This post was written at the beginning of September as a commission for a daily tabloid newspaper in the UK, which wanted a short response to a then-current “Loch Ness monster video” story that briefly made headlines around the world…for some reason. (I’m obligated to say, “That’s the real mystery!” although the timing was excellent for promoting a new book that collects Nessie and other mystery material from The Mirror archives.) By the time the rush piece was completed, the news cycle had moved on, and the piece was never run. I present it here essentially unaltered.
Much ink and many pixels have been spilled over a new [publicized late August, 2013] video notable for not showing any part of a Loch Ness monster. Everyone agrees that the video shot by East Kilbride photographer David Elder instead shows a wave. Nonetheless, as Elder told the Mirror, “I’m convinced this was caused by a solid black object under the water. The water was very still at the time and there were no ripples coming off the wave and no other activity on the water. … It is something I just can’t explain.”1
Seems weird; therefore, monster! Media rushed to craft headlines asking, could this unremarkable footage finally be “proof” of Nessie? (A useful rule of thumb warns that headlines ending with question marks should always be answered, “No.”)
The heaving of primeval water monsters presumably could make waves, if any monsters should ever surface. But other, less newsworthy things can create waves as well. Decades of Nessie hunters have known, for example, that the v-shaped wakes left behind by watercraft radiate for long distances outwards, sometimes reflect off the steep shores of the loch, and intersect and amplify each other in strange and serpentine ways as “standing waves”—long after the boats that made them are gone. Such man-made waves have often generated mistaken monster reports, especially in calm water conditions. “The standing wave is the most ubiquitous of all Loch Ness mirages,” warned Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau head Roy Mackal in 1976. “Quite early, the Bureau began keeping a record of any and all boats passing through the lake, so as more readily to discount sightings that were really reports of the standing waves.”2 But a generation has passed since the golden days of the Nessie hunt. Many lessons from the search have been forgotten.
Since the birth of the Nessie legend in 1933, all imaginable search strategies have been tried and re-tried—sonar dragnets, dredges, submarines, years of systematic observation campaigns, and more.3 After eighty long years of failure, the case for Nessie has all but closed. Mackal—a scientist—knew this must happen if the search went on too long. He wrote, “continued and total failure would be equivalent to disproof. One would eventually become tired and discouraged, funding would be unavailable, and the effort would come to an end.”4 There’s every reason to think this was inevitable. My co-author Don Prothero and I make the case in our book Abominable Science! that Nessie is a modern cultural creation whose origins and evolution are traceable through hoaxes, mistakes, and popular culture (including the influence of the 1933 film King Kong). A paleontologist, Prothero points out that no trace of plesiosaurs—the long-necked, paddle-finned marine reptiles associated with Nessie in the popular imagination—exists anywhere in the fossil record after the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Even more discouraging is the loch’s recent geologic history: just a few thousand years ago, Loch Ness was frozen solid, crushed under a mile-thick sheet of ice. Hardly a cosy “lost world” oasis for relict plesiosaurs.
Like Nessie, many legendary monsters such as Bigfoot, the Yeti, or the Great Sea Serpent enjoyed a period of legitimate scientific interest that eventually faded when no monsters ever turned up. But the pseudoscientific quest for these beasts can go on forever! Why not? There are always new eyes to look over the water, new headlines to be written—always a new generation to be seduced by the tantalizing question, What if…?
Few can deny the romance of the creatures that stomp and swim in legend. We love a contrarian mystery. For all the beauty of science, who does not want to see know-it-all skeptics confounded now and again? “The sceptics by their teachings and writings have made this life of ours drab and dreary enough,” wrote parliamentarian Edward Cadogan in a 1933 letter to The Times. “It is time the faithful rebelled, and if we can prove that the sea serpent exists there is no limit to the discomfiture that can be inflicted upon those who doubt.”5 I’m a skeptic myself—a writer for Skeptic magazine (US)—and even I would love to see such a day.
- Paul Byrne and Rebecca Younger. “Loch Ness Monster sighting: Was this freakish wave caused by mystery underwater creature?” Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/loch-ness-monster-sighting-freakish-2224269 (Accessed Oct 15, 2013.)
- Roy P. Mackal. The Monsters of Loch Ness. (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976.) p. 29
- See for a quick discussion, Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Abominable Science! (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.) pp. 164–173
- Mackal. p. 25
- Edward Cadogan. Letter to the Editor. The Times (of London). Dec 20, 1933; pg. 8
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