Monday, 21 May 2018

The eDNA Experiment Begins



 
A year since Professor Neil Gemmell of New Zealand talked of his interest in conducting eDNA tests at Loch Ness, he has organised his team and equipment and will be arriving at the loch with the improving weather and before the tourist season gets into full swing.

The subject has been covered here before, but the points are worth reiterating again as to what kind of DNA results may come out. Samples of water will be taken, the DNA strands extracted from the water, the DNA sequenced and the code compared against a database of known animals. What that shall reveal is not known to the full extent but there are things we can say in the points below.

Firstly, the experiment should detect all the indigenous species in the loch and I would hope even the rarest of those species. Whether this will be achieved is not certain but if it does not detect everything known, can it assuredly detect everything unknown?

Secondly, there is the matter of whether non-indigenous species will be detected. By that I mean animals which are not always in the loch but are there on a temporary basis dictated by seasonal, reproductive or purely random factors.

In that list we include salmon, trout and seals. The fishing season began last month and so it is possible that DNA traces of salmon may be found, though perhaps it is unlikely they would be found if the tests were conducted in mid-summer and before the second salmon run.

Seals are more interesting as they only appear in the loch every two years or so and therefore it does not seem likely they will be detected. What will also be of interest are the oft discussed catfish and sturgeon. Some believe catfish were placed in the loch decades ago and one may presume some traces will be found. Atlantic sturgeon have always been mooted as occasional visitors and so one would take that as a negative for eDNA tests.

What is the big unknown for me is finding DNA which can be mistaken for something else. I say that because it seems unlikely to me that Loch Ness Monster DNA is going to be radically different to anything else. It is going to be related to something but what? And how different will it be to its nearest relatives that have been sequenced? Let us go through the list.

Plesiosaur – the closest living relatives may be the turtle family.
Long necked seal – how different would this be from harbour or grey seals?
Paranormal Entity – No DNA expected to be found.
Giant eel – DNA difference between the local three footers and a 30 foot specimen?
Giant Invertebrates – How different would this be from the worms and mollusks in the loch?
Itinerant monster – Any DNA at all to be expected?

That is the unknown for me. How much DNA has to change to go from a five foot to a forty-foot creature? How much to extend the neck by six feet? I will leave that to the genetics experts, but I don’t expect any radical DNA to be found – Nessie has some place in an largely well known DNA tree of life.

Two more things I suggested Professor Gemmell tries is to DNA analyse core samples taken from the bottom of the loch and also take water samples from the sides of the loch.

I wish them well in their venture.


 The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com



Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Loch Ness Trip Report April 2018




It was off to Highlands again at the beginning of April as I took the old camping equipment but some new hunting equipment to the south side of the loch. The tent was pitched, the Pot Noodles unpacked and the electronics plugged in. After some good old camp stodge (sausage and beans as I recall), it was down to planning the days ahead.

TRAP CAMERAS

Moving onto the trap cameras first and I had left four cameras in position over the autumn and winter to see what objects of interest may pass in front of them. The whole affair proved to be something of a disappointment. On retrieving the cameras and their SD cards, the results were worse than usual. The first camera seemed to have taken a battering from the winter storms. Not surprisingly, this was deduced from the fact that on opening it, water came out! I had placed it too close to the loch and so the lesson was learnt. Did the memory card survive? When I tried to mount it onto my laptop for viewing, the computer failed to recognise a file system on it and so all was in vain.

The second camera was in a safer location and for this particular one, I turned it to look along the receding shoreline to see if anything would come from the loch to the shore and from the hills to the shore. Of course, I would expect to see some deer in such a survey, but who knows what else may venture into camera range? To my chagrin, this SD card mounted by the laptop but it had zero images on it! Why this happened was unclear. Were the batteries faulty or had the unit not turned on properly? Either way, a possibly interesting series of shots were lost for this particular season.

The third camera retrieved did have the expected large number of shots of the loch, but for some reason a large proportion of them were night shots with no real detail. The camera was triggering and doing its triple shots - but every 15 seconds until the 8Gb memory card filled up! As a result, the camera only operated for 12 hours.

I had not seen this behaviour before and assumed they were night shots, but I would have still expected to have seen some detail on the images since the infra-red light flash should illuminate whatever is triggering the heat sensor. This could point to a camera fault and further retesting would be required before this one is allowed back into the field.

Finally, all was well with the fourth camera as it gave me a good selection of images to review. This particular camera had been set up to record three successive still images but also record a 10 second video clip. That worked fine and even my concern that video clips soak up more battery power than still shots was disproven as it was still operational.


QUADCOPTER

And so we move onto new equipment and I start with the drone I recently bought. It is a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone with onboard 4K micro SD recording plus live HD streaming to the DJI app running on the smartphone attached to the DJI remote control handset. Hover stability is performed via a choice of GPS, optical or altimeter positioning. Battery life is up to 25 minutes depending on usage while there is a "Return to Home" button when battery levels become too low.




I took this drone to Loch Ness wondering how it would perform. The first question on my mind was the prevailing winds which run up the loch and whether those could result in shaky videos. The other question concerned the person controlling the drone. Could I handle it without crashing it into the loch, never to be retrieved? 

As it turned out, after a few crashes, I got the hang of it. The main thing is to find a wide open space away from trees and with a nice flat surface to land the drone. There are two things to also concentrate the senses. The first is to keep an eye on battery time left (though the manual claims the drone will return to home if power is critically low). The second is more important to Loch Ness research.

By that I mean using the live HD stream to the smartphone plus remote control to guide ones search of the loch surface below the drone camera. It was easy to just keep watching the drone rather than the video stream. That was partly a confidence issue and an unjustified concern that the drone would lose control. The fact of the matter is that you could send the drone 400 feet up into the air and a thousand feet across the loch and then go away for a 20 minute walk and the drone would still be there hovering at much the same spot.

I went onto "Dinsdale Island" and put the drone through its paces and it performed wonderfully. I was less inefficient in not keeping my eye on the live stream enough plus I moved the drone about too quickly resulting in a a rapid video which made reconnaissance more difficult. The video below shows one such sequence. I am sure Tim Dinsdale would have loved operating this device.




Now this uploaded video has been downscaled, so I invite you to stream one of the original HD videos of the loch from this link and gives you a better sense of what is seen "in situ". I have not actually checked the 4K resolution recordings made on the micro SD card which offers four times as many pixels at HD resolution (using 1080p as a guide) though there are some mitigating factors. As it happens, the HD live stream is also recorded to the smartphone and used for this article.

By coincidence, on my arrival I noticed another drone in operation at Foyers beach. I got chatting with the owner as it seemed he was also recording the loch surface below though I got the impression he was not monster hunting. That drone was black and about the size of a crow, which probably explains why it was attacked by crows when it hovered near their tree! Another thing to watch out for I suspect. The upshot is that the drone will form part of future trips to Loch Ness.


THERMAL CAMERA

Another new piece of equipment brought into play was the Flir TS24 Pro thermal imager. I already use a Yukon Ranger image intensifier which works on the principle of gathering and intensifying the ambient light. The Flir works on the principle of forming an image from the infra-red spectrum, no matter how little optical light is visible. It can record video or snapshots to a memory card as the still image below demonstrates. Here the image is coded to more heat means a brighter image and shows the mouth of the River Foyers. You can make out the green buoy near the centre.




The advantage the Flir has over the Yukon is the SD memory card storage while I was obliged to use the composite video port on the Yukon. This involved connecting a video to USB cable to a laptop which was running some video recording software. Obviously this led to a lack of portability and so the Flir offers more flexibility in where I could go and how fast I got there. The video clip below shows the same area as I switched through the various heat display modes on the camera.




I did not use the Flir much over the weekend and was rather breaking it in for Loch Ness use. When I next go up I would anticipate using it later at night scanning the loch for activity, possibly in conjunction with my usual dawn run.


 STORIES OLD AND NEW

Making some enquiries revealed nothing new locally about the monster but one account came to my attention which I reproduce here concerning a Foyers man by the name of Alexander Rybak who is now deceased but his story was passed on via another. Ali was a man of Polish extraction whose father had stayed on in Britain having served in the RAF during the war. I was told and agreed that the older generation tended to keep quiet about their encounters with the beast and Ali was no exception.

However, Ali was a bit of a cynical person by nature and had always scoffed at the idea of a monster inhabiting Loch Ness and whenever someone claimed they saw something, his reply would go along the lines of "How much whisky have you been drinking?". That all changed some time during the late 1970s or early 1980s when he was chopping wood with another man between the Foyers Hotel and Inverfarigaig. It was related that he saw a salmon leaping out of the water in the loch below.

There is nothing unusual in that but what followed was. For in pursuit of the salmon was the Loch Ness Monster, breaching the water with its head and neck attempting to bring its quarry to an untimely end. Rybak had his "Monkees Moment" - then I saw its face, now I'm a believer.

Ali's cynical attitude to the monster and its adherents changed, but I was told he kept it quiet and never told his family, save his mother only. As to how factual and accurate our tale is, it would be great to find this other man who was chopping wood with him that day. Perhaps he is still with us and could corroborate the testimony. Otherwise, weave this tale into the great Loch Ness Monster tapestry.

Shortly after my return from Loch Ness, I received an email from a reader who confirmed this reticence of the locals to come out with their accounts. She (name withheld) was working a summer job in Fort Augustus in the 1970s and some locals confided that they did have personal sightings but would not go public on account of the media attention. They much preferred to see their monster boost the local economy! My correspondent also had another report from that time:

I did not have a sighting myself that summer.  However, some of my fellow workers did.  Four of them had gone to sit at the end of the canal onto the loch one evening.

What looked like an upturned boat bottom rose, moved towards them (against any current) then sank out of sight again.  One of these people was a law student.  I and some others had been out for the evening, when we returned, the law student was seated in shock and trying to logically equate what he had seen, whilst the others with him recited the tale.  His training wouldn't allow him to believe what he had witnessed, but he could not deny that he had. 

His reaction convinced me completely.  I would imagine that given his calling it is not something he would advertise today, or even any more admit to.  But his reaction at the time gave me no question of doubt.
One wonders how many sightings go unreported and escape the attention of the media and, unfortunately, serious researchers?


CONCLUSION

So another trip finished and no personal sighting of Nessie. There was that inconclusive splash last September and I have had one or two other odd experiences, but one has to be level headed with oneself and take the position that after thirty years of various trips to the loch, I have not seen the creature. Having said that, I can hardly say that over that period I have been a gung-ho monster hunter.

I have not gone up every year for weeks on end spending dawn to dusk scanning the loch with my binoculars and bleary eyes. One reason, but not the only one, is purely down to the fact that monster hunting is a high cost and low benefit exercise. Some people arrive at the loch for the first time and see the beast. I think of Dinsdale and Holiday in this regard. Others will get their reward after years of diligence whilst most will end their lives having seen nothing.

Mind you, I often wondered what would happen if I did have such a sighting. Would such an event be a game-changer to the extent that the subject would become an overarching obsession? We have seen what happened to others when that sighting "link" becomes established - Nessie become the day job as well as the hobby. Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.

But without that paradigm shift, the initial enthusiasm wears off as the reality that Nessie is not a surface creature by habit begins to bite. After all, imagine trying to spot an eel of any size in Loch Ness from the shore. Some react to this dilemma by just walking away from the subject. My reaction is to automate the search and take it literally to new heights. Onwards and upwards.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

A Guided Tour of Loch Ness





It was back in June last year that Dr. Shaun Herness got in touch with me with an unanticipated request. I get many emails asking for information and opinions related to Loch Ness and its monster but Shaun's request was unique in asking for me to take him on a personal guided tour of Loch Ness.  He had decided to embark on a “bucket list” tour of Europe and a visit to Scotland’s most famous loch was on the agenda.

Shaun is an accomplished and well-spoken individual, but since he was a child, he has always had an interest in Loch Ness and its fabled monster yet had never been to Scotland, never mind the loch. Now the time had come as his brother, Dr. Ivan Rusilko, wanted to do something special for him and a trip to Scotland and Ireland was organised and planned which not only included Loch Ness but a visit to the birthplace of the Titanic at Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast and the world renowned cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland.

Tours of Loch Ness are abundant being that it is such a tourist “hotspot.” There are a variety of boat cruises up and down the loch, tour vehicles transporting people around to the various towns and village that surround the loch, and then there are the in-house tours at Castle Urquhart and other various local exhibitions and exhibits.

Having said that, these tours are pretty standard in format and don't diverge much from the pre-written script. In other words, it is often entry level information for entry level tourists. There is nothing wrong with any of these tours as they more or less satisfy what most visitors to the loch want and desire.

But what if you want a more informative experience about the history of the loch and its most famous inhabitant by someone with local knowledge and expertise? You could participate in some tours which are heavily biased towards dissuading belief in a large, unknown creature in the loch and even then it may only last an hour or so as the guides quickly usher you through the exhibition in anticipation of the next batch of tourists.

Or one could opt for something more substantive. In that light, I asked Shaun what he wanted to do and see and from that we tailored an individual tour of the loch's most famous attractions and monster “hotspots” which lasted not one hour but a whole working day! Having agreed on a rate of compensation and Shaun having kindly paid for my night’s stay at a local hotel, on a recent Saturday evening I met him and Ivan at the Inverness rail station and from there we proceeded to dinner. 

Although the tour did not officially start until Sunday morning, even the drive to the lochside hotel from Inverness had some buzz to it as we talked over the famous Arthur Grant land sighting which also occurred at night along the stretch of road on which we were driving. After a couple of drinks at the hotel lounge and more talk of loch folklore, it was off to bed wondering if during tomorrow’s “big day” Nessie might put in a surprise guest appearance!

In the morning after breakfast it was off around the loch. The weather was overcast with a bit of mist and slight rain providing an aura of mystery and suspense to the day’s events!  Ivan and his girlfriend, Melitsa aka “Checkers” decided to embark on a fishing excursion on the loch and so at 9:00 AM we began our trek and headed south on A82. As befitted a personal tour, an hourly itinerary had been drawn up along with appropriate visual aids.  We started with the aforementioned Arthur Grant story. We were staying at the Clansman Hotel, for near there is where it likely happened, and not more than a mile up the road at Abriachan.



After a short walk up the lochside to the alleged location of the Grant sighting it was then into the car and onto Drumnadrochit as I talked through various famous events in the rich history of Nessie tapestry as we motored along in my car. Now as you may know, there have not been any sightings of the creature in Drumnadrochit and by that I mean any strange animals observed going down the river to the loch. Of course, the loch is a fair way off from the town centre. The two exhibitions centres located in Drumnadrochit did not figure highly on my suggested itinerary and Shaun agreed - onto the castle.

Parking at Urquhart Castle afforded a superb view of the loch and the opportunity to explain some spots of interest beginning with the late Winifred Cary and her record 17 sightings as I pointed out her former home above the castle. That led us down a paranormal side street as the famous Ted Holiday "tornado" and "man in black" were discussed. I pointed to the stretch of road where Holiday may have met this mysterious person.

Naturally at this spot the famous Peter MacNab photograph of 1955 was discussed. But where was he standing at the time?  Some so called experts have got it wrong but that is story for another day. So many things have happened in this area that there was not enough time to discuss all of them so we headed into the castle complex.


Unfortunately, we headed to the ruins just as a Jacobite cruiser was disembarking its tourist contents and it became a game of dodgems along the narrow paths. I pointed out that Anthony "Doc" Shiels allegedly took his famous 1977 photo from the top of the castle tower, but amongst the throng of tourists we were not sufficiently convinced to trudge up the spiral steps for the view.

After that it was onwards to a triple sightings spot at the Alltsigh Burn - Wilson, McLean and Cruickshank. Now Dr. Kenneth Wilson is a controversial figure and his famous Surgeon's Photograph will forever be the iconic monster image. Whether you believe his account or not, he communicated enough information to place the sighting close to the aforementioned river. McLean and Cruickshank were even more precise and one could almost literally stand where they were when the “water horses” they described appeared within close proximity. Pictures were taken, and we moved on.



After another short stop at the next town of Invermoriston, it was onto the Horseshoe Scree and the famous “A-list” land sighting of Torquil MacLeod in 1960. The impressive sight of the huge scree connected more with MacLeod's monster as the two are linked together in his account from 58 years ago. I explained to Shaun theories regarding the sighting, such as goats congregating on the steep slope of the scree as it descended down toward the loch, though I had my doubts.  It was then a short drive to the site of the MacGruer land sighting of 1919. As I had just published my recent book on famous land sightings, Shaun was interested in seeing the locations where these events allegedly occurred.  


The MacGruer sighting was a strange event, something not quite monster but not quite anything else. As we looked over the shadowy, eerie waters of Inchnacardoch Bay with its several moored boats, dilapidated shore-stranded wreck, and the lonely, secluded Cherry Island, the only island on loch waters, I wondered if it was a juvenile creature that was seen by the children almost 100 years ago in this vicinity.  It was then onto Fort Augustus. We enjoyed a lunch at the Boat House Restaurant and briefly looked the town over with emphasis on the locks of the Caledonian Canal, but Alex Campbell was the main attraction as we headed to his former house in the old part of the town away from the tourist tumult.

Campbell's first sighting was in September 1933 from his house and it was from there that a reconstruction of his account was attempted. One thing that struck us was the distance which made the suggestion that he saw cormorants a bit unrealistic as it would have been a bit of a struggle to see such birds in any specific detail that far away.  I don't know who owns his house now as I believe his surviving wife, Mary, passed away years ago.



It was back into the car and time to start heading for the quieter, southern shore of the loch. But just before we turned north, the site of the Margaret Munro land sighting beckoned us to stop. The house from where Margaret Munro saw a huge creature, known as Kilchumein Lodge, was pointed out.  One was tempted to knock on the door and ask the current owners if we could go to the likely window where she made her famous sighting and look out. In fact, perhaps the current occupants don't even know about the famous event that occurred in 1934 from an upstairs window in their home!



After walking the beach of Borlum Bay and pointing out the spot where the creature seen by Margaret Munro lounged onshore near a burn, it was off to the southern side of the loch. The road suddenly rises steeply as a magnificent view of the loch opens up to the left. Eventually the high point of the Suidhe Viewpoint at 1,200 feet high is reached. The loch is well out of view at this point and it was now a drive through Highland countryside for some miles before the turn off for the lochside village of Foyers.

What followed is a series of winding and sharp bends for a few miles as one must pay particular attention to traffic coming in the opposite direction. The river Foyers flows alongside the road to the left and I pointed out that it was somewhere along this road that Lt. Col. Fordyce had his extraordinary encounter with something we cannot quite explain even in “traditional” monster terms.

Eventually we arrived at Foyers and parked at the Waterfall Cafe. At this point it was time to discuss the famous Tim Dinsdale film of April 1960. As we stood nearby and I pointed out where the creature ploughed its furrow through the loch, Shaun was surprised at the extreme distance the actual filming of the event occurred and I agreed.



At nearly a mile away, it was no surprise that the object in the film is no more than a dark spot. Indeed, if Tim had only taken some still pictures of this mile away object, would Tim just become another Nessie tourist with interesting photos and would expeditions such as the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau (LNIB) or the Academy of Applied Science (AAS) have ever happened?  It is curious how enquiries and investigations can turn on certain events.

The view itself is now severely hampered by nearly 60 years of tree growth. After initial observation, we discussed what Dinsdale did next. As the tale goes, Tim was nearly out of film and made the decision to high tail it down the road to the shoreline in the expectation of a head and neck putting in an appearance. We then retraced that mad dash down the road, but at a more subdued, leisurely, and safe pace.

Where Tim exactly got out and ran to the loch is not clear, but it was likely somewhere near the current Loch Ness Shores campsite. We parked up near the Foyers Cemetery as the end of the Tim Dinsdale segment dovetailed nicely into the location of the Hugh Gray photograph of November 1933, the first of the alleged creature.



Hugh Gray did not precisely state his location in the original account, but Dinsdale and Holiday provide enough information to place it near the memorial to Jane Fraser who died in 1817. There has been 85 years of tree growth since Hugh Gray snapped the famous picture of Nessie and so the view is more obscured but enough to look down, as he did, and imagine that strange creature he saw on a winter's day on the surface of the loch.

From there it was back onto the main road and the continued journey towards Dores. I pointed out where Dinsdale had stayed during his famous week at the loch.  The loch came back into view as we headed towards Boleskine House and its attendant graveyard where necromancers were once claimed to practise their dark arts.

It was at this point that I offered Shaun the option of parking and heading down the hillside towards the site of the Peter O' Connor 1960 photograph. Having described the clambering and sliding involved, not surprisingly he declined and we continued our journey.

After a few miles we entered the real domain of monster land sightings, or "Monster Alley" as I call it. That stretch of road between Inverfarigaig and Dores that has had a disproportionately high number of land sightings over the decades. Of course, the odds of Shaun and myself seeing a 30 foot aquatic leviathan hauling itself across the road in front of us was still a very remote prospect, but we headed to the spot of two famous accounts, Lachlan Stuart and George Spicer.



Now according to the sightings map in Rupert T. Gould's 1934 seminal book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others,” the location of the July 1933 Spicer’s event is very close to the spot where Lachlan Stuart took his July 1951 photograph. However, Gould was not entirely clear on the exact location and I have made my own attempt to place the location of the Spicer’s sighting.  For the purposes of our tour, however, we used the Gould map sighting location.

There is an extended parking lay by at the Stuart-Spicer site, which was convenient and we walked to the top of the old stone steps above the beach where Stuart and Hay ran down from the croft to snap the photo of the appearance of three strange humps on the loch which has stirred debate and controversy ever since. We discussed hay bales and tarpaulins and I provided my thoughts on that theory but we did not venture further down to the beach.




Back on the roadside, we walked a short distance to where George Spicer's alleged 25 foot monster may have moved across the road in a series of undulating jerking motions toward the loch.  We pondered the dynamics of a huge creature getting from the hillside to our right and down to the loch below on our left in what was described as such an expeditious manner.

There was one more classic Loch Ness Monster site to visit and that was the Greta Finlay account of August 1952. There were two ways of getting to the pier by Aldourie Castle, the scenic route walking around Tor Point or driving much closer to the location with a five minute woodland walk used by local dog walkers.

I chose the latter and we were soon back at the top end of the loch before it joined to Loch Dochfour. One wondered where Greta's caravan was parked.  I made a few guesses as to its location and on which side of the pier the creature showed itself to the petrified woman and her son.  One thing seemed certain, how someone could mistake a deer for Nessie at such close proximity at this location was beyond me.


And so the tour came to an end!  It was about 7:00 PM.  It had been a tiring but rewarding day and Shaun had finally checked-off one of his “bucket list” items.  It had been a tour with an itinerary arranged and organised by him with my guidance and assistance.  It was a pleasure to meet Shaun and his brother Ivan and Ivan’s girlfriend Melitsa.  Special thanks to Ivan for organising Shaun’s European trip and making his tour of Loch Ness possible and for inviting me to dinner and drinks.  If you plan on visiting Scotland and would like to embark on a similar tour exploring Loch Ness, its local attractions, and the history of its mysterious and most famous inhabitant, where, like Shaun, you decide what you want to see and where you want to go, please send me an enquiry to the email address below.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com