John Wesley Honors College

The Terrible Tale of Nessie

(WARNING: Any believers who want to keep believing should read no further.)

By Ali Cravens, John Wesley Scholar, Class of 2015

As a Nessie believer, I thought this article would be fun. I thought this research would give me much more evidence on which to base my pro-Nessie argument. I thought the sightings, scientific findings, and statistics would be open-ended, at least leaving small shreds of hope in Nessie’s existence for all the believers out there like myself. Unfortunately, I was left with crushed dreams and a broken heart. After reading about 20 articles on EBSCOhost, the facts are not in Nessie’s favor.

The Setting
Loch Ness

Loch Ness, Scotland
Photo Credit: Sam Fentress

The legend is set in Scotland. More specifically, the Scottish Highlands, the northwest half of this European country. The loch, (a Scottish word for lake, or sea loch, being “an arm of the sea, especially when narrow or partially landlocked”), is the second largest loch in Scotland, reaching about 800 feet in-depth. At 24 miles long and only a mile wide, the loch appears more like a river on a map. It runs at about a 45-degree angle, from the southwest corner of a map to the northeast. Loch Ness is connected by the River Ness to the North Sea. The river runs through downtown Inverness, which is considered the capital of the Highlands.

Nessie was first sighted in 565 A.D. by the Scottish Saint Columba, chronicled a century later by Saint Adamnan. The next sighting didn’t come until 14 centuries later in 1933 by Mrs. Aldie Mackay, who reported having seen “the backs of two small whales or big fish far off in distance.” At this time, no folklore had surrounded the lake and no “monsters” had been acknowledged. However, news media took her small story and ran with it, and soon big city newspapers had reporters and news crews camping out there (Loxton).

That July, the sighting that established the “look” of Nessie occurred by a Mrs. and Mr. George Spicer. According to Mr. Spicer, a “dragon or pre-historical” animal appeared on the road beside the lake right in front of their car. He described it as having a high back and long neck, and being about six to eight feet long. The paper he originally reported to, however, said he described a look and behavior that resembled more of a large otter than anything else. Later, Mr. Spicer claimed the animal was actually 25 feet long. And even later he claimed it at 30 feet. This sighting gave Nessie the more dinosaur-like appearance, replacing the big fish look people had of the monster from the Mackay’s sighting (Loxton).

The third legend-defining sighting was made that September by Alex Campbell, the first reporter of the Mackay story. He described something like a plesiosaur, which even today is the most popular suspect for what kind of “monster” Nessie could be (Loxton).

Photographic Evidence

The first photographic evidence of the monster came in November, by Hugh Gray. Though the picture spurred on the legend at the time and is still used as proof today, it is actually rather fuzzy and could honestly be of anything, probably his dog carrying a stick in its mouth (Loxton).

Loch Ness Monster Hoaxed Photo

Surgeon’s Photo (1934)

The most famous photo appeared in the spring of 1934. Known as the “Surgeon’s Photo,” the picture was taken by London doctor Robert Kenneth Wilson. It depicts a black form that comes up from the water and bends slightly to the right at the top. It became the gold standard for Nessie evidence and established Nessie as a plesiosaur. However, like all the other photos and sightings and supposed evidence, it was proven a hoax. Sixty years later, a man named Christian Spurling, (stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell, who had been embarrassed years earlier for creating “Nessie prints” in the sand with what later was found to be the tracks of a stuffed hippo), admitted to creating the form with a toy submarine and some other materials, by request of Wetherell, and the doctor agreed to take part in the prank (Loxton).

In the summer of 1934, the first large Nessie expedition took place. As it was during the Great Depression, workers were offered bonuses for every monster picture they took. Suddenly, monster pictures were everywhere, all mostly of waves. Having realized the issues with pictures as proof, especially with the dark and dirty water of Loch Ness, the idea to use sonar emerged (Loxton).

Science!

In the 1962, a scientific team from Cambridge University conducted the first large-scale sonar sweep of the lake. As a system for detecting objects under the water, working a lot like the echolocation used by dolphins and bats, it probes the water with sound pulses and then listens for echoes. With a line of sonar-equipped boats, they started at one end of the lake and moved to the other. They did this six times… and found nothing (Loxton).

Also in 1962, the Loch Ness (Phenomenon) Investigation Bureau (LNI) was formed. For ten years LNI had the lake under intense observation and saw nothing. They disbanded in 1972 when the search was deemed a lost cause (Loxton).

That same year a research group headed by a Dr. Rines captured underwater images of the plesiosaur. The most famous picture, known as the “flipper picture,” depicts a grainy photo with two flippers bent in toward each other, coming in from the bottom left corner. Even though many official tests on the photograph were conducted, there is still great debate about its authenticity (Loxton).

In 1987, another group called the Loch Ness Project, led by Adrian Shine, did yet another sonar sweep. Once again, nothing was found (Loxton).

In 2003, another team, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, scanned the lake using the most modern technology. For a third time, and with no surprise, nothing was found (Loxton).

So I know what you’re thinking. Fun history Ali, but I’m still not convinced. Well, neither was I really, until I continued my research. Let me see what I can do to further kill your hopes and dreams.

Dinosaur Theory

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Nessie could not have been a plesiosaur. Or a pliosaur—whichever aquatic reptile you prefer to stake your claims on. These creatures roamed the seas while dinosaurs roamed the lands. They were saltwater, tropical animals. Although the first fossils of a plesiosaur were, in fact, found in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1719, and the British Isles were indeed once inhabited by many reptiles of the sort, that was before the continental drift, when Scotland was actually on the equator (Morell). Not only that, they went extinct 60 million years before humans touched earth.

Nessie as a Plessie

Photo Credit: StaraBlazkova at the Czech language Wikipedia

But what if they somehow did survive? Well, if plesiosaurs didn’t die 60 million years ago, this means they would have had to survive the Ice Age. Which is, well, impossible. The Ice Age didn’t come all at once; it took time. Although the loch froze, the plesiosaurs would have left long before the loch got cold enough to become ice. Even if some stupid plesiosaur stayed and froze in the lake, there’s no way it could have survived until it melted and then became the Nessie we look for today. Scientists can’t even get decent DNA from frozen mammoths let alone make one come alive and start roaming around again (Loxton).

What if, somehow, the plesiosaur did survive the Ice Age?

Even if plesiosaurs did survive out in the open ocean through the Ice Age, and arrived in the loch after the glaciers melted, well, that too doesn’t check out. Plesiosaurs are tropical creatures, and there is no way they would be caught swimming in waters as cold as those in Loch Ness. In addition to being a species made for warm water, they were also made for saltwater. It’s not likely they adapted to the cold freshwater of the loch since the last Ice Age, let alone would want to.

If Nessie did, however, somehow adapt, there is in no way enough fish in the loch for a monster to survive there without starving.

Perhaps they make the commute, however, by way of the River Ness, from the ocean to the loch. This too in unlikely, as the river is rather shallow and runs right through the bustling city of Inverness. A Nessie-sized monster definitely would have been spotted there by now if such a commute had occurred.

In addition, plesiosaurs breathe air. They would have popped up to the surface several times each hour, making its travel from the ocean to the loch obvious, as well as its existence in the loch if the animal chose to make it its primary habitat.

Some suppose Nessie did make the commute, from the ocean to the loch, but that it had a secret route to the sea, like a tunnel in its depths. The issue with that theory is that the surface of Loch Ness is actually 52 feet above sea level and any tunnel would actually act like a drain, forcing the lake to drop to sea level. This disproves any possible theory of secret underwater tunnels (Loxton).

So the popular idea of a plesiosaur is basically ruled out. But what about some other sort of creature?

Alternate Theories

Even people who have ruled out plesiosaur, or any type of creature for that matter, agree that something strange is happening in Loch Ness. With more than 3,000 sightings of evidence of a monster, most of them are actually just waves or some sort of disturbance in the water. In 2001, Italian scientist and structural geologist Luigi Piccardi sought to explain some of this strange water activity.

With the lake being on the Great Glen fault, Piccardi attributes some of the activity to earthquakes, rustling the surface of the waters (Barber). The issue with this theory, however, is that the earthquakes in the lake are usually just a magnitude of 3 or 4, which aren’t strong enough to disturb the surface of the water. Quakes that were big enough to possibly create surface activity were recorded as having occurred in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. None of these dates correspond to periods of high frequency monster sightings. The year the legend rose to popularity, 1933, especially, has no congruity with these dates (Barber).

Even if the small, size 3 or 4 quakes did somehow disturb the surface, Piccardi even said the fault only generates three or four of these per century, which doesn’t account for the many amounts of strange waves photographed each year, especially during 1933 frenzy (Perkins).

However, a few words of Piccardi do check out: “Piccardi says that many of these [surface disturbances] can probably be explained by bubbles of gas released by the fault underlying the loch. Also, large gas pockets generated by rotting vegetation trapped in the lake’s sediments could be shaken loose by seismic activity too small for people to feel. Some of the more vivid sightings include observations of low humps breaking the surface. Piccardi says that these could be waves resulting from a focusing of seismic energy rumbling beneath and through the loch’s waters” (Perkins).

To be honest, our most realistic hope for any monster creature is in an abnormally large sturgeon, which can grow to 15 feet in length. They’re freshwater, they actually exist in real life, and they don’t breathe air. So far the odds are looking better than the plesiosaur’s. They surface occasionally, but typically stay out of sight. We know that they once lived in the rivers of Britain and in the mouth of the River Ness. In addition, as bottom feeders, they have slow metabolisms, and would be able to dwell in the loch for a while without running out of fish to eat. They also resemble prehistoric animals, having “great humped backs covered in bony scales” (Loxton). However, once again, any sturgeon of that size would have shown up on the sonar. However, could it be doing the commuting from the sea to the loch and just have never been there for the three sonar scans? This is a possibility.

Conclusion

For all you readers out there, I applaud you if you still have hope for Nessie. With all sightings, photographs, and supposed evidence being proven as hoaxes, and all three sonar scans coming up with nothing, and the scientific geological and biological evidence against any such large creature, I must admit … I’ve been broken. This writer … has lost her faith.

Ali out.

References

Barber, Elizabeth. “Loch Ness monster: Geology tries, but doesn’t explain mystery.” Christian Science Monitor 03 July 2013: N.PAG. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

“Loch.” New Oxford American Dictionary.

Loxton, Daniel. “The Loch Ness Monster.” Skeptic 11.1 (2004): 97. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

Morell, Virginia. “WHEN MONSTERS RULED THE DEEP. (Cover Story).” National Geographic 208.6 (2005): 58-87. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

Perkins, S. “Is Nessie Merely A Bad Case Of The Shakes?.” Science News 160.1 (2001): 5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.