Scientific investigations at Loch Ness
WHAT IS KNOWN AT THREE QUARTERS OF A CENTURY OF THE FIRST REPORT ON THE "MONSTER": SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AT LOCH NESS
On Tuesday, 2 May 1933 the Scottish newspaper "Inverness Courier" warned of a sighting of a very strange, large aquatic animal. Between 9 and 23 November naturalist Rupert Gould interviewed more than 50 people on the case, and months later he published the first book on what today is called "the Loch Ness monster." Here is a summary of the expeditions which have come to this place.
Any interpretation of the "monster" should consider the unique geographical, physical and biological properties of Loch Ness. In 1910 John Murray and Laurence Pullar published their "Bathymetric survey of the freshwater lochs of Scotland" (in two volumes of text and four of maps, Challenger Office, Edinburgh), where Loch Ness is described as "one of the best known of the larger Scottish lochs [a type of lake], since it forms a considerable part (nearly one-half) of the waterway known as the Caledonian Canal, which occupies the great glen running in a north-east and south-west direction from the Moray Firth on the east coast of Scotland to Loch Linnhe on the west coast, thus cutting Scotland into two portions. Through the Caledonian Canal thousands of visitors are carried each season on the route between Inverness and Fort William, and the splendid scenery of the canal and surrounding district has furnished a theme for many pens.". They determined that its elevation is 16 m above sea level, it is 36,6-km long, with an average width of 1,4 km and it has an area of 5666 hectares. By taking about 1700 measurements they found that its maximum depth is 230 m. But what stood out were "(1) the comparative simplicity of the basin ; (2) the deep shore-slope throughout the greater part of the loch; and (3) the large area of the lake-floor covered by very deep water.". "It seems quite possible, therefore, that Loch Ness may be the largest body of fresh water, not only in Great Britain, but in the United Kingdom.", they concluded.
KNOWN PHYSICAL PHENOMENA
In 1903, E. Maclagan-Wedderburn measured oscillations on the loch surface, of up to 11 cm, with periods of 31,5 minutes, 15,3 minutes and 8,8 minutes. Storms and earthquakes were apparently not the cause, but rather variations in atmospheric pressure. There are also water mass oscillations below the surface (with a period of about three days), particularly at a depth of 60 m, but without effects visible from above (discovered by E. Watson, 1904). It also presents microstructures of thermal origin, with likely impact on transparency (Simpson and Woods, 1970). Underwater thermal structures are richer in late summer (Thorpe, 1971). Underwater waves were detected between layers of different temperatures, of up to 10 m of amplitude, but without effects on the surface (Thorpe, Hall and Crofts, 1972). Loch Ness is a good natural laboratory for studying phenomena associated with turbulences (Thorpe, 1977). There is a direct relationship between sonar echoes underwater and wind speed (Thorpe and Stubbs, 1979). Echoes are air bubbles carried under water (Thorpe, 1980), down to several meters (Thorpe, 1982).
Various mirages occur on its surface, involving high mountains and distant vessels, due to the temperature difference between the water (which undergoes almost no change) and the air above it (Pullar and Murray, 1908). Several sightings of the "monster" can be related to optical phenomena of atmospheric distortion (Lehn, 1979). Some solar storms (McKinnon, 1972) can interfere with electronic equipment deployed at these latitudes (Sperling, 1994).
The bottom has five sediment types: dark gray mud, ferruginous mud, peaty mud, yellow-gray mud and brown sand (Lee, Collet and Wilson, 1908). Loch Ness is a product of the last Ice Age on the British Isles, more than 10 000 years ago (Sissons, 1979). Bottom sediments show marks of climatic variations (Cooper, 1998).
In 2001 L. Piccardi suggested that the "monster" could have a seismic origin.
The watershed that feeds Loch Ness is so diversified that systematic chemical studies of its waters is complicated (Jenkins, 1993). In a separate article, the same scientist reported that some sediments extracted from a depth of 220 m are rich in organic material. Pockets of gas rising from the bottom were detected at two different places of the Loch's floor, one at a depth of 97 m and which remained active continuously for two weeks; the other place remains active for the entire summer, indicating decaying vegetation (Shine, 1993).
Phytoplankton is very poor, both in quantity and variety (Murray, 1904).
In the bottom, there are worms and small bivalve crustaceans, living in a stable environment, well oxygenated and with enough nutrients; crustaceans form 60% of the fauna of the deep (Martin, Shine and Duncan, 1993). As there are only four species of these, they perhaps enjoy or promote a very stable ecosystem (Griffiths and Martin, 1993).
There are seven species of fish (Maitland, 1981). The most numerous are char (scientific name "Salvelinus alpinus"), brown trout ("Salmo trutta") and stickleback ("Gasterosteus aculeatus"), with a density of 300 to 1000 animals per hectare. About 80% are very small, appearing in the sonar as a continuous layer, rather than as individuals (Shine, Martin and Marjoram, 1993). Char is the most abundant fish (Shine, Kubečka, Martin and Duncan, 1993) and in Loch Ness it is sometimes eaten by the brown trout (Martin and Shine, 1993), a diet that would make the latter reach 1 meter in length.
The average density of fish in open waters is about 100 fishes per hectare (Kubečka, Duncan and Butterworth, 1992) and its concentration depends upon the distribution of sediments, which itself depends on currents (Shine, Martin, Bennett and Marjoram, 1993).
The Loch Ness is anything but a stagnant ecosystem, and indeed is being altered by humans (Bennett and Shine, 1993).
GOING MONSTER HUNTING
In 1933 the newspaper "Daily Mail" of London sent big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell, in an expedition that would be followed in the pages of the newspaper, from 18 December to 19 January. Wetherell found strange footprints on the shore, but the Natural History Museum of London declared them fraudulent (as it would be later the famous "surgeon's photo", also attributed to the former). Finally, after weeks of following several tracks and listening with hydrophones, the hunter, the police and reporters found a large gray seal ("Halichoerus grypus") visiting the loch.
In July 1934, Edward Mountain recruited 20 people to monitor the waters, from sunrise to sunset for the span of a month. 21 photographs were taken, most of which were of poor quality, but 5 were good enough to try to enlarge them. After consulting with specialists, Mountain suggested that what was in them would be a large gray seal. Only as late as 1960 a movie footage finally appeared, made by Tim Dinsdale, showing a large moving object leaving a trail.
In 1960 and 1962 Peter Baker brought people from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1962 Peter Scott and David James established the "Loch Ness Investigation Project". The following year they recorded 40 sightings (both by volunteers of the project and by the general public), the next 18 more and in 1965 nine more anomalous observational phenomena. In the official report of that year they estimated that over 95% of the cases occurred when the water was calm and sunny (rare weather in Scotland). In the 1966 season there were 29 cases, of which only one included a "neck". By 1967 they already had about 150 volunteers watching the loch, collecting 23 sightings, but about 80% were of "humps" or "disturbances in the water". The report of 1968 recorded 14 sightings (discounting all "humps" viewed when a boat was passing by) and a calculation was published of a direct correlation between the number of sightings and the number of salmon migrating inland from the sea, in every season. Salmon ("Salmo salar") is probably the most important fish species from an economical standpoint in Loch Ness (Raynor, 2013). The number of cameras was already enough to cover 90% of the surface of Loch Ness. That year 32 000 tourists appeared interested in "the monster".
Professor Gordon Tucker, from the University of Birmingham, anchored a sonar to a pier in an attempt to detect any objects circulating through the loch. On 19 December 1968 the magazine "New Scientist" published readings showing a large object rising from the bottom.
By 1969 the project of Scott and James was supported with the monetary contribution of 1030 enthusiasts in 18 nations. There were 14 more sightings (three of them photographed). That year two submarines came to the loch, the "Viper-Fish" from the U.S. and the "Pisces", owned by the UK industrial manufacturer Vickers. Underwater currents were detected at great depth and at least one sonar echo, but the specially-prepared harpoon for biopsies never got to be within shooting distance. In addition, a boat with sonar prepared by Bod Love made several passages from end to end of the loch and came to detect a large object moving in a circle.
On 9 August 1972, a team led by Robert Rines detected, using sonar, powerful movements underwater. They also presented a controversial underwater photograph of a purported fin.
In 1976, a speculation was raised on the possibility of more than one monster.
By 1980 the money became scarce and the constant vigils from the banks ended. However, the "hunters" complained that there was still much to do.
In 1982 Adrian Shine, using sonar, detected two more objects.
Between 1986 and 1987 the largest search with sonar was conducted, where several boats "scanned" the loch for about 1500 hours, supported by stations in the banks which also operated their equipment for another 1000 hours. According to Shine and David Martin, the readings suggest that the "objects" are actually different forms of turbulence, all-too normal and anything but "monstrous". Other sonar contacts would be fish, possibly including some of unusual size. Thermal differentials would also play an important role.
Rines continued working at Loch Ness for many years, until in 2001 he made one of his last "sweeps", covering 90% of the water volume. Hardly-accessible places, such as near the side walls, were examined by a robot mini-submarine equipped with powerful lights, but without success.
Thus, the "Loch Ness Monster" is poised to share what the Belgian philosopher Etienne Vermeersch called "Lourdes effect": the "miracles" are never spectacular enough to convince without resorting to faith.
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Originally published in ABC Color, on 7 September 2008. Photograph: Loch Ness with Urquhart Castle in the foreground, 7 May 2005. Photo Credit: Sam Fentress (original license, of the photograph only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en). With permission from Sam Fentress.