Double Check: Is the Loch Ness monster real?

By: tori marland&
March 14 2022

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Double Check: Is the Loch Ness monster real?

For years, visitors have flocked to Loch Ness, the deepest freshwater lake in the United Kingdom, situated near the Scottish Highland town of Inverness. While the loch is a beguiling and beautiful spot, popular with both paddle boarders and dog walkers alike, there is something more elusive that draws people to Loch Ness. Said to be snake-like, long, thin, and green in color, the Loch Ness Monster — affectionately known as Nessie — has intrigued conspiracy theorists for centuries. 

photograph of the supposed loch ness monster's head, also known as 'the surgeon's photograph'

The Surgeon’s Photograph, 1934

Although the earliest report of a Loch Ness monster can be traced back to the sixth century, its modern-day popularity is almost certainly a result of the so-called “surgeon’s photograph.” In April 1934, The Daily Mail published an image purporting to be a photo of the monster’s head and neck. Reportedly snapped by a gynecologist from London — hence the moniker “surgeon’s photograph” — the photo remained unquestioned by the general public, who took it as evidence of Nessie’s existence for years.

That was until 1984, when the image was examined more closely by Steuart Campbell, a photographer who suggested that it was likely a small object such as an otter. Even though it was later revealed to be a sea serpent’s head attached to a toy submarine, this was the first significant debunking of the surgeon’s photo.

A Cryptid myth intensifies

Before the publication of the surgeon’s photograph, sightings and theories had already begun gaining traction more generally in the 1930s, creating the perfect conditions for the photo to be readily accepted by society. The Inverness Courier was the first to label the creature as a monster in a 1933 report, with blurry photos and sketches soon following.

Dr. Neil Clark, a curator of paleontology at the Hunterian, the University of Glasgow, researched the monster for two years and has provided an explanation for this sustained interest during the 1930s. According to the BBC, he found that traveling circuses and fairs featuring elephants frequently visited the area around Loch Ness in the 1930s. 

“The circuses used to take the road up to Inverness and allow their animals to rest, swim about in the loch, and refresh themselves,” he told the BBC, adding: “It’s quite possible that the people around Loch Ness saw some of these animals. When their elephants were allowed to swim in the loch, only the trunk and two humps could be seen.”

Though this “elephant theory” does not account for more recent sightings, it does lend support to the increased sightings during that decade.  

More recently, scientists have theorized that the monster may be a giant eel. In 2019, a research expedition led by Professor Neil Gemmell at the University of Otago tested the DNA of 250 water samples taken from Loch Ness. The samples were taken from different depths of the loch, initially with the aim to test the age-old theory that Nessie is — or was — a plesiosaur. The team did not find evidence of this, definitively debunking that theory. They did, however, find “significant” eel DNA, such that they “can’t discount the possibility that what people see and believe is the Loch Ness monster might be a giant eel.” 

Why do people believe in cryptozoology?

Despite purported images of Nessie being thoroughly debunked, the myth of the Loch Ness monster continues to capture people’s imagination in popular culture. This could be due to the murky status of cryptozoology — a relatively new term that refers to the study of and search for legendary animals.  

Cryptozoology is not a science, and yet it is discussed in scientific circles by academics such as zoologists and ecologists. Zoologists often dabble in cryptozoology as they have a legitimate investment in discovering new or unproven species. Indeed, the term itself was coined by a zoologist named Bernard Heuvelsmans in 1955. This air of respectability could be one of the reasons people are drawn to cryptozoology.

An excellent example of cryptozoology being taken seriously by the scientific community is Dr. Charles Paxton, a research fellow in statistics at the University of St Andrews. Paxton has published peer-reviewed articles on sea serpents, unidentified marine animals, as well as the Loch Ness monster. He has frequently given talks on cryptozoology, and at his most recent talk on Nessie, in 2014, he said, “In this talk I will address the question, how many unknown aquatic animals await discovery by science? I will also challenge the audience to think about whether cryptozoology is a science and how hunting for Nessie, or more precisely analyzing Nessie reports, can be good science.”

It is easy to see how people buy into this particular type of misinformation, especially given its scientific veneer.

It is easy to see how people buy into this particular type of misinformation, especially given its scientific veneer. Although many people who believe in cryptids would not consider themselves conspiracy theorists, it does occupy a spot on disinformation researcher Abbie Richards' conspiracy chart.

Darren Naish believes it is possible to hold beliefs in one conspiracy theory while recognizing the dangers of others. As he wrote in Scientific American, “What all too many people fail to appreciate or understand is that an interest in cryptozoology is in no way in contradiction to a position of absolute skepticism.”

At the same time, cryptozoology does result in strong fixations for some. In their book Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, authors Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton dedicate a chapter to attempting to understand why people believe in cryptozoology. In their research, they recognize cryptozoology as a subculture in its own right. This subculture then becomes subsets; maybe people were interested in monsters as a child. Then, they take this hobby into adulthood, posting on forums. Only a dedicated few will then attend conventions or actually join searches for monsters. These subsets are then further divided by the cryptid of interest.

Scottish folklore

Additionally, many countries have long-standing oral and written histories and mythologies. In Scotland, there is a rich and varied tapestry of creatures dating back centuries. One such example is the horse-like creatures known as kelpies. According to legend, kelpies are shapeshifters that haunt lochs and rivers — most often in the form of a horse. 

Some think that kelpies may have directly inspired sightings of Nessie. Indeed, it is easy to see how myths blend and mutate, given reports of a 19th-century Nessie, a kelpie reported to reside in Loch na Beiste, or “Lake of the Beast.” Loch na Beiste lies some fifty miles from the southern tip of Loch Ness, off the Isle of Skye. It has been pointed out that prior to the 1930s, which saw a flurry of Nessie sightings, there were almost no reports of the Loch Ness monster, and perhaps it is a longstanding myth that simply ran away with itself to become a cryptid.

The tourism and promotional site features an entire section on myths, folklore, and legends, including Nessie. This perhaps creates an environment for a more cynical outlook on why the Loch Ness monster continues to remain in the public eye: to boost tourism to the area, allowing the local authorities to reap the benefits of visitor spending. It has been reported that the cryptid is estimated to bring in approximately $54 million in a typical year. As a percentage of the entire Scottish tourism industry and its wider supply chain, that comes to 0.3 percent. For a mythical creature, this is not bad at all, and certainly helps to bolster beliefs in cryptozoology.

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