“I can call monsters from the vasty deep…

April 21, 2015 • 4:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Why, so can I, or so can any man; But are there any to come when you do call for them?”

[Update below.]

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.

The uncropped surgeon's photo.
The modestly uncropped surgeon’s photo.

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.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson, M.A., M.B., Ch.B.Camb., F.R.C.S.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson, M.A., M.B., Ch.B.Camb., F.R.C.S.

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.

One of the flipper photos from 1972, enhanced.
One of the flipper photos from 1972, enhanced.

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.

Body and neck photo, 1975.
Body and neck photo, 1975.

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.