Saturday 4 November 2017

Those 1975 Underwater Photos

Just before 7 o'clock on the evening of Friday 29 August 1975 the telephone at my home in Leeds rang. An American voice inquired: 'Mr Nick Witchell? Transatlantic call for you from the United States.' After a short pause Bob Rines came on the line to announce news that meant the search for the 'Monster' of Loch Ness was finally over. 'Nick,' his voice came clearly and steadily over the thousands of miles, 'we've got it, we've hit the jackpot. We have detailed close-up colour photographs of the head, neck and body of one of the animals.'

Thus spoke Robert Rines to Nicholas Witchell as found in Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story". It is what I would call the summit of Monster Fever or perhaps we could call it "Peak Nessie". It was back in 1975 when rumours began to appear on the TV and newspapers that ground breaking photographs of the Loch Ness Monster were about to be revealed to the world.

Nicholas Witchell had already published the first edition in hardback of his book the year before and this news made it easy for Penguin Books to go to paperback with a new and final chapter entitled "The Solution". Reading that postscript gives one the impression that this was the last cryptozoological book on the creature. The next one would be zoological. Clearly that never happened, so what went wrong?

I was a kid back then whose love of mysteries had naturally latched onto the big mystery that was only a few hours drive from my home in Glasgow. I was too young to remember the controversy and sensation caused by the 1972 Flipper photograph, but by the time Robert Rines and his Academy of Applied Science were hinting at better yet pictures, I had already jumped on the Nessie bandwagon with such lightweight books as Dinsdale's "The Story of the Loch Ness Monster".

By the time December came, the proposed symposium in Edinburgh was called off due to excessive media attention and the photographs were subsequently presented to the world at a meeting in the House of Commons, thanks to MP and LNIB co-founder, David James.

The photos merited such attention that even Dr. George Zug, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Smithsonian Institution averred: "I believe these data indicate the presence of large animals in Loch Ness, but are insufficient to identify them". It seemed that the Loch Ness Monster was about to enter a new paradigm. It did, but not in the way those monster hunters expected.

By that I mean, the deflation that resulted from the anti-climax led some to rethink their positions and, as the 1980s dawned upon us, they took an opposing side to what their friends and colleagues continued to hold to. Hence the term, "Peak Nessie".

Now you may have read subsequently that said sceptics have done this and that detailed analysis and risked having their arses bitten off by Nessie by diving into the depths of the loch to recover tree stumps to claim the glory on how these photographs ought to be regarded as non-monsters. Well, to mangle a quote from a well known film - "Sceptics? We don't need no steenkin' sceptics!", because even as a naive kid I knew there was something wrong with these photos if one had just a couple of Nessie books to hand.

That "gargoyle head" was the greatest offender. Going back to Witchell's book, this was his reaction to this photo in that darkened room 42 years ago:

I had stood up to move closer to the screen and remained there as Bob moved to the next slide. The picture that came on to the screen was, without doubt, and I make no apology for the continued use of superlatives, the most remarkable animal photograph ever taken. It was the head of the creature, in close-up detail from a range of only eight feet.

For a few seconds the shapes were a tangle; then it suddenly fitted together. The head occupied the left-hand section of the frame and was more or less in profile: the open mouth of the animal showed what appeared to be teeth inside it; a prominent, bony ridge ran down the centre of the face into a thick, hard-looking upper lip ...

When it was first published and interpreted as a head, I struggled to see anything resembling a head at all. It was certainly not the most remarkable animal photograph to me. When Sir Peter Scott produced a painting sympathetic to the idea, I figured it out, but realised it could not be correct. Why? Because I referred to the sightings database that was extant at that time. Tim Dinsdale had done a good analysis of the creature's morphology in his first book, "Loch Ness Monster".

What his (and other books) described as a head bore little or no resemblance to the gnarled, knobbly object that was called a "head" by Robert Rines. The challenge to the researcher was whether to go with one alleged picture of the creature or go with the sum total of knowledge gathered to that point in time. The choice was obvious to me - go with the flow and deduce that this object was not the head of the Loch Ness Monster.

In that light, it was a bit sad to read Nicholas Witchell's account of how he was led into a darkened room to gain an exclusive viewing of these photographs. No doubt, the atmosphere was electric as the "head" appeared and Witchell perceived horns on the object. To this he mused that Greta Finlay was right, ignoring the other problems with the picture.

Now Greta Finlay was right, but not because of this picture and Witchell's error here led one sceptic (who is rarely seen without his bunnet) to take the initiative by promoting his improbable ear-less deer theory. In fact, note that the Scott painting portrays three horns, a clear departure from the sightings database!

Moving onto the body picture, I must admit I was more impressed by that and held on a little longer to that one. That was despite the newspaper headlines that followed its publication. I remember one headline in particular that described this photo as "bagpipes in a snowstorm"! It was sarcastic, but apt given what we had.

However, the database began to exert its inevitable pressure as the inconsistencies began plain to see. For example, the young version of me noted the proposed neck was way too long for what is usually described by eyewitnesses. However, if the top portion of the "neck" was ignored (since there is a gap between it and the rest), it was more acceptable.

But the biggest problem was the fact that the object is virtually white. A cursory glance at the database tells you there are no albino monsters. They are uniformly described as grey and would have been pretty difficult to spot in the peat stained waters at the distance that was being suggested - even with flashlights. It all looked a busted flush to me - even as a schoolboy. Since that time, I have looked again at these pictures and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the totality of eyewitnesses always shouted back a collective "No!".

But herein lies the problem, attempting underwater photography in 40 feet of water was always going to be an arduous task. Ignoring the real problems with just getting the setup to stay stable in that environment, the peat suspension is a killer for clear, unambiguous pictures. Take a look at the picture below which shows of the Rines expedition divers at that time. Opacity is clearly an issue even at that close distance.

So Peak Nessie arrived and we entered the downslope in the 1980s. The Academy of Applied Science had arrived with fanfare the following year having negotiated a deal with the New York Times to give them exclusive access to any new pictures. They took no new exciting pictures and indeed the whole thing faded into such obscurity that it is not clear when they finally called a halt to the whole thing.

Nicholas Witchell is more sanguine about his comments now. In fact, I think he doubts there is anything mysterious in Loch Ness. One wonders if investing so much reputational capital into those pictures delivered a blow from which he, and others, never recovered from?

Doubtless, forty years on, technology has improved to the point where a better setup may produce better optical results, but the way forward now seems to be with sonar imaging and the great leaps that have been made to the point where they are beginning to achieve near-optical quality.

However, the problem there is getting one of these creatures to come up close. Sonar attenuates as distance increases and so, as with any proof finding endeavour, proximity is everything. This was demonstrated with the recent find of the Nessie prop which sank in 1969. Repeated sonar scans of the loch failed to find this Nessie-sized object until a remotely controlled sonar submersible got close enough to resolve it sufficiently to identify it. Normal surface scans had rendered it as no more than an interesting protuberance on the loch bed.

Clearly, the loch is still big enough to hide a few secrets. Unfortunately, investment in finding unusual phenomena at Loch Ness is in inverse proportion to the degree of scepticism. In other words, the more the "experts" talk down a monster, the less likely it will be proven. Then again, perhaps that is the way they like it.

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Monday 30 October 2017

A Nessie Article from 1956

I came across this article in a rather obscure magazine entitled "The Aquarist and Pondkeeper" dated July 1956. It is a journal that mainly concerns itself with Aquaria and water gardens, but in the midst of all this came an article concerning a creature that you could not buy from your local pet shop and, besides, was unlikely to fit inside your standard tank. I reproduce the text from the page above.

Is the Loch Ness Monster a Fish?


DURING August, 1954, a brief report appeared in the Sunday Times that the Loch Ness monster had been seen by a number of people, including the occupants of a motor coach. The discovery of the coelacanth may have tended to shake our healthy scepticism about the existence of undiscovered monsters, "living fossils" and the like. At any rate two well-known zoologists have recently suggested that the great sea serpent may actually exist, and have put forward identical hypotheses regarding its nature. Dr. Maurice Burton points out in his book Living Fossils, that sea serpents have been alleged to have been seen by a large number of people over a period of many years and characteristically show a series of humps above the water-line when swimming. Now, Burton observed a conger eel at the London Zoo turning on its side and undulating its body vigorously, thus producing a series of humps from head to tail. He suggests that a giant eel carrying out the same manoeuvre would present an appearance similar to that of a sea serpent.

The larvae of the common eel, which measures up to three feet in length when adult, are only three inches long. Yet Dr. Anton Bruin, zoologist of the Danish "Galathea" deep-sea expedition, dredged up a larva six feet in length, and possessing over 430 vertebrae—three times as many as are found in the largest known eel. There was a dramatic moment while Dr. Burton was showing a film of the expedition during the XIV International Congress of Zoology at Copenhagen in August, 1953. After describing living organisms found at the very greatest depths, he asked: If a chordate can live at the bottom of the sea, why not a sea serpent ?"

It has been objected that nearly all the accounts that have been given about sea serpents are due to mistaken identity. No doubt giant squids are responsible for many of the stories that have arisen, for these creatures are known at times to come to the surface of the sea. One of their arms, 30 feet in length, one moment writhing on the surface and next raised aloft, must look very much like a serpent. Also sea serpents have sometimes been described as spouting water, an act that might well be expected from a squid. It has also been suggested that basking sharks, schools of porpoises, long strings of weed, giant ribbon fish and even flights of birds may at various times have given the appearance of a serpent.

It is more difficult however, to explain an unknown marine animal seen off the coast of Brazil not far from Parahiba by E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and M. J. Nicoll on 7th December, 1905, while cruising in the Earl of Crawford's yacht "Valhalla." This was described the following year in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. The creature had a dorsal fin about four feet long projecting about two feet from the water: this fin was brownish-black in colour and much resembled a gigantic piece of ribbon seaweed. Behind the fin could just be discerned the form of a considerable body. "Suddenly, an eel-like neck about six feet long and of the thickness of a man's thigh, having a head shaped like that of a turtle, appeared in front of the fin." Unfortunately, the curious beast soon disappeared; but on the following night some animal made such a commotion in the water that it looked like a submarine travelling along just beneath the surface.

A firm believer in sea serpents was Dr. A. C. Oudemans, formerly director of the Zoological Gardens at the Hague. In a volume entitled: "The great sea-serpent: an historical and critical treatise", Oudemans gave reports of 187 appearances, the suppositions and suggestions of scientific and non-scientific persons including 22 "explanations," and his own conclusions regarding the nature of the animal - that it was a huge, unknown, long-tailed pinniped. In 1934, he published a somewhat dogmatic pamphlet entitled "The Loch Ness Animal", in which he stated that this creature was "nothing but a sea serpent."

If indeed there is a sea serpent and it has whiskers, a mane, two pairs of webbed, pentadactyl flippers, blows like a whale, its warm breath condensing in the air, and moves in a series of jerks, just as seals and sealions do, then Oudemans may be correct. Certainly a sketch by Mr. Arthur Grant, who claimed to have seen the animal in the road about eight miles from Inverness by the light of his motor-cycle lamp at 1 a.m. on 5th January, 1934, shows an animal that cannot possibly have been an eel but looks not unlike a seal.

On the other hand, in his book "Half Mile Down", Dr. William Beebe describes a fish which he saw at a depth of 2,450-2,500 feet, that was at least 20 feet in length and deep in proportion. The whole fish was monochrome and he could not even see an eye or a fin. In shape it was a deep oval: it swam without evident effort and it did not return. This description certainly seems to be not inconsistent with that of a giant eel. Thus it may be that the great sea serpent does exist and is, in fact, an enormous eel. It is not impossible that more than one kind inhabits the depths of the ocean. If one of these creatures were occasionally to find its way into the restricted waters of Loch Ness, its appearance might well occasion reports of a fabulous "monster." So, if that is the explanation, then the Loch Ness monster is a fish!


1. "Sea serpent" seen off the coast of Brazil by E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and J. M. Nicoll in 1906
2. "Loch Ness monster" os seen by A. Grant in 1934
3. Most probable form of the "sea serpent" and "Loch Ness monster" according to A. C. Oudemans, 1934

The article promotes the idea that the Loch Ness Monster is a giant eel and that is a thought favoured amongst zoologists and cryptozoologists across the years. Indeed, I initially though Dr. Cloudsley-Thompson, was just a local doctor who maintained a fish tank in his surgery waiting room.

No, far from it. John Leonard Cloudsley-Thompson was a postgraduate, lecturer, doctor and eventually professor in the science of zoology to which he added a long and varied list of publications on the subject of animals. His speciality was desert fauna, an interest birthed in North Africa where he was a tank commander during the Second World War and where he left after being severely wounded in battle (obituary here).

Prof. J.L. Cloudsley-Thompson

I would note that this short article was written in 1956 when things were pretty quiet for the Loch Ness Monster, being sandwiched between the 1951 Lachlan Stuart and the 1958 MacNab/Cockrell photographs. At this point, Tim Dinsdale was an unknown man with little interest in the monster and his future critic, Maurice Burton, was still a leading advocate of the creature. It seems also to be a time when leading zoologists were open to the idea of a large creature in the loch and would openly discuss it.

To that end, Cloudsley-Thompson mentions his fellow zoologist, Burton, in this article with both taking a positive view of a cryptozoological approach to the Sea Serpent mystery. However, Burton was perhaps still inclined towards plesiosaurs while Cloudsley-Thompson plays it somewhat safe with giant eels.

As time advanced and monster fever grew to an inglorious end with the 1975 Rines photographs, zoologists began to step back until the siren song of the sceptics lulled them into a belief that all was just waves, logs and birds.

Having said that, he talks more about sea serpents than loch monsters, his one reference to a then recent eyewitness report of the creature is most likely the object seen by a Mr. Alan Graham and a party from Oxford-Cambridge. The description is of a hump which surfaced before them, estimated at four feet long by one and a half foot high which was seen early on a July morning.

It initially remained stationary for about four minutes whereupon it took off at a "fair speed" leaving a wash before finally submerging. No doubt one of those "standing waves" which can do remarkable things, but another academic by the name of Roy Mackal saw fit to include it in his list of top reports.

The professor dies only four years ago and one wonders what his thoughts were then compared to his article from 61 years ago. In that respect, I note he was discussing the identity of that other cryptid, the Mongolian Death Worm, with Karl Shuker back in the 1990s.

Evidently, the world of strange and unclassified beasts was something that piqued his interest. Either way, the subject of that large creature in Loch Ness is not a subject which is as easily broached in polite zoological circles today.

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