Thursday, 24 July 2014

Tuesday 24th July 1934

It is now 80 years since the date in the title, but you may ask what is the significance of it? Was there an important sighting on that day, a significant photograph taken or did some personality get up to something that has forever lived in modern Loch Ness folklore?

The answer is none of these, for the 24th July 1934 was the day in which the Loch Ness Monster was reported the most times in one day. In total, there were five claimed sightings of the monster on the busiest day of the busiest month of the busiest year ever for loch Ness Monster stories.

Now, these days, I would consider it good going if we had five reported sightings in one year, let alone one day, and this just reminds us just how manic things were up at Loch Ness those long years ago. Once can only dream of such activity now.

However, before I look at that day, I must dismiss the rival claim of Barbara Abbot. If you go to the very first entry of Paul Harrison's 2012 edition of "The Encyclopedia of the Loch Ness Monster" you will read of her claim to have seen Nessie five times at different locations in one day. The whole affair is topped off by Nessie tossing a live seal into the air, catching it in her mouth and eating it. I am not going to take this one any further.

The sources for the reports are all newspapers, The Scotsman for the 25th and 27th July 1934, the Inverness Courier for 27th July and the Northern Chronicle for the 25th July.

The sighting log begins in the morning with Duncan Cameron who reported a long neck moving at speed in Urquhart Bay toward Fort Augustus. The clipping below is from the 27th July edition of The Scotsman.

The account was also reported on the same day by the Inverness Courier, but both do not give a more precise time than the "morning". However, a reading of the other four sightings leads me to conclude this was the first sighting of the day. By 11:15am, the second sighting had occurred when a Mr. Charles Mace saw an object off Ruskie further down the loch. His account is taken from the Northern Chronicle.

The third account occurred at 11:30am a couple miles north of Fort Augustus by the crew of the steam drifter, "Sedulous". They saw a black hump like an upturned boat at a distance of 400 yards which drifted about for a period of time. This account appears in the Scotsman and Northern Chronicle and though generally in agreement, they don't seem to agree on how long the object appeared for. The Scotsman has the object "cruising about" while the Chronicle has the object visible for only a few seconds. The account below is from the 25th July edition of The Scotsman.

Moving onto our fourth account, by about noon, the object (or another object) was back at Ruskie where it was spotted by Robert C. Urquhart. Mr. Urquhart was one of the 20 watchers employed by Edward Mountain for his four week surface watching expedition. Each man was equipped with a camera and a telescope (or binoculars) in pursuit of their quarry.

Finally, our busy day for Nessie closes with the fifth sighting reported by another watcher for the Mountain expedition. This was a Mr. Ralph who was stationed at Temple Pier overlooking Urquhart Bay. His sighting occurred at 3:25pm when he saw a dome shaped object break the surface for a short time. The account below is from the Chronicle but an ink blemish on the original document obscures some of the details.

I have plotted the five reports on a map of Loch Ness, each numbered in chronological order from Duncan Cameron through to Mr. Ralph. The salient details for each sighting are given in tabular form.

Cameron      AM           Urquhart Bay     20 minutes         long neck and head with 50 yard wake
Mace            1115          Ruskie               30 minutes         eel like object with seal like head
"Sedulous"   1130          nr F.Augustus    seconds?            black hump like upturned boat
Urquhart       1200         Ruskie                5 minutes          duck-like
Ralph            1525         Temple Pier        seconds             semi circular object

Now the first question that naturally arises is whether these are all genuine sightings of the Loch Ness Monster? For the sceptic, the answer is easy. It is "No" at all times and all places, till Loch Ness freezes over again.

For the Nessie advocates, each case has to be judged on its own merits. Three of the cases involved the witness examining the object through a telescope or binoculars, which enhances their credibility (Mace, Urquhart and Ralph). Three cases also were of multi-minute duration, which again allows time to assess the object in view as to whether it is common or uncommon. Based on these factors, I would rank the sightings in order of decreasing credibility as Mace, Urquhart, Cameron, Sedulous and Ralph.

The last, by virtue of the fact that part of the account was obscured, made an assessment more difficult. It is also to be noted that one witness (Urquhart) thought the object looked like a duck. Another (Mace) thought the object looked like a seal (in part). Some sceptics when looking at these phrases will subconsciously replace the phrase "looked like" with "was" and conclude misidentification. This is despite the two objects in question being examined through a telescope or binoculars. Note that this "retranslation" of the text does not carry so well when the other phrases "looked like an eel" or "looked like an upturned boat" are examined.

The Urquhart account is the only one to mention photographs being taken. Two of our accounts involved Mountain men, so one would reasonably presume an attempt to photograph the object was also attempted in the case of Mr. Ralph. Then again, perhaps not, as his report suggests the object was in view for only seconds.

Does the Urquhart photograph exist to this day? Well, five pictures were publicised but individual details of each picture are lacking. This photograph was taken opposite Foyers but the Mountain Expedition pictures I have are inconclusive in determining if any were taken from Ruskie.

Another question that may be asked is whether these could all be the same creature? The answer to that is most likely "No". I say this because the Mace and Sedulous accounts overlap by 15 minutes but are about 8 miles apart. So, if these are monster reports, we have at least two creatures. Furthermore, one could conjecture that the two sightings at Ruskie are the same object (Mace at 1115-1145 and Urquhart at 1200).

Meanwhile, what about the two reports near Urquhart Bay? These were Cameron in the morning and Ralph at 1525. One could speculate that this could be the same creature which appeared to Cameron, swam onto Ruskie for the two sightings and then finished the day back around Urquhart Bay. Yes, I know, sheer speculation, but readers will form their own opinion.

So, it was a busy day on the 24th July 1934 and one doubts it will ever get that busy again. Meanwhile, we look forward to the next year which manages to muster five sightings over 365 days.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Meanwhile at Loch Morar

A while back, I had the pleasure of the company of Tony Healy who was visiting from Australia. He was on a trip around Britain and elsewhere to see not only friends and relatives, but places of cryptozoological interest. Previously, Tony had been to Loch Morar back in 1979 researching various cryptids for a book he hoped to publish called "Monster Safari".

With Tony's consent, this story is based on material taken from the manuscript for that book. Back in 1979, he had visited a Charles Simpson regarding a sighting of the Loch Morar Monster being briefly seen almost wholly out of the water. Quite briefly in fact as it was lurching over a strip of shingle. 

Tony sent a summary of the story to the editor of the local magazine, "West Word", which published the story in its March 2000 edition. I quote the article here.

Last summer, West Word offices were visited by Tony Healy, an Australian author who is interested in Morag and other legendary creatures. He had visited the area 21 years ago and talked then to Charles Simpson of Mallaig about Morag. Now writing a book, Tony came into the office to look at back copies, and went away with those which have mentioned Morag, to have a chat with Ewan MacDonald, who has also sighted the monster. Tony has now sent us this account, and allowed us to reproduce the photo of the painting made of the creature seen by Donald Simpson 25 years ago.

On 27th November 1975 Charles and his brother Donald (who died a few years later) were driving towards Bracorina on a bird watching expedition. The Morar River, as it leaves the loch,  flows over a narrow ridge of gravel, so that for a short distance it is only a couple of feet deep. At 3 p.m., just as they were passing that spot, Charles, who was watching the road ahead, heard his brother, who was driving, suddenly gasp and choke as if unable to breathe.

"I was terrified he'd taken a heart attack", Charles recalled, "but then he braked and pointed to the water. 'This will startle the world', was all he could say at first. When I asked what he meant he said 'Did ye not see it?"'

What Donald had seen was a powerful, 20 foot long animal which rose out of the river less than 40 feet from the car. It lurched across the gravel bar and sank into the deeper waters of the loch. The episode lasted only a couple of seconds but made a deep impression on the man — who had previously been very sceptical about the Morag legend. He said it had smooth brown skin "like a drum" and commented particularly on the muscles in its powerful hindquarters, which were evident as it hauled itself over the gravel bar.

He saw no ears or eyes but said there was what looked like a "trunk" trailing along the side of the body. Shortly afterwards, under Donald's close supervision, a neighbour executed a small watercolour painting of what he had seen. "Donald said it wasn't exactly right"' Charles Simpson explained, "but said it conveyed the general impression of what he saw.

Because the sighting was so unexpected, so startling and so brief, he couldn't even say for sure whether the "trunk" was attached to the front or the back of the creature, but it is interesting to note that long, flexible, trunk-like appendages — which are usually thought to be the snake-like head and neck of the creatures have often been reported at Lochs Ness and Morar. Because, like his brother, he was a highly respected man, an elder of the church and an authority on the wildlife of the area and because he was much too close to the massive creature to have been mistaken — I fully believe Donald Simpson's account: what he saw must certainly have been one of the legendary Loch Morar monsters.

Twelve years on from this report, Tony sent me additional notes and comments. Charles Simpson took Tony to meet Donald's widow, Jessie, who showed him the painting. The local artist was a man by the name of Willie Kirk of Mallaig whom Tony caught up with on his last visit to Loch Morar. Willie seemed a bit of a reclusive chap to Tony who had no problem allowing his painting to be put in the public domain.

Having spoken to them and others who spoke well of Donald Simpson led Tony to believe that there was no hint of deception in their tale. Add to that the fact that Charles was expert in recognising local wildlife and the creature was only forty feet away further reinforced Tony's conclusions.

As to the location of this event, Tony also sent me a photograph of the location where he thinks it all happened. As I said, it was not quite a full blown land sighting. The shingle bar was about two feet under water and so our creature technically never fully left the water.

By using Google Maps, the location can be confirmed via StreetView below. The first map shows Loch Morar in relation to Loch Ness. The second map circles the location of the sighting.

The witness said he was only about 40 feet from the creature which is borne out by the next StreetView picture which shows the road they were travelling on beside the loch.

The thing that has to be said about the creature depicted in the painting is that it is moving from right to left as it hauls itself across the shingle bar out of the River Morar into Loch Morar. Anyone looking at the painting with a Nessie mindset would presume the trunk like object is a long neck and hence the beast is lumbering from left to right. This is not the case, which may present a bit of a conundrum, although the rapidity of the sighting does allow for some uncertainty as to how this appendage actually attached itself to the body. However, if one presumes it is the tail rather than the neck (which has by then submerged to the left), then the image perhaps becomes clearer.

Using a formula mentioned here before, in terms of witness credentials, proximity and clarity, it is a good report. The one thing that one would wish more for is the duration of the sighting, which is mere seconds. The longer, closer or clearer the sighting, then the less chance of misidentification.

But, then again, what kind of creature could be misidentified? Once again, the ubiquitous seal may pop into people's minds, but apart from being 20 feet long and brown in colour, there is another obstacle to that theory and it is a physical obstacle.

I am talking about the hydroelectric dam just up the River Morar which has been in place since 1948. On that basis alone, seals can be excluded. But, of course, what the dam prevents coming in, it also prevents going out. Is Mhorag forever stranded in Loch Morar? If Mr. Simpson's description of "powerful hindquarters" is accurate, then perhaps not.

What the painting conveys is a bit of a mystery to me. That a degree of inaccuracy is acknowledged by the witness adds more uncertainty. The most interesting quote refers to the "muscles in its powerful hindquarters, which were evident as it hauled itself over the gravel bar". It would seem that Charles Simpson saw enough to see impressive musculature in action.

But "powerful hindquarters" is not a term I readily equate with lake monsters. It is something I would more relate to the lion crouched ready to race after its prey or something else more land-bound. Indeed "powerful tail" or "powerful rear flippers" would be more appropriate terms for lake cryptids. But, this is not so much a mystery if the amphibious attributes of the Loch Ness Monster are assigned to the Loch Morar Monster.

What does seems certain, though, is that a large, powerful creature was seen entering Loch Morar nearly forty years ago. It is also about forty years since a book was written on Mhorag. Perhaps Tony or someone ought to do an update on Nessie's famous relation?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Story from a Reader

One of the blog's regular readers emailed me an experience he had at Loch Ness some years back. J.S. (as I shall call him) lives in Scotland and was at Loch Ness over ten years ago on a camping trip. I quote to you what he initially told me:

Hi Roland nice to meet you by the way, and I am more then happy to inform you in relation to my personal Loch Ness experience it happened some years ago 2002/2003? One early morning I came back from the toilet block walking in the direction of my tent when I heard several fish jump which I recognized having done a lot of fishing with my father back in Holland.

Seconds later there was this huge splash, and I mean Roland a really enormous disturbance at the surface of the Loch which sounded as if a whale came out of the Loch and splashed back in again followed by waves crashing onto the shoreline, sadly I could not see a thing due to the fact I was blinded by the camping flood lights, was an experience I will never forget I tell you,.. a personal deduction of this experience tells me that what ever it was was chasing ( hunting ) these jumping fish, what do you think .... 

Further enquiries placed the event in late August or early September of 2003 at a time of about 1 or 2 in the morning with cloudy but dry weather. This audible encounter happened at the Invermoriston Caravan and Camping site which is circled on the map below.

Now, this is more of a "hearing" than a "sighting" and such encounters are rare to say the least. Given the time and month, I would doubt if J.S. would have seen much at all out on the loch. I have myself seen fish jumping out of the water ahead of what may have been a silent and invisible predator. Not necessarily a Loch Ness Monster, but certainly bigger than the fish in retreat. That may have been the closest I got to seeing our elusive monster.

Be that as it may, a large splash normally requires a proportionally large dose of energy which would require a combination of a fast and/or heavy object. What could J.S. have heard?

The ubiquitous seal may be trotted out at this point. Seals are the second largest animals that may be found in the loch. However, when they are sometimes suggested as an explanation, one wonders if there was one actually in the loch at the time of the given report? After all, they only turn up in the loch perhaps once every two years when they pursue salmon or trout from the Moray Firth. They normally end up getting shot. So it is no surprise that the times the loch has no seal in it easily outweigh the times there is one or two in it.

Or perhaps someone was just dumping something in the loch, or "fly tipping" as we call it? I would only say that the roadside is quite close to the lochside at the campsite in question, so the dramatic noise one would get from an old, useless cooker tumbling into Loch Ness from a high road point is lost at this particular location.

But I get the impression here that J.S's noise was out there in the loch rather than one originating near the shore, especially when he saw the waves come rolling into the camp shore (he had gone to the shingle shoreline to witness these as his vision got back to normal about a minute later).

If J.S. did hear our loch leviathan then that gives me encouragement. Not just because Nessie again has made her presence known in recent years, but because it occurred in the early hours, a time of day which I believe the monster is more active in (as regular readers will know from my infra-red work).

As ever, comments and interpretations are invited from other readers.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Review of Holiday's Great Orm Of Loch Ness

I am on holiday in Cornwall just now amongst such reputed cryptids as Morgawr, Owlman and the Beast of Bodmin Moor. If I catch a sight of any of them, I will be sure to let you know!

Meanwhile, I thought I would post an old e-clipping I found on a recent library visit. It is a review of Ted Holiday's book, The Great Orm of Loch Ness. The fascinating thing is that the review appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology published by the University of Chicago Press (Vol.44, No.4 Dec 1969).

Amidst other reviews on books such as Cybernetics Simplified and Current Topics in Radiation Research we find a book on the Loch Ness Monster.  One wonders if such a thing would ever happen again in a scientific journal for a similar work? 

The reviewer was a Jane Oppenheimer, who I believe was a renowned embryologist who died in 1996. She reviewed more than 400 publications and looked for the following in a publication:

She respected others who were erudite and had little patience for those who lacked rigour in scholarship. Colleagues who were creative and imaginative as well as rigorous gained her admiration. Perhaps Holiday's lateral thinking struck a chord with here. 

She is careful not to admit to the existence of one or more large, unknown creatures in Loch Ness; but neither does she deny such a thing. However, Holiday's pursuit of the undeniable picture or film gets short shrift from the zoologist who says their community expects more than that. I would myself expect nothing less from them and smile when I see sceptical comments on this blog demanding better pictures. 

However, she ends on a positive note by agreeing that an open mind is required. If that is all that the scientific community showed, that would be enough for me.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A 1934 Book on The Loch Ness Monster

I just wanted to mention that Karl Shuker has updated his bibliography on books devoted to the Loch Ness Monster. By way of introduction, he mentions the first book on Nessie by W. H. Lane. For further information on this book and its author, you can view my previous articles here and here. (regular reader Steve Plambeck will warm to Colonel Lane and his giant salamander theory.).

Karl's list is a bit different to mine in that he includes non-fiction juvenile and non-english books. I don't, but I do include books which have sizable sections on Nessie while Karl is only interested in books devoted to the Loch Ness Monster. Between us, I think we have covered all the bases on what has been published. Well, that is not quite true, there are always general books out there which have a chapter on the Loch Ness Monster, these may well exceed what we have listed.

One title most of all caught my eye and that is Karl's up and coming book called "Here's Nessie!" which is a compilation of his writings on the famous beastie.  I look forward to this and Paul Harrison's forthcoming biography on Frank Searle in the months ahead!

While I am here, I promised in that first book article to look at the second ever book on the Loch Ness Monster. This was a 16 page booklet entitled "The Mysterious Monster of Loch Ness" published by the Fort Augustus Abbey Press and authored by a W.D.Hamilton and J.Hughes.

Unlike Lane's first ever book on the Loch Ness Monster, I have never seen the second book on public sale. I personally had to obtain a photocopy of an original held in Edinburgh. If it ever turns up on eBay, I expect it to go for hundreds of pounds. The authors are not mentioned in the book itself, but rather from the library catalogue. However, Michael Turnbull's book "Abbey Boys" which relates the history of the Fort Augustus Abbey schools, mentions them as teachers during the 1930s.

The book makes no mention of anything beyond May 1934, so I presume it was published around June 1934 putting it a few weeks ahead of Rupert Gould's better known book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others". Proceeding in a chronological manner, the booklet goes through St.Columba, the Willie MacGruer land sighting around the First World War and the 1932 "crocodile" sighting in the River Ness.

A further note of interest states that the rumour of a released crocodile dates back to about 1913. I covered this persistent crocodile story in this article. Wetherell's infamous spoors are mentioned, but it is more interesting to note that this was contrasted with what was stated as the favoured theory of the locals which was of a "bearded eel".

The booklet goes a bit strange when it mentions strange toothmarks in sheep and deer carcasses but then states they were discovered to be those of a walrus! That in itself would be an unusual event as would be the tale of a famous deep-sea diver finding great honeycombed caverns in the gloom of the loch.

Having run off a few stories of other lake cryptids, the authors make no commitment as to what the creature may be and give a list of various candidates. The one thing that puzzles me from the list is what is a "megovia"?! The discourse ends with the two stories often given as the origins of the name of the loch.

PUBLIC NOTICE: Can "P.C." email me at about the painting they sent a comment to me about.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Sighting Report from 2001

Reports of encounters with the Loch Ness Monster regularly appear on multimedia, even years after the event happened. Today, I highlight one for you which happened 13 years ago but was not made public until 2011 and now in 2014, hopefully it will go out to a wider audience.

Of course, the phrase "Encounter with the Loch Ness Monster" is a contentious series of words before one even gets into the details of the story. Not all reports that enter the public domain will be of the creature and, indeed, plenty of people will not hesitate to tell you that none of them involve a monster at all. Once again, I will offer my opinions, but let the readers judge.

I was at a recent meeting of the Edinburgh Fortean Society where Innes Smith gave a very good talk on the problems of believers, sceptics and the paranormal in the field of psychic research. That in itself was material enough for a few more articles, but it was what Innes said after that is relevant today.

Innes is Vice-President of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research and has been researching the paranormal since 1998. On the night of 1st May 2001, he found himself on the shores of Loch Ness as a result of a detour from a paranormal investigation at Loch Ashie. I encourage you to read his full and entertaining account here before I get into the nitty gritty.

In summary, Innes was staring out at the loch on a beach opposite Castle Urquhart, drinking coffee with his camera at the ready. To quote from his article:

It was then that I saw it. Her. It. Constantly in motion, something between the graceful rise of a swan’s neck out of water and a wiggly worm, an animated question mark (how apt) moving from  left to right. I estimated it to be about 6 feet out of water (1.8 metres to my metric chums) and it was framed brilliantly by the path of moonlight. My instant reaction was one of joy and I said out loud, ‘no way, no f*cking way‘, and then curiously my brain started to squeeze at least 20 seconds of thought into 0.2 of a second.

I reasoned that I was witnessing something that no-one would believe, and yet, here I was with a camera in my right hand (a cup of hot coffee was in my left). I also reasoned that even if I did take a photo, the chances of anything appearing on the film would be negligible (I had no telephoto lens and it was 1 a.m in the morning). However, the mere fact that I would not try, would, I reasoned, count against my credibility, so I decided to take some photos. I took five photographs. With a flash (it is an old automatic 35mm film camera). By the time my eyes had slightly readjusted to the darkness, I could see nothing.

The rough location of the sighting is circled above. I must admit to a bit of jealousy here. I have been out several times at night by Loch Ness with the infra-red equipment trained on the dark waters. So far I have had no success. But amidst the flow of millions of travellers past Loch Ness over the years, some people will statistically be in the right place at the right time.

But for eeriness levels, this report is a notch above the others. One o' clock in the morning; a cold, lonely beach; a path of moonlight leading an individual to see a monster's neck writhing on the surface.

If indeed it was a monster's neck. The zoom in below shows a bit more of what Innes saw, though he seems convinced it was a hallucination, but why and how he cannot say.  The word "illusion" is more often used than "hallucination" when attempts are made to explain away monster sightings. Though some of the strained explanations that I have read must have required the witnesses to have feasted on magic mushroom soup for their lunch before their alleged encounters.

But Innes' story is a bit more unique. The usual daytime explanations seem even less adequate in a nighttime environment where birds have gone back to their nests and otters to their holts (I have run various trap cameras over the years, I get birds landing near the camera in daytime, but to date nothing at night). Logs will continue to drift at night with vertical branches protruding, but they don't writhe and twist and disappear from view so quickly.

Did that shimmering path of moonlight have an effect on the mind? I must confess I do not know, but I don't think the burden of proof lies with me to demonstrate that. After all, it is just moonlight reflecting of a surface of water. It does not sound like a big deal but I have put a note in my mind to coincide my next visit to the loch with a full moon and hope for a clear night. I am not expecting to trip out into a hallucination. Innes said it was a half moon, NASA's moon phase calendar confirms ths moon was in a first quarter phase on April 30th.

If it was the monster, I am sure Tony Shiels would approve of the "tentacle" reference and Ted Holiday would give a nod to the worm like metaphor. With reference to the previous plesiosaur article, I don't think any plesiosaur could contort its neck like that.

But what about the camera? It seems a bit of that "shock and awe" I have previously referred to kicked in to a degree. That doesn't always mean one is suddenly rooted to the spot, but it certainly initiates a mindset where one is not dotting ones "i"s and crossing ones "t"s in the usual methodical manner (and I say this knowing that Innes is a practised investigator of the unusual). As Innes says:

I legged it back up to the car. I told my colleague about what I’d seen. I know he didn’t believe me. I hardly believe myself*. And as a footnote: the photos?  A mysterious mist appeared on all the shots. How odd, there was no mist? Maybe I had captured something paranormal after all? …. and then I remembered what I had in my left hand. A cup of steaming hot coffee. I had succeeded in photographing steam from a cup of coffee – brilliantly.

I can sympathise with that, even a "seasoned" visitor like myself cannot be quite sure that I would be ready to seamlessly move into action with the video recorder or camera. Here are some more observations that Innes gave to me:
  1. It had no head or head shape, it could have been a tentacle or a giant worm.
  2. It was constantly moving, initially from the left to the right as if rising from the loch surface.
  3. I would estimate it as being about 6 - 10 feet out of the water.
  4. The colour was impossible to know due it being nighttime, but the shape was in the middle of the path of moonlight on the surface and looked black to me. 
  5. How far out was it on the loch? Hard to judge. Maybe a bit closer (to me) than halfway across. 
  6. The sighting lasted no longer than 5 - 10 seconds - at this point I started to take photographs and the flash ruined my night vision. By the time I stopped taking photos the image had gone - maybe 10 seconds after that...
Innes suggests about 500m to the object and when he described the motion of the object it reminded me of one of those fast time lapse films you see of plants growing where they rise up and flail about in various directions, but in a general vertical direction.

Did Innes spot our famous resident? He is not sure and I am, of course, open to the possibility that he did.  The briefness of the sighting and the relatively long distance brings one into the percentages of sighting validity. It is simplistic to just say deer, bird or branch as the credibility of a sighting is inversely proportional to distance and obscuration but directly proportional to time (see link for more detail).

I regard Innes as a trustworthy and skilled investigator and so it is down to what could possibly have fooled him ... or not. When I come back from my next trip, I will have a hopefully better idea of moonlight observations of the loch.

PUBLIC NOTICE: Could P.C. get back to me about the painting you told me about. My email is

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Plesiosaur Theory

A mini debate of sorts has arisen in a small corner of the Web concerning Plesiosaurs. To wit, is the Loch Ness Monster one of their ilk? A recent article by Nick Redfern dismisses the idea and that has led to a growing thread on the Zombie Plesiosaur Facebook page. I chipped in with a few comments but thought after nearly four years of blogging on Nessie, I really ought to say something about plesiosaurs.

In fact, it is well overdue since the Loch Ness Monster and plesiosaurs has been fixed in the public mind since the early days of the Nessie story. Indeed, the two have been almost synonymous in the media representation of the phenomenon for decades. The reason behind that is quite simple when the various theories are considered by the populist press.

Giant slug? Ugly.
Giant eel? Boring.
Paranormal manifestation? Wacky.
Surviving aquatic dinosaur? Now you're talking.

Nothing resonates more with the public imagination than a living dinosaur. Okay, I am not sure plesiosaurs are strictly dinosaurs, but the public doesn't care about that. The earliest reference I have seen on this theory in the Loch Ness story is from the Inverness Courier dated 24th October 1933. That article mentions a Philip Stalker who gave a radio talk on the monster citing this amongst other theories.

This was only just over five months after the first reports began to be published. Rupert T. Gould also mentions a letter to the Morning Post newspaper which promotes the theory on the 14th October 1933. I have not seen that particular newspaper, but it is fairly clear to me that the long neck from the August 1933 Spicers story was the catalyst for this line of thought.

That being said, Rupert Gould was not favourably inclined to the theory in his 1934 book. His reasoning being that the air breathing creature should have been seen more frequently, some bones should have been found and the creature was extinct anyway. He did not discount the idea that some evolved descendant of the original plesiosaur swam the oceans of the world, but he could not see such a beast residing in Loch Ness.

However, the idea that Loch Ness contained an evolved form of the species gained traction in the decades ahead. Loch Ness Monster expert, Maurice Burton, promoted the idea towards the end of the 1950s and his student, Tim Dinsdale, fell in favour with the idea when he published his popular book "Loch Ness Monster" in 1961.

Tim attempted to counter Gould's objections by suggesting ideas such as the monster covertly taking in air via nostrils on the top of the head or even using the reports of "horns" as suggestive of extended nostrils. Meanwhile, Tim could always call upon the trusty ceolacanth to counter arguments about extinction. As a bonus, it would be proposed that a modified plesiosaur could have taken upon itself other quirky abilities, such as the monster's flexible hump configuration (others would also suggest a hypothetical rhomboidal tail misinterpreted as a second "hump").

It seemed to work as the theory gained ground into the 1960s and 1970s. The painting at the top of the article was executed by William Owen and I believe formed part of the Great Glen Exhibition at that time. How many of the monster believers held to the idea of a modified plesiosaur is not clear to me, but it seemed to be ahead of the other candidates such as eels, worms and tulpas.

However, Roy Mackal, in his 1976 "The Monsters of Loch Ness", downgraded the plesiosaur to third place in a list of candidate animals, well behind the giant eel and amphibian. It would seem these days that the giant eel has triumphed over the plesiosaur as a hopeful monster.

By the time Tim Dinsdale published the fourth edition of his book in 1982, he still listed the candidates but he was now non-committal on any of them. He still believed there was an unknown animal there, what it was eluded him (though one might wonder if his less publicised paranormal views had a say).

I myself have not subscribed to the traditional plesiosaur theory in a long time. The problems are too many to me. The idea that a number of air breathing plesiosaurs could be swimming in the upper echelons of the open water column was dealt a blow when sonar failed to register that scenario. Yes, anomalous sonar contacts have been recorded over the decades, but nothing consistent with open water air breathers. The large lungs would have easily shown up on sonar.

The problem with required multiple surfacings to breath was also evident. Dinsdale speculated about the use of extended horns to take in air but this was not a solution to the rarity of monster surfacings. The problem is not inhalation, it is exhalation. Have you ever seen a whale come up for air? The noise and spray that accompanies the exhalation leaves no one in doubt that there is a large animal around.

If the Loch Ness Plesiosaur comes up for air, even just below the surface, we should hear it before we see it. I would also add that even if the creature was regularly just swimming inches below the surface, the head and part of the neck would be visible from cruise boats. The conclusion is simple, the Loch Ness Monster cannot be an air breather, even by surreptitious means.

Apart from the fact that the plesiosaur is extinct in the fossil record, there is the problem of those shape shifting humps, that very flexible neck and a head that is so small it is often described as a continuation of the neck. We even have reports of the head-neck extending in length and retracting into the main body! These are more suggestive of a neck-like appendage that is boneless rather than the neck vertebrae of the traditional plesiosaurus. Furthermore, could the plesiosaur move on land like our beast has been reported doing?

When all you have is 70 million year old bones, there is plenty of room for speculation. This all points to the conclusion that the plesiosaur as known from the fossil record is an unlikely candidate for the Loch Ness Monster. However, this did not deter those such as Tim Dinsdale who initially suggested a modified plesiosaur that had developed various Nessie-like attributes over geological time.

So is it as simple as adding in skin/gills which have replaced lungs to extract oxygen from water? How simple is it to add in those multiple humps? If the lungs change into a buoyancy mechanism, how does it still evade sonar? It should be clear that the more features that are added in, the more improbable our converted plesiosaur becomes.

The idea is not impossible, it is just unlikely that an extinct plesiosaur has turned up at Loch Ness with all these add ons. Like Tim Dinsdale, I regard the Loch Ness Monster as something else - an unknown creature yet to be identified. That may seem a retrograde step when one can at least come up with something known to science from the past. I agree, but in my opinion the sightings database says "No" to plesiosaurs.