What You Need to Know About... The Loch Ness Monster

Nessie's been basking in controversy for 70 years.

Nessie gets some fresh air.
This may be the clearest photo of the Loch Ness Monster, taken in 1977 by Anthony Shiels. ~ Anthony Shiels

May 2, 2003 marked the 70th anniversary of what is considered the world's formal introduction to the Loch Ness Monster. On May 2, 1933, an Inverness newspaper ran an article called "A Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness" that described how Mrs. Mackay encountered the creature on the Scottish lake ("Loch" is Scottish for "lake"). This was not the first sighting of the Loch Ness creature, but it was in that year that it was dubbed a monster and the report was widely circulated.

Over the last 70 years, "Nessie" has become probably the most well-known "real" monster in the world. Since 1933, Nessie's fame has endured and grown in part because of continual if sporadic sightings, scientific expeditions to find it, and in large part because of marketing: the Loch Ness Monster has become a money-making icon and tourist attraction for the towns surrounding the deep, cold lake.

Although Nessie is not taken seriously by skeptics and many mainstream scientists, there is some evidence that a large, unknown creature really does live in Loch Ness. There have been numerous sightings by reliable witnesses, photographs (both above and below the water's surface), film and video footage, and interesting sonar readings. Unfortunately, none of the evidence has been conclusive, and the definitive proof of Nessie's existence has been frustratingly elusive.

Environment:

  • Location: Loch Ness is located in Northern Scotland, running southwest to northeast.
  • Size: It is 23 miles long and about 1 mile wide; it is 786 feet at its deepest point; it is the deepest and one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Britain.
  • Occupants: The loch is home to Atlantic salmon, charr, eels, minnows, large pike, sticklebacks, sturgeon, trout and various other fish. Seals and otters also live in Loch Ness, but are rarely seen.

    Description of the Monster:

    • Shape: long neck; horse-like head; humped back (one or two humps).
    • Color: dark or elephant gray.
    • Weight: estimated 2,500 pounds.
    • Length: 15 to 40 feet.

    Famous Sightings:

    The Loch Ness Monster may have been sighted as early as the 6th century, but Nessie as we know it today is largely a product of the 20th century.

    • April, 1933 - Mrs. Aldie Mackay reports seeing a whale-like creature in the loch near Aldourie Castle (where Nessie has been sighted on other occasions). The account was written up for the Inverness Courier by water bailiff Alex Campbell and the excitement about a monster in the loch was born.
    • July 22, 1933 - Mr. and Mrs. Spicer saw Nessie on land! While passing the loch on their way to London from Northern Scotland, the couple saw the large creature crossing the road in front of them. Mr. Spicer told the newspaper that it looked like a large prehistoric creature and was carrying a small lamb or some other animal in its mouth. He described it as being about 25 feet long with a long neck. He believed it disappeared into the loch.
    • November, 1933 - The first photo of the alleged monster was taken by Hugh Gray.
    • 1934 - Brother Richard Horan saw the neck and head protruding from the water at only 30 yards away. He said it reached about 3-1/2 feet above the surface, and the creature was looking at him.
    • 1963 - Mr. Hugh Ayton claimed to have seen the creature from shore. He and three friends jumped into a motor boat and followed it for about a mile. He said he could never forget its large oval-shaped eye looking at him from its horse-like head.
    • 1972 - A monk at the Fort Augustus Abbey, Father Gregory Brusey, was walking with an organist when they both saw the neck and head of the creature protruding about 6 feet above the loch's surface. They said it moved through the water, turned on its side and submerged.

    Next Page > Hoaxes, theories and expeditions

    Hoaxes:

    As with any phenomenon of this type, there have been numerous hoaxes associated with the creature:

    • December, 1933 - Marmaduke Wetherell finds footprints on the shores of the loch. It turns out he made them himself with a hippopotamus foot ashtray.
    • April 19, 1934 - Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson claims to photograph Nessie while on a hunting trip. It circulated for years as being authentic and became one of the most famous photos of Nessie. It was later revealed that this so-called "surgeon's photo" was made using children's toys.

      Theories:

      What is it that people are seeing in the loch?

      • Skeptics say sightings are actually of groups of large fish, seals, otters or ducks.
      • It's also been shown that waves on the surface of the lake can look like the oft-seen humped back of Nessie.
      • The favorite theory of believers and many witnesses is that Nessie is a dinosaur known as a plesiosaur - a large aquatic creature with flippers and a long neck that is thought to have gone extinct 90 million years ago. Somehow, it is thought, plesiosaurs survived in Loch Ness (and perhaps some other lakes around the world). There must be enough of them in the loch to constitute a breeding population.
      • On Art Bell's erstwhile radio show, he once asked remote viewer Ed Dames to remote view what the Loch Ness Monster is. Dames' conclusion: it is the ghost of an aquatic dinosaur.

      Expeditions:

      Several serious expeditions have been mounted over the years in search of the Loch Ness Monster:

      • 1934 - Sir Edward Mountain paid 20 men to sit at various points around the shore of the lake with box cameras. A few highly contestable photos of shapes on the water were obtained.
      • The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau; 1960s-1972 - Carried out extensive photographic surveillance of the loch using 35mm motion picture cameras fitted with telephoto lenses. Only a few ambiguous sequences resulted.
      • The Academy of Applied Science Expeditions; August, 1972 - Led by Dr. Robert Rines, this expedition sonar equipment with time-lapse photography. The result were some very controversial photos, including the famous "flipper" photo and "gargoyle head" photo, both of which were "creatively enhanced" by computers to be much clearer than they actually were.
      • Operation Deepscan; October, 1987 - Nineteen cruisers were lined up to conduct a thorough sweep of the entire loch with a "sonar curtain." A 20th boat, New Atlantis, following was equipped with scanning sonar. Although a few "contacts" were reported, nothing could be confirmed.
      • Other expeditions have been conducted or planned in recent years that attempted to catch the monster in a net or giant trap. A self-professed "white witch" cast a spell over the loch to protect Nessie from capture. Yes, it gets pretty silly.
      • Webcams - Nessie on the Net! has live webcams overlooking the loch, and is promising an underwater webcam soon.

      Next Page > Best evidence and conclusion

      Best Evidence:

      There have been more than 1,000 reported sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. While people are notoriously bad eyewitnesses, especially to phenomena such as this, a few accounts (some of which are listed above) constitute some of the best evidence for the creature.

      There are also a few good photos, most notably a shot taken by Anthony Shiels from Urquhart Castle on May 21,1977. It's perhaps the clearest photo of the creature, showing its neck and head high above the water.

      Tim Dinsdale's 1960 16mm motion picture film may still be the best evidence for a large unknown creature in Loch Ness. On April 23, he photographed a dark object moving across the loch then turning parallel to the far shore and heading down toward Fort Augustus. Although no features of the creature could be distinguished, experts who studied the film concluded that it was not a boat or submarine, but some large, unknown animate object.

      Various expeditions have also recorded numerous sonar contacts with a large moving object within the loch that cannot be explained as known fish.

      Conclusion:

      There is no firm conclusion regarding the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Skeptics cannot prove that it's not there, of course, but they don't need to; the burden of proof lies with those who think it is. Some photos and eyewitness testimony are intriguing, yet far from convincing. Without a doubt, enthusiasts and researchers will continue to see and search for the monster...

      and enterprising folks will continue to make tidy profits from T-shirts, stuffed animals and a load of other Nessie bric-a-brac.

      Poll: Does the Loch Ness Monster really exist?