Prior to 1933, Loch Ness, a large expanse of fresh water – approximately 38.6 kilometres (24 miles) long, 1.61 kilometres (1 mile) wide and at least 297 metres (974 feet) deep – in the highlands of Scotland, was relatively secluded, but during the early part of that year a vast amount of earth and forest overlooking its northern shoreline was blasted away to provide a new motor road, the A82, which has since offered motorists driving along it some spectacular views of the loch – and its most celebrated inhabitant.
On the afternoon of 14 April 1933, Mr and Mrs John Mackay became the first two post-A82 eyewitnesses of a mysterious entity soon to become known world-wide as Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. Driving southwards alongside the loch, they were approaching Abriachan on its north-western shore when Mrs Mackay called out to her husband to look towards the centre of the loch. They later said that to their amazement, they saw an enormous animal rolling and diving amid a turbulent mass of water, and watched this extraordinary spectacle for several minutes before the creature in question finally plunged beneath the water. Their account was published in the local newspaper, the Inverness Courier. Other reports followed soon afterwards, and the great British monster story was up and running.
Since as far back as the 6th century, when St Columba supposedly repulsed an attack from a water monster at the mouth of the River Ness, there had been local reports of a giant creature inhabiting Loch Ness itself, but it was not until 1933 that it attracted international interest – an interest that shows no sign of waning more than 70 years later. During those years, countless sightings, photographs, films and other material allegedly substantiating the existence of such a creature have been obtained. Most have been discounted outright by sceptics, or damned plausibly or otherwise by claims of hoaxes – as with the classic Surgeon’s photograph of 1934. However, there are some items of evidence that remain sufficiently compelling to merit serious attention.
A prime example of such evidence came from aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale’s success in filming what appears to be a huge water creature in the loch on 23 April 1960. This was the final day of his six-day monster-hunting expedition, and Dinsdale claims that as he was driving along the Foyers Bay stretch of road in the morning he saw a hump-like object on the surface of the loch. He estimated that the object was approximately 1.2 kilometres (0.7 miles) away. Getting out of the car, he focused his binoculars upon the object, which was oval in shape and mahogany in colour with a dark blotch on the left side, but as he stood watching, it began to move.
Convinced that it was a huge living animal, Dinsdale started filming it with his tripod-mounted cine camera, and shot about four minutes of black and white film. It seemed to show something throwing up a conspicuous v-shaped wake as it swam towards the opposite shore, submerging slowly, but then changing direction and swimming south, parallel to the shore and almost lost beneath the water surface. This film was analysed by the Royal Air Force’s Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC), which announced that the hump was 3.7–4.9 metres (12–16 feet) long, a cross-section through it would be no less than 1.53 metres (5 feet) high and 1.83 metres (6 feet) wide, and its speed was 11.3–16 kilometres per hour (7–10 miles per hour). Most significantly, JARIC deemed that rather than the hump being a surface craft or submarine, ‘… it probably is an animate object’ – that is, part of a living creature.
In more recent times, sonar traces recording the presence of huge, seemingly solid, animate bodies under the water have been obtained by many expeditions, including those led by Dr Robert Rines from the Academy of Applied Science in Boston, Britain’s own ‘Operation Deepscan’ of 1987 and investigators aboard the MV Nessie Hunter in July 2001. However, by far the most exciting sonar-related piece of evidence favouring the existence of Nessie was obtained in 1972. Indeed, it is still widely held that this is the most important evidence of any kind for the Loch Ness monster’s reality.
In August 1972, Rines’s team was using under-water cameras and sonar equipment positioned in Urquhart Bay. On the morning of 8 August the sonar detected a flurry of movement that appeared to be a shoal of fish swimming frantically away from something coming up behind. From the sonar readings obtained, this latter object seemed to be a very large solid body, moving purposefully through the water (rather than merely drifting), and measuring 6.1–9.2 metres (20–30 feet) long. At the same time that the sonar was recording the moving body, the cameras were taking photographs of it, and when their film was developed, some frames revealed an extraordinary flipper-like object, diamond in shape and estimated to be 1.22–1.83 metres (4–6 feet) long. Some believed that it resembled a diamond-shaped, paddle-like limb, attached to a much larger body.
What makes these results noteworthy is that whereas eyewitness reports are subjective (and thereby open to criticism and doubts concerning their precise interpretation and reliability), here were two independently obtained results that not only convincingly supported one another but, in addition, were obtained by wholly objective, disinterested witnesses – machines. Based upon the evidence of these photographs, Rines and British naturalist Sir Peter Scott formally christened the Loch Ness monster Nessiteras rhombopteryx – ‘monster of Ness with diamond fin’, in December 1975.
Even the most hardened Nessie sceptics were baffled by these ‘flipper’ photographs – especially as the creatures whose limbs most closely resemble such flippers are those long-necked aquatic reptiles of prehistoric times, the plesiosaurs, believed extinct for more than 65 million years. Even before the flipper photos were obtained, the numerous reports of a long-necked four-limbed monster with humped back had made the plesiosaur identity by far the most popular contender for the solution to the Nessie mystery. Moreover, as it is known that plesiosaurs used to swallow large stones for ballast purposes, this would even explain why dead Nessies do not float to the surface. Other cryptozoological identities proposed over the years include a highly specialized long-necked seal, a giant newt or salamander, a huge form of eel and even a massive worm, but none corresponds as closely and comprehensively with the Loch Ness monster’s appearance (as described by those who believe they have seen it) as a plesiosaur (especially one of the long-necked elasmosaur forms). Sceptics favour such varied possibilities as diving birds, floating algal mats, swimming deer, stray seals, optical illusions, boats, sturgeons, otters and tree trunks or branches cast adrift on the loch surface.
In recent years, an additional but equally perplexing category of evidence has been forthcoming from the loch – unexplained animal sounds recorded by submerged microphones. These include a series of pig-like grunting noises recorded by a sonic survey of the loch in 2000, whose frequency (741–751 Hz) was comparable to sounds produced by various very big, known aquatic species such as killer whales, walruses and elephant seals.
Yet if sizeable animals of any kind do exist in the loch (and there would need to be at least 30 or so to sustain a viable breeding population), why have they not been discovered by now, after decades of intense investigation? The following claim is often made as an insight into the problems faced by Nessie seekers. It has been said that the volume of Loch Ness is such that if all of its peat-filled water could be removed, the chasm remaining would be so vast that the entire human population of the world could be fitted into it three times over. In short, some would say that a number of monsters could live concealed in Loch Ness with no more risk of being found than a moving needle in a visually impenetrable haystack. As for the oft-cited statement that there is insufficient food in the loch for any such creatures, it has been claimed that at any given time Loch Ness contains an estimated 27 tonnes of fish alone (mainly char, trout and salmon), not to mention all manner of smaller sources of nutrient, so should Nessie and her kin exist, they are certainly not going to starve!