Tuesday 17 December 2013

Roy Mackal 1925-2013

Loren Coleman reports on his blog that Professor Roy Mackal died this September at the age of 88. With the passing of this leading light in the pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster, it would be remiss not to say some words here. Loren gives a fuller view of the man's life but this blog focuses on his contribution to the mystery that resides in Loch Ness.

It was a chance tourist visit to Loch Ness in the autumn of 1965 that led an American microbiologist from the University of Chicago to meet up with David James, the head of the Loch Ness Phenomenon Investigation Bureau. By the following year, he had become a director of the Bureau and had already convinced the first of several American based organisations to give financial or technical support to the Bureau. The LNPIB would have been a lot poorer for the absence of Mackal's enthusiasm and American connections and, indeed, may have experienced an earlier demise.

But it was not only money that Mackal brought to Loch Ness. It was a scientific application and rigour under his technical directorship that extended the Bureau's reach into the murky depths of the loch. Techniques that were only touched upon were realised and new ones came to fruition as well. Under his lead, underwater photography, acoustic monitoring, fixed and mobile sonar searches, specimen collection from the loch and its environmental assessment earnestly pressed ahead. To that we can add the never used biopsy darts and large Nessie nets.

Various sonar hits were recorded as well as some curious noises from the oil barrel encased hydrophones. The surface surveillance continued as usual and Roy even had a possible sighting of the Loch Ness Monster in September 1970 during the "Big Expedition". The clip at this YouTube link is from around that time showing Dr. Mackal in his capacity of LNIB technical advisor talking about Dan Taylor's submarine, the Viperfish.

Regarding the sighting, he was changing the tapes on one of the hydrophone recording devices. Roy noticed a disturbance about 6 feet in diameter and about 30 feet away caused by what appeared to be some animal "roiling about". What was described as a "black, triangular, blunt-pointed, rubbery-looking object" appeared every few seconds before completely submerging. Though he was inconclusive as to what it may have been in his seminal book "The Monsters of Loch Ness", he became more convinced later:

If that's a fish, I thought, it's a mighty fish indeed! To this day, when someone asks me, 'Do you believe there is a monster in Loch Ness?' my stomach does a somersault. I know what I saw."

The response of his scientific colleagues was naturally mixed. It is accepted that career progress at his University of Chicago halted, though it appears they were more supportive later where he taught a course in zoological mysteries.

The mixed reception was also evident when the scientific journal Nature pulled his article on the 1968 Tucker-Birmingham sonar results but it was taken up by New Scientist. The publishers of Nature continued their campaign against him by spreading falsehoods about the testing of the sonar equipment and its operators. Some things do not change.

Mackal's thoughts on what the Loch Ness Monster could be was a reflection on the depth of the mystery as he ranged in opinions from mollusc to sirenian to amphibian and finally the zeuglodon. 

But all good things must come to an end and when a Robert Rines came along to one of his lectures in 1969, the technical dominance began to swung over to the visits of the Academy of Applied Science. The LNIB folded in 1972 and Roy Mackal's influence began to wane. By the end of the 1970s, Roy Mackal's cryptozoological interests began to focus on a sauropod in the depths of the Congo jungles.

Like others before and after him, the final clinching piece of evidence never came but not before he amassed and collated all his scientific, technical and personal experiences into the massive tome that is known as "The Monsters of Loch Ness". Published in 1976 and coming in at 401 pages, it is a comprehensive work on the Loch Ness Monster and, in my opinion, the best book on the subject.

It may lack the romance, adventure, history and folklore of other Nessie books and have its faults, but this is outweighed by the vast range it covers in analysing the phenomenon.

Roy Mackal has gone and another symbolic figure from those heady days of the 1960s and 1970s passes into cryptozoological history. I never met him or communicated with him in any way, but I hope this blog will continue to uphold in its own little way what he thought about Loch Ness - "Here be Monsters!".


  1. R I P Roy Mackal. I'll reread his book in remembrance.

    1. Given its size, the Christmas holidays is a good time to start! :)

  2. 2013 has seen the passing of so many people who were legendary in their field, be it film, music, science, or just being wonderfully weird. Although many of them lived into their 80's or 90's, their loss is still painful. I live in a world with no Lou Reed, no Ray Harryhausen, no Peter O'Toole, and now no Roy Mackal; my mind reels.

    As you lovely lot say over there: I'll be glad to see the back of 2013. Here's to the new year, and happy holidays to all, especially you, Roland. Thank you for this awesome blog (I'm Californian-- everything great is awesome!), and keeping the Ness Mystery alive.

    Yours in Nessiana,


  3. Hi Roland,

    It's been quite a while since we last spoke and I apologize about that. Shortly after our last emails to each other in 2011 my family found out my father had cancer. After a very long and painful year he finally passed in September of 2012. I still haven't completely recovered. Anyway, I never stopped reading your blog and enjoyed every word of it. I even read your book about three times in the last couple years.

    The news of Roy's death really saddens me, however, I can find no confirmation of this. I live in Skokie IL (just a few towns away from Oak Lawn IL) so I figured it might be in the local newspapers but nothing. I must admit I didn't even know he lived this close to me, I would have loved to have met him.

    Anyway, keep up the awesome work on this blog. It really made some of my darkest days a little brighter. :-)

    Jeromy Van Paassen

  4. My condolences to you, Jeromy. I am glad the blog lightened things up a bit.

  5. A legendary figure and a nice write up. His energy seemed to see him leapfrogging from one mystery to another, but I don't think his contribution to the unknown and the respectability he bestowed upon his subjects can be ignored.

  6. GB Steve Plambeck dug up another Mackal sighting of a creature with a snorkel-like appendage in '67. I just read about it on Karl Shuker's blog. Work your magic and seek it out if possible when you have the time please!