Sunday 21 August 2022

The Surface of Something


Forty seven years ago, a private meeting in the USA was held by Robert Rines of the Academy of Applied Science to which author Nicholas Witchell was invited to view the best of the underwater pictures taken at Loch Ness on June 19th 1975. Penguin Books subsequently rushed a new paperback version of Witchell's "The Loch Ness Story" to tell of the photographs which would now place the Loch Ness Monster under the discipline of zoology and not cryptozoology. The final chapter tells us that the order of notable slides was an upwards view of the boat from which the camera rig was suspended, the body and long neck, the gargoyle head and one final slide:

The final good picture showed the underbelly of the animal as it passed immediately above the camera. A cylindrical object stretched across the whole frame. The most noticeable feature of this was the covering of what were evidently parasites hanging off the belly. As we went through the whole sequence of pictures again, Bob described the reaction of a group of experts from the Smithsonian Institute who had flown over from Washington the previous day to see the pictures. Headed by Professor George Zug, the head of the Reptiles and Amphibians Department, they had been utterly amazed at what they had seen. They had, he said, noticed details which only the trained zoological eye would see; for instance on the underbelly picture they had been particularly interested by the parasites and there had been speculation that a dark area towards the left end could be the creature's anal fold.

This is the third in a series of articles on the 1975 underwater photographs taken by Robert Rines and the Academy of Applied Science. You can get the background on these famous pictures from the two previous articles here and here. I actually had not intended to write any third article until a fellow Nessie researcher got in touch with me. He pointed me to an archive of photographs maintained by MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which includes photos taken by the technical people from MIT involved in the 1975 search, namely Martin Klein on sonar and Harold Edgerton on optics.

Most are pictures of people directly and indirectly involved in the hunt, places around the loch, Martin Klein's sonar work and Harold Edgerton's underwater camera work. It is a fascinating collection of a time when people thought the monster was almost within their grasp. The Edgerton collection homes in on the underwater camera work done in Urquhart Bay under the auspices of the Academy of Applied Science. Most of the photos revolve around the ones we know about, the gargoyle head, the long necked body and so on. 

I had looked through some of the hundreds of pictures in the archive and then my fellow researcher pointed me to the image at the top of this article which could be a candidate for that "final good picture" mentioned by Witchell above. The fascinating thing is that I have never seen this photograph before in any book, magazine, discussion, web page or TV documentary in the decades I have been following this mystery. It was perhaps mentioned in words in some publications, but I would have assumed it was something else. The classification of the picture on the MIT website is as follows:

Water surface, Loch Ness (?) (Scotland, UK) - n.d.

Major collection: Science & Technology

Named collection: Harold E. Edgerton Collection

Object type: color slide

Maker: Edgerton, Harold Eugene

Place made: United States

Materials: 35mm film; plastic

Site location: Scotland, UK

Measurements: 2" x 2"

Surface of water on lake at Loch Ness (?) in Scotland, UK. DUPLICATE (CC)

I will now look at the pros and cons of whether this is a photograph from the 1975 expedition and if it is of the loch bed. The classification is uncertain as to when and where this was taken and suggests it is the surface of the waters of Loch Ness. It appears as if the curator has no backstory to it from anyone involved in 1975. Having looked at untold number of pictures of the watery surface of Loch Ness, I am certain the features on this surface have little to do with water and more to do with a solid surface. Let me now explain why I think this photograph could be the one described by Nicholas Witchell. First, he says the object is above the camera. To give some context here, the setup of the 1975 camera rigs is shown below.

The camera in question was the old 1972 strobe light camera rig here suspended at a depth of forty feet. It had been reconfigured to put the camera five feet below the strobe and tilted upwards to avoid back scattered light. Nicholas described the surface as stretching across the whole frame as this image does. He describes it as cylindrical and this could be argued from the bottom of the feature where we see what looks like a foreshortening perspective of surface features as they recede into shadow consistent with a cylinder. 

He also describes the surface as "above" the camera. Since the camera is pointing upwards, one may take this as a given, but if, for example, only the top of the surface was visible and it occupied the lower part of the picture, one could say it was in front of the camera rather than above it. Then we have the speculative mention of parasites and an anal fold to the left. The annotated picture below explains how these descriptions would line up well with the image.

Of course, the matter of anal folds and parasites is secondary as to what we are actually looking at in its entirety and so such speculations are set aside. Thus if we assume that this is the image that Nicholas Witchell was talking about, that leads us now to speculate on what is in the picture. Back in 1975, the AAS team were sure the mid-water camera rig never went near the loch bed and so anything photographed was also in mid-water. 

However, it is now accepted that the boat from which the rig was suspended was prone to drifting under the loch winds and could reach shallower waters and drag the rig along the loch bed whilst taking pictures at about one minute intervals. What is uncertain is how much this coincided with the photos taken on the night of June 19th into the 20th. For comparison, here are some shots of the loch bed taken during that time. The first was a calibration shot and the second was taken on the 19th June (we shall return to this shot later). The third shows the effect of silt disturbance which was especially evident in the famous gargoyle shot.

It is evident that there are differences between the surface of the image in question and the loch bed. The silt that accumulates on the loch bed basically gives it a smooth appearance which is punctuated by the appearance of rocks, branches. rubbish and so on. The rough textured surfaces gives no indication that any silt is present there or indeed objects such as rocks and branches. In fact, when I first saw the image I thought it looked more like the surface of the moon from a satellite!

I would also suggest the presence of the gouges on the image to the top left and top right dictate against a silted surface as the volatility of disturbed silt will not leave such sharp features. I say this in anticipation of suggestions that the gouges are produced by the camera rig dragging along the surface. The other point to make is that if this was the bed of the loch, it is almost as if it was a plan view of the surface, as if the camera rig was parallel to the bed hovering a few feet above it. That does not seem a likely scenario. If the camera was going to be parallel to the surface, it would be face down and probably in a cloud of silt.

However, the clarity and quality of the image under scrutiny is clearly superior to the other images which begs the question as to what circumstances allowed this to happen? Why is the image so sharp and detailed compared to the loch bed images? It could be because it is in a silt free region such as mid-water, thus aiding clarity or it may be a lot closer thus reducing attenuation of detail by the volume of water between camera and object. 

Or perhaps it is an image of the camera pointing up at the disturbed waters of the loch surface? The image below is of the loch surface during those days when the camera was titled up. Clearly, this lacks the clarity, detail and texture of the image and thus we should discount the surface of the loch as an explanation. The one remaining explanation related to the loch bed is the possibility that the camera rig did not hit the bed but had rotated in the water to face the loch wall. 

This is a theoretical possibility, though the sides are not vertical but slope to varying degrees. I could not find an image which shows the sides of the loch underwater in close detail, but I doubt the sides would look like this image since I still expect silt to lie inside clefts and indeed expect gravity to ensure surface features are more vertical in appearance. Nevertheless, I will keep this view on hold until suitable side wall images turn up.

But there are arguments against the image. One is that it has been accepted that the image described by Witchell was the loch bed image previously shown which we show again below. This was actually printed in the MIT journal, Technology Review, in March 1976 which discussed the 1975 images and was interpreted by the AAS as a cylindrical object ten feet away but they made no mention of parasites or anal folds. Now it could be that image, though I see nothing to the left to suggest an "anal fold" and the proposed creature would be swimming upside down, though this is not unheard of in the marine world. Then again, what should an anal fold look like? What did George Zug have in mind? Nevertheless, I can see features in both photographs which line up with Witchell's description. Obviously, the most expedient solution is to ask the man himself.

Now if this was the rough skin of the Loch Ness Monster, then it would be an astounding win for Rines and the Academy, but some questions have to be answered before we go that far though the rough texture of the surface evokes various thoughts, as it did with those zoologists back in 1975. My curiousity was aimed at the almost star shaped scar or gouge to the top right. Is than an animal like feature or something else? Also, the superior clarity of the image may be so good as to mitigate against it being taken by the same camera.

But no sooner was this picture possibly mentioned by Witchell and perhaps Meredith in his book, "Search at Loch Ness" than it disappears from view, if indeed it ever appeared in the public space. And therein lies the biggest problem concerning this image, if it was believed to be the underbelly of the creature, why was it not published? Robert Rines ought not to have passed up on such an opportunity. 

The fact that the curator puts a question mark against it being from Loch Ness and has no date for it should make us pause before going further. Indeed, this article is probably more an appeal for further information to corroborate this picture than claiming it is the monster. I can confidently say it is not a photograph of the loch bed of 1975, it is something else. It may have been taken during that expedition or maybe another year or at another spot at Loch Ness or maybe not at Loch Ness at all. The bottom line is that more information is needed to determine the provenance of this photograph. If that comes, a follow up article may be required.

The original image can be viewed at the MIT archive here.

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