by Greg Mayer
Why, so can I, or so can any man; But are there any to come when you do call for them?”
In writing about today’s Loch Ness Monster Google Doodle, Jerry noted that I have taught about cryptozoology (the science of “hidden animals”) for many years, and we’ve written about it here at WEIT on several occasions, including a mention of the Loch Ness Monster. The “surgeon’s photo”, supposedly taken in 1934 by military physician Lt. Col. Robert K. Wilson, features in Jerry’s piece, and, indeed, in most accounts of the monster. Although the photo shown by Jerry is well known, it is less well known that it is cropped from a larger image. Here’s the original.
I have always been suspicious of the surgeon’s photograph, because it seemed to me that the ripples are the wrong scale for a large object. This is not something I could quantify, but, just as in older Japanese monster movies you could tell it was a scale-model city burning (and not Tokyo) because the flames didn’t look right, the water doesn’t look right for something the size of the monster. Commenters on the original photo note that the far side of the Loch is visible in the distance, but I can’t see it in this version (see Update below).
In 1994, the story broke that the photo was a hoax arranged by Marmaduke Wetherell, a big game hunter, in order to embarrass the Daily Mail. (If only Wetherell were alive today, so that he could see how thorough a job the Mail does in embarrassing itself every day without his assistance!) Some have considered the hoax story a hoax, but that’s not the consensus view. Stephen Lyons has a good account of the photo on PBS’s Nova website. His account is part of a companion website for the NOVA film “The Beast of Loch Ness” (1999), and I can recommend both the site and the film (which features participants in the Academy of Applied Sciences expeditions– see below),
As Jerry notes, Wilson was always very cagey about the photo and the circumstances under which it was taken, and what was in it. As Nicholas Witchell put it in The Loch Ness Story (1975),
Colonel Wilson refused to enlarge upon the bare facts of his story and would not try to estimate the size of the object. In fact, he never claimed that he had photographed the ‘Monster’; all he ever said was that he photographed an object moving in the waters of Loch Ness. He wrote: ‘I am not able to describe what I saw. As I finished, the object moved a little and submerged.’
Witchell took this to be the sober reticence of a scientifically trained observer, but in hindsight we can see it as a guy being real careful not to lie. In teaching cryptozoology, I have the students read the account of the photo in Witchell, and ask them about exactly which claims (extraordinary or otherwise) were made by Wilson (Answer: essentially, none). If the hoax story is true, then Wilson must have been in on it, but depending on exactly how the photos were taken, everything he subsequently said could be true.
In addition to the surgeon’s photo, there are also the famous “flipper photos” of 1972, and the “body and neck” and “head photos of 1975. These were taken by a team from the Academy of Applied Sciences led by Robert Rines and Harold Edgerton. Edgerton was a well-known physicist, inventor, and pioneer in photographic technology who was also a Nessie skeptic, but agreed to help inventor and lawyer Rines, an MIT alumnus, in his quest to photograph the beast.
The flipper photos seemed the most like a definite object in the water, but Dick Raynor, a member of the 1972 team, has argued, convincingly I think, that they are simply photos of the Loch bottom that have been enhanced beyond recognition. The 1975 photos aren’t clearly of anything, to my eye. Here’s one of them.
The 1972 and 1975 pictures were the subject of some scientific interest, with publication in science/technology media, and an account of a Cornell University conference in the scientific literature (Adler, 1976). Adler and other well respected herpetologists were impressed at the time for the evidence of something being in the Loch, but this was before the degree of alteration by enhancement was widely known. There are things in the Loch– sturgeons have been long known, and, more recently, seals, which have convex backs and heads that stick up at the surface, have been found in the Loch.
The now infamous Garry Trudeau gently ribbed the Academy of Applied Sciences Loch Ness expeditions in a series of Doonesbury cartoons in 1976; here are my two favorites.
And finally, I must applaud Google’s Streetviews of Loch Ness and the vicinity of Castle Urquhart– they include what looks like a trebuchet, my favorite medieval siege engine!
Update. Reader Michael notes that there are even less cropped versions of the surgeon’s photo in which the opposite shore is visible. He provides a link, but it’s rather long, so I here provide the photo, from Darren Naish’s Tet Zoo blog, which we have long commended for its cryptozoological acumen. Also, I note that a few readers of Jerry’s Google Doodle post also thought, like I did, that the ripples in the surgeon’s photo looked fishy for an animal supposed to be quite large. (Jerry told me about his post early today, and I set about writing my post before reading the comments on his.)
Adler, K. 1976. Loch Ness Monster evidence presented at Cornell University. Herpetological Review 7:41-46. (My copy of this, in one of the first journals I subscribed to while in high school, is a treasured part of my library.)
Rines, R.H., H.E. Edgerton, C.W. Wyckhoff, and M. Klein. 1976. Search for the Loch Ness Monster. Technology Review March/April 1976, pp. 25-40.
Witchell, N. 1975 The Loch Ness Story. Rev. ed. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
64 thoughts on ““I can call monsters from the vasty deep…”
Now that I see them again I remember reading about the “flipper” photos back when I was in college. Interesting to learn that they were probably a byproduct of technology. Enhance!
The quality of photographic reproduction in journals was still often very poor and a lot of added ink was considered acceptable (in some venues) up till the early 80s or so. It may be easier to lie with pixels in the new digital age, but it’s also much easier to tell the truth.
Talking of trebuchets in modern-day Britain:
Warwick Castle trebuchet fireball ‘sparked boathouse blaze’
They billed it as the “world’s largest working siege machine”, and then proved it, by setting fire to their own boathouse.
I’ve always been partial to this version of the photo:
That’s pretty good!
I LOL’d at that one.
Interesting. When I look at the original, what I see is someone swimming and the supposed neck/head is their arm coming out of the water.
I’ve loved cryptozoology since I was a kid. Yes, I know that most of it is bunkum, but every now and then it turns out to be a real critter. Things like the okapi, the coelacanth, the platypus, and deer with fangs – muntjac anyone?
Visitors to the loch typically describe outlandish things like a long sinewy neck and multiple humps. But unless they spend a lot of time on the water and are familiar with the fauna and waves, are trained observers, and have good photos, I think its pretty easy to discount their reports until better evidence appears. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
After all, its hard to judge the size of an unknown object seen in the water unless there is an object of a known size very near it. A long neck seen in the middle of the loch could easily be a duck, goose, a branch or even a deer swimming across the loch looking for better forage on the far side. Multiple humps with no disturbance in the water are most likely the wake of a distant boat where the waves are so small they don’t crest and foam (whitecap) or the point where small waves bouncing back and forth between the sides of the loch meet up and amplify each other.
The residents of the loch all typically describe a simple long low hump seen in the water that moves slowly.
I think biologist Jeremy Wade of the TV show River Monsters (season 5, episode 6) has the best, most likely and most scientific explanation for the Loch Ness monster.
Jeremy suspects that the cause of the sightings is actually a Greenland shark. They have a very small dorsal fin that sits far back on their body so that it rarely breaks the surface. A Greenland shark fits the first recorded description where it attacked a man in a river. The loch is connected to the sea by a river that is known to be used by seals to reach the loch, so a shark could do it too.
Just my too bits.
What, in your opinion, makes the Greenland shark theory more likely than the hoax theory, given that we have an actual confession from the hoaxer?
The famous surgeon’s photo Jerry posted is a hoax. But it isn’t the only reported sighting of an unidentified creature in Loch Ness.
I think most of the other sightings can be explained by someone seeing something perfectly normal, but misinterpreting it. As I stated, its easy to incorrectly estimate the size of an object, or even to misidentify it if you are not familiar with the local environment.
In the River Monsters episode I referenced (S5, E6), Jeremy Wade does a good job of going through the more widely known Nessie sightings and proposes a plausible and rational explanation. He then goes through the reported sighitngs made by the people who live at Loch Ness and only takes the elements of the descriptions of Nessie that these sightings have in common. He then finds a real creature that could meet these descriptions.
The Greenland shark lives in the North Atlantic, which is connected to Loch Ness by the River Ness. Currently, little is known about the Greenland shark. Bull sharks have been spotted 1200 miles up the Mississippi River, and in freshwater rivers all over the world. Although most sharks live in seawater, there is no evidence the Greenland Shark can’t survive in fresh water like a bull shark. Greenland sharks grow up to 20 feet in length and have a dark coloring. They have a small dorsal fin set far back along there length so that it may not be seen even if their back breaches the surface. All you would see is single a large dark colored low lying hump in the water. As a large predatory shark, they would easily be able to kill a man as in the first reported sighting in 565 AD by St Columba.
Although his show is called River Monsters, Jeremy Wade is a biologist not a cryptozoologist. He does put a tiny bit of melodrama into the stories he examines, but that’s reality TV. On each episode, he takes a seemingly fantastic or unbelievable encounter between people and something in the water. He examines it as a scientist. He talks to witnesses, examines actual evidence, identifies a real creature that could be the culprit and attempts to catch (and release) the real animal.
The River Ness flows through the centre of Inverness; and has weirs (and a lock on the section of the Caledonian Canal) at Dochgarroch. I don’t think a shark navigating past all that, unseen, is feasible.
Excellent points that I was unaware of. However, I would say that if seals can do it today, why couldn’t a shark? Unless of course these barriers are only passable by the seal crawling out of the river and going around them.
And if these man made barriers would prevent a large shark from swimming up the River Ness today, how long have they been there? The first reported sighting of Nessie was way back in 565 CE. St. Columba supposedly witnessed the attack that killed a man. So he rowed a boat out into the middle of the loch and commanded the beastie to begone. Must have worked because no one else has been killed by Nessie since 565!
I think Jeremy Wade’s hypothesis is plausible, but unconfirmed. He simply took the ‘evidence’ from all the sightings and identified something real that could have done it. After all, its a TV show that must first and foremost be entertaining – not a peer reviewed biology study.
It’s not that a shark couldn’t necessarily make it up the river, the issue is that the River Ness is shallow and populated enough that if there were Greenland sharks traveling up and down it on a regular basis they’d have had a really difficult time escaping notice.
Greenland sharks live in the arctic and subarctic North Atlantic, in the waters around Northern Norway, Svalbard, Iceland, and er…Greenland. They’re not normally found in British coastal waters, so the chances of them being found in the Moray Firth are very, very slim. To the best of my knowledge, there’s absolutely no record of them entering fresh water. The bull shark may be able to do it, but the vast majority of sharks are strictly marine.
As pointed out, it stretches credulity to think that a very large shark could swim through the middle of Inverness without anyone noticing. Seals are amphibious and can use shallow streams or circumvent barriers by crawling overland if they’re determined enough.
In short, I think the Greenland shark theory is utterly unlikely from a biological point of view. It’s also unnecessary – the idea that there are “thousands” of sightings to explain is untrue. The vast majority are just untrained people seeing waves, boat wakes, floating sticks, birds, and so on, and immedidately thinking “monster” because of where they are. If they saw the same thing at Lake Windermere they wouldn’t give it a second thought. There haven’t been any even semi-convincing photos since the heavily-enhanced Rhines pics of 1975, despite the near-universal availability of camera technology undreamed of in those days.
“River Monsters” is great fun, but it’s entertainment, not serious science. Everything it features is “monster-ised” to a ridiculous degree.
Me neither, and I’ve walked and cycled that tow path (as much as is possible) on several occasions. Mostly because the bus from Aberdeen doesn’t get into Inverness until an hour after the last bus to my aunt’s place had left. Due the presence of the Craig Dunain nut house, hitch hiking is not an effective technique.
The problem is that there never actually was a legend of a Loch Ness Monster prior to the existence of this photo.
There were legends of monsters that lived in Loch Ness, and also every other significant body of water in Scotland, but they were all about things like Kelpies, which were never described as looking anything like a plesiosaur or a shark- they were water-dwelling horses that could turn into humans.
It’s an interesting idea, but unfortunately one that lacks actual evidence.
Also, the show originally used a tiny bit of melodrama, but unfortunately as the seasons have gone by it’s gotten ridiculous: he’s done everything from portraying freshwater stingrays as aggressive ambush predators waiting to impale humans on their spines to treating lampreys as if they somehow represented a credible threat to a human.
I agree, the show has gone down hill – but I don’t think that is Jeremy’s fault. I think the network and producers followed the formula that creates ‘hit’ reality shows: make it as dramatic and cray-cray as possible, every episode has to be bigger than the last!
But whats that! Over there! A vampire deer! MUNTJAC! Run for your lives!
Just imagine what Animal Planet would do with that.
Create a “documentary” about how the government is covering up the existence of real vampires because reasons?
OK, so the two competing theories then are:
A. The original sighting was a hoax, and the subsequent sightings have all been due to imagination and wishful thinking of the Jesus-on-a-tortilla variety.
B. The original sighting was a hoax, but by coincidence there actually is a large sea creature (the Greenland shark) living in the loch to account for subsequent sightings.
Seems to me theory A still wins by parsimony.
I prefer military terminology: KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.
I’m not calling you stupid Gregory. I’m saying I agree, the simplest answer that meets all the criteria is the best answer. The first pic was a hoax. The other sightings are most likely mis-identification of something perfectly normal with a bit of wishful thinking.
I probably should have been more clear in that I thought that the Greenland shark hypothesis was the most likely animal to be the source of Loch Ness monster myth but that is unproven and untested. To validate it we would have to observe Greenland sharks in the River Ness and the loch which Jeremy Wade was unable to do while filming the episode.
On a side, note, I used to believe in ghosts, aliens, bigfoot, but then I turned 13. Still its fun to speculate about it. Like buying a state lottery ticket: I do it because the money goes to fund public education, but I also enjoy fantasizing what I’d do with the winnings even though I have a better chance of being killed on my drive to work than winning. Strangely, I never believed in a god.
Lastly, I prefer the instant classic of Jesus in a dogs butt to the trite Jesus on a tortilla.
Seriously, what is not to love about that picture?
Maybe my dog is seeking The Lord because he gets his face just as close as he can to every canine anus he encounters.
Canine anus! That is fun to say.
I saw that episode (and laughed at Jeremy’s face when he tried Hakarl), but the problem with his theory is that at no point did he ever establish that Greenland sharks swim up the river there.
I think its wise to agree with anyone who drives a 100 ton Atlas.
That is the weakest point of Jeremy Wade’s hypothesis – he hasn’t shown that Greenland shark can survive in fresh water.
But as a layman I would suspect that a shark that can live under the arctic ice pack has to be able to deal with varying salinity in order to survive. A lot of that ice first fell as snow which is freshwater. When it melts, it sinks into the ocean and dilutes the seawater, changing the salinity. If this is true, then I see no reason why they couldn’t swim up a freshwater river every now and then.
Or perhaps they can survive freshwater for the same reason bull sharks can – that’s where mama goes to spawn her pups. So their first gill full of water is freshwater.
While I’m sure that the Greenland shark is able to handle variations in salinity- its sluggish metabolism and large mass would provide it with a decent degree of resistance, it seems unlikely that they reproduce by spawning in fresh water.
While the episode was fairly entertaining, and having Jeremy help some researchers who were studying the sharks probably got Animal Planet a tax break, I wouldn’t treat it as too serious of a scientific proposal. The show is about entertainment first and education second.
“A lot of that ice first fell as snow which is freshwater.”
I think most likely almost all the ice fell as snow (on land) and drifted off as glaciers – I’d doubt if the open sea itself gets cold enough to freeze very often (at 28 deg. F). But if it does, it freezes as fresh water anyway.
There has been a report of a dead basking shark found on the shores of Loch Ness. These sharks reach upwards of 40 feet, and are common off Scotland, although I cannot find right now the Loch Ness report. The presence of a basking shark would lend support to the Greenland shark hypothesis, but even more support to the basking shark hypothesis.
The only way a dead basking shark could appear in Loch Ness is by deliberate human action, i.e. if it was planted there as a practical joke. Basking sharks are common in Scottish waters during the summer months, but they’ve never been recorded entering fresh water, and as open-sea plankton feeders they would have no reason to do so, A basking shark would almost certainly die of osmotic shock long before reaching the loch, to the great consternation of the good citizens of Inverness, in the middle of whose city it would expire.
I saw seven at once on a jolly between Skye, Canna and Rhum a few years ago. Fun day out!
There are references to a report in ‘Time’ in 1942 about a basking shark carcass in the Loch, though I can’t find the original. It’s referred to here: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1942/08/25/page/10/article/editorial-of-the-day
However, 1942 is also the year a large carcass, possibly a basking shark, washed up at Gourock on the Firth of Clyde (ie a tidal inlet), so I wonder if things got mixed up: http://talesoftheoak.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/massive-sea-monster-terrorises-gourock.html
Actually there is a larger shot of the Surgeon’s photo in which you can see part of the shore. It’s obvious from that one that whatever it is, it’s tiny, and as Asimov suggested “was simply a diving otter” (until they admitted about the submarine/dinosaur hoax).
I recall reading in New Scientist magazine a few years back that there was something unusual about the thermocline in Loch Ness. Something like persistent wind from a particular direction lead to an overturning of the thermocline, and a low wave would propagate along the loch, looking like there was something big below the surface causing it.
Jeez, I haven’t been very specific, have I? Hopefully someone with some knowledge will chime in…
That’s a new claim to me. There are tidal bore and such like in Britain, but I haven’t heard claim of one Loch Ness. I’m also trying to work out how such a thing would work, because the loch is fairly square-ended, which is not what you need to concentrate a diffuse energy source into a discrete wave.
Do these absurd tales related to places like Loch Ness, Roswell or the Amity House, etc., etc., bring much of a boost to the local economies due to so many people wanting to check it out for themselves and hoping to catch a glimpse of something that defies reason and sound science?
Loch Ness and Roswell bring in tourists. Amityville, not so much (I was born in Amityville).
There are lots of Tourists that visit Loch Ness, so it pays the Locals to keep the Myth going, I am sure people have seen things in the Loch, I myself have stood in the shadow of Castle Urquhart and I can vouch it is quite atmospheric ,as for Nessie she didn’t turn up I’m afraid, but she may have done if I had consumed enough Single Malt.
And, interestingly, the phenomenon xkcd describes has shown that seals do occur in Loch Ness. 🙂
I suspect that XKCD’s actual numerical data are guessed, although the phenomenon (of the ubiquitous camera) is real enough. As not only lake monsters and UFOs, but a number of police forces are finding to their cost.
“And finally, I must applaud Google’s Streetviews of Loch Ness and the vicinity of Castle Urquhart– they include what looks like a trebuchet, my favorite medieval siege engine!”
Google’s Boatviews of a beautifully calm Loch Ness are really nice to look at.
Re that trebuchet, NOVA built one for a TV doco and I somehow got the impression at the time that it might have been at Urquhart Castle that they tried it. Anyway, a clip from that has found its way on to Youtube, of course:
Actually there were two trebuchets featured in that program, one with a fixed base and hanging counterweight, and one (hardly seen in the clip but I think very similar to the one shown on Streetview) with wheels and a fixed counterweight. Both worked. I remember reading that one or the other (hanging counterweight or wheels) was essential to stop a trebuchet from shaking itself to pieces.
I vaguely recall seeing a show or reading somewhere that a trebuchet works best with both: you hang the weight and rest it on wheels. It then wobbles slightly back and forth when its in operation, but this wobble actually allows the arm to sling the cargo with more force, not less as one might intuitively expect.
Yes, I believe that’s the case. This is because, instead of the heavy weight moving backwards while the machine stays fixed, if it’s wheeled the heavy weight tends to drop vertically while the machine moves forward (kinda counter-intuitive) and of course that motion adds to the velocity of the business end of the throwing arm.
There wasn’t trebuchet there the last time the wife and I were there. But since Street View is at least several years out of date in parts of Aberdeen, I wouldn’t place any bets on when those photos were taken.
I have the impression Google’s coverage was recent, done in honour of Nessie Day. And the trebuchet is clearly visible in the aerial view if you zoom in enough, and labelled as such, and there’s a tracery of thin blue lines around Urquhart Castle indicating (I think) hand-carried Streetview cameras, and the trebuchet is of course very visible in Streetview. It can also be seen in Boatview if you look carefully enough.
My theory is that it’s the wheeled trebuchet from the Nova doco which has been placed there.
Well, my memory was playing tricks on me. I’ve just found a photo of me walking up to the (non-operating) trebuchet in June 2009. Surprising that i’d completely blanked it out.
I think Google’s coverage is recent, in honour of Nessie Day. And the trebuchet shows clearly and is labelled in satellite view, also in Streetview (which I think was handheld from the tracery of thin blue lines on the map) and also in Boatview if you look carefully.
My guess is the wheeled trebuchet made for the Nova doco has been placed there.
Damn. Post once, it WILL NOT show up, reload everything and try again and ya get two of them… 🙁
I hadn’t noticed that they’d started to do that. But, yes, you can see that the street view changes from an early morning with a delivery van in an empty car park, to a crowded tourist-filled day view. At least one tourist photographing the photography machine. I’d guess something like a “SteadiCam” poking above the general head level, so it’d attract attention.
If this link works –
Google body-cam needs a cat-head to be inconspicuous.
For certain values of “inconspicuous” which revolve around being thought to be something other than what you are. For example : “look at that weird man waling around with a cat head on a pole” instead of “why are you filming us?”
You don’t hear it often these days, but what a sound a cathead makes. Particularly when it nibbles someone’s fingers. The Safety Officer and I couldn’t think of a single nibbled finger in the whole 300-odd regular crew on the tub, which is a good sign.
I have a photo of a trebuchet at Castle Urquhart take in August 2006.
Greg, you neglected to mention the great naturalist Sir Peter Scott & his Nature article with Robert Rines from 1975…
Trudeau?! That plesiosaur absolutist is punching down again!
Oh C’mon. The trebuchet is everyones favorite medieval siege engine!
One thing (among many) that kills the Loch Ness monster story for me is the question of how a viably large breeding population of, say, plesiosaurs could go totally unnoticed in the loch when they’d have to come up to the surface to breathe at a rate of roughly once every hour. It wouldn’t be a “cryptid” by now; it’d be old news.
They are very, very sneaky. 🙂
Also I don’t think most Nessie believers assume a breeding population is there now. Where they went and how long an individual plesiosaur can live are questions that I doubt they bother answering, but I’m guessing that even most nessie believers don’t claim there’s a pod of 20 of them or whatever.
Most writers on Nessie don’t think it’s a plesiosaur. A popular theory is that sometimes one of the eels which exist in the lake can grow to a great age and size. This would do without the need for a distinct breeding population, and of course it wouldn’t need to breathe.
Yeah, but “relic surviving plesiosaur” is a lot more interesting to cryptozoologists than “random eel with gigantism”.
One of the things that caused me to ditch cryptozoology was reading a serious claim that Nessie was a species of plesiosaur that had suddenly evolved gills so that it could live in fresh water after becoming landlocked by shrinking sea levels.