Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
There are many creatures that live in our myths and our minds, but the most famous is probably Scotland’s Nessie, or the Loch Ness Monster. But first, let me digress and talk about another lake monster, one a little closer to home: Lake Champlain’s Champ.
We used to live on a farm on the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont. You might know Lake Champlain as home of, among other things, Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster.
Between our home and our next door neighbor’s home was a large and dense stand of old trees and brush.
One night, and I’ll never forget it, I and my husband listened to the sound of crashing from the woods as huge limbs were torn from trees at least 30 feet in height. No other sound penetrated the night, not a breath of wind, not a yip from one of the local foxes, no cars, no trucks, nothing — just the sound of smashed brush and crashing trees.
The sound continued long into the night and the next morning, the stand of trees was decimated.
Yes, I did live on the Lake Champlain islands in 1997-1998, and the incident I mentioned did occur — during the great ice storm of January, 1998, when the weight of the ice decimated many of the trees on the island.
Now, fess up — I bet you thought I was going to describe an incident involving Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, didn’t you? However, it is just acts of nature such as this that can sometimes generate tales of monsters, especially when one is searching for these same monsters.
However, sometimes, there just isn’t an explanation for what someone sees, or hears, or believes. It is then that some monsters enter the ranks of the legendary, monsters such as Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.
Nessie: Origins of a Legend
During the Twentieth century, several photos of Nessie have been published, and in one very well known case, been proven to be a forgery. Numerous eye witness accounts of Nessie have been chronicled, and drawings made of eye witness accounts, such as those shown in this page, but there has never actual physical verification that Nessie exists.
Nessie’s beginnings, though, go back to an earlier time. According to folk lore, and a PBS Nova special on the monster2, the Scottish Highlands has had legends of a strange water-based creature since the Romans first entered the territory over 1500 years ago.
The Romans met up with the Picts in Scotland. The Picts were a pretty feisty group of people that liked to among other things, carve realistic images of animals, including the water-based creature mentioned in the last paragraph. Though it isn’t that unusual for primitive tribes to create stylized images of animals, the Picts concentrated only on images of real world animals. Well, if this was true, what was the water-based beast they represented? It is from simple roots that legends can spring.
The first “modern recording” of the Loch Ness Monster was made by a Saint Columbia, who wrote about saving a swimming man from a large creature by invoking the name of God, an incident occurring in the 500’s.
|Of course, it wasn’t that unusual for the early Christians to weave themselves and their beliefs into folk legends and practices of areas they hoped to convert.
Though Nessie achieved most of its fame based on sightings in the 1900’s, there are also eye witness accounts of seeing a the creature of Loch Ness in the 17th through the 19th century3, where it was also known as a water-kelpie or water horse, though without the frequency of this century’s sightings.
However, it was in 1933 that a sighting occurred that put Loch Ness on the map, and Nessie in the news. In 1933, a Mr. Spicer and his wife were driving by Loch Ness when they saw a creature crossing the road, a creature unlike any they had ever seen before. They described the beast as having a long neck followed a large, ponderous body, and they watched it until it left the road and entered the water.
The Spicer sighting was only the first of a plethora of sightings of Nessie, and it seemed the world just couldn’t get its fill of hearing stories about this mythical water beast. According to the Legend of Nessie site6, over 32 sightings occurred in the 1930’s alone.
What accounts for such a sudden surge in Nessie sightings? Well, one main reason is that roads were built around the Loch, increasing exposure of the lake to many more people. Another probable cause is that the idea of Nessie was planted in people’s minds. Where before a person may have seen a stick floating in the water, they may now see a tail. Where before a wave is only a natural movement of water, it now becomes the wake of a creature hidden from sight.
Perhaps it is also a matter a person seeing something that they can’t explain and where before they dismissed the sight as a stick or the natural movement of water, now they consider another source for what they are seeing: Nessie5.
|The larger number of sightings of Nessie continued until the advent of World War II turned people’s minds to other monsters, in other places.
Century’s Greatest Hoax?
Many if not most of the Loch Ness sightings are from folks reporting what they genuinely see, and genuinely believe they are seeing. However, you can’t have the interest in something such as Nessie without attracting hoaxes, and the Loch Ness Monster had its share.
One of the first hoaxes was the finding of large and unusual footprints, discovered by a big game hunter of the time, Marmaduke Wetherell. He found large footprints, freshly made, in December of 1933, made casts of the prints and sent them off to the Natural Museum in London.
Well, there was a whole lot of excitement about the first physical “evidence” of the Loch Ness Monster. However, the excitement didn’t last long, because the January following the finding of the prints, scientists announced that not only were the prints not that of an unknown beast, they were the prints of a hippopotamus foot, and a stuffed hippo foot, at that.
The footprint hoax definitely cooled interest in the Loch, at least from the basis of serious study, but it wasn’t the most famous hoax that came from Loch Ness. This dubious honor belongs to a photo supposedly taken by a Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson in 1934.
This photo shows what looks like a sea serpent with a small head on a long neck, and resembling known images of a pre-historic dinosaur known as the plesiosaur.
The photo was examined and was determined to be genuine, not the result of camera trickery, and investigation of the creature in comparison to the wave sizes put the creature’s neck to be a couple of feet in length. All well, and good, except that the “creature” in the photo was nothing more than a fake serpent neck attached to the back of a toy submarine.
How was the information about the faking of the photo discovered? One of the people that was involved with the hoax made a death bed confession in 1994 to that effect. And the person who was responsible for the hoax? None other than our friend, Marmaduke Wetherell.
After the debacle of the fake serpent footprint, Wetherell contacted his stepson, Christian Spurling, about creating the fake monster and setting up the hoax. With the help of Spurling, Wetherell’s son Ian, and two friends, Colonel Wilson and Maurice Chambers, who was with Dr. Wilson at the famous sighting, the hoax was on.
Why did Wetherell do this? A possible reason could be revenge after the embarrassment he received because of the fake footprint. However, once the photo was published by the Daily Mail, and once the world reacted so strongly to the photo, all involved probably felt it wouldn’t be too good an idea to come forward with a confession about what they had done, even if this was the intention9.
Loch Ness researcher Alister Boyd helped to uncover the hoax when he had discovered a story published years before by Ian Wetherell confessing to the hoax, a story that had been originally ignored. Boyd and fellow researcher David Martin contacted the last living representative of the hoax, Spurling, who confessed that he had helped fake the photo10.
In spite of the two uncovered hoaxes, folks still believe in Nessie and every year, people go to considerable lengths to try and find physical evidence of the Loch Ness Monster.
Current Research Efforts and Findings
In the 1970’s, Dr. Robert Rines from the Academy of Applied Science in Boston, Massachusetts, began to use sonar to try and obtain images of the Loch Ness Monster. He and his crew did obtain images of what they say are the flipper and head and upper body of a creature that they believe can only be the Loch Ness Monster11.
In addition to the work performed by Dr. Rines, other folks have dedicated their lives to finding physical proof of Nessie, folks such as Tim Dinsdale, who literally spent his life looking for proof of Nessie.
Another research project is being conducted by Dan Scott Taylor and is known as the Nessa Project12. The Nessa Project is based on the search for Nessie using a small, 4 person, submarine. Taylor used a smaller submarine, the Viperfish, to search for Nessie in the 1960’s, though without success and with many mechanical problems (though he believes that he was turned around on the bottom once by Nessie passing). Taylor hopes to try again as soon as he has funding for his new, home made submarine, the “Nessa”.
Not all those who research the Loch Ness Monster are seeking actual proof of the existence of the creature. For instance, as mentioned earlier, Alister Boyd helped to de-bunk the Nessie photo hoax, even though he says he has witnessed an actual appearance of Nessie and seeks proof of the monster’s existence. Another more cautious researcher is Richard Carter, who also investigates the existence of Nessie, but also investigates the “evidence” of sightings, to see which is genuine, which hopeful thinking and bad camera shots13.
Of the research against the existence of Nessie, two areas that form the focus of this research is that the lake could not support enough of the Loch Ness creatures to form a viable population, without much more evidence of their existence; and that there is not enough food within the lake to support any such population of larger creatures. Another scientific fact that makes the Loch a difficult home for a creature that could possibly be the last remnant of the dinosaur age, the plesiosaur, is that Loch Ness was a glacier until a scant 10,000 years ago — long after the dinosaurs were extinct14.
However, the searches still continue, the hunt is still on.
A Tale of Two Monsters: Summary
The Tale of Two Monsters takes a look at two legendary beasts, one proven to physically exist, the other still considered myth. We’ve covered how legends can arise, and how these same legends have influenced our currently popular form of story telling: the movies.
The series also looked at cryptozoology or the study of animals without physical verification and that are discovered first through legends, tales, and folklore. In the last two sections of the series, we got a chance to meet the two stars of the series: the giant squid and Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.
You may be asking whether I personally believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. I would hope that I’m an open minded person, but the existence of the giant squid leads me to doubt the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, and it’s this relationship that tied these two creatures together for me and led to the articles you are reading.
As you saw in Part 3 of this article, the giant squid is a large creature, most likely up to a maximum of 60 feet in length, inhabiting the deepest depths of the oceans. To approach the surface is basically a death sentence for these creatures, yet we have physical evidence of the giant squid, including several well preserved examples in museums such as the Smithsonian.
Consider this: the Loch Ness Monster is not as large as the giant squid, but is much bulkier and would be much heavier. It’s supposedly located in a body of water that is much, much, much smaller than the ocean. The Loch Ness monster is also an air breather, meaning that it must surface to breath, unlike the giant squid — to reiterate, surfacing for the giant squid is death. Yet, we have physical evidence of the giant squid, and nothing more than faint, fuzzy images and highly scattered (yes, scattered) eye witness accounts of Nessie. I can’t help but believe that we would have physical evidence, hard evidence, of Nessie by now if it existed, if we can have enumerable specimans of the giant squid.
Regardless of my personal viewpoint, I respect the beliefs of others and I respect the beliefs of those who feel that Nessie does exist. Something such as the Skeptic’s Dictionary can scorn this belief15, but those who tear down beliefs with such joy are not scientists — they are most likely nothing more than frustrated believers themselves who had their own beliefs shattered and now obtain considerable satisfaction is destroying the beliefs of others.
I started Part 4 of this article with a description of an incident that happened when I lived on the shores of Lake Champlain. I talked about how “normal” events can achieve significance when they occur out of context, or when our expectations are set — I believe in something therefore when something unexplained happens, the unexplained takes shape rather than staying as something unexplained, and therefore easily dismissed.
Scientifically, I may doubt the existence of Champ16, the Lake Champlain equivalent of Nessie, yet there is a part of me that wonders…
This is the part of me that peers into the darkness when I cross the lake on the ferry. This is the part of me that turns towards the lake when I hear an odd sound in the pattern of the waves. This is the part of me that looks to the lake during the full moon, with just a slight bit of expectation and curiosity. Not a lot, just a slight bit. This is the part of me that gives me soul.