Wednesday 3 July 2019

Sonar and an Article on Cruise Loch Ness

I spotted this on the Daily Telegraph, but I think it is only available to subscribers, so here is an insight into how the Loch Ness cruise boat industry works. I went on the new Cruise Loch Ness boat last April and it was an enjoyable and interesting experience, but more on that at the end of this article.

Not every small business owner can say they offer customers a chance to get up close and personal with a legendary monster, but Debi Mackenzie can. For more than 50 years, her tour company Cruise Loch Ness has ferried curious clients back and forth across Scotland's second-deepest loch. Most come to learn about the region's history and geology, but in the back of their minds is always Nessie, she explains. "There's no getting away from it – people are mystified by the creature!"

Based in Fort Augustus, a "quaint little village" on the banks of the loch's southernmost point, the family-run firm offers a range of scenic and exhilarating tours. Its standard offering is a 50-minute cruise that runs several times a day to Invermoriston and back, while more adventurous travellers can take a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB) to Foyers, Urquhart Castle and beyond at high speed.

"We try to cater for all ages and budgets," says Mackenzie, who thinks that her company's key differentiator is its local workforce. "Our staff are well versed and very passionate about the place, as most have lived here all their lives." The director isn't local; she used to work in banking in Glasgow. In 2010, a mutual friend introduced Mackenzie to her now husband Ronald, the owner of Cruise Loch Ness. His father Norman launched the enterprise with a second-hand lifeboat in 1968.

The couple began dating, but living a three-and-a-half-hour drive apart proved tough. "One of us had to move, but Loch Ness is Loch Ness and we couldn't shift that," jokes Mackenzie, who relocated to Fort Augustus in 2012 and took a job with a local bank. "This was about the time the business began to take off and Ronald was working really hard on it, doing pretty much everything himself."

He asked his partner if she wanted to come aboard. "He expected me to say no, but I loved rural life," she says. "I wanted to see what we could do together to make the company even better." Ronald's time was mostly spent working on the boats, which meant that the back office suffered. Mackenzie used her banking expertise to introduce new finance and administration processes. "Everything became streamlined," she says. A new website and bespoke booking system brought even more efficiency and a better customer experience. Business increased by about 20pc each year after that point, she claims.

The family slowly but surely grew its fleet of boats to meet demand, but by 2017, a much larger passenger vessel was needed. With nothing suitable second-hand, the Mackenzies commissioned a new build. It was "stressful" and a "huge risk", admits the director. "When you're a home-based business working from laptops, you don't expect to spend £1.5m on your next piece of kit."

The custom craft, Spirit of Loch Ness, was launched last year and brought capacity across the company's five boats to more than 350 people. Word of mouth marketing, local tour operator partnerships and a new social media strategy have all helped to keep bookings high.

One of the company's rigid-hulled inflatable boats Credit: Cruise Loch Ness
With nine award wins over the past year (including being crowned small firm of the year at the recent Federation of Small Businesses Awards), things are looking up for the enterprise, which employs 18 people in peak season and has an annual turnover of £1.6m. But Mackenzie and her team aren't getting comfortable. "We're always worrying about keeping things attractive so that people want to come," she says. The remoteness of Loch Ness can be a challenge. "It's a popular tourist destination but still in the middle of nowhere," she states. "With rising fuel costs and so on, people don't always make the effort to come that bit further north."

Winter trips can also be a difficult sell. "The village is so quiet and quite a few shops are closed," says the director. "It can be hard to get tourists to the village when it doesn't offer as much as it does in the summer." Fort Augustus being so isolated also makes it tough to attract talent, but Cruise Loch Ness is "lucky" in that it employs so many locals. "We're family," says Mackenzie. "Ronald grew up with most of them, which can present challenges now that he's their boss, but there's also a lot more respect."

The secret to keeping staff happy is simply to look after them, she thinks. "Pay them well and listen to their concerns." Her advice is to hire people who are as passionate about the business as you. "Our employees give the same tour presentation seven or eight times a day, but they do it consistently well because they really care about the company."

Having family members running the firm means there will always be passionate and dedicated people leading it, but working and living together can be hard. "It can feel like it's 24-7," says Mackenzie, who has two young children with Ronald. To fit everything in, they're often up at 6am writing emails, which can be physically and mentally taxing.

The flip side, however, is that the highs are much higher. "Being able to celebrate the wins together as a family at the dinner table is really nice." Cruise Loch Ness will soon open a new booking office, which will "transform" how the team works. "Ronald and I will have an on-site office space and a person purely focused on admin," says Mackenzie. "It's going to make a big difference." Two new RIBs are also on order. "There's going to be a lot of shiny new boats."

Could the future also hold a new sighting of Nessie? Mackenzie isn't sure, but adds that stranger things have happened. "A few years ago, one of our skippers captured an image of a large object on his sonar device screen," she explains. "It was quite deep below the water and a few metres in length, which is very unusual."

She is of course referring to Marcus Atkinson's 2012 sonar contact, but going back to my own recent experience of the boat, I do take a somewhat contrary position in watching the sonar screens more than the waters outside. According to one of the older staff I spoke to, the boats have had about 600 sonar contacts over 10 years, most of those which were GPS tagged and when revisited were gone. 

One crew member said he had once seen a sonar contact on the screen which required his thumb to cover it. What that quite meant in terms of the physical dimensions of the corresponding object under the waves is another matter, but as I watched the screen, I did spot my own sonar blob which aroused my curiosity. You can see it in the photograph below as the blue dot just above the loch bed above the "6" of "64.0".

The depth would be about 140m (460ft) going by the vertical scale on the right. You can see the smaller dots representing fish near the surface, but this blob is somewhat bigger, but not hugely. Though it has to be remembered sonar images denote changes in density and not physical size. So what was it? A seal (unlikely since they are not indigenous), a salmon kelt, ferox trout or something else?

The route did not allow to check whether it was still there on the way back, that would require paying for another trip and going over the same spot.  However, one sonar contact of interest roughly every week on average since 2009 makes one wonder what other cruise boats are seeing on their boats? The aforementioned 2012 sonar contact may have comparable ones which have received little or no publicity (such as this one). It would be good if they were made available for examination and discussion.

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  1. I'm not sure the cruise companies want to delve too deeply into what the contacts may or may not be, or the limits of the equipment. I imagine the sonar units on different boats are not standardised, meaning it would be more difficult to compare with one another. Operator's training Sois another thing. So as for the science, it's a bit low end. It's impossible to say anything with certainty. Why alter a self sustaining business model when you don't have to?

  2. A good point Martin. Not being a techie myself I can't say but shoals of fish doesn't cut it for me.
    Interesting how the scientists don't seem to want to engage with this but are very vocal when it comes to eye witnesses seeing wakes and deer.
    Could it be in fact that moving objects of some mass are in fact animate objects?
    Perish the thought!!

    1. Thanks Phoenix man. Good name by the way.
      I know very little about sonar, but from what I gather interpretation is difficult unless the operator is knowledgeable regarding the equipment, and Ness itself. There have been very interesting hits over the years (by experts) that remain unexplained in the context of what should be living in Loch Ness. As for what cruise pilots can achieve, I'm really not sure.
      I work as an analyst in the pharmaceutical industry. I'm trained to use equipment. The equipment is standardised and calibrated regularly, so that customers can trust what I say implicitly. I very much doubt that the same standards apply in cruise boats.
      I think the folks that did early sonar research were fairly sure that they were following an animate object, and more than one on occasion. The most intriguing things I learned were that Nessie is almost certainly a water breather (from behaviour exhibited on one scan from the 1960s, recounted in one of Ted Holiday's books I believe). And that Nessie is bigger than a shark but smaller than a whale (from operation Deepscan ,that unfortunately didn't convince Adrian Shine). Although nobody elaborated on what type of shark and what type of whale. Reminders me of something a former colleague used to say when faced with a job of indeterminate size - bigger than a tea chest, smaller than a skip!

    2. Exactly...sonar is difficult to interpret (apparently) but over the years, particularly in earlier scans,objects of some size were detected. I also heard about the whale and shark reference but some whales are absolutely enormous and likewise with sharks, especially the great Whites which are normally between 20 and 24 feet in length at adult size. I suspect a 20 feet creature would fit the bill in many sightings -even in a one mile wide lake. Proper investigation requires money and time and it's hard to see this happening. I think many people have given up on the idea of unclassified creatures within Loch Ness. But it does seem that sonar scanning has to have a big part to play going forward.
      My Phoenix name refers to my location beside the Phoenix Park where I sometimes do walking and cycling tours with people from all over the world. I'm currently trying to do further research into the large eel like creatures reported from small lakes in western Ireland but cannot get anything since 1968 - nothing tangible just yet - a couple of leads. There are certain parallels with Loch Ness in terms of less sightings and less frequency in more recent years.
      The silence of scientists in terms of sonar readings doesn't help in the Nessie's being taken seriously. I would argue that their reticence has caused just as much damage as the hoaxers.
      I agree with you that cruise ship owners have more to be doing. The equipment varies and the case for advancing the Nessie's suffers. But it's not up to the local business people. They provide a nice activity for many people as well as employment

    3. Going by what I have seen, some boats appear to use the same equipment as others. I assume for safety's sake, the sonar is mandatory on boats and not just for monster hunting, it is just more "visible" for Loch Ness tourism.

      AFAIK, most headlines stories come out with the crew or captain saying "I don't know what it was" rather than "It's the monster". I guess they're playing it safe just in case ...

    4. Phoenix Man, I am pretty sure fish do not shoal in the loch, so that is a sceptical red herring (pardon the pun).

      Yes there is as much if not more leeway for interpretation in sonar images than optical ones. One wonders what would be defined as a definitive sonar image of a large creature for sceptics?

      I suspect they won't say in case such an mage turns up a week later and they are cornered!

    5. I certainly hope you are able to make headway with the Irish sightings. Ted Holiday and his colleagues did a reasonably thorough investigation into events, which are quite incredible to read about. And then nothing more happened. It's very disappointing. Holiday's books (maybe even the supreme acid trip of The Goblin Universe, which I'm reading again and it's doing my head in) and 'The Search for Morag' are a glimpse into a lost world, which has sadly faded until the public have been fully conditioned to think that the whole series of events is a concoction of the tourist industry. The rubbishing of almost everything to do with the mystery has made me wonder, why go to such trouble? Where is the threat in an unknown creature being discovered? Maybe it's something else.
      Roland, as for definitive proof supplied via sonar, that would be impossible. Since nothing exists, there is nothing to prove.....

    6. LOL Martin. I hope I didn't get you started and wound up with my rant about the Goblin Universe.

    7. Phoenix man,you just posted that a 20-24 foot shark could possibly be in a 1 MILE Irish lake...really?

    8. And,Phoenix man,a 20 foot shark "fits" the "bill" in many sightings???
      What about the dorsal fin?
      And I've encountered a great white that was 30 feet away at 10 am off of bluff cove Palos Verdes, was 5 feet thick in its center( pregnant)
      I gave up snorkeling at bluff cove,forever.
      So I can say that in NO WAY would a great white shark be mistaken for a black serpent in a 1 mile Irish lake OR in lochness.

  3. Hi Pheonix man
    Some of the members of this group may be able to give you some info on post 68 Irish sightings.

    1. The Long Necked Seal theory has had it's run in the mill also. Not sure you can apply that to the LNM. I guess it's a possible candidate for other cryptids in other lakes. If in fact it was a mutant seal species, I think you would see them more often, openly frolicking on the water and basking on shore in the sun.

  4. Irish horse-face eels study:

    1. Very interesting. I think an eel like creature best fits the bill, in my opinion. I emphasize “eel like” That's why it is seldom seen and spends most of it's time in the depths. The Hugh Gray pic, which I consider to be bonafide of something anomalous would suggests, in my opinion, a long serpentine body with hints of fins at front and rear quarters, a longish tail and neck And somewhere in all that blur, a head!

    2. Agree about the Hugh Gray pic. I used to think it was poor but GB has made me reconsider. It's one of only a few photos I think shows solid evidence revealing any useful detail. Monster could be an eel.

      In response to Phoenix Man earlier I'd rule out shark as a candidate - just too distinctive shape for any confusion though I've never seen one in the wild myself (seen a few in a tank though). I don't see how it could be any mammal imo either - we'd find it in a day or two as it would have to surface regularly.

    3. Sorry for the confusion 🤪
      I don't believe it's a shark or air breathing mammal ..
      I was trying to say that a large 20 feet creature is very visible at a good distance and given that many reports suggest this size and more it's fairly certain that the species exceeds this length . Sonar should detect large size objects and have done just that.