Sunday 21 April 2024

The First Plesio-Turtle?


The plesioturtle or long necked sea turtle theory has been doing the rounds for a while. I covered the idea in 2013 in this article, being inspired by a Nessie documentary from 2009 which looked at it. I wrote a more recent article in 2021 where giant turtles had been proposed in 1933 as an explanation for the Loch Ness Monster, albeit without the long neck. The theory is rational enough and has been applied to other forms of aquatic cryptids.

Now I don't know when this theory came into being, but it looks like someone was thinking about it back in about 1895 as the above four inch Chocolat Suchard "trading" card shows. However, what the artist was trying to say is not so apparent. We have the traditional plesiosaurus, but with a shell on its back, like the turtles of today. We then have a picture in the top right corner of Chelonia Midas or the Green Sea Turtle.

What are we to deduce from these juxtaposed illustrations? The plesiosaur had a shell and the modern sea turtle is its descendant? Or is he re-imagining a plesiosaur based on the sea turtle?  A couple of other monster cards from the company show similar themes for an Elasmosaurus and Iguanodon, a comparison of the large of yesterday with the little of today. 

I guess the artist looked for the closest thing to a plesiosaur today and retro-fitted a turtle shell to it. So instead of extending the neck of a large sea turtle, the shell is added to the body of an already long necked creature. Two different routes to the same looking creature. Unless there was a fringe opinion amongst Victorian paleontologists that some plesiosaur species did have shells? That was the century of Sea Serpents and not the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps amongst the varying theories regarding these fabulous creatures, some one first conceived of the plesio-turtle?

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Tuesday 12 March 2024

Follow Up to MacLennan Land Sighting


Having published the article on the MacLennan creature recently, I thought I would go over any comments made on it by way of reply. The last time I looked there were 167 comments attached to the article on Facebook which was a very large amount, but then again I did not know how many generated more heat than light. So having trawled through them, I picked out some for further discussion here.

The main one would certainly be from Colin Veacock who applied his artistic skills to produce the sketch at the top of this article. I had made my own attempt previously and Colin added his impression as well. His sketch certainly sums up MacLennan's statement when she said "A more ugly sight you never saw". I think he got the "neck" better than me as the eyewitness did say it was somehow "flopped" over its back but still somehow pointing towards the loch. Colin also made that ridge on the back more visible. But I am still wondering how "floppy" this "neck" was. Sometimes, I get the impression it was thrown over the back like a scarf. 

Regarding the description of "hooves", all we have is "with a kind of hoof very like a pig's, but much larger." Colin has a go and is more literal in his rendition than I was. My problem was that this was related for the first time 25 years after the event. If you think her recall was pristine after that time, think again. I was accused of taking liberties with my sketch but the point for me was that aquatic animals do not have hooves and she could have interpreted a three webbed toe arrangement as a hoof. However, in the time I had, I could not figure the best way to show that, so the limb extremities on my sketch became an ambiguous set of lines. I include below Colin's wider field of view sketch of the creature.

Now let us get onto the matter of seals and some people suggested a large seal. When seals are proposed as an explanation for an eyewitness account, two questions should be asked, but rarely are. Shouldn't the witness have recognised something as well known as a seal? Secondly, was there a seal in Loch Ness at the time? The answers generally should be "Yes" and "Not likely". Seals should be readily recognisable thanks to images in books and magazines. Circuses were known to visit Inverness and local seals were not hard to spot along the local Moray Firth coastline.

Seals are not indigenous to Loch Ness and were rare visitors to the loch, especially back in the 1930s. So, statistically speaking, at the time MacLennan saw her creature, it was more likely there was no seal in the loch. In other words, in both cases, since we expect people to know a seal when they see one and seals are generally not in the loch then the burden of proof is on those who suggest a seal to explain why the normal situations do not apply. A comment elsewhere by Dick Raynor on this matter said:

It is a good idea to rely on the earliest witness statements and to concentrate on the object's reported behaviour and shape, ignoring size as that is notoriously difficult to gauge in a brief observation. Here we have a creature on the beach - later described as sitting on a rock - which fled into the water with a considerable splash, and the recent artists' impressions show it lacking a noticeable tail. That spells "seal" to me.

Now there are problems with this interpretation (apart from what I just mentioned). Firstly, we are asked to ignore any attempt at size estimation. This is crucial to most sceptical arguments as size is a most inconvenient parameter to them. Unlike other attempts to disqualify size estimates due to long distances involved, that is not an issue here as the creature was on the narrow strip of land between road and loch. Here we are asked to accept size estimates cannot be accepted as it was a brief sighting or "little more than a glimpse" according to Gould. But that is a subjective assessment and we ask how short a visual experience has to be to discount size estimates? That question is not answered and therefore there is no obligation to accept such a statement.

The other inconsistency is where the commenter readily accepts the description was accurate in mentioning no tail, which is helpful to a seal interpretation, but ignores the other descriptions which totally exclude a seal interpretation such as a flopped over "neck", a ridged back and humps. This selective approach is not explained. The author of the comment then attaches a video clip of a seal, but this proves nothing as none of the unusual features described by MacLennan are visible.

In terms of the consistency of the eyewitness reports. A comment was made that the weather was described as stormy, so how could they row over to the other side of the loch in those conditions? The answer is simple because the weather was described as stormy at the time of the sighting which was hours after the boat trip. Finally, I must mention Steve Plambeck who is an advocate of the Giant Salamander theory and had this to say concerning the creature Mrs. MacLennan saw:

The stubby feet may be the most important give-away. MacLennan's description is morphologically closer to a Cryptobranchid (like the Chinese Giant Salamander) than possibly any other account I've ever read. Glance at the pictures I'm including. Viewed from the FRONT end, the head is almost a featureless rump shape -- the mouth lines are invisible if the mouth isn't open, and the eyes are indiscernible unless you are close and the light is just right. And the legs, feet and toes are very, very stubby indeed - pig-footed would be a more than apt description. There is also a slight ridge down the back. Much more importantly though is the behavior MacLennan described, which includes small but precious details almost always unreported. If it was a Giant Salamander, and it was facing rather than turned away from her, it moved EXACTLY as a salamander startled from the front will do in lab studies of early tetrapod locomotion: (1) front legs flat on the ground for pushing back, (2) chin down for pushing back too, (3) rear legs and (4) tail lifted because they can't help with rear-ward thrusting and would only be in the way if they weren't lifted. The MacLennan report checks ALL the boxes. Amazed I never knew of this sighting before now.

The largest of the Cryptobranchids was a Canadian species that grew at least 10 feet long, and disappeared after the Ice Ages started. The living Chinese species currently top out at 6 feet. There were European species as well, but remains are very few and maximum size still unknown. And then there were much earlier, fully aquatic salamanders, even marine species, that grew up to 30 feet.

Now the giant salamander theory has a long history and indeed was the subject of the very first book on the Loch Ness Monster. As I understand Steve, the proposed salamander's tail was flopped over its back and the witness mistook its large wide head as the lower back. The stubby legs obviously are a better fit than flippers or webbed feet. When startled, the salamander crawled backwards into the loch. I admit I am not an advocate of this theory, but I would be interested to see video clips of this creature's backward motion. Steve runs a blog on this very subject which is here.

So hopefully I have covered the main responses here. Feel free to add missed responses on what this creature could have been to the comments.

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Tuesday 20 February 2024

The MacLennan Land Sighting

It is back to classic sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and a report of a large creature seen on land in that seminal first year of Nessie reports 91 years ago. The date was the 6th August 1933 and two days before, the local Inverness Courier newspaper had published a letter from a George Spicer about a similar sensational incident. However, this account would not see the light of day for some time afterwards.

I have looked amongst the newspaper archives for an early record of this account but have found none so far and therefore quote the earliest report found in Rupert Gould's book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" published in June 1934. The witness was a Mrs. T. McLennan in the first week of August in the midst of stormy weather:

Mrs. McLennan and her husband were walking, towards their boat, along the Loch-side road between Whitefield and Foyers. Mrs. McLennan saw X, resting close to the water's edge, on one of these beaches. She could not identify the exact spot further than by saying that from it Urquhart Castle would be in a line with Temple Pier. She was greatly surprised to see what she took to be X out of the water. She had little more than a glimpse of it - she called to her husband, and at the sound of her voice X plunged clumsily into the Loch, sending up a big splash. Mr. McLennan was too late to see anything but this splash.

She described X as lying " hunched-up," end-on to her, its head towards the water but "thrown back." The back looked "ridged, something like an elephant's," and was of much the same colour, but had several humps on it. These were not so pronounced as those she had noticed when it was in the water. It did not stand very high off the beach. She estimated its length, hunched-up as it was, at 25 feet [pacing this off, when she gave me her account, along the wall fronting her cottage].

Gould adds that this happened near the scene of the Spicer land account weeks before where there were several small, flat beaches from which the Loch shore proper rose in a more or less steep slope, while the road is cut out of these slopes and overlooks the water at a height of some 20-50 feet. He further adds that the line of sight given placed the event about 2.5 miles from Whitefield, towards Foyers. Projecting that line onto Google Maps gives the location indicated below on the south shore.

Using Google's Street View tool on that location gives us a general view of the area and you can see how close the loch is to the road offering a close up of anything on the beach below. Being  August, the foliage would have been near maximum growth, though at to what it looked like in 1933, one can only assume it was similar to today.

Gould had been up at the loch in November 1933 touring the area on his motorcycle talking to eyewitnesses and Mrs. MacLennan had been one of those interviewees. The next major book on the Monster was Constance Whyte's "More Than A Legend" in which she also relates the story twenty four years later:

Mrs. MacLennan of Drumnadrochit and her husband had already seen the Monster in the loch on a number of occasions when, one day in 1933, as they were walking to their boat on the Dores side of the loch, Mrs. MacLennan was astonished to see the creature on the beach. She shouted to her husband to look, and at the sound of her voice it plunged into the water causing a considerable splash. All Mrs. MacLennan saw before it moved off was a dark grey mass apparently turned towards the water with the head and neck thrown over so as to rest on the creature's back. Length, she estimated as 20 to 25 feet and, end-on, no humps were visible. Mr. MacLennan could only corroborate that he heard and saw the splash. 

This does not really add much to the raw data even though one would think Whyte would have been able to contact MacLennan. However. one final account is to be found in none other than Maurice Burton's sceptical work, "The Elusive Monster" published in 1961 and which adds some interesting details courtesy of a letter from MacLennan.

I saw it on land, on the Foyers side. It had short, thick, clumsy legs, but most decidedly legs, with a kind of hoof very like a pig's, but much larger. I only saw it for a few minutes and being knocked giddy with excitement . . . it was stretched out full length in the summer sun and a more ugly sight you never saw. It came about on a Sunday. We had to cross the loch at Urquhart Castle. That day I had on new shoes. They hurt with the eight mile walk (four up and four back) so, after leaving the church I took off the wearisome shoes and took the road in my bare feet, walking on the cool green grass on the verge of the road, so I came on Nessie unawares.

I'll never forget it. You see, my husband and two sons were dawdling behind me. Then, on seeing this world wonder I yelled, "Daddy!" That did it. It doesn't seem to have any ears, but believe me it can hear. It lurched itself up on the two forelegs (it had four legs), then slithered hoofs forward over the cliff (it was only four to six feet from the water and must have climbed like a monkey to get where it was). I know that very ledge, so if you happen ever to be there I can show you . . . into the water it went. It did not stand up like, say, a cow. It kept the hind-legs on the ground seal-wise. It seemed to be too heavy in the body for its own legs. It went down quietly with a great splash. The rings were all my boys saw, thanks to me and my yell.

Mrs MacLennan added a postscript : "By the way, the monster on land was quite different from the one on the water. Gould thought that must have been the male, and that there must have been a school of them." The first sentence of this postscript I now regard as highly prophetic. 

We find the story related throughout the subsequent decades in various publications but they tend to draw on more original sources rather than add new details. The movement of Mrs MacLennan and her family would seem to amount to rowing their boat from Urquhart Castle to opposite shore south of Whitefield and a walk to church in Foyers which was four miles down the road. Assuming this finished about 1pm, they then walked to a point about 2.5 miles north of Foyers an hour or so later.

With three main reports spread over twenty seven years, we may expect some discrepancies in the wording and this is evident when comparing Gould and Burton.  The weather was stormy in the Gould account but sunny with Burton, Gould mentions several humps but Burton mentions none. Whyte differs little mainly because details in Gould and Burton are not mentioned by Whyte. In most cases, the earliest account should take primacy. It has been noted in other case studies that the passage of decades does have its effect on recall, even if the event was of a notable nature. However, since MacLennan recounter her story to Gould about three months after it happened, we can be more confident in its accuracy.

Now with all this in hand, I have always found this a most curious event and one which may provide a clue as to the nature of the beast. In fact, reading the details made me wish that Mrs. MacLennan had submitted a sketch of what she saw. The key detail concerns what is perceived as the head and neck. Gould's book says its "head [was] towards the water but thrown back."  and Whyte writes it was "turned towards the water with the head and neck thrown over so as to rest on the creature's back." but her letter to Burton says nothing concerning this although the ellipsis in the quotes leaves the possibility that such a reference may have been in the original letter.

The idea that the neck would be backwards and resting on the creature's back initially comes across as something contrary to expectations. For example, if one holds to the plesiosaur theory, such a posture is impossible. The same could be said of long necked pinnipeds or any vertebrate proposed as the creature's identity. In fact, being such an outlier, one may be tempted to discard this as a misperception of some kind. As I said, there is no original sketch, so I drew one myself to get a sense of what may have been seen that day and I reproduce the sketch here which was at the top of this article.

I have not included the mandatory tail as no such thing was mentioned. The neck flops back, but could have been even more flaccid than what I have re-imagined. I have added something approaching humps and the four limbs with their so-called pig's hooves appearance. A photo of a pig's foot is shown below and we can see it divides into a cloven hoof of two digits and a back two dew claws of which one is visible. This makes the pig an even-toed ungulate.

Such a literal arrangement is unsuitable for aquatic animals which leads me to believe Mrs. MacLennan was describing as best she could the three toed and webbed forelimb which has been described in other  accounts (such as Bob Duff and E. H. Bright). When such an appendage is at rest, it will fold together to give the impression of a less aquatic limb. Going back to the "neck", one may reject a single outlier, but we have another instance of a floppy neck just weeks before with the Spicer land sighting.

Now sceptics have rejected this account saying that such an undulating appearance does not square with a vertebrate neck. I may well agree with them on that and conclude what we see in these two accounts is not a neck in the spinal column sense. However, one might argue that the description of a ridge on the back is indicative of a vertebrate. That may indeed be true and I am not suggesting a boneless neck means this is an invertebrate, though the late Ted Holiday may have disagreed.

Indeed, should it be called a neck at all? A neck implies a head at the end of it, but often the creature is described as having an infeasibly small head which is just a continuation of the neck. That could be an argument that it is not a head at all. Then again, others have described a mouth and eyes to which we refer to sightings such as those by John MacLean. Are we talking about two different species here or one that differs by age, sex or some other attribute?

I am not inclined to think of two exotic species in one 26 square mile area. Mrs. MacLennan herself is quoted as saying she thinks what she saw on shore was different to what she saw in the water on another occasion described below from the Scotsman newspaper of the 13th November 1933.

A sketch from the same newspaper below portrays what was seen. Are these two creatures, one seen on land and one seen in the water irreconcilable as MacLennan said? I don't think so, but if you think one had hooves and a floppy neck, you may be inclined to think otherwise. 

This naturally begs the question as to what is this potential "non-neck"? At this point I have no clear answer as to proboscis, tentacle or otherwise, but I wasn't here first with that idea as I hand you over to Tony "Doc" Shiel's fantastical elephantine squid of Loch Ness as rendered at this link.

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Tuesday 2 January 2024

Nessie Review of 2023


Whatever may have come to pass at Loch Ness in 2023, it was always guaranteed to be the year of anniversary as ninety years passed since this story of a strange beast in the loch took off in 1933. Of course, stories had circulated for centuries before and even up to 1930, but this stuck and it has stuck in the public imagination and media attention ever since. 

I recall the events around the 80th anniversary in 2013 as a special symposium (link) was organised in Edinburgh and a commemorative trip was made out to the spot where Aldie Mackay saw her twenty foot double hump creature. However, this 90th anniversary took on a more public persona as the new owners of the Loch Ness Exhibition arrived on the scene and announced a total redesign of the current exhibition. By the 10th June, Continuum Attractions opened their new exhibition to the world, about five weeks after the 90th year since the Inverness Courier newspaper article announced the monster to an unsuspecting world.

A few weeks later, I got my chance to visit the new exhibition and was pleased with the way the story of the Loch Ness Monster had been reimagined and posted a review to that effect. The balance had shifted from a negative view of the idea of a large unknown creature in the loch to one that kept that idea alive as a possibility and encouraged people to watch the loch.

But it did not end there as Continuum Attractions set about organising a weekend observation around the loch involving a crowd of volunteers and a boat with sonar and hydrophone at the disposal of the Loch Ness Exploration group headed by Alan McKenna, who put a lot of effort into fronting this for the media and taking part in the boat trips.

I took part in the proceedings myself as I headed up for that weekend of the 26th August to be met with rain lashing down on the loch. It was a wet forecast which no doubt kept some from the loch but a hardy group turned up to mount the loch side watch and the media were there in force to cover events. It was a pleasure to meet up with some of these fellow monster hunters and also help out Dragonfly Films who were employing some new technology in the search (top picture). Their production should be televised some time in March 2024. My report on those events was documented here and the official report from the Loch Ness Centre can be found here.

The most intriguing sighting from the Quest was by a couple named as Matty and Aga, who had cancelled their trip to the Lake District to take part in the watch. They recorded what looked like a double hump formation in the manner of Aldie Mackay ninety years before. This moved before disappearing and I show a still from the video which can be seen at this link. One does have buoys floating in Dores Bay, but I do not think they come in pairs?

Some other sightings were logged but as you can guess, no one saw the beast close enough to see the white of its eyes and therefore capture conclusive images (if one can keep their cool in that situation). It was a pity the media men with their high quality professional video equipment did not have such an opportunity. However, it was an enjoyable experience to be part of a greater whole and I look forward to a similar quest in 2024.

Later on in the year, the ninety years rolled into the anniversary of the first photograph of the Loch Ness Monster taken by Hugh Gray on the 12th November 1933 which I summarized here. Some articles were written up by the media such as this one for the Washington Post. At this point I will insert the mandatory photograph of the possible head of Nessie whenever this photograph is mentioned.

Inevitably, we are going to roll over into a lot of 90th anniversaries in 2024, starting with the famous Arthur Grant land sighting which falls this coming Friday! So much for anniversaries, what about the other claimed sightings of the Loch Ness Monster in 2023? The Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register at this link documents nine accounts, two includes sketches, one include a video and five include photographs. The site makes no mention of the video taken by Matty and Aga but mentions a video taken by a Richard Story on the 3rd October whose account reads:

Richard Story, visiting from Wigton was on the high walk from Fort Augustus to Invergarry when he reported seeing a creature swim from the bank to the centre of the loch at 10.45am. It then disappeared and  then reappeared. He took some pictures and a video ...

The two stills available from this video are shown below and then overlaid using the single tree top as a merge point into the third composite image. There is some movement consistent with the statement that it moved towards the centre of the loch in the composite, but the error margin in the overlay doesn't make that a certainty. Currently, I have not found any clips from the video and so have to suspend judgment on it.

One of the other photos taken by a Siobhan Janaway on the 27th August during the Quest Weekend is below with the following account.

There was something causing turmoil in the water off Foyers point then it coalesced into a single object moving at speed just under the surface causing at least a 20m white wake" She confirmed that there were no boats near the location.

Now I can give this a non-Nessie explanation as I was there as a resident of the nearby camping site that same morning. As I stated in that trip report:

When I arose on the Sunday morning at Foyers, I looked out to the area where the River Foyers met the loch. The heightened flow of the river was rushing down to meet the loch and there was a lot of disturbance where the two collided. The general flow of the vaster body of the loch water was from the south west up the loch. However, the river water was hitting it at almost a right angle. 

The result was a wall of resistance as the river water tried to merge with the main waters. The dynamics of this interaction led to the river water rotating in the direction of the loch water but also turning back towards the river giving us a sort of whirlpool. I have seen this phenomenon before at this location some years before. It is not very dangerous as the waters are quite shallow there.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the correct explanation as I have seen it myself in previous visits. An interesting sketch was produced by Sash Lake who recounted this tale from the 7th October 2023:

I was leaving Drumnadrochit on a coach, admiring the view while the coach was driving past the Loch. It started to rain and a light fog rolled in, my view/ vision was partly limited due to the trees alongside the Loch, but something caught my eye for approximately five seconds and made me jump out of my skin, I saw a huge black mass/ hump in the middle of the Loch, roughly the size of a double decker bus. I would say it was around 75-100 yards away from me. I was confused, and in disbelief. I jumped to my feet to get a better look, trees completely blocked my view for about 5-8 seconds, there was a clearing in the trees, and when I looked back to where I saw the black mass/ hump, there was nothing there.

How big is a double decker bus? Over thirty feet long, over seven feet wide and over fifteen feet high. Okay, not all those figures apply, but Mr. Lake was basically saying the size of the object was ... monstrous. A distance of 75-100 yards is good for a sighting but 5-8 seconds is not. The fact the object was not there on the next clear view excludes a variety of objects but it would have helped to know the rough location.

But the photographs which grabbed the attention most in 2023 were actually taken five years earlier in 2018 by Chie Kelly. She sat on them during that time fearing ridicule for her and her family but then said that the publicity associated with the weekend Quest motivated her to release some of the images she had snapped - apparently about sixteen out of over seventy as she employed a lot of rapid shooting as the object made its way out of Dores Bay. I found five of them and typed up a report here

A lot of discussion ensued with theories ranging from the interesting to the idiotic along with the promise of further images and perhaps even an animated sequence constructed from the dozens of pictures taken. Nearly five months on, no further information has been released and it seems we should get to the bottom of what these images are because if they are genuine, they may well contain valuable data. My take is these need to be explained, be they monster, natural, artefact or fake. This remains an ongoing story. 

In other news, there were three documentaries on the Loch Ness Monster which were televised, "Enigma: The Monster of Loch Ness", "Monster - The Mystery of Loch Ness" and "Loch Ness: They Created a Monster" which is pretty good going for one year. On this blog, the historical research continued as we covered some old LNIB reports, the first alleged sonar contact of the monster, the alleged connections to the early monster with the King Kong film of 1933, the Land Sighting of Alistair Dallas and the evolution of a famous diver's tale from the 1880s.

Looking forward and looking back, 2023 added its own images and talking points. The monster was not proven to exist but neither did the sceptics prove it does not exist. Zero progress you might say. Perhaps, but the analysis of 2023 is not yet completed.

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