Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Photos of the Loch Ness Monster, revisited


Some of the 'great' Nessie photos. From left to right: the 'Surgeon's photo' of 1934, the 'Loch Ness Muppet' image of 1977, and the George Edwards image of 2012 (or thereabouts...).

The Loch Ness Monster - Nessie - is always there; no matter what people say, and no matter what evidence fails to come in, it never goes away. I’ve participated in several TV documentary on the LNM in the last few years and all – no matter how many sceptical scientists they feature, no matter how many negative points they cover – work hard to leave the case open, as if we can still hold out hope that a giant, undiscovered aquatic animal awaits discovery in the loch. In reality, there’s no reason at all to think that it does.

Just to prove that international interest in the monster remains, new photos get their fair share of media attention every few years, and within recent months another supposedly interesting image appeared. It was quickly shown to be yet another hoax, as discussed below. The article here is a revamped version of one that appeared on Tet Zoo ver 2 in December 2007. Oh, and now is a good time to mention sceptical approaches to cryptozoology since Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero have just published their new cryptozoology-themed book Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. I haven’t seen the final published product yet, but I was a reviewer (and blurb-writer) so am familiar with its contents. I certainly agree with them on the subject of Nessie. Anyway…

The Surgeon's photo as it looked in or prior to 1987 when photographed in the picture library of Mail Newspapers. Huh, history has not been kind. The tatty edges even make it look at if somebody deliberately made it look as beat-up as possible.

I will begin by essentially repeating what I just said above: there is no good evidence supporting the existence of any large unknown animal in Loch Ness, and I am of the opinion that sightings and photographic and sonar evidence can be satisfactorily explained as mistaken or embellished encounters with known animals (including swimming deer, water birds, seals, and small cetaceans), waves, or optical illusions. I say this, not because I’m a knee-jerk debunker who cannot accept the idea that a big unknown animal might exist in a big body of water, but because I am familiar with the evidence, such as it is, and find it wanting. The expectation that there's an unknown animal in Loch Ness almost certainly explains the recent history of sightings. In other words, any weird bump or lump or shape that emerges from the loch is identified as a monster. Contrary to some sources, there is no tradition of sightings, nor are there old historical reports or anything like that pre-dating the 1930s (Magin 2001).

Another less-cropped version of the Surgeon's photo, though note that it shows less of the opposite bank than the original. Also, the big crease visible on the right side of the full photo shown above isn't present here, suggesting that it was made after the image was photographed in the condition shown here.

Easily the most iconic Loch Ness Monster image is the one shown here and above: the so-called Surgeon’s photo, or the Wilson photo. Taken in April 1934 by, supposedly, London-based gynaecologist Robert K. Wilson while he was on holiday, it shows a dark, erect-necked object surrounded by ripples. Analysis of the wave patterns around the object indicated to LeBlond & Collins (198) that it's about 1.2 m tall, though I personally suspect that this is an over-estimate. Some people say that the photo was taken on April 14th, others say April 1st. The version we usually see of this photo is cropped: the original image (shown here) is much larger, shows the opposite shore of the loch, and makes the ‘monster’ appear much smaller. A second photo is supposed to show the head alone as the object is submerging, but it looks nothing like the famous first image and I see no reason to think they really were taken within seconds of each other as has been claimed.

During the 1990s it was argued that the photo was a hoax perpetrated by Ian Wetherell and his stepbrother Christian Spurling using a toy submarine with a carved monster head mounted on its top (Boyd & Martin 1994, Martin & Boyd 1999). Wetherell was the son of Marmaduke Wetherell, the big-game hunter hired by the Daily Mail in 1933 to investigate the monster: he had identified some footprints as those of the monster, but they were actually fakes made with a dried hippo’s foot. He then became fired for making such a rash mistake, and apparently planned to exact some sort of revenge. Wilson was co-opted as the alleged photographer because of his respectability, and agreed to be involved as he was ‘a great practical joker’. Some people have expressed scepticism about Spurling and Wetherell’s confession (e.g., Smith 1994, 1995, Shuker 1995, Bauer 2002) as there are various inconsistencies. Whatever the truth, I’m confident that the photo is a hoax and can’t take seriously the idea that it might depict a real animal.

This too-good-to-be-true photo was taken in May 1977 and was initially used in some publications as striking evidence supporting the monster’s existence. It’s one of two photos, the second of which shows the animal with a much straighter neck. A third photo – identical to the second one but showing the creature heading in the opposite direction – surfaced (ha ha) in 1983 and originated from an anonymous source (Bord & Bord 1987). There have been suggestions that all three are manipulations of the same image, either switched or somehow stretched relative to the original. In the best known of the images (shown here), sometimes affectionately termed the Loch Ness Muppet photo, the ‘monster’ is translucent (yes, I said translucent). Note the white spot down at the base of the neck.

Tony Shiels's 'Elephant squid', here beautifully painted in colour for the attention of well known authors Janet and Colin Bord. Image from John Fairley and Simon Welfare's 1987 Arthur C. Clarke's Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious (Collins, London).

The photographer is sometimes referred to as Anthony Shiels. However, Shiels isn’t just any old naïve tourist, but Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, the famous Irish psychic entertainer, self-proclaimed Wizard of the Western World, author and artist. He is associated with several proven hoaxes, including photos of Morgawr (a Cornish sea monster) that turned out to be plasticine models. Apparently little known is that Shiels used these photos to promote a, shall we say, interesting theory about the Loch Ness Monster: namely, that it's a gigantic freshwater cephalopod that has a sort of proboscis that stick out the top of its head and mimics the head and neck of a long-necked water monster. The white blob is actually one of the squid’s real eyes (though the idea that it's a beer can has also been mentioned on occasion...).

Shiels produced an article in Fortean Times on the Loch Ness squid – he called it the elephant squid – but I can’t seem to find my copy (does anyone have the citation?). Oh yeah, the translucency of the image results from the way the model was superimposed onto the water – though I’ve heard that it’s actually a genuine feature, reflecting the fact that Nessie isn’t just a giant freshwater cephalopod, it’s also a ghost. And no, I don’t think any of this is meant to be taken seriously.

The adjacent image is also iconic: it’s P. A. MacNab’s photo, taken in July 1955 but not made public until 1957 when it was published in Constance Whyte’s book More Than a Legend. MacNab was, so he said, about to photo Urquhart Castle when he noticed a disturbance in the water. He quickly changed lenses and took one picture; his son was with him at the time but didn’t get to see it as he was busy looking at a car engine. This story is suspicious, as is the photo: the creature must have been stupendously big (the part of it above the water is more than 18 m long, based on comparison with the castle), and, partly as a result of this, some authors have even suggested that the image showed two monsters: a big male followed by a smaller female perhaps. The creature(s) is also notably (read: suspiciously) dark compared to the other dark objects in the photo. The story became properly undone when Roy Mackal obtained a copy of the negative from MacNab and found a number of major discrepancies between the copy published by Whyte and the one supplied by MacNab. The two images differ in the exact position of the castle’s reflection and in the presence of a clump of trees in the lower left corner. MacNab is on record as saying that he took two photos with two different cameras (Witchell 1974, pp. 87-88), but this can’t explain things as the ‘monster’ – which MacNab says was definitely moving when he photographed it – is in exactly the same position in both.

Peter O’Connor’s photo, taken in May 1960, has always been one of my favourites because it looks so plausible (ish). The story is that O’Connor, camping on the shore of the loch, got up in the early morning to relieve himself. He saw the creature, waded out waist-deep into the water, and took the photo. Apparently, he was able to get so close because – trained as a Royal Marine Commando – he could walk through water without making a sound (Binns 1984). O’Connor has often been regarded as a suspicious witness because, in 1959, he’d claimed that he was going to lead an expedition of 60 people – kitted out with harpoon, spearguns, canoe-mounted machine guns, bombs and a machete – to kill the creature.

The image is problematical: the creature appears to be stationary, rather than moving forward as O’Connor said, the lighting shows that the flash came from about 4 m above the water surface, not close to water-level as it should have, and we should be able to see light in the background given that the photo was taken at 06:30 in May. Maurice Burton reported in New Scientist that, on visiting the spot where O’Connor took his photo, he discovered three polythene bags, a ring of stones tied together with string, and a stick which looked exactly like the alleged monster’s head.

Whether you call the 'flipper' photos 'hoaxes' or not is down to personal preference: whatever, they definitely represent substantially retouched versions of mud on the loch floor. Above is one of the 'flipper' photos: below is the original version, showing the loch floor but with a streak and other details of the image creating the vague impression of a diamond shape. Images (c) 1972 Academy of Applied Science/Loch Ness Investigation Bureau.

Originally mooted by some as compelling evidence for the biological reality of the Loch Ness Monster (Dinsdale 1973a, b, Witchell 1974, Mackal 1976, Scott & Rines 1975), the famous Rines-Egerton flippers photos (there are two) are undoubted fakes. We now know that genuine photos of the muddy bottom of Loch Ness were ‘enhanced’ in order to create the impressions of fin-shaped objects. This was suggested by Binns (1984) but has since been confirmed by Adrian Shine (respected long-time investigator of the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon) and Dick Raynor (go here for more). Exactly who did the enhancing remains unknown so far as I know. Needless to say, these facts negate the various interesting ideas that have been based on the details of the alleged flippers. Because the flippers seem to have a stiffening rib that runs along the midline, they are, with the possible exception of lungfishes, unlike those of most other aquatic vertebrates. Shine (1989) noted that the fins of Loch Ness animals might not be the main propulsive organs for this reason and, noting the similarity with Australian lungfishes, suggested that the fin anatomy might indicate the creature to be a fish that crawls on the loch floor, rather than a tetrapod that frequents the water column. Often overlooked is the extraordinary size of the ‘fins’: each was estimated to be about 2 m long.

Peter Scott illustrated Nessie on several occasions, including in some spectacular colour paintings. This illustration shows his interpretation of the two 'flipper' photos. Scott 'believed' in the reality of the LNM and claims that he was in it for a laugh do not take account of what he said in books, articles and interviews.

Remarkably, Peter Scott and Robert Rines used these photos as the main basis for the formal description (in Nature!) of the Loch Ness Monster as a new species they named Nessiteras rhombopteryx (Scott & Rines 1975). It’s well known that Nessiteras rhombopteryx is an anagram of ‘monster hoax by Sir Peter S’, but this is surely a coincidence: Scott and Rines both wrote quite a lot on the Loch Ness Monster (e.g., Scott 1980, Rines 1982), and there is every reason to think that they were actually quite convinced by the putative reality of the animal. Scott proudly wrote of his ‘I believe in Nessie’ t-shirt and Rines countered the anagram claim by noting that Nessiteras rhombopteryx is also an anagram of ‘Yes, both pix are monsters, R’. In other words, it’s blissfully naïve to think they pulled off the naming of the animal as a one-off stunt done for laughs.

A few other alleged Nessie photos were taken by the underwater camera of the Robert Rines Academy of Applied Science /Loch Ness Investigation Bureau expeditions, including the famous 'gargoyle's head' image and another that has been intimated to be a moving, long-necked animal with appendages. These images almost certainly represent cases of pareidolia: the ‘gargoyle's head' image is most likely a gnarly tree-stump on the loch floor.

Cropped version of the George Edwards '2012' photo. Having Urquhart Castle in the background is a nice touch.

Screengrab from a documentary in which the hump is placed in the loch. I think that's Steve Feltham.

The newest ‘good’ photo appeared in the global media in August 2012 and was supposedly taken by George Edwards in November 2011. According to statements made to the press, Edwards wanted to have the photo verified before releasing it and asked friends in the US military to check its authenticity. In fact, the image had already been on sale as a postcard since June 2012. Well-known LNM investigator Steve Feltham went on record to say that the hump is one and the same as the object made for the 2005 documentary Loch Ness: The Ultimate Experiment, and that seems to be true when you compared images of the hump (which still exists) with the object in the photo. Indeed, a 2011 documentary even includes footage of the same hump sitting on the deck of Edwards’s boat. It’s case closed on this one as well - it’s definitely a hoax, and you can see a very detailed examination of the object’s size, position in the loch and so on here at Dick Raynor’s site.

There are various other LNM photos of course, and also several bits of film. Then there are the several land sightings, and the fossils, whale bones and dead conger eels that have been found at Loch Ness. However, the images you’ve seen here are the ‘classics’, the ‘best of the best’ and, as I’ve said here, all are unsatisfactory or problematic or definitely hoaxed. So that’s that! We move on.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on the Loch Ness Monster and related aspects of cryptozoology, see...

Refs - -

Bauer, H. H. 2002. The case for the Loch Ness “monster”: the scientific evidence. Journal of Scientific Exploration 16, 225-246.

Binns, R. 1984. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. W. H. Allen & Co, London.

Bord, J. & Bord, C. 1991. Modern Mysteries of Britain. Diamond Books, London.

Boyd, A. & Martin, D. 1994. Creating a monster. BBC Wildlife 12 (4), 22-23.

Dinsdale, T. 1973a. The Rines/Egerton picture. The Photographic Journal April 1973, 162-165.

- . 1973b. The Story of the Loch Ness. Allan Wingate, London.

LeBlond, P. H. & Collins, M. J. 1987. The Wilson Nessie photo: a size determination based on physical principles. Cryptozoology 6, 55-64.

Mackal, R. P. 1976. The Monsters of Loch Ness. The Swallow Press, Chicago.

Magin, U. 2001. Waves without wind and a floating island – historical accounts of the Loch Ness monster. In Simmons, I. & Quin, M. (eds) Fortean Studies Volume 7. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 95-115.

Martin, D. & Boyd, A. 1999. Nessie – the Surgeon’s Photo Exposed. Martin & Boyd, East Barnet.

Rines, R. H. 1982. Summarizing a decade of underwater studies at Loch Ness. Cryptozoology 1, 24-32.

Scott, P. 1980. Observations of Wildlife. Phaidon, Oxford.

- . & Rines, R. 1975. Naming the Loch Ness monster. Nature 258, 466-468.

Shine, A. 1989. A very strange fish? In Brookesmith, P. (ed) Creatures from Elsewhere. Macdonald & Co (London), pp. 66-70.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. Blandford, London.

Smith, R. D. 1994. Nessie not a hoax. BBC Wildlife 12 (8), 81.

- . 1995. The classic Wilson nessie photo: is the hoax a hoax? Fate November 1995, 42-44.

Witchell, N. 1974. The Loch Ness Story. Terence Dalton, Lavenham.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article