Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.
Loch Ness is an impressive lake in its own right. Created by glaciers from the Ice Age and the Great Glen fault, Loch Ness is a large deep-water lake that cuts through the Scottish highlands in a nearly straight 23-mile path. Even to this day, the Loch serves a vital role in Great Britain’s power grid (hydroelectricity) and transportation (as part of a canal system that connects both Scottish coasts). In addition, the lake has a rich ecology.
However, it’s also the home of a lingering legend, the Loch Ness Monster (aka Nessie). Although the legend is rather old, its popularity of late has taken on a new dimension. Cryptozoologists flock to the loch, as do wealthy philanthropists willing to dump a fortune on expeditions to find the elusive creature.
The term “elusive” has proven to be an understatement. After nearly a century of exploration, no one has come close to proving that Nessie lurks at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake—as the singer Sting once referred to the monster in a popular song. In fact, there’s more evidence to dispel the existence of the lake monster!
As the second decade of the 21st century has ended, how should the public view Nessie? To put it bluntly, it’s time everybody moved on from the beast and accept it for what it is: a wonderful legend of a bygone era.
Brief History of Nessie
Nessie is not a new phenomenon. Legends of a lake monster have been around for centuries. The first “recorded” sighting dates back to the 6th century. St. Columbia was the person responsible for that initial sighting. He was in the area hoping to convert the local clans to Christianity.
Legend states that St. Columbia converted the people—as well as Nessie—to Christianity. Yes, you read that correctly, he converted Nessie. How he quelled the lake monster is a story in itself. Supposedly, he went onto the water—possibly by boat—and “soothed” the beast. Most articles on the matter don’t elaborate much on exactly how he soothed Nessie. Most likely, that attempt to conquer the beast was actually him manipulating the beliefs and fears that the locals had of Nessie to help with his goal of conversion of the folks.
As time passed, Nessie and its conversion story became folklore that parents told their kids. It was merely an allegorical tale meant to prove that Christianity can turn the scariest of beast into believers of the faith. Literal belief in the lake monster waned.
Oddly enough, that would all change thanks to a prankster and his photo.
A Photo Resurrects Nessie
In 1934, the editorial board for a London newspaper published a photo from Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson that showed "proof-positive" evidence that Nessie existed. The photo supposedly showed Nessie sticking its head out of the water. The grainy black and white image caused a sensation that, in some respects, hasn't ended to this day.
For more than 80 years after this initial photo, numerous photos, films, and eyewitness testimonies emerged. Still, Dr. Wilson’s image topped them all as being the most compelling.
Unfortunately (at least for the devout cryptozoologist that flocked to the loch after the picture’s publication), the image captured wasn’t the real deal. It was an elaborate joke orchestrated by several men, including Dr. Wilson.
Dr. Wilson was a respected London physician; however, he was known as a prankster. He attached his name to the deceptive project in order to generate media coverage on the photo.
The photo itself didn’t capture a beast with its long neck looming over the surface of the lake. Instead, it was a toy submarine with a plastic dinosaur head and neck attached to it. In addition, it was photographed two to three feet away from the shore.
How was this known? For starters, one of the men made a deathbed confession more than 60 years after the photo’s publication. Secondly, the converted toy submarine was found in the residence of the late doctor.
That in itself should have resolved this mystery; however, just like with many mysteries involving the supernatural or the existence of cryptids (such as bigfoot), legendary beasts die hard, and the search for the beast remains.
Descriptions Don’t Add Up
If the deathbed confession or the discovery of the toy weren’t enough to dissuade the hardcore Nessie believers, then possibly the varying degree (and often untrustworthy) of eyewitness accounts can do the job.
Eyewitness accounts of Nessie rarely match. Over the years, some witnesses described seeing a long neck jutting from the water; others described seeing large humps, sometimes two or three. Some accounts describe a large dorsal briefly breaking the water’s surface before vanishing.
Often the description are followed by perceived length of the monster. In many cases, Nessie is described as being extremely large—between 20 to 40 feet in some reports. Much of this, however, is speculation.
And, in numerous situations, eyewitnesses misidentified a few less mysterious items in the water as being Nessie. This included floating tree trunks, waves created from wind, or a boat’s wake (since, the lake has boat traffic on it).
A Case of Mistaken Identity?
Although Nessie owes its legendary status to a practical joke in the early '30s, there may be “natural” culprits available to help perpetuate its stature. The lake has its fair share of aquatic life forms such as the sturgeon—a fish known to grow to impressive sizes. In addition, the lake’s connection to the North Sea (through rivers and canals) may have allowed a few maritime beast into the loch.
Some reports speculate that seals may have entered the loch by means of traveling up the rivers and canals. Another surprising—but credible—creature is that of a rare type of shark.
According to Jeremy Wade, the host of the show River Monsters (also a lifelong scientist and angler who has become the preeminent expert on all things pertaining to river ecology), Greenland sharks may have been mistaken for Nessie. This idea sounds far-fetch until one realizes that this species of shark has been spotted (and filmed) in the St. Lawrence River, which separates the Canada and Maine in the United States and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
In other words, much like the bull sharks, they can travel between saltwater oceans and freshwater rivers and lakes. In addition, Greenland Sharks are large and are one of the few sharks not to have dorsal fins. This can explain the large “dark” back many people had witnessed protruding briefly at the surface of the water.
More importantly, they have been spotted off the Scottish coast and throughout the North Sea.
Can the Lake Sustain a Huge Beast?
Many expeditions—at least the legitimate ones—never found evidence of the beast. But some researchers have discovered something else that works against Nessie. While the lake itself is huge, it may not be large enough to sustain a beast that’s supposedly at or around 30 feet in length.
One of the bizarre things about Nessie sightings has to do with how many “are spotted” over the years. And that’s not referring to the more than 80 years of the modern legend; instead, it goes all the way back to the 6th century.
After many centuries, eyewitnesses rarely—if ever—spotted more than one Loch Ness Monster at one time. Is it possible that Nessie is over a thousand years old? Or is there a family that we’re just not seeing?
...the water system that the lake belongs to couldn’t possibly help Loch Ness traverse to an ideally larger body of water.
Again, the size of the lake plays a huge role. Such large beasts need larger spaces to grow, reproduce and feed. Despite its depth and length, Loch Ness and the other waterways simply can’t sustain a huge population.
Even with its connection to the ocean through narrow rivers and canal—with locks—the water system that the lake belongs to couldn’t possibly help Loch Ness traverse to an ideally larger body of water.
Technology Isn’t Helping
As mentioned, the one thing keeping the Loch Ness Monster relevant are the numerous well-funded expeditions. In many cases, these expeditions turn up little, if anything, to prove Nessie’s existence. Ironically, the technology meant to find something under the surface of the water—and sometimes exclusively made for these expeditions—have been doing the exact opposite. Many times, high-tech sonars picked something under the murky water. And, too many times, those sonars picked up sunken boats, wheelbarrows and plenty of junk.
In addition, the second most popular evidence has proven to be unreliable or simply “too improved” to capture images of the lake monster. In the past, photos and film footage taken of something in the lake were too grainy or shaky to make a definitive identification. However, with the advent of the steadier and sharper images created by digital cameras, clarity of the subject has become more apparent. They are capturing detailed and clear images of miscellaneous items and wind-driven waves—not Nessie.
According to the renowned researcher and Nessie expert, Adrian Shine of Loch Ness Project, photographed evidence have dwindled since the introduction of these digital cameras. Simply put, the digital age is doing more to disprove Nessie’s existence.
So, Now What?
Loch Ness is a busy lake. The population in nearby towns have grown. If Nessie is there, it would’ve been spotted by many. In truth, that is not the case. Most eyewitnesses see something out in the lake from afar and can’t tell exactly what it is.
And what about the boaters? One telling incident happened on the show Penn & Teller Bullsh*t! A veteran boater who took tourists on tours of the lake was asked directly if he had seen anything like Nessie. The 20-year veteran gave one simple answer: “No.”
When it comes to "evidence" for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, something always seems to be wrong with it. The photo or films don't capture its image in a recognizable state; the eyewitnesses are usually too far away to make a positive identification; or somebody with a lot of time on his hand is pulling pranks on the public
While many expeditions may seem silly, there are real scientists working for some of them.
Either way, the legend isn't dying, and possibly for a good reason. Tourism is a boom in the area, thanks to Nessie. In addition, museums and souvenirs pertaining to Nessie have reaped the financial benefits.
Realizing it’s just a legend isn’t going to change the revenue stream that Nessie seems to create for communities. However, the lake is so much more.
While many expedition may seem silly. There are real scientists working for some of them. As a result, these expeditions have discovered many unique things about life that exist underwater and in the soil in—and underneath—the lake.
One scientist mentioned in a documentary that the Loch Ness Monster is “rubbish;” however, she confessed that the expedition has allowed them a chance to do real, valuable studies on the lake’s ecosystem.
The lake itself is home to historical and ecological treasures. And it’s time to leave the monster in the realm of legends and start realizing the real find is the lake itself.
More From Adrian Shine
© 2018 Dean Traylor
Don Shepard on November 30, 2018:
Ha...it's crazy what it takes sometimes to get funding for environmental research. long live Nessie!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 30, 2018:
What a great article, Dean. It is long overdue that they leave Nessie to rest in peace. Just because there is no monster will never stop the tourist trade there and the legend will live on.