the RAF’s photographic interpretation unit (JARIC) unofficially endorsed the film; they concluded that it probably shows an animate object. This endorsement went unchallenged until last year when I showed that JARIC had made a fundamental error. They had assumed that the film was taken as one continuous sequence and their conclusion was based solely on the fact that the unknown blob was moving too fast for it to be a powered fishing dinghy (the only alternative explanation). However, Dinsdale had exposed the film in short bursts and had to stop twice to wind the camera’s clockwork motor. Thus JARIC were working to a contracted time-scale; when the correct time-scale is restored the object is found to move exactly at the speed of a powered dinghy. There is no other evidence inconsistent with the conclusion that this is what the film shows, and there is anecdotal evidence that such a dinghy did cross Loch Ness at the time the film was taken.

The most recent cine film is that taken by Gwen Smith in 1977, when she and her husband saw a strange pole-like object rise and fall several times about 160m away along the shore opposite Urquhart Castle. Coincidentally two Yorkshire schoolboys were in the same area, conducting (so they claimed) a school project. It is now suspected that the boys had rigged their ‘fishing line’ so that it could raise or lower a log or post out in the water. In that event the Smiths were the victims of an ingenious hoax.

Because the results of above-water photography were so disappointing many had high expectations of the underwater flash photography undertaken by the Academy of Applied Science (AAS) from New England. In 1972 this organization obtained two pictures which, when subjected to computer processing, appeared to show the diamond-shaped limb of a large creature. It is alleged that, at the same time, sonar showed the presence of large animals near the camera (although no evidence for simultaneity has been published). Doubt has since been cast on the legitimacy of these pictures; there is evidence that the primary enhancements do not show such limbs and the AAS has not fully detailed the process by which the pictures were obtained. The original (unenhanced) pictures appear to show debris on the bottom of Urquhart Bay caught in the flash as the camera and its support boat drifted shorewards.

It is certain that further pictures obtained by the AAS in 1975 do show bottom debris. Subsequent investigation has shown that the camera rig must have touched bottom and rolled as its support boat was driven onshore by the wind. The AAS has not published computer enhancements of these pictures. Significantly, when the AAS deployed their cameras on a secure mounting they obtained negative results.

Nessie Museum’s statue of the ‘Monster’. StaraBlazkova at Czech Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sonar is a tool that ought to be able to locate Nessie. However, the use of sonar in lakes is fraught with problems that do not arise in the open sea. The steep underwater walls of Loch Ness produce anomalous echoes and the sonar side-lobes produce signals that mingle with the main-lobe signal. Nor have all the operators been expert with the apparatus they have used. The crews of several fishing boats have thought they had detected Nessie and, on one occasion, a sonar hoax was perpetrated.

In 1972 the AAS thought that they had caught Nessie in a sonar beam aimed horizontally towards the boat carrying their camera rig. In fact the ‘Monster’ trace was caused by the boat itself, and an overlaid second-time return from the bottom!

Much was made in 1968 of the results obtained by the University of Birmingham, who were testing a digital sonar system. Too late they discovered that some anomalous returns (which they had light-heartedly suggested might be from Nessie) were due to strong refraction of the sound waves as they passed through the thermocline (the layer of water with a large temperature lapse between the warm epilimnion and the cold hypolimnion). The bottom of the lake was appearing in mid water!

Not only have photography and sonar produced no evidence for Nessie, searches of the bottom of the lake have found no remains of the many creatures who must have died there in the last ten thousand years.

The simplest explanation for the repeated failure to obtain evidence for Nessie is that she does not exist! That would also explain why the determined efforts of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau brought no success. In fact, in 1962 a team of students from the University of Cambridge demonstrated that no monsters live in Loch Ness. Using several boats they ‘swept’ the lake from end to end with a sonar ‘curtain’ that either had to record monsters as it passed or force them to one end where they could be discovered. Nothing was found.

But if Nessie does not exist what is the cause of the repeated eyewitness reports? Mny of the reports are of a creature which closely resembles an otter. Since otters do inhabit Loch Ness and since they are rarely seen it may be concluded that the animals observed were indeed otters. They were more numerous before The Second World War, when most of these reports were made. Today the increased activity around the lake must inhibit them. In one case the witness mistook a young deer for the Monster (leading to the belief that the latter has horns).

However, another phenomenon is responsible for the reports which convince people that a monstrous creature lives in Loch Ness. Because the lake is part of the Caledonian Canal it is used by large and powerful vessels which create strong wakes. These wakes travel great distances when the surface is calm and they can be reflected by the steep shores of the lake so that, behind the vessel, they break as they encounter the vessel’s screw wake. In the 1930s the crews of several vessels reported being followed by what they thought was an enormous creature. Alternatively two opposing reflections can meet to produce interference effects (alternate humps and dips) which must travel parallel to the course of the vessel, although a long way behind. Moreover the two wakes pass through the interference enhanced as if they were the result and not the cause of the disturbance. Observers can be forgiven for mistaking this phenomenon for Nessie. Before the growth of road transport, especially in the ’30s, there was much more traffic by water and this certainly must have led to the growth of the myth. Wakes and disturbances will also break in the shallows of Loch Ness where observers often see a sudden ‘inexplicable’ upsurge of water. With no vessel in sight it is understandable that such upsurges will be interpreted as the Monster.

Once it was generally believed that a large unknown aquatic species lived in Loch Ness it was inevitable that reports of such a creature would be received. Such reports then reinforced the myth guaranteeing further reports. Ignorant of the tricks that Loch Ness can play observers under the influence of the myth are bound to see Nessie in every anomalous stimulus. It is even likely that reports of monster in other Scottish lakes, and in lakes in other parts of the world, have been generated by the Loch Ness myth. Loch Ness has not spawned a Monster but it has spawned a monstrous myth.

The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence by Steuart Campbell was published by Aquarian Press.

The post From the archives: The monstrous myth at Loch Ness appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 1987, writer and cryptozoologist Steuart Campbell looks at the history of Loch Ness monster mythology
The post From the archives: The monstrous myth at Loch Ness appeared first on The Skeptic.