Thursday, 21 March 2013

To Catch A Monster

Some of you may know that Jeremy Wade's successful TV series "River Monsters" has its season finale coming up and the Loch Ness Monster is the subject of the very last episode. It is fitting that on this 80th anniversary of the modern era of Nessie, Jeremy should select the greatest of all water monsters as his closing theme.

I don't know where the episode production has reached, but if he did succeed in catching the Loch Ness Monster, it will be pretty difficult to keep that under wraps until it airs on May 27th. In fact, eighty years of monster hunting suggests it will be a bit of a stretch to expect Jeremy to land the ultimate River Monster. I believe I know what type of animal he will suggest as an identity for the creature but there is no point in spoiling it for the rest of you and doubtless I will review the episode after it airs.

But the topic here is catching the Loch Ness Monster and that is a real arena for speculation and the final proof that science demands.

Ever since this beast became news in 1933, various attempts have been made to capture it. The first attempts were pretty much of the angling variety as a big hook and a big piece of bait were seen as the obvious way to capture a large water beast. We read this from the Inverness Courier of the 30th May 1933, a mere four weeks after the Mackay sighting which sparked the modern Nessie era:

Loch Ness Monster - an attempt to catch the monster was made at Foyers. A sealed barrel to which was attached 60 yards of strong wire with strong hooks baited with dogfish & skate was put out on the loch. The attempt was unsuccessful ...

After this, there was not much improvement in the technique, though the circus owner, Bertram Mills, was confident enough to erect a cage in anticipation of a capture carrying a £20,000 reward which was never claimed. It seemed people were content to concentrate on the gathering of more indirect evidence via film and photography.

It wasn't until after the Dinsdale film, that forces began to gather and organise in the form of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau and various other expeditions. A few groups would claim to come armed to the teeth and take out the monster with machine guns and explosives, but others would attempt a more thoughtful approach.

However, it has to be said that talk about capturing the creature remained mainly talk rather than action. Roy Mackal had his biopsy dart which it could be argued would "capture" a piece of the monster but this idea did not take off when its host submarine, the Viperfish, never really got going. One or two smaller conical nets were employed which were 6ft high by 5ft across which barely qualified as monster traps and again nothing was captured. It has to be said though that bigger nets were planned but the Bureau was disbanded in 1972 before any such project got off the ground.

But the Big Kahuna of monster traps was finally employed in 1984. It was the brainchild of the Vladivar Vodka company who saw this as a nice bit of publicity with the Loch Ness Project involved in the deployment of a 60ft by 20ft tube made of fibreglass and plastic. It was lowered into 30 metres of water for a month off the Horseshoe Scree with a suitable amount of fish bait inside.

As you may have guessed, nothing was captured again and it is a matter of debate whether it could have held a 30ft-40ft monster thrashing about inside it. Nevertheless, a trashed cage being lifted out of the loch would have generated no small amount of excitement itself. (You can read more about the Vladivar net and the LNIB attempts at this link).

So the short history of Nessie traps comes to an end. In total, it seems a meagre harvest of attempts to acquire the ultimate proof that scientists demand. In fact, it seems that future attempts would be strangled by red tape and conservation concerns. Fears of harming the local wildlife, introducing foreign species and obstructing the loch as part of the Caledonian canal waterway all but guarantee that there is little prospect of employing these techniques. It also seems that dredging the loch bottom for Nessie carcasses is a non-starter as the sediment at the bottom is regarded as a valuable store of natural history via core samples.

So it seems we have a paradox here. Scientists want a live or dead specimen to confirm the creature's existence but scientists don't want to do that in case of environmental damage! Now you know how to reply when they again demand proof.

So where does that leave us? Must we wait for a carcass to drift ashore by natural means? The truth of the matter is that there has never been a serious attempt to capture the Loch Ness Monster. The critics think it is a waste of time and money, the tourist board don't want their prize asset removed from the loch and the environmentalists don't want a blade of grass touched.

Ecological studies of the pelagic area of the loch (in the open water just below the surface) suggest it is not a place for monsters to waste their energy swimming about. In that light, the Vladivar net was probably in the wrong place, though if it was still there 30 years on, one would have an expectation of some Nessie "event" by now. The other consideration is that at 30m down, the total loch volume to that depth is just over 1.5 billion cubic metres. The net occupied about 560 cubic metres and so there was a 1 in 2.7 million chance that the Loch Ness Monster would hit this net first time. The odds go down if a herd of such creatures are constantly swimming around the loch down to 30m for a month.

One creature a metre wide travelling continuously at 5km per hour for 5 hours a day over 30 days will cover a volume trail of about 0.6 million cubic metres. Ten will cover 6 million cubic metres and we assume no overlapping of previous trails. This is 1/240th of the loch volume in question so we give Vladivar a 1 in 250 chance of succeeding which suggests the net had to stay in place for 20 years. In reality, it would be much higher because the creatures do not swim continuously in open water but rather stick to the sides and bottom of the loch.

So how do you catch the Loch Ness Monster without breaking health and safety regulations? I would suggest placing a long net along the bottom of the loch about two metres high. At this depth there is minimal chance of a seal being netted and the net should be big enough to allow fish through. When something is snared in the net which exerts a suitable amount of force equivalent to a one or two tonne creature then a mechanism should automatically raise the net to a predetermined spot (the Vladivar net had a similar principle). Cameras trained along the length of the net can transmit back video pictures, though visibility would be limited due to peat suspension and silt clouds being thrown up as the creature struggled.
There would be obvious technical issues. You can't just raise a net to the surface without endangering boats and wildlife further up the water column. The net would need to be of a suitable design for that depth and time spent under the water (years). A group of trained personnel would need to be on standby for an event which may never come yet must act as if it could happen tomorrow. And then there is the final issue of making sure the creature itself is not brought to serious harm.
As you can see, there is some serious planning but though one may get this past the authorities (and I would never assume that is a given) the ultimate obstacle is money. The big net of 1984 was funded by a large private company and the search for Nessie has always relied on private individuals and companies donating funds to research. It is unlikely that such funds would ever be forthcoming unless there is a shift in perception about the reality of the Loch Ness Monster. There was that perception in 1984 but not in 2013 thanks to the armies of sceptics that flock around the subject.
We can but live in hope.


  1. I think that Jermy Wade expects to fish a large Atlantic Sturgeon,a Welsh Catfish,or a giant eel (he's been to a river where giant conger ells have been reported).When he made the episode in a russian river looking for the giant beluga sturgeon,THE RUSSIAN KILLER,he wanted to go to lake Labynkyr,but he's not very familiar with lakes,other than Lake Lliamna,when he tried to catch the giant white sturgeon.So, I think the word (large) sturgeon is driving he mad.Yes,I think he'll go to Loch Ness to catch what Adrian Shine and Dick Raynor called a Baltic or Atlantic sturgeon...he wouldn't like to hurt one of the most famous living prehistoric entities.Now,if Nessie is a giant salamander,he will go back to America with his hands empty.
    Regerds.Claudio Diaz.Argentina.

  2. The thermocline at Loch Ness starts around ~33m and the water below this level is highly oxygenated. Above this level, not as much. If the Vladivar net never reached over 33m in depth, it may not have been in an ideal place.

    It was also lowered near the end of August, and thus risen early October I assume.

    From what I recall, historically the sightings occur the most from late June through August, the same time as the loch fauna spikes as well. Late August seems to mark the decline. If there is a resident aquatic creature, it may be gearing down its activity at that time.

  3. Hi Roland, This is sebgecko. I still come and read your very interesting blog as a silent visitor. I look forward for the new season of the show and Wade's take on Nessie ( guess he'll go for the sturgeon).

    I just realised that the link to my blog from my picture of Nessie on the site is no longer good because I changed it for a few weeks now. Here is the new one : and my artist name is now sebastien ecosse and no longer sebgecko.

    Could you change it please?

    Thank you very much and keep writing great articles! :)


  4. How about just leaving the creature alone...

    1. That appears to be what will happen!


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