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.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Classic Sightings: Those Strange Humps

Date: Summer 1946
Time: afternoon
Location: Near Whitefield
Witnesses: Robert Wotherspoon, Rev. John Taylor Stark and wives
Type of sighting: Multiple humps and tail in water

It's time for a classic sighting and this one from 67 years ago is interesting from more than one point of view. Our main witness, Robert Wotherspoon, was a man of some means and reputation from the Highlands. According to his obituary in the Glasgow Herald of 28th December 1968, he worked his way up to senior partner for the solicitors McAndrews and Jenkins and during the war he was promoted to commanding officer of the northern region of the Air Training Corps. After the war, he went into business and became managing director of Caledonian Associated Cinemas, a chain of fifty cinemas and also served as the Provost of Inverness between 1954 and 1961.

As a self made millionaire, it seems it would not be in his interest to become the butt of jokes if he ever claimed to have seen Nessie. Nevertheless, he was adamant about what he saw on that clear Summer day. The sighting came into focus for me when I came across a 1957 article about Wotherspoon speaking at a series of business engagements in North America. The clipping below is from the Calgary Herald dated 28th October 1957 followed by a transcript of the story.

Loch Ness Monster Sight Is Described By Scotsman

One of the few men ever to see the Loch Ness Monster arrived in Calgary this weekend and told how it happened. He is Robert Wotherspoon, provost (mayor) of Inverness and vice-chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board.

As managing director of Caledonian Associated Cinemas, owners of 50 theatres throughout Scotland. Mr. Wotherspoon is visiting Canada and the US primarily on business.

But he finds the monster is like an eight-ender in curling or a hole in one at golf. Once it happens to you, everything else seems comparatively unimportant. Expressing surprise at the interest shown in the monster here Mr. Wotherspoon contemplated asking Inverness to send on a postcard showing what the beast looks like. As far as Mr. Wotherspoon is concerned, it (or parts of it) looks like nothing so much as an elephant taking a bath. Two friends, a minister and his wife, were visiting him at the time he saw whatever it was. He decided to take his guests down to see Loch Ness in his car. The Loch is about six miles from Inverness.

"A few miles down the loch, I spotted the monster," Mr Wotherspoon related. "The people in the car were very skeptical. So I stopped and walked to the side of the water. There, right enough, was the monster, about 20 yards out from the shore."

Mr. Wotherspoon recalled that, a few weeks earlier, a circus was in town and he had seen a group of elephants "disporting themselves" in a river. He decided that the first hump of the monster resembled an elephant lying on its side. The size, color and texture were the same.

"There were other humps and spaces between them," Mr. Wotherspoon continued. "I did not see the head. The place where the head would be was under water." Adding to the drama, a salmon leaped high out of the water. At the instant when it fell back in, the humps of the monster straightened out.

Mr Wotherspoon believes the salmon had had it. "obviously swallowed by the monster." At this point, the monster turned toward the centre of the loch and soon Mr Wotherspoon lost sight of it. "As it proceeded through the loch, it created a wash not unlike that of a small fishing boat." he reported. "I estimated its length at slightly more than 60 feet."

He had run to his car to get a camera. But the car had recently been washed and, at that time, the camera had been removed. The minister accompanying Mr. Wotherspoon also saw the monster and verified the discovery. Several imperfect pictures of the monster have been taken since it first was sighted in 1895. The best photo corresponds to what Mr Wotherspoon saw, he said.

Mr Wotherspoon said his current trip is in the nature of a "goodwill mission" to all Scots in Canada. "Particularly, as provost of the capital of the Highlands, I would like all Highlanders to know that we think very kindly of them and wish to convey heartiest greetings to them." he said. "A warm welcome awaits them when they decide to pay a holiday visit home."

I lie reported that the tourist season in Scotland this year had been "phenomenal—the best we have ever had." His main business interest at the moment, Mr. Wotherspoon said, is the development of commercial television in Scotland. Problems of televising in Scotland are similar to those in Western Canada, he said. He is interested in knowing how Canada gets television in to remote areas such as the interior regions of the Rockies.

A few months before his death, Mr. Wotherspoon again related his story to David Cooke with further details for his 1969 book, "The Great Monster Hunt". We learn that he saw three humps in total and the sighting occurred opposite Urquhart Castle. The name of the other male witness was also given as the Reverend John Taylor Stark. He also added that the tail became visible as it moved to the centre of the loch and it pushed up waves 2.5 to 3 feet high.

John Taylor Stark, it turns out, was an influential Baptist minister in Scotland leading the faithful at the Victoria Place Baptist Church in Paisley near Glasgow. He was also President of the Baptist Union of Scotland in 1944-45. Can we conclude that two witnesses such as these were not likely to fabricate such a story? I would, others may not.

Wotherspoon's sighting is remarkable for its proximity of a mere 60 to 70 feet away. Not many other sightings can claim to be closer. Interestingly, he comments that the creature had a hide similar in texture to that of an elephant. He is not the first to mention this but others have mentioned a smoother more polished texture. One would imagine you could not have both but I am not so sure as we look further into this story. 


Looking at the humps, I am struck by the fact that he saw three humps separated by water only a mile down the road from where Lachlan Stuart took his famous three hump photo five years later. Was Wotherspoon's sighting a near copy of what Stuart claimed to have seen? We cannot be sure for Wotherspoon does not say what shape his humps were plus he did not see any head or neck as Stuart claimed.


My own feeling is that the humps were more rounded and closer together. I conclude this because of what he says next:

 "Adding to the drama, a salmon leaped high out of the water. At the instant when it fell back in, the humps of the monster straightened out."

This is a statement loaded with implication. We have had other sightings in which the humps have changed shape before the witnesses' eyes but here the action is seemingly accompanied by intent - the proximity of food. The salmon drops into the water and the humps simultaneously straighten.


I have stated on this blog before that the Loch Ness Monster is more an opportunistic predator than one which roams the loch in pursuit of prey. The diffuseness of the food stock demands that patrolling the loch is not an energy efficient procedure. There is food enough in the loch but it must be caught in a better way. In a previous article I suggested a ploy similar to the Angel Shark where the creature lies in wait ready to grab its passing prey (see clip at end of said article).

Furthermore, the retractable appendage (which may or may not be a neck) which I also discussed in this article could shoot out in a manner conjusive to this tactic. Shooting out an appendage to capture prey is a common energy saving tactic employed in the animal world. Frogs and chameleons have employed their tongues successfully in this venture before we ever arrived on the scene of time.


So, imagine the scene under the water as Robert Wotherspoon observes the salmon re-enter the water and the humps straightening. The monster's neck/appendage shoots out to grab the salmon and a cause or effect of this is that the humps straighten out. Does the appendage extending cause the humps to straighten or does the humps straightening cause the appendage to extend? That is an area of some speculation.

One line of thought is that the humps are buoyancy devices which allows the creature's humps to stand so far out of the water or at varying other depths below the surface. Other animals employ inflatable sacs for various purposes - courtship display, defense or mock attack. The gas used can be air or some other gas with a different density, indeed it is also possible that the loch's water could also fill the sacs.

How this affects appendage extension/retraction is unclear but is worthy of further thought. Different animals employ different techniques. The chameleon uses a form of coiled collagen to further propel the tongue. The frog uses muscle fibres at right angles to each other. What the Loch Ness Monster uses may be gas or water based.

Another seeming contradiction may be answered here and that is the reports of  smooth and rough skinned monsters. It may be objected that swimming animals tend to have smooth skins so as to reduce drag underwater and that is true. But we have already suggested that the monster is not given to frequent motion (though it can up its speed if required on rare occassions).

However, our inflatable hump scenario can perhaps answer this in that when the humps are fully inflated with gas, air or water) then the skin  "fills out" to give our oft reported smooth skin and when deflated it contracts and takes on a more wrinkly appearance. Perhaps, but in the world of the Loch Ness Monster there is plenty of room for speculation and a bit of lateral thinking.


One further point that this case obliquely refers to and that is the antiquity of the Loch Ness Monster. You may have noted that the author of the Calgary Herald article states that:

"Several imperfect pictures of the monster have been taken since it first was sighted in 1895."

Now the modern era of Nessie began in 1933, so where did the reporter get this date of 1895? The most obvious answer, given the context, was from Mr. Wotherspoon himself during his Nessie talk. Where did he get the date from? I would suggest from local sources back in Scotland. 

This theory is backed up by what Mr. Wotherspoon added as a postscript to his talk with David Cooke in 1968. He said that he arrived at the loch "over forty years ago" and it was shortly after that that he began to hear stories about the monster.  

The aforementioned obituary from 1968 mentions that Mr. Wotherspoon arrived at Inverness in 1921. From that we conclude that he was aware of a creature in Loch Ness twelve years before it became international news in 1933.

Given the connections that Robert Wotherspoon had as a local businessman and his love for fishing and hunting (stated in Cooke's book), it is no surprise that if there was gossip of something strange in Loch Ness, he would be a prime candidate to find out.

Why he should state 1895 is not clear as there is no claimed sighting for that year. One clue is from a letter to the Times in 1933 from the Duke of Portland:

“I should like to say that when I became in 1895 ... the tenant of the salmon angling in Loch Oich and the River Garry, the forester, the hotel keeper and the fishing ghillies used to often talk about a ‘horrible great beastie’ as they called it which appeared in Loch Ness.”

Had the local men recently seen something which prompted such discussions? There is no further information to make a judgement. The subject is further energised but not concluded by rumors rathers than facts as the Loch Ness literature talks of a Glasgow newspaper which mentioned the monster in 1896 and there is the curious case of UFO researcher John Keel finding an article on the Loch Ness Monster in an 1896 Atlanta newspaper. Again, neither of these articles has been found but one wonders if these four allusions to something happening around 1895-96 carries a kernel of truth? Only further research and digging into the archives may reveal an answer and if we do find anything, it will be reported on this blog.