Thursday 5 April 2012

First Nessie Sighting of 2012?

Has Nessie come out of hibernation at last? From Gary Campbell:

A local man travelling south on the A82 road at 5.15pm on Wednesday 4th April reported seeing a circular whirlpool like disturbance on the otherwise flat calm loch. The disturbance was near the middle of the loch just south of Urquhart Castle. He said it was similar to the disturbance that is caused at sea by bait fish being forced to the surface by larger predators. There was no boat traffic in the area at all.

Just in time for Monster Hunting Season! I await further information on this particular event.

This reminds me of another strange vortex like sighting back in 1979 - link.

UPDATE: Dick Raynor offers an interesting explanation in that the whirlpool may have been one of those fast moving boats that run from Fort Augustus to the castle where they do a U-turn to head back south. These boats are particularly noisy and throw up quite a bit of water due to their fast movement. I was watching them myself this weekend at Loch Ness.

I would say that this would produce a semi circle rather than a full circle followed by an obvious and clear boat wake to indicate its origin. It seems somebody needs to photograph one of these U-turns and ask the witness if it bears any resemblance to what they saw. Over to Gary Campbell?

Sunday 1 April 2012

Nessie Hunting Season Approaches!

Monster hunting season approaches and it is time to load up and head to the Highlands. So, is it time to douse the inflatable plesiosaur in fish oil, erect the 30 foot steel cage and practise some extremely convincing Nessie mating calls? And if Nessie tarries in surfacing, perhaps I should pack away some bottles of single malt whisky to speed up her appearance?

Not quite, not quite. In fact, when I head north to Loch Ness in the weeks ahead, none of the above will be in the packing (though the whisky is tempting and the cage won't fit in the car).

To be truthful, the equipment of the modern day Nessie hunter has a bit more technical savvy and complexity to it. I still pack the camcorder, binoculars and camera but as I pointed out in my previous hunting update, the armoury now includes, amongst other things, infra-red trap cameras. These devices are much beloved of Bigfoot hunters and that aforementioned update tells how I got on back in July.

In fact, I didn't tell all of what I did last year. I strapped the game camera round the old tree again in October and left it for about a month before I came back for it. Thankfully, no thieves had found and nicked it and so I plugged the SD memory card into my PC at home to see what advance I had on the 18 pictures over 10 days in July. The answer was 674 pictures over 25 days!

Why the great leap in images? The answer was the difference between July and October. The weather was rougher and every time a half decent wave broke on the rocks near the camera, the motion detect firmware kicked in to take a picture (example below). So, it was basically taking a picture on average every hour and this was not quite what I had planned for it. It was meant to trigger when something a bit bigger passed by. Anyway, I plodded through all these photos basically showing the same thing - a rough loch. Nothing I could see that was Nessie-like. I don't think this type of time lapse photography has much use at Loch Ness - when the creature surfaces, it is usually for a brief time and at inconclusive distances. The point of a trap camera is to trigger when something with motion and/or heat draws near. Clearly, July is better than October for camera conditions. However, for the next trip, the camera will be placed in what I think will be a better position and I will update you accordingly.

I also have a second and better camera trap from Reconyx (pictured below). It is the HC500 model and offers 1080p Hi-Def resolution images and more importantly rapid repeat image taking. They retail for about $450 but will cost more in the UK due to the mark up imposed by importers. The slower Wildgame Innovations camera can only do one image per minute whereas the HC500 can do up to two images per second onto a 32Gb SD card. Clearly, if an uncertain object comes into view, a lot more of its nature can be ascertained from a sequence of rapid multiple images rather than just one snapshot. The only problem for me is that it cost a lot more than the Wildgame and so I am less inclined to leave it at Loch Ness at the mercy of anyone who finds it! But I will use it during my short stay and leave the Wildgame model longer term.

The other aspect of last year's hunt was night vision binoculars. I own a Yukon Ranger Pro 5x42 Digital Night Vision Binocular (below) and they retail brand new for £600 or so (I got mine second hand). The "5" refers to the magnification and the "42" to the size of the objective lens in mm. This item is not like an ordinary pair of binoculars as it uses CCD technology to capture and boost the image to the eyepiece. Now night vision scopes are nothing new and indeed have been used at Loch Ness before. However, they are becoming cheaper and come with more features.

The range of viewing is up to 600m with a pixel resolution of 510x492 but the image quality very much depends on ambient conditions. The one feature that mainly motivated me to buy this was the composite video output port. In other words, what you see through the eyepiece is also sent to this port and a simple cable allows this to be attached to a recording device. That device can be a laptop with a composite to USB converter or a mini-DVR (which is more portable in the field).

Now the reason for the night vision scope is due to my belief that the Loch Ness Monster is mainly a nocturnal creature. This stands to reason as the beast lives practically all its life in dark, cold conditions. Therefore, excursions to the surface (and land) are IMO more likely at night time. This idea has indeed led to some night time experiments in the past. I think particularly of the searchlight experiments of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau in the 1960s.

However, my main aspiration lies in the ultimate target - a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster on land. That kind of picture would be more decisive than something taken in the water - if the right equipment and conditions are fulfilled. It is my own belief that the creature comes onto the shore (and beyond) more frequently that we think. I say this because of the creature's sensitivity to light and sound. It is nocturnal and it also retreats at overt levels of noise. When it comes to terrestrial sightings, that means it prefers night time and quiet roads. That may still make land visitations very infrequent and so I am planning a strategy that maximises the chances of getting that "ultimate" shot.

It may takes years to get that picture, but then again I might get lucky. On the other hand, surface water and underwater surveillance have proved useless due to the murkiness of the water, the huge size of the loch and the fact that the creature unsurprisingly does not show enough of itself for proper study and identification. These techniques have had a go for almost 80 years, time for some lateral thinking and a new approach.

But going back to the night vision binoculars, I did a trial run back in October at a quiet spot near Dores Bay at about 7pm when it was pretty dark. I must admit it was a bit creepy walking about a dark beach alone in the belief that the loch holds one or more 40 foot carnivores that have been known to go on land. Obviously I survived to tell the tale!

I set up the binoculars on a tripod and fed the video output to a laptop which was running some video capture software. I then camouflaged it, pointed it at the loch and went away for a few hours. A short clip of the video capture is show below.

The first point is that it is dark and that leads to a loss of clarity if something did pass by. There was however a main source of infrared/light across the loch at the Clansman Hotel whose presence made me somewhat ambivalent. The advantage was that any object passing in front of the lights would have a more discernible outline. The disadvantage was my concern that dark objects would appear darker with these lights behind them. However, if something had come on shore in front of my setup, I am sure (based on me standing in front of the binoculars) it would have some reasonable clarity.

But light levels are a problem compared to daylight. In mitigation of this, Yukon add what they call an IR laser illuminator to the binoculars. This is essentially a high powered infra-red laser that helps light up the field of view in the infra-red spectrum. The advantage is obvious as IR light reflected back to the binoculars makes for a clearer scene. It does have two drawbacks. The first is that the illuminator consumes more power and eats into the batteries (battery lifetime reduces from 10 to 3 hours). The second is that its range is limited which is not much use further out on the loch.

In that respect, I invested in a separate and more powerful 45mW IR scope (below) which can fit neatly onto the top of the binoculars and gives a claimed 12 battery lifetime. The stated range is 450 meters with a light spot size of 10-70 minutes of arc. If one looks through the binocular eyepiece, the laser beam appears as a diffuse spot illuminating a certain area (as does the inbuilt illuminator). But we must remember all devices will give a diminishing return proportional to the inverse square of an object's distance. So like daylight sightings, one is still dependent on the creature putting in a relatively close appearance for better results.

The second issue was battery life as connections to the National Grid were not exactly in abundance on the shoreline. I had the binoculars, its IR illuminator and the recording device all on rechargeable batteries and the binoculars proved to be the weakest link as they ran out first. The binoculars lasted a maximum of three to four hours while the laptop could last up to eight hours. So it looks like the illuminator indeed limits binocular life. One help is to attach the aforementioned laser scope and turn off the binocular's internal one to save battery time. Secondly, use the longest life batteries available (I would note the trap cameras have no problem with battery life as the Wildgame Innovations was still active after 25 days and 674 snaps).

As it happens, I am still working through the three hours or so of binocular video, it is pretty boring and hard on the eyes. The video capture file for this length of recording comes in at about 8Gb because it was a continuous recording.

What I hope to use for the first time on this trip is my Secumate mini-DVR. Laptops are fine but a bit cumbersome and fragile for this kind of work. The mini-DVR is compact, rugged and can fit into your pocket. Our Bigfoot hunters love these things as you can plug it into the video out port, put it in your pocket and start roaming around the forest on foot. That is a night time scenario I might have a go at but the whole point of the exercise just now is to set something up and let it run automatically while you sleep.

The unit can auto-detect PAL or NTSC video formats and can record on schedule, manual or motion detect. The latter mode is the important one for me as it soaks up less SD memory and battery time. The motion detect record mode has three settings. The first is the area to monitor for motion. This is achieved in configuration mode by blocking out the parts of the area not to be analysed. This is a useful feature for possibly a fixed station video where false signals such as moving branches and breaking waves are known. But for one off placements, I will just set it to maximum coverage but make sure moving objects are kept to a minimum.

The second setting is motion detect sensitivity. In other words, does the mini-DVR trigger when a midge flies past or something a bit bigger (as it is seen in the field of view)? A bit tricky this one, so for now I will just use the default setting.

Finally, there is the setting for how long to record on a motion trigger. I set this to the maximum of 30 seconds which may seem not a lot but if the object continues to move then the DVR will just keep adding 30 seconds to the overall recording.

I plugged the mini-DVR into the video component output of my standard analogue camcorder and all looks well but the final experiment will involve the night scope on a tripod.

So the game is afoot once more as I plan for the first of hopefully several trips this year. Wish me luck as I go in pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster!