Thursday 27 July 2023

The First Loch Ness Sonar Contact?


Recent publicity about a strange looking sonar image from Lake Champlain brought to mind another sonar image from another time and from another place - namely seventy years before at Loch Ness. I became familiar with this story back in the 1970s as a kid when Nicholas Witchell wrote about it in his book "The Loch Ness Story". I quote from page 115 onwards of the first edition which in itself quotes the Daily Herald from the 6th December 1954:

During recent years the underwater radar mechanism known as Sonar has played an invaluable part in the research at Loch Ness. The first real indication of the potential of this sort of equipment as a "monster hunting" tool came in December 1954 when a drifter picked up a  strange outline on its echo sounding apparatus. At about 11.30 a.m. on 2nd December, the Peterhead drifter Rival III was approaching Urquhart Castle on its journey south through the Caledonian Canal to the West Coast fishing grounds. 

In the wheelhouse was the 46-year-old mate Mr Peter Anderson. The skipper, Mr Donald MacLean and the seven other crew members were below having a cup of tea. Mr Anderson glanced at the echo sounder, a Kelvin Hughes "Fishmaster", and stiffened:

"Suddenly the printer arm on the machine started to draw this thing on the roll of recording paper. As it sketched it out I couldn't believe my eyes. For several minutes the arm went on moving and the outlines of the thing below the water were drawn on the paper. I shouted to the crew and they came crowding up to the wheelhouse. They were as amazed as I was. At once we turned the boat about and tried to track the 'Monster' again. But it was no use, whatever it was had gone."

Mr Anderson tore the chart from the machine and as the boat passed through the locks down to the West Coast he brought it out and showed it to the Canal staff. By the time the Rival III reached Oban the Press was waiting for them and negotiations began for the exclusive rights to the chart. The Daily Herald eventually won and while on the 5th December, the Sunday Mail reported rather sourly that the chart "is not for sale" representatives from the manufacturers were examining it under the Daily Herald's auspices.

Mr L. A. Southcott, the firm's District Manager and Mr A. Sutton, the Technical Development Director, both examined the chart and certified that it had not been faked or tampered with in any way. From the calibrated scale they could tell that the object was 480 feet deep and 120 feet up from the loch bed. It was moving from left to right on the chart, i.e., in the same direction as the boat and was approximately 50 feet in length. Mr Sutton stated, after a long study of the graph that: 

"It is definitely not a water-logged tree or a shoal of fish. These give entirely different signals. If there was a large animal in the loch this is the kind of image you would get from an echo sounder . . . I can't explain it away. I have seen thousands of recordings — but nothing like this."

Mr Southcott said:

"This is definitely animal matter of some kind . . . in all my experience I've never seen anything like this. The object certainly is not like any other kind of fish that has been charted." All that could be said about the shape of the object was that it was elongated and probably irregular."

Among the people consulted by the Press for an opinion on the chart was Dr C. H. Mortimer of the Freshwater Biological Association who had carried out a temperature survey at the loch in 1953. He was quoted in the Daily Herald of 7th December as saying:

"I too got some unusual recordings on Loch Ness. I explained them away to my own satisfaction then as echoes from the side of the loch superimposing themselves on the sounding chart. But from the graph description the object appears to be clear of the sides of the loch. It is extremely puzzling."

One person feeling more frustrated than puzzled by the event was the wife of the Rival III's skipper, Mrs Betty Maclean. She was quoted as saying:

"I am the laughing stock of Peterhead. Everyone looks at me and smiles. While I was out shopping, fishermen and their wives were looking at me as if I had got the 'Monster' in my shopping bag."

Unfortunately, whatever serious interest was re-aroused was marred by yet another hoax. On 8th December, a Royal Naval mine laying vessel reported to Canal staff that they too had picked up a strange echo whilst on passage through the loch. As soon as the Press arrived the Commander admitted that it was all a joke and the cursing reporters left to express their disgust with the whole matter.

One newspaper carrying the story was the Aberdeen Press and Journal two days later as seen below. The actual image on the sonar image occupied a space of one and quarter inches or just over 3cm and it stated a depth of 90 fathoms or 540 feet.

Since then, the image has generally been regarded as a fake and I certainly found such a clearly delineated image unconvincing. Now I must admit, I am not particularly familiar with sonar technology from the 1950s so I turned to the documentary of the BBC's expedition to the loch three years later in 1957 (more info here) where the presenter Raymond Baxter took viewers through an explanation of the latest in this technology with David Anderson, the representative of Marconi with their latest  fish finder machine.

He explained their "noise generator" was only effective if the target was directly below but there was newer technology which would sweep out to the sides with a similar range. The BBC did have an interesting sonar hit which was displayed by opening the front of the machine and hand rolling the paper back to that point. The quality of the overall film was poor but good enough to see what was going on.

The actual image was likened to a "shadow" seen at the top and left from centre and the Marconi man could not give an adequate explanation in comparison to other recordings he had seen elsewhere in his work. It was picked up seventy yards north-east of Urquhart Castle at a depth of three to ten fathoms moving further into the deeps and causing "considerable agitation of the water". Anderson estimated the length at twenty feet and unlike the fish contacts also seen on the trace.


The "shadow" is certainly more in keeping with what I have seen elsewhere and should be considered as the first arguable sonar contact with the monster. The Rival III contact image is not so much "too good to be true" but more like "could never be true". The almost face on side view of the "object" with even limbs visible is incongruous with something which is below you, no matter the angle. In that edition of Witchell's book, we also get a clear photo of the BBC contact shown below. 

The image from the Rival III crew was again in the 1975 edition of "The Loch Ness Story" but had been quietly dropped in the 1989 edition and the BBC contact retained. How the image was put on the paper could boil down to inking it on with the same pens used for the device, though that does not appear to be a trivial task - depending on what you are trying to achieve. That would seem to be mandatory as the one outstanding issue with the image is that we are told that a Mr. Sutton, the technical development director of the echo sounder manufacturer, Kelvin-Hughes, examined the paper trace and declared it had not been "faked or tampered with in any way". 

Now we like our experts when it comes to Loch Ness accounts, no matter what side of the debate we are on. We quote them in defence of our positions and feel the better for it. The Daily Herald had bought this piece of paper from the owners of the drifter, but was this contingent on a favourable expert opinion? You would have thought so, but I cannot verify that. Was the Kelvin-Hughes technical man fooled or complicit and does that mean we need to more circumspect about who we look to as experts?

The other thing to note about the image is its resemblance to another image which caught the public imagination three years before. That was the Lachlan Stuart photograph of 1951 and the two are compared below. The three humps of the two images are clearly there and even the middle hump of both is the highest. If you are going to fake a Nessie sonar contact, why not link it to the latest and greatest photograph of the monster?

So the image is dubious and the BBC contact is of more interest. Going back to the Lake Champlain sonar contact that brought back memories of this 1954 incident, I would ask the same questions of that more modern image. But I will leave that for others to develop.

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