Saturday, 16 November 2019

Rain, Mud and Adrian Shine

By way of a belated trip report, I was at the loch the week before the eDNA results were announced. That was just the way things had fallen, though given the wet weather, perhaps it was better to have gone the following week. The River Foyers beside my campsite was in full spate as the waters flowed down from the hills to rise almost up to the bridge that connects that part of Foyers with the main road higher up.

The rain prevailed for most of that weekend and that rather curtailed activities. To add to that low mood, somebody had nicked the one trap camera I had left at the loch over the summer! Clearly, the thief had found no Nessie pictures to profit from as nothing has appeared in the media. Fortunately, trap cameras are not that expensive, so it will be replaced in due course for the next surveillance.

Nevertheless, things did get done. I had brought a pair of waders with me and used them to wade over to Dinsdale Island with resides at the bifurcation of the River Foyers as it enters the loch. This islet is not labelled as the second island of Loch Ness as it forms part of the river complex and not the loch. In his "Project Water Horse" book, Tim Dinsdale said he conducted watches from the island over the months straddling 1966 and 1967. Below is a photo from that book with Tim on the left.

Now from memory, I had the impression that before Tim left the island for good, he buried a pair of old brogues on the island, awaiting someone to find them years or decades later. Could I find these iconic items? When I re-read the account from "Project Water Horse", Dinsdale states he left the boots on the island in late 1966 and returned in 1967 to find them gone. So he didn't actually say he buried them and he assumed the winter storms had buried them.

I thought it more likely the storms had swept the boots out into the loch and so I had little confidence of finding these fifty three year old items. But I did look around and found some old fragments of various items. Whether these belonged to the great monster hunter himself, I may never know, but it was an interesting exercise in Nessie archaeology. Looking around the shores near Foyers, I also found this interesting alignment of stones. What photo does that remind you of? 

I also participated in the making of a trailer for a potential Nessie documentary. The film maker and I met up and ran through some shots and interviews at Borlum Bay. This involved some demo shots involving the setup of a trap camera. His focus will be on the personalities behind the story and hunt for the monster rather than whatever one may think the creature to be. He was next off to see Adrian Shine and let's hope he gets somewhere with his promo trailer as such as documentary has yet to be made.

Speaking of Adrian, I met up with the Edinburgh Fortean Society who were up there for the weekend and I went along to have dinner with them at the Clansman Hotel. As it turned out, Adrian had been invited along with Charles Paxton to the meal and therein lay a conversation. As we got into chatting about this whole Loch Ness thing, Adrian suggested my blog was a philosophical exercise more than anything else. I don't think he was being complimentary when he said that, but neither was he being derogatory, more an observation on his part.

What did he mean by that? I should have asked but I would say he implied my articles which addressed the question of whether a large, unknown creature exists or existed in Loch Ness skirt round the issue by reframing or questioning questions. To wit, as Adrian said, "Science has found no big animals". Whatever you may say about the various organised endeavours, no definitive proof has been found. Ultimately, a living or dead specimen, part or whole, is normally required by zoologists.

But beyond that, other "proof" is often in the eye of the beholder. When I asked Adrian about the anomalous sonar hits from Operation Deepscan in 1987, he suggested they were side echoes. if one wants to be philosophical about the vagaries of empirical knowledge, he seems to have gravitated between, echoes, seals and unknown. Here is the philosophical point, Adrian and others can go around and say what they want about various proofs, but they can't call their opinions ... facts. Perhaps that is more epistemological than philosophical.

Wishing to solidify this line of argumentation, all the photographs and films have been dismissed in like manner, which leaves us with the large number of eyewitness testimonies. At this point I introduced the matter of the John McLean sighting of 1938 (above). I raised that because I regard it as a top class sighting. The witness claimed he saw the creature from sixty feet and was a local angler, suggesting he was used to what Loch Ness can throw at observers.

He also says he observed it for a full six minutes. What's not to like? Surely, the only way out of this is to call John Mclean a liar (as others have been forced to suggest)? But, no, Adrian confidently asserted that Mclean had seen nothing more than an otter feeding on fish! This is despite McLean relating to Ted Holiday in the 1960s the following words:

I.: Did you feel afraid of it?

J. M.: Well, to tell you the plain truth, I didn't know what I was. I thought it's neither a seal nor an otter. It never dawned on me at first about it being a monster or I'd have run up to the Half-way House and got a camera and took a snap.

Yes, John McLean categorically stated it was no otter, but Adrian, eighty years on says he is wrong. When I pointed out that McLean had estimated the size of the creature to be 18 to 20 feet long, this seemed to matter not to Adrian. His reply was that size and distance estimates go out of the window when the eyewitness' view is level with the loch. Even if you give minimal credence to this theory, can an experienced loch observer get it wrong by a factor of 6 to 7? Methinks the burden of proof lies with the otter theorist, not me or John Mclean.

At this point, I told him I had been to the spot and looked around and there were enough frames of reference to judge size and distance. Since John Mclean was at the mouth of a river, the opposite bank provided distance cues. I show the photo I took myself as evidence of this point. All it required was for the creature to turn up in that general zone. Adrian did not reply to that point.

Furthermore, when I asked about the strangely inflating hump drawn above, just before the creature dived, Adrian told me this was nothing more than the otter's back arching into the water. You may forgive me for thinking this bears little resemblance to the drawings of John Mclean. Well, no matter, just say John McLean didn't draw it properly and all is good again.

Is it again philosophical to suggest sceptics are playing fast and loose with eyewitness testimony by always insisting the perception was bad enough to mis-see monsters but good enough for sceptics to deduce the "real" object? I didn't say it at the time (I wish I had), but I remembered another Loch Ness expert, Tony Harmsworth, had solemnly declared that McLean had seen nothing more than some cormorants. This is in conflict with Adrian's otter. I looked at Tony's reply (below) in a previous article:

The long neck fits in with cormorants. It is well known that people overestimate sizes over water. The body drawings are typical of boat wakes or groups of birds apart from the last drawing which is a bit of a mystery.

So, we have two leading sceptics both confidently asserting their positions. Of course, the fact that they contradict each other implies one or both cannot be so confident. Is it being too philosophical to suggest this is all just a shell game? Perhaps one will eventually get in line with the other to present a united face (as Tony was once obliged to do regarding his at variance account of how the Lachlan Stuart photo was allegedly taken).

The other issue that Adrian thought important was the tail that was visible to John McLean (see sketches above). He suggested this was out of kilter with Loch Ness Monster accounts and was too unusual to be considered. Quite why Adrian was concerned about the integrity of the eyewitness database was a bit ironic as he has no regard for it at all as evidence. Of course, he was directing that question to me as one who does regard it.

But there is no problem and I counted about 5% of all eyewitness accounts including descriptions of a tail. There may be more which are just perceived as a shallow outlying hump. Tim Dinsdale's examination of the best accounts puts it slightly higher at 7% (I think, no book to double check here). So what exactly is the problem here? Yes, they only come in at one in twenty accounts, but they happen!

There was one thing I agreed on with Adrian and that was Ronald Binns' recent claim that he effectively mentored Adrian and others into a final sceptical position. It was no surprise to me that Adrian flatly denied this. I would generally take what Adrian says over Ronald any day. So let us end on that point of harmony, but remind readers once again not to accept everything they hear from the sceptical class.

The author can be contacted at

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Legend of the Loch (1958)

Documentaries on the Loch Ness Monster seem to turn up every year these days, some good, some bad and some indifferent. The popularity of the monster continues to this day despite the attempts of some to consign it to history. But going back into that history, there was a time when there was only one documentary on the creature - the first one.

It took the introduction and uptake of TV and perhaps the publication of a book to finally convince a film team to head off to the loch in 1958, twenty five years after Aldie Mackay had her two humped sighting. There were only two TV channels broadcasting back them, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the nascent ITV, which had yet to celebrate its third birthday.

It was the BBC that took up the challenge and it was 61 years later that I was given the chance to watch this documentary and grab a few screenshots for this article. The documentary is, of course, black and white and last about 45 minutes and starts with the title card shown above. The scene opens with a narration of Highland geology accompanying an aircraft flying south to north above Highlands past Ben Nevis past Fort William on way up the Great Glen to Loch Ness (below).

The BBC were stationed at Urquhart Bay as the shot changed to their presenter, Neville Wilson, at a location that appears to be Temple Pier with the Castle in the background. With a plummy English accent that would characterise everyone involved with the BBC team, he informs the audience that it was "a particularly filthy evening" as the rain descended on the loch.

Wilson tells us he was informed that the piermaster thought the monster had stirred up the weather and put the evil eye on the investigation. Ancient legend met modern scientific investigation as one anticipated what would be revealed by the underwater camera and echo sounder equipment that the BBC had brought to the loch.

But first it was to the eyewitnesses as Neville Wilson interviewed a succession of people who claimed to have seen the beast of the loch. Firstly, we were assured that it wasn't only Scotsmen who saw the monster as Mr. Harper Smith of England (below) told us about his sighting of the 27th June 1951 while fishing for salmon. His son exclaimed "is that a periscope over there?" as he saw six feet of dark neck and a sheep like head moving side to side. He said it moved at pace at 15-20 mph until it moved within 500-600 yards of them. It was in view for 17-18 minutes.

Next up was a Mr. Richard Synge, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952. His sighting was in August 1934 when he was aged 19 and up at the loch with his parents. As he was looking out the window of a Fort Augustus hotel, he saw a stationary black hump three feet wide and a foot high. It was a quarter of a mile out and then moved off at about 15 mph. This was determined from the fact that they ran out into their car and paced it for two miles.

Witness number three was an eyewitness well known to this blog - Marjory Moir. Her story is recounted on this blog here and here and it was a AAA sighting of a three humped, long necked creature ploughing up the loch. But it was here that I got to see here for the first and her picture is shown below.

The next witness was perhaps the most interesting as it was none other than Alex Campbell. However, he was not called in as an eyewitness, but more as an expert witness as he recounted his part in the story as the journalist who first brought the story to the public in May 1933 via the pages of the Inverness Courier. He also revealed how the Courier Editor, Evan Barron christened the beast with the title "The Loch Ness Monster".

As a local expert, he was then asked why there was a drop off in sightings since the beginning of the War and onward, which Campbell attributed to the fear of ridicule by locals who decided just to stay silent. Since the BBC had brought up a team of divers, Alex mentioned the divers who searched for the Hambro body and recounted how one came up quite pale and would not go back down. At this point I wondered if he was going to mention apocryphal tales of giant eels brushing round divers' legs, but this was rather attributed to the disorienting effects of the dark depths of the waters.

Before we finish with Alex Campbell's interview, one may wonder why his own hump and neck sighting from 1933 was not related in the program? I mentioned a book at the beginning which may have influenced the decision to produce this program and that was Constance Whyte's book, "More Than a Legend" which was published the year before.

In that 1957 book, Alex Campbell recounts his experience, but did so anonymously. One can only assume he wished to maintain this stance the following year and only speak on other matters related to the loch and the monster. As seasoned observers will know, Campbell initially gave an anonymous account of the monster to the Scotsman newspaper and then downgraded it to cormorants to Rupert Gould.

He then, again anonymously, returned to his original account in Whyte's book and then finally admitted to the experience in Dinsdale's 1961 book. My explanation for this change is laid out here. But what happened specifically between 1957 and 1960? He had gone from cormorants in 1933 to anonymous in 1957, but three years later opened up to Tim Dinsdale. My own speculation is that he was still employed as water bailiff in 1958 but was close to retirement. By the time we got to 1960, he left his job and could speak freely. Well, like most things at the loch, that's speculation.

The documentary then broke off from interviewing to hunting. It was time for the BBC to dive into the depths in search of the monster. The view switched to the ancient castle peering down on modern technology as Raymond Baxter (below), whom readers may recall as the erstwhile presenter of the popular "Tomorrow's World", took us through the dive. Once again, plummy English accents prevailed.

The camera rig did not look too different from the ones which would be employed by the Academy of Applied Science about 15 years later. Looking at the picture below, it employed three lights with a live feed camera below them. Obviously, the AAS cameras were still image cameras, but the general idea was there for all to see. The rig was lowered, the echo sounder was ready and the team of frogmen dived into loch.

As you can guess, the divers described conditions as dark, peaty and "unfriendly". Just located over a point before the loch bed begins to shelf down steeply. the divers went down with fresh air and oxygen tanks. Wired for sound, the divers reported visibility to 15-20 feet, presumably with the aid of the light rig. The rig was lowered to 40 feet with the boat just visible above. As our intrepid divers got down to the shelf at about 80 feet, they became more muffled and the camera focused on the silt that was stirred up by the diver's hand. At this depth, they stopped and concluded this was indeed a difficult environment for getting pictures (below).

Then we switched back to shored and Lachlan Stuart was interviewed regarding his three humped picture taken seven years earlier. His was one of only two photographs considered, but when I though about it, the Cockrell and MacNab photos were over a year away and prior to that there was only really the Wilson and Gray pictures. It was unlikely that Wilson would have turned up and it was a pity Hugh Gray was not contacted or available.

The story Lachlan related was familiar enough and can be read here. I don't think he added or changed anything new to what was related previously. As a bonus, the BBC also interviewed professional photographer Mr. MacPherson who developed the Stuart picture. In the screenshot below, McPherson is on the left and Stuart in the middle.

Mr. McPherson described the development process and intimated he had processed other purported pictures of the monster before but most came in underexposed and too far away. It is not easy getting close up shots of the creature. 

The documentary then showed the Hugh Gray picture which was commented upon by Constance Whyte (below). She described the incident and how she knew Hugh Gray very well and then discussed the worldwide impact of her new book, "More Than a Legend". Clearly, it had stirred up a lot of interest. Asked how science could get involved, she suggested a line of boats should conduct a sonar sweep of the loch. It looks like Mrs. Whyte foresaw Operation Deepscan thirty years before it came to be.

At this point, it was back to the ship and the Marconi sonar machine they had employed in aid of the search. I believe it was called a "fish-o-graph" or similar, the operator's words were indistinct. Note this device pinged the waters directly below it. The side scan sonar we saw employed by the likes of Marty Kline was still a few years off. The demonstration of the echo-sounder showed some traces, including one which showed 72 fish swimming about. How that number compares to modern traces, I could not say.

However, it was a trace shown above that they had recorded earlier that generated the most interest of the expedition. It was an unknown trace just off the ledge before the  roughly 45 feet deep shelf. The Marconi operator did not know what it was and he said it was a substantially stronger signal that the fish they had got used to seeing on the trace. It was deemed to be submerging at the time of detection.The mark is seen in the screenshot above the edge where the loch bed begins to rise sharply and meet the shallower edge.

This was compared with another trace made later of the submerged camera rig calculated to be about 80 feet down. The unknown trace was at about the same depth and the commentator said the boat positions were approximately the same. The camera rig trace is shown below and one may assume that if the circumstances were indeed similar and the camera rig was a kind of calibration test against a known object, then it was unlikely the unknown trace was an occurrence of the ubiquitous "spurious side echoes" so often wheeled out when unknown traces are publicised.

So a fascinating sonar event and one wonders where that roll of echo-sounder trace paper is today? After this, the program ended with two more witnesses. The first was a Peter MacMillan, a stalker from Invermoriston, who had a good view of the creature near the mouth of the River Moriston. He had spied it through his stalker's scope and described it as having a dark, brown, rough skin and about thirty five feet long. He said it  was certainly not a wave as he had seen many waves over the years at the loch.

The final word went to Colonel Patrick Grant of the Knockie Estate who had seen it himself, as had some of his friends and other locals. They knew it existed as much as the surrounding hills and hoped that science would eventually provide answers to what they were seeing. Unfortunately, sixty one years on, science has not provided such an answer, despite what people may say about misperceptions. These people interviewed back then were adamant they had seen a large, unknown creature and I doubt they would have had much time for the theories that have been doing the rounds for decades since.

All in all, this film is an important historical document in the story of the Loch Ness Monster and I am glad this was one item that did not fall victim to the BBC's policy of re-using old video stock during subsequent years (as fans of Doctor Who and Dad's Army will testify to).

The author can be contacted at

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Looking back on the eDNA results

It has now been just over a month since Professor Neil Gemmell announced the results of his environmental DNA studies of Loch Ness to the world. I thought I would wait for the media frenzy to abate before I digested what data was available to the general public as well as asking Professor Gemmell to clarify some points for me.

So, as a believer in the Loch Ness Monster, what can I conclude from these results? In some sense, the survey follows on from two large scale searches of the loch over the last five decades and they feed into one another. First, we had the extensive surface watches of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau in the 1960s. This was followed by the sonar surveys typified by the large Operation Deepscan in 1987. Thirty years later, science has progressed to the point where actual animal material in microscopic quantities can be extracted, sequenced and matched to known animals.

Unlike the previous two searches, the eDNA survey was focused on a study of the flora and fauna of the loch, the other two were concerned with finding evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. Nevertheless, there was the hope to many that the creature would intersect with the study in some way.


But before I compare and contrast these searches, what can be said about the results of the DNA survey? At the time of writing, a series of results have been published by Otago University at their Loch Ness Hunters website. These results can be searched by species or location and it is the species-oriented results that have got the most attention. If you did not know by now, here is the pie chart of species found.

I base my comments on the assumption this is a complete record of vertebrate matches. As I understand it, Arctic Char, Sea Trout and Brown Trout are not explicitly mentioned as they are likely included under "Salmon" as members of the salmonidae family alongside Atlantic Salmon. Perch are not explicitly mentioned either, but will come under the family name of percidae (which suggests an exact species match was not achieved). Some species appear to have been missed, namely otters, newt, carp and roach. The last two are actually unconfirmed by "official" sources, but people claim they are there.  So does their absence from the DNA record dismiss their existence? That depends if you believe people's anecdotes about them!

No reptile DNA was found though reptiles do live by the loch such as adders. lizards and slow worms. They can enter the water, but it is assumed that such ventures are too rare to leave any traceable DNA. The same could go for the amphibian newts. However, we know otters live by the loch and enter the waters, but they have been missed by the sampling regime. This will simply be down to the fact that sampling did not occur near places of otter activity.

Some results were surprising such as sample "Ness 10" in the middle of the loch being identified as 100% pheasant DNA! It was proposed by Professor Gemmell that this was likely due to some birds defecating into the loch at that point.

You will note there is no mention of plant life or microscopic life, one assumes they were not included in the public results. The main point here is that most but not all species were detected and that was down to the element of uncertainty in choosing the best sampling sites. In total, about 250 samples were taken at the loch at depths from 0.5 to 200 metres. However, if one looks at the public data, only 56 samples are listed.

That perhaps should give me pause for thought if not all the data is available. Professor Gemmell told me all the data would come in the scientific paper he intends to publish around the end of the year. But with that limitation in mind, I will proceed.

I also note that some of the sample results are not complete. For example, if one looks at sample location "Ness 2", there were three samples taken at 0.5m, 100m and 200m. The results are stated as 321 for humans and 1 for toads, but it does not state which applies to what depths. Clearly, the human result would be for the surface (perhaps human waste from a cruise boat), but at what depth was the toad DNA retrieved?

This brings to mind a headline from 2007 when a deep water survey team found a toad in Loch Ness at a depth of 98 metres (above). The depth of the loch at the point of sample "Ness 2", north of Inverfarigaig, was about 220 metres, so the team must have sampled the water at best 20 metres above the surface. One wonders how common this amphibian is at these depths? But until I see the depth data, the toad DNA could have been retrieved at the surface.

Looking at the public database, 11 of the 56 samples were taken at depths of 100-200 metres. I am not sure if this is a proportionate representation, in which case there were about 50 deep water samples taken. If not, we have 11 to work with and it is my guess, having eliminated terrestrial and pelagic creatures that next to no vertebrate matches were made at these depths which we call the Profundal Zone.


However, it may be that any data for these 11 samples are simply missing or too scarce because it has been established that fish do inhabit this zone as per the capture of a potentially benthic form of Arctic Char at 200m by the Loch Ness Project. Now the reason I am most interested in this depth data is because I believe the creature spends most of its time at these depths, generally not moving around, with occasional forays up the sides of the loch walls.

This can be established from the witness database. If we filter out the spike years of 1933-1934, we are averaging about 10 sightings per year since then - and that is before one decides what proportion of these are misidentifications and hoaxes. Clearly, this is a creature which does not surface very often which leads to the conclusion that it is not a creature that spends much time in the shallower pelagic zone.

The surface watches of the 1960s confirmed this and the more penetrating sonar surveys, though they do produce occasional sonar hits of the creatures, it is clear that it is in the deepest depths that these creatures must be sought. This is not so easy for sonar due to beam attenuation and widening, but this has been my belief since 2012 that any searches in the pelagic zone will be generally fruitless. 

But if only 11 deep water samples were taken, would much be picked up? The public data suggests nothing, but I await further information as surely some known lifeforms were detected. I would point out a further potential problem with eDNA surveys at these depths. The relatively inert nature of the abyssal plain does not lend to distribution and scattering of DNA due to the higher water pressure at those depths and the lack of disruptive water movements such as the higher thermocline. As Adrian Shine says:

In contrast to the turbulence and variety of physical conditions among the stones of the shoreline, the fine and relatively rich silts of the abyssal regions offer remarkable stability. In an environment of great hydrostatic pressure, constant darkness, and a scarcely changing low temperature of 5.6C, high oxygen levels (over 80% saturation), permit surprising variety in the profundal community of the 200m deep basin floors.

I am not sure how one gets around this more difficult sampling region. I had suggested prior to the team's arrival that they actually sample the silt itself which may preserve more DNA, but that did not happen. Note higher oxygen levels are a boon to the survival of bottom dwelling creatures. So the jury is out for me on what was detected and what was detectable at these extreme depths and I await Professor Gemmell's scientific paper.


Which brings us to the data that was certainly not in the data. It was stated that 25% of the DNA was not amenable to identification. When I asked Professor Gemmell about this his answer was that unexplained DNA sequences were generally short DNA sequences that can not be accurately attributed to any specific species or taxonomic group with statistical certainty. Most metabarcoding and eDNA studies have portions of these sequences so he did not see any significance in that data.

The more relevant piece of data in regard to this was the study conducted at the nearby lochs of Cluanie, Oich, Duntelchaig and Ashie. When I asked how much unidentified DNA was present in those loch samples, he said it was largely the same. In other words, we should not look for monsters in that unprocessed set of data.

It also has to be said that there was another indeterminate region in which low samples of DNA, though processable, were too small to produce enough confidence and hence were discarded. In other words, anything that came up with fewer sequences than was detected for any species in the negative control were discarded. 

As an aside, it had been mentioned in pre-trip publicity that Loch Morar would form part of the "control" lochs. Professor Gemmell informed me that the loch in the end did not get sampled, which was a pity given its monster tradition.


As said before, no reptilian DNA was detected and that would eliminate extinct animals such as plesiosaurs right away. But if reptile DNA was detected, how could one zero in on a plesiosaur identification? Professor Gemmell's approach was to use a rough DNA composite somewhere between crocodiles and birds. Some have suggested plesiosaurs lie closer to turtles by relation and this was conceded by Neil, though it is a moot point given the absence of reptilian DNA.

The matter of giant eels was the main takeaway from the conference given by Professor Gemmell. However, the truth of the matter is that the eDNA survey had only failed to eliminate giant eels as a monster candidate as giant eels could have the same DNA sequence as smaller ones. Indeed, it could never eliminate giant eels in the same way it could not eliminate giant salmon, giant dogs or giant toads! I suspect that conclusion was more a sop to the worried Highland tourism industry. 

My own take is that giant eels are not the main explanation for Loch Ness Monster sightings. They could not possibly account for long necks, land sightings, semi spherical humps or sustained surfacings. This would only be possible if these features are explained by other non-eel causes. I do concede the historical possibility of large eels in the loch, perhaps of the order of two or even three metres long. Whether these have played a part in surface sightings is indeterminate, but certainly not the corpus of accounts.

My own question to Professor Gemmell was how the eels had been identified in the loch as some identifications from DNA had only been accurate to the family level and not the species level. His confirmation was that the species anguilla anguilla had indeed been matched and that is where I think I will leave that theory.


In the broader scheme of things, Professor Gemmell's eDNA survey did not produce anything unusual from a cryptozoological point of view. He did mention some "surprising" results, but one must assume those surprises were confined to the microscopic level. I was not expecting anything from the majority half meter samples unless he struck lucky and a benthic monster had passed by that way in the last few weeks. Indeed, one may have passed that way close to June 2018 according to Gary Campbell's sightings register:

28 May - Morag Connor and her friend were driving north out of Drumnadrochit between 11 and 11.30 am. They saw a creature with a long neck with some humps behind it sticking about 7-8 feet out of the water and about 50 m from the shore. The creature had an all dark body but with no discernible head. They were unable to stop as they were driving and there was no place to pull over.

One suspects that if this was genuine, the creature's DNA had degraded by the time Professor Gemmell's team had started, even if he had intersected with its widening DNA dispersion trail back into the abyss. Be that as it may, we know that not all creatures were identified and that was purely down to the coverage of the loch not being complete and no one is blaming anyone else over that herculean task.

The Loch Ness Monster is a non-abundant species, just as I suspect the missing otters, newt, carp and roach are. It likewise did not intersect with the survey and that's just the way it statistically falls out,  especially if this species spends most of its time in the inert silt 200 meters or more below. But I will defer final judgement until I see the complete data when Professor Gemmell's paper comes out.

The author can be contacted at

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

A Review of "The Loch Ness Sea Lion"

Author Rob Cornes is better known for co-authoring the cryptozoological work, "The Seal Serpent" which investigates the possibility of a currently unclassified long necked pinniped being responsible for some sightings of aquatic cryptids. In that book he also mentions the possibility of some known pinnipedia playing their part in this mystery and that has been developed in this smaller book devoted to the Loch Ness Monster and seals with a diversion to other Scottish water monsters.

Two families of pinnipeds are discussed, the first being the phocid family which are classed as earless seals and includes the harbor seal which lives near Loch Ness, The other is the otariid family which are the various species of sea lions and are characterised as having pointed ears and being more slimline. However, sea lions are not indigenous to the North Atlantic.

Phocidae: Harbor Seal

Now, Rob is a sceptic insomuch that he gives no credence to the idea of an indigenous air breathing cryptid in Loch Ness, but neither does he go down the road of ascribing all monster sightings to known phenomena at the loch. In other words, he thinks that some sightings, especially in the 1930s, were down to an outside visitor to the loch he believes to be a sea lion.

Otariidae: California Sea Lion

But, as just stated, these animals are not known in the waters around Great Britain. Rob suggests this objection can be resolved by the history of captive sea lions from zoos, circuses and private collections escaping into the seas of the United Kingdom. That such escapes have occurred he proves from newspaper articles dating before the 1930s and beyond. Many were recaptured but it is reasonable to assume some forged out into the seas and survived. Rob reckons at least a dozen made their way into European waters.

So, we are taken through some of the well known land sightings of the Loch Ness Monster from the late nineteenth century onwards and some features are noted as sea lion like such as the waddling motions described by some witnesses or a caterpillar like or lurching motion. The MacGruer incident of 1919 is speculatively correlated with the Mackintosh Bell sea serpent sighting of that period and a recently escaped sea lion. Could these three incidents be one and the same creature?

Meantime, Rob speculates further that the Alfred Cruikshank event of 1923 was more likely a resident phocid of the old bull male variety due to the apparent absence of a long neck. What was more irreconcilable to seals was the Fordyce sighting of April 1932 which looked more like a grey camel with next to no head. But I do feel Rob overindulges in speculation by linking the event to a large rail delivery of livestock to a show in Inverness and therefore the escape of some kind of non-local cattle. 

As he gets into the busy Nessie period of 1933-34, Rob makes some statements that can be challenged. He attributes the seminal Aldie Mackay report as no more than a "mild disturbance in the water" which is not the case if one reads Gould's interview of the witness. Moreover, a sighting by three anglers in 1930 is dismissed as an embellishment while a follow up letter describing a "very large seal" is accepted because it has the relevant keyword "seal" in it. Should one set of witnesses be discriminated against another on this basis?

Rob toes the sceptics' canonical line that a combination of events such as King Kong, untrained eyewitnesses, sensationalistic journalism all contributed to a fabricated monster. So, for example, the Spicers are dismissed as seeing only an otter. Interestingly, he also mentions the old tales of water horses as being part of the kindling that ignited the phenomenon. Most others look to contemporary influences as the only factors. 

As suggested above, sightings which report seal like features are given greater credence such as those by Janet Fraser and Mrs MacLennan which are shown below from contemporary sketches. In these cases, the protuberances on the Fraser creature are suggested as like the ears of the sea lion and the tail on the MacLennan creature is seen as possible rear flippers of said creature.

And herein lies the conundrum of the sceptical position. On the one hand, sightings of large creatures are dismissed as inaccurate due to inexperienced eyewitnesses and wishful thinking. However, Janet Fraser is presented as an eyewitness who could have discerned seal ears from half a mile and MacLennan gave a credible description of rear flippers. The problem is obvious - if they are credited with getting those smaller details right, then why not the rest of the description?

Indeed, if one or more seals did venture onto the shores of Loch Ness over the years, why is there not one report from anyone saying they saw seals on land? Is the "expectant attention" effect so pervasive that no one was ever capable of simply reporting a bona fide seal? I think not, and perhaps it is safer to conclude seals were never seen on land by anyone (though that does not preclude seals beaching on the loch with no eyewitnesses).

But the story that gets the most attention is the famous account by Arthur Grant in January 1934. Rob is correct in taking the view that Grant did encounter an aquatic animal. Investigators of the time plumped for a tuskless walrus which is the only surviving member of the other pinnipeds, the odobenidae family. Rob plumps for the otariid sea lion and notes (among various points) the bounding action described by Grant is reminiscent of that seal.

I concede that is true but the main issue is that what Grant describes does not look like a sea lion and again we visit the issue of eyewitness reliability. Rob gets around this by suggesting Grant knew what he saw but embellished his account with a cryptic clue when he said the creature looked like a plesiosaur-seal hybrid. This is somewhat contradicted when Rob further suggests the webbed feet described may have been misperceived hind flippers. In my view, unintended misperceptions and intended embellishments do not usually co-exist.

But the nub of the argument for me is size. Sea lions are relatively small compared to the beasts described at Loch Ness and, as said before, some eyewitnesses to terrestrial sightings had one outstanding frame of reference - the road. Or, if you like, the creatures were moving over a giant ruler.

So the challenge before any investigator is deciding what is inaccurate and what is not. Unfortunately, that is susceptible to selection bias, If you are prone to a given theory, then features described by eyewitnesses which favour your theory can be deemed to be accurate. Those which are not tend to be ignored or dismissed. It is a condition that afflicts all of us.

Did a sea lion once make its way into Loch Ness and confound the people around the loch decades ago? Rob cannot prove it, but neither can I prove what Arthur Grant perceived, misperceived or embellished, so it is really down to the eye of the beholder and their own degree of intellect and emotion.

What I would ask is whether he considers his other theory of a possible large and long necked pinniped being the alternative explanation for monsters seen at Loch Ness? Rob has given a book with some novel thinking and some interesting tales of creatures known and unknown from newspaper reports of old. It also helps to add to the store of knowledge on the seal as Nessie theory. So, I am happy to include it in my library of books and recommend it to others.

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Friday, 20 September 2019

Review of eDNA Documentary

On the heels of the recent eDNA results announced at Loch Ness came a documentary on Sunday covering the whole undertaking as well as the mandatory history of Nessie and her detractors and proponents. The name of the program was "The Loch Ness Monster: New Evidence".

Like a movie, the cast of Neil Gemmell, Eric Verspoor, Charles Paxton, Gordon Holmes, Val Moffatt, Loren Coleman and Steve Feltham (below) is introduced. Others will follow but the groupings are there to see with scientists, sceptics and believers with eyewitnesses in the middle somewhere. Will any of them offer a reasonable explanation as to what these people saw?

Neil Gemmell will feature throughout the documentary measuring rope lengths, surveying the scene and collecting water samples. The results will come at the end of the hour and a half program where we judge if it merits the subtitle "new evidence".

Four hypotheses are considered, two hundred and fifty water samples were taken and eighty five years of Nessie history is covered as a tale familiar to many who read this blog is once again recounted. Not surprisingly, the story begins with Marmaduke Wetherell, his fake Hippo tracks and the controversial Surgeon's Photograph. It seems every Nessie program must feature that photograph and being the most iconic image of the mystery, this is no surprise.

Everyone denounces it as a hoax except Loren Coleman (below) who puts a defence for the "hoax is a hoax" theory. Some. but not all, of that theory's points are raised, including the matter of when plastic wood was around. I covered that topic some seven years ago. The only curious matter for me was why Alistair Boyd was not on doing this as he was the man most responsible for exposing this fraud?

Having introduced the monster in an albeit negative way, the subject of cryptozoology was explained by Loren and we saw Steve Feltham as such a researcher at the loch recounting his only sighting to date. That happened in his first year, which encouraged him into thinking it was only a matter of time before the next sighting. Twenty eight years on, Steve has seen nothing more to this day as the loch refuses to yield up any more to him. Monster hunters throughout the years will know that feeling well.

Being slightly out of step, the documentary realigns to the beginning of the modern story with the Aldie Mackay sighting reported on May 2nd 1933. Adrian Shine (above) took us through this seminal event and makes an error by first stating that Aldie saw some ducks fighting. This is not true, she told Rupert Gould she initially thought it was two ducks fighting only to dismiss it. However, Adrian did state they saw a "humped body" or to be more precise a two humped body (from Gould). It was not televised what Adrian though they saw and to be fair to the producer, a lot of potential sceptic negativity seems to have ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Indeed, this mystery should appeal to a broad audience, not just those dedicated to its destruction.

We were told the construction of a new road in the 1930s opened the loch up to new sightseers. It did indeed, though it has to be pointed out it was not a new road but an existing road which was upgraded. However, it was near the old southern road that the first photograph was taken and finally -  finally - a documentary showed the best version of the Hugh Gray attributed to a Mr. Heron-Allen. Mind you, did anyone consulted see fit to mention the eel like head in the picture? Either that or the producer saw fit not to mention it. But given how the rest of the program panned out, I doubt that.  But for all you fans, here it is once again, grinning back at you. Is it the face of a giant eel? I couldn't possibly comment.

It was time to speak to some people who had claimed to have seen the old beast, and, after all, it is the likes of them that are the lifeblood of the mystery. We were regaled by tales from Val Moffatt, Karen and Gordon Taylor, and Richard White. We would also hear later from a Mamie McDairmaid. Val had featured on some documentaries before (e.g. Jeremy Wade's "River Monsters") and Richard White took some well known photos back in 1997 (below).

I don't think most of the witnesses were given much time to say anything at all, so here is Richard's account from the Nova PBS documentary from years back:

Right, I'm driving along the Loch side, glancing out of the window. You can see the rock formation, I was just down on the road there, it just rises. I saw this boiling in the water. I thought, "No, it can't be anything," and I carried on a wee bit. Then I looked again, and I saw three black humps. I mean, you know, there's the chance, I've seen something in the water. But what is it?

So I'm gobsmacked, I'm looking out the window, I just didn't know what it was. Then the people came behind me, and they obviously wanted me to move. But I didn't want to lose sight of this thing. So I just pulled over to the side, grabbed my camera, and I thought I was being very cool and very nonchalant and took two or three photos. In fact, as I say, I had taken nine or ten, without realizing, I just punched the button. It was just a pity it was a small camera.

NOVA: Did anybody else see anything?

WHITE: Yeah, the other two people who were there—I was just so excited I didn't get their name and address or anything—they saw it exactly the same as me. Because the wee wifey, who would have been a lady in her fifties, on holiday, she was Scottish, she said to me, "I've not been in the bar this morning!" And her husband said, "Ach, it's an eel! It's an eel!" And I said, "There's no eels that big!" And he said, "Ach, it's otters!" And I said, "You don't get otters swimming out like that!"

I saw what I saw, and I'm not going to be dissuaded. It wasn't just an imagination. I'm a sane guy, and I've got no ax to grind. As I say I sell pet food! What use to me is the Loch Ness monster? Unless I can invent a food called, I don't know, Monster Munchies perhaps?

Back to the documentary under review and we moved nearly 30 years into the 1960s beginning with Tim Dinsdale's famous film. Little was said about the classic photos apart from the Surgeon's photo. We had flashes of the Lee, Stuart, MacNab and Gray pictures with no mention of the Cockrell or O'Connor pictures. On the other hand they were not really dismissed either, mainly fulfilling the role of eye candy for the viewers.

Naturally during this period the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau was discussed along with Dan Taylor's mini submarine (which Loren said collided with Nessie - cough!) and the arrival of a young fame seeking Adrian Shine. His statement that this "should have been the end of it" after the failed attempts of the LNIB, Robert Rines and others ushered us into the 1980s and the Loch Ness Project's experiments with sonar culminating in Operation Deepscan in 1987.

The three sonar contacts that were not there when revisited were mentioned which led into a discussion on seals which come into the loch every few years. Since it is unlikely a seal was in the loch plus the fact that they spend about 20% of their time at the surface allied with the fact that a whole fleet of cruisers were on the loch for the operation suggests this is not a persuasive theory.

At which point the documentary took a left turn down a dark alley and by that I mean paranormal theories about the monster. This led us into talk about wormholes, a hollow earth entry point, a spaceship lying at the bottom of the loch, Saint Columba's supernatural control of the beast and the demon raiser, Aleister Crowley. Another attempt was made to link him with the mystery, though he left the loch about 100 years ago. I take the view he had nothing to do with it because we have people claiming they saw strange creatures in the loch before Crowley was born.

It was then onto the home straight and back to modern times as we revisited Gordon Holmes' 2007 video of a strange object in the loch. Neil Gemmell reviewed the video with Gordon and admitted to a "torpedo shaped" object moving through the water. It seems he wasn't accepting the strange theories about wind devils some have come up with to get rid of this troublesome video. Giant eels were mentioned in regard to this video and I knew where this was leading to!

Before the program got into the final results, Charles Paxton (above) was brought in to talk about his statistical analysis of monster sightings. This is a project he started quite a while back and hopes to publish. What he said on the documentary was brief and not given to critique and we shall wait for that to come out before saying anything else (I have seen his draft paper and have my own draft reply).

Finally it was on to the eDNA result and they occupied about seven minutes of the entire documentary! If you didn't know already, there was no reptile, sturgeon or catfish DNA detected. There was, of course, eel DNA found and so the best one could conclude was that giant eels could not be excluded (or proven). This would appear to be the "new evidence".

In conclusion, Neil Gemmell admitted the experiments could not guarantee 100% coverage of the loch and guesswork always enters into the areas which have not been examined. Adrian Shine added that eyewitnesses were honest and accurate - but I think he and I have different ideas about the meaning of the word "accurate", but I will cover that in another article.

The program ended by pointing out that there had been more than two dozen sightings of the monster since Professor Gemmell had been to the loch and there was the matter of  about 25% of the sampled DNA being unidentifiable.  It seems between these two sets of data, the monster will continue to have quite a bit of wriggle room, I will cover than in another article summing up things for me.

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Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Two Books of Interest

First up is a new book by Rob Cornes entitled "The Loch Ness Sea Lion". Rob is the author of the larger work, "The Seal Serpent", but here he focuses on a more conventional theory in which he argues that an itinerant sea lion was responsible for some sightings since 1933. The cover showing the Arthur Grant episode shows you that this may well be involved in the book. I have a copy and will review it in the near future. The book can be purchased from

I would also like to draw readers' attention to a biography of the late Erik Beckjord written by Molly Squire and entitled "Beckjord: Biography of a Cryptozoologist". Some may be aware of Erik's involvement in the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster in the 1980s and his assertion that Tim Dinsdale was a Nessie paranormalist, just like him. Perhaps the book will also have something new to say about his film taken at the loch in 1983. I covered a few items on him in the past, which you can find here and here. The promotional text of the book says:

Biography of Bigfoot and anomaly researcher. Adventures of Jon Erik Beckjord, MBA, in woods, on Indian Reservations, Area 51, in the United Kingdom at sites of Crop Circles, at Loch Ness, with analysis of material evidence and 35 photos in text.

The book can be purchased here.

The author can be contacted at

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Loch Ness eDNA results released

The results are out and you can view the press conference here and the eDNA results are officially published here.

Having now watched the whole feed, the gist of it to me was that they did not find any unusual DNA, certainly no reptilian DNA. He did say all the expected fish DNA were found including lots of eel DNA, in fact a surprising amount of such data, which led him to suggest that Loch Ness could harbour a giant eel.

This was not concluded from the eel DNA as the experiment (he said) could not distinguish between large and small eels. Also, no seal or otter DNA was found. Again, I do not find that surprising as the seal is an itinerant visitor to the loch and otters may have specific locations not visited by the samplers. Adherents of the itinerant Nessie theory will not be surprised by this. Neil Gemmell did say that about 20% of the DNA they found could not be identified, though the main issue there may be that such fragments were not amenable to analysis. To that end, he related the story of how 40% of DNA samples taken from an American subway station (?) were not identifiable. Is there a loophole there for some believers as any sequence not matching the species database would be set aside?

You may wonder about any catfish or sturgeon DNA results. No such DNA was found, but again for sturgeon, the itinerant theory can be invoked. For catfish, the only hope for such adherents is that the population is so small, perhaps even one individual, that it was missed in the sampling (a limitation of the sampling that Neil readily admitted to).

Personally, my own view from some years back that we have an exotic fish of some sort remains viable. Neil Gemmell implied that the degree of accuracy of the analysis was not species level but some level above. I would like to know more about that. The related giant eel theory has received a boost, though that theory needs further work to explain features not usually associated with eels (e.g. raised humps).

My second favoured theory of itinerant/trapped visitors was never going to be touched in this regard and Loch Ness will continue to receive visitors of all sorts, usual and unusual now and from centuries past.The fact that the experiment failed to identify any visitor species was a bit of a surprise and made me wonder if migratory salmon or trout were missed.

May I also say I was particularly interested in one DNA find and that was "a bacteria most commonly associated with salty waters in the freshwater loch". How did such a specimen get there? Once again, that reopens the discussion as to whether there is a subterranean path to the sea from the loch. Also of interest to me was whether these results can help towards estimating the total biomass of the loch or relative abundances of species - a item of data important in predator foodstocks.

In the end, the professor was not suggesting this disproves the Loch Ness Monster and the "legend" will continue and people will continue to report strange things. Indeed, there was perhaps a bit of the old spin in the conference because not only are scientists and cryptozoologists interested in these results, but local and national tourism interests. The experiment did not prove giant eels but it also did not disprove them. I am sure VisitScotland will be happy with that!

The Otago team will put a searchable species database online soon and there will a documentary on the UK Discovery Channel on the 15th September while Neil Gemmell hopes to publish a peer reviewed article for a scientific journal by the end of the year. The BBC has published a summary with reactions at this link.

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Monday, 2 September 2019

Large eel like object in River Ness?

Something large seems to have passed by one of the underwater cameras that the Ness Fishery Board employs to monitor salmon runs. It has all the appearance of a large eel. It's a bit indistinct due to our helpful peaty water but it looks alive and big. Not quite a 30 footer but easily outsizes the salmon in the foreground which gives the impression of backing off from this object before moving back in.

Assuming this was taken at the weekend when we had a lot of rain and rivers were in high spate, something seems to have taken advantage of this high water level. I assume from the motion of particles in the water and the salmon that the flow is from left to right indicating Loch Ness is to the left and the Moray Firth to the right. In other words, this object is heading from the loch towards the sea.

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