Tuesday 31 December 2019

Nessie Review of 2019

It is time to look back on another year of Loch Ness Monster related news as we head into a new year and a new decade. The obvious place to start was the eDNA results put out by Professor Neil Gemmell and his team in September. It was back in June 2018 that Neil arrived at the loch to collect a large number of water samples to pass onto various laboratories for DNA extraction and analysis. Fifteen months later, the main results were published and I put out my thoughts on these a short time later.

The take home was no reptile DNA was found or anything of an unusual nature. Giant eels could not be excluded, mainly because such samples would be indistinguishable from smaller ones and that dominated the headlines. Note that the results did not prove the existence of mega-eels.

The published data set is still incomplete and my focus was on the lower benthic regions where it appeared little sampling was done. There was also a large proportion of unidentified DNA which people locked onto, though even if this did contain something of interest, one would have thought such DNA would also turn up in the identified 75% - unless there was an anomaly in the sampling regime. As such, I await the publishing of Professor Gemmell's scientific paper and full data set in pursuit of a final opinion.

Back at the loch, I resorted to Gary Campbell's sightings register to get the final count with only a few days left of 2019. He has logged seventeen reports which is a hefty number compared to recent years. Examining these reports roughly breaks down into eleven lochside reports, five via webcam and one involving sonar. Comparisons with historic annual totals should take into consideration these online viewers.

My own take on webcam reports is ambivalent. I had a look at one of the webcam clips taken by Eoin O'Faodhagain on the 10th of July. The objects in the webcam are as always a long distance from the camera and therefore inconclusive. My main point was that below the crest of the hill in every webcam footage is Urquhart Castle and its Visitor Centre - a major hub of tourist activity. In that light, I would like to see corroborating eyewitness evidence from down below whenever interesting webcam footage appears. There is no guarantee somebody below will concurrently see anything, but over the years, some testimony should appear.

Of the various shoreline sightings, most were too far away to draw any real conclusions. The fact that a circle is often added to show you where the object is says it all. Two of the reports were, in my opinion, a log which has been stuck in the shallows of Urquhart Bay for a long time. The two most interesting items were wakes taken by Rory Cameron and a Mr. Horsler.

Mr. Cameron's was of prime interest because it was a video, but it does suffer from being about a mile from the observer. However, the video clip includes Urquhart Castle and so estimates of size and speed can be estimated giving an estimate of two white water disturbances each fifteen feet long in a space sixty feet long and a speed range dropping from 10 mph to 1.5 mph. The full analysis can be found here.

Meantime, the image taken by the Horslers was perhaps the clearest image, being that of a wake of unknown origin. The reason it is clear is because the witnesses were on the roadside and the presence of the buoy on the left suggests it happened near the top end of Lochend where the loch narrows significantly suggesting the wake was about 200-300 metres away. Nothing is visible at the head of the wake which Gary Campbell suggests is bigger than the usual bird wakes. The buoy in the picture is no more than six feet high in my estimate and perhaps twice as far away. It is an interesting picture, but the lack of a physical object in the image renders it inconclusive.

The sonar image (below) taken by Mike Bell from his fish finder in June was covered by myself at this link back in August and certainly is a curious image to add to the various anomalous sonar images which should not be readily dismissed as false echoes, fish or waterlogged tree trunks. Of the eleven lochside eyewitness reports, eight produced still images, two produced video clips and one had no recorded images.

So the argument about not enough mobile phone images being taken is proven false again. But the problem remains, out of these eleven lochside reports, only one had the eyewitness close enough to the object to produce an image with any kind of clarity. Unfortunately, it was only a wake formation and we will just have to continue to wait for a human-creature encounter which ideally occurs within 200 metres or so.

One video that did not make it into Gary's list was the curious underwater video of an eel-like object in the River Ness (below). The owners of the camera said it was just a stick passing by, but that was an explanation I did not find convincing as I thought the object was descending in the water. The actual object was in relatively shallow water and was no 30 footer, but it was big enough. What was curious was that the eel-like object glided by the camera only a few days before Neil Gemmell promoted the giant eel theory at his press conference!

In terms of this blog for 2019, having entered its ninth year, it was a somewhat quieter year with 44 articles published, which is the smallest since the inaugural year of 2010. This was due to other projects which are non-Nessie related, but it did begin in February with the publication of my third book, "Photographs of the Loch Ness Monster" which surveys most but not all of the pictures claiming to be of the creature. The subtitle "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" suggests that not all is what it may seem, but not all are fakes or misinterpretations either.

Meantime, a party to a famous eyewitness report was tracked down by myself and that was Harry Finlay who had a classic AAA sighting of the creature from the astonishing range of 25 feet back in 1952 alongside his mother, Greta Finlay. That makes recent reports from half miles away pale into insignificance. Harry was still sticking to his story 57 years on and that conversation was blogged here and I hope to soon video interview Harry, who is now about 80 years old.

Back in July, I also put online a long lost audio tape of famous Nessie researcher, Ted Holiday, interviewing eyewitnesses which formed part of his later book, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" (1968). Thanks to Will Matthews, these were found in an archive of the late Ivan T. Sanderson. It was great to hear the words of witnesses going back to the 1930s in one's own ears. The research also continued as articles from the past such as Alex Campbell's reply to Maurice Burton was put online as were reports from the 19th century. I am not sure Alex Campbell wrote anything else apart from his Inverness Courier reports.

But I also note with sadness the recent passing of Kevin Malek, lover of mysteries, including the Loch Ness Monster, on which we exchanged views over time and concerning which I appeared on his Paraversal radio show last year.

I sometimes wonder if those who cross the Great Divide will be any wiser about those mysteries once debated about so much here below. Then again, I am not sure such questions even get near the top of the list once new realms are revealed. Either way, Rest in Peace, Kevin.

Many related to the hunt have passed on since the great mystery of the Loch Ness Monster began in 1933. As we now enter its 87th year, will 2020 be like others years with perhaps one or two good sightings or pictures but again not good enough for all? The year of extraordinary proof could come at any time, just don't bet the house on it being the year to come.

I wish all readers a happy and prosperous 2020.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

Thursday 19 December 2019

Another Weird Nessie Book Cover

The 1970s was the heyday of weird and wacky Loch Ness Monster book covers, you can check out the various covers that were produced to entice buyers in those days at this link. But they don't come much weirder than this one that fellow researcher, Nick Redfern, alerted me to a few days back. The advert states it was published by Futura on December 15th, 1974, which was a year after the original hardback book with the more familiar cover below.

What the cover depicted and what it had to do with the book's thesis was not immediately apparent. The artwork was evidently that of William Blake (1757-1827), though the sketch was not known to me. Nick put me right and said it was his work "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed In Sun" which is based on the Book of Revelation 12:1-4.

Okay, the dragon correlation is obvious, though the dragon in Blake's work is symbolic of the Devil himself. But the woman clothed in light? You got me there, so answers on a postcard please. That makes it now four variations on the Dragon and Disc covers, including this dragon and UFO artwork below. The fourth variant is a blue version of the green cover above.

The book cover is featured on Amazon though I am not sure how you buy that actual cover. It looks like a stock photo and so I will leave that to other collectors, I have enough books for now! Nick wondered about the provenance of the book as it was advertised as "import". That is what is says on amazon.com but on amazon.co.uk, it is not import, which makes me think it is was a book for the British market only and was imported into the USA marketplace.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

Wednesday 11 December 2019

The Mystery of the Three Toed Cast

In a previous post, I went over a 1934 sceptical appraisal of the then new Loch Ness Monster phenomenon. There was an excerpt from that article which I held back for this piece concerning the Arthur Grant land sighting:

The Daily Mail, with customary enterprise, sent investigators. These included a big-game hunter. who eventually found two impressions of a large foot upon the shore. Photographs and a cast of these were submitted to the museum, where the impressions were found to have been made on a heaped-up bank of fine shingle with the help of a stuffed foot of a hippopotamus. A wag had been busy - had he used a living hippopotamus the impression would have been different and the big game hunter would not have been deceived.

On the other side of the loch the animal which bounded across the road, described above, left a trail. In that trail was an obscure footprint of which a cast was also made. At the museum it was found that this footprint was also the work of a joker - but this time he used the mounted foot of a rhinoceros.

Now I covered the matter of the Arthur Grant case and tracks found on the shore in my book, "When Monsters Come Ashore". Until recently I was aware of these "rhinoceros" tracks that had been found, but I did not connect them with the Grant story and assumed they were related to the Marmaduke Wetherell tracks found on the remote shoreline between Foyers and Fort Augustus. The plaster casts  taken from the Grant site were sent again to the Natural History Museum, but now it transpires these were identified as rhinoceros as opposed to the infamous "hippo" tracks which were created using Wetherell's ashtray.

The question before us is whether these tracks were another Wetherell hoax or something entirely different? The main point being that a hippopotamus is four toed as opposed to the rhinoceros which is three toed, therefore it is unlikely that Marmaduke Wetherell's four toed ashtray would have produced such a three toed track. Indeed, if one examines the sketch done by Arthur Grant at the top of this page, there is a hint of a three toed rear limb in the bottom right of the picture.

What could be going on here? In pursuit of an answer, I consulted Boyd and Martin's expose of the Surgeon's Photograph which goes into more detail than any on the matter of Marmaduke Wetherell and the fake spoors. Firstly it has to be noted that the authors are dubious of any land sightings when on page 31 we have this general quote: "Alleged land sightings must be regarded with some doubt."

Bearing that in mind, it is no surprise that doubt is then cast by them on the whole affair by suggesting that Grant and Wetherell colluded to produce a sensational story, tracks and all. No proof is produced for this opinion other than the alleged phone call Grant is said to have made to parties unknown at that time - an accusation which has its own problems and is covered in my book on land sightings. Laying that aside, the proposed scenario would have Wetherell producing yet more tracks to fool the Daily Mail and the general public.

The sequence of events may even be used in support of such a conspiracy theory when we consider that the Natural History Museum announced their analysis of the hippo plaster casts on Wednesday the 3rd January 1934, the story made the newspapers on the 4th January and the Grant sighting occurred the very next day on Friday the 5th. Was this sequence of events designed to deceive? There are some problems with this conspiracy theory.

Firstly, why would Marmaduke Wetherell even do such a thing? The Natural History Museum had correctly identified the species of the first set of tracks and rightly put it down to a hoaxer. If Wetherell employed some form of rhinoceros spoor, the result was going to be inevitable when the second plaster casts arrived in South Kensington, London. Why risk a second embarrassment to your reputation as a big game hunter and cause further irritation to your client, the Daily Mail?

Secondly, if for whatever reason, Wetherell decided upon the January 3rd declaration by the Museum that yet another hoax was required, he had little time to organise it. It would demand that a co-conspirator be found and a location, plan and setting of fake tracks be done by the early hours of the 5th giving a day and a half or 36 hours in total. There is no evidence Wetherell and Grant had met before the 5th of January, none at all and so the whole idea really boils down to not empirical evidence, but whether one's bias wishes the whole theory to be true or not.

Thirdly, there is no evidence that Marmaduke Wetherell even owned such a rhinoceros foot. I contacted Marmaduke's grandson, who featured in Boyd and Martin's book and asked him if he recalled his grandfather ever owning such an item. His reply was that he only recalled the hippo foot ashtray. So, on the face of it, Marmaduke Wetherell had nothing to produce his three toed tracks with.

Now it has to be pointed out that Wetherell got away with his fake hippo tracks by hiding the hoax tool in plain sight. Marmaduke was a chain smoker and it would be natural to bring along his hippo foot ashtray while he was at the loch investigating the monster. It was a perfectly innocent item put to a more sinister use and one can only carry so many items around without arousing suspicion. So, in the absence of compelling evidence, let us assume that Marmaduke Wetherell had nothing to do with the creation of these tracks.

Indeed, it transpires that another set of three toed tracks were found days before the Grant affair but before the public announcement from the Natural History Museum. The relevant text is from the Edinburgh Evening News, 1st January 1934 which is reproduced below.

The story here is that after the discovery of Wetherell's four toed tracks, a discovery was made of what appeared to be three toed tracks on the opposite side of the loch. Where this exactly happened is not clear, but my guess is somewhere south of Invermoriston. This is also stated as a location near where the creature is alleged "to have crossed the road". Quite what report this is referring to is also not clear to me.

I have no record of land sightings in that vicinity in the months leading up to the end of 1933. The nearest in time was a report by a Mrs Reid in December, but this happened on the other side of the loch. The nearest by location was by a David Stewart back in May of that year just up the road by the Altsigh Burn who saw a grey coloured creature with a long neck come out of the bushes and disappear into the loch.

But the main point is that another three toed incident happened almost a week before Arthur Grant had his encounter and this was reported as discovered, not by Wetherell, but by a Fort Augustus "official". Should we presume that Wetherell was the instigator of not one but three hoaxes? I think that would indeed be presumptuous as the probability of conspiracy decreases as the size of the conspiracy increases.

As an aside, some looking to tar and feather Nessie personalities old and new may suggest the unknown Fort Augustus official was Alex Campbell. After all, he lived in Fort Augustus, as water bailiff he was a government employee and (as they claim), he was up for a bit of hoaxing. Needless to say, there is not a shred of evidence for this theory. Various other people could be officials (canal managers, police and local politicians) and in my years of scouring the literature, I have never read of Campbell relating this story.

So, are these tracks the real deal?

Of course, there is no way of telling for sure. Others may invoke Grant as the sole perpetrator or some other unknown third party, it is pure speculation and I think I will join in this speculation party but take the opposing side. What does a rhinoceros spoor actually look like? The zoologist does not say what type of rhino they decided upon, so I will assume the most common species of rhino which is the White Rhinoceros of Africa. A look around Google Images gave this example track and it is stated that a typical track is 29cm by 28cm in dimensions.

Clearly these look quite different to the hippo spoor from across the loch shown above. The problem is we do not precisely know what those 1934 plaster casts looked like and so we can only go with the museum's closest approximation to the white rhino. I would also note another mystery in that the second group to visit the site led by A.F. Hay measured the tracks at 24 inches (61cm) long from toe to heel, 38 inches (96cm) cross from right toe to left, and 30 inches (76cm) from heel to heel which is more than double the normal dimensions of a rhino track! So what gives here? Did the Museum err too much on the the assumption this was another game animal or did Hay over-estimate the size of the tracks or were these different but better formed tracks from the site? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I would note that a three toed track is not something unique to this story. In fact of the eleven land accounts that describe the forelimbs, two (18%) mention three toes and these are E.H. Bright from 1880 and Donald MacKinnon from 1979. Other instances of three toad tracks have been claimed elsewhere in the lake monster literature. These include a Robert Duff at Loch Morar on the 8th July 1969 as well as one found at Lake Okanagan (as related by Mark Chorvinsky).

To this we can add the 1948 tracks in the River Nith in Ontario (Lake Monsters and Sea Monsters - An Atlas and History), Huilla of Trinidad and Tobago (in "Water Monsters South of the Border"), Lake Tarpon (People Are Seeing Something), the Natal coast and White River (both in Dragons by Richard Freeman). However, one must not discount hoaxes, such as the Florida case related here.

It was probably a futile gesture since many monster hunters before me must have tried to track down these plaster casts without any apparent success. But I emailed the Natural History Museum archives department and they confirmed that they had no such items. That is no surprise as I assumed they would be returned to the owners. That Marmaduke Wetherell owned and then discarded the hippo casts once they had fulfilled their purpose is one likely outcome. But if the "rhino" tracks were not Wetherell fakes, how would they have been treated and by whom?

Plaster casts from the 1930s can easily survive to this day with proper storage, but frustratingly and nearly 85 years on, this potentially unique cast of the Loch Ness Monster is not likely to be with us today. Perhaps the answer lies with Arthur Grant's descendants.

I end this piece with a delightful poem penned by "glorat" extolling the mystery of the three toed monster, which was published in the Falkirk Herald dated 17th March 1934.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

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 lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

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 lochnesskelpie@gmail.com

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 lochnesskelpie@gmail.com