From Abracadabra to Zombies
Loch Ness "monster"
2 Dec 2010
I see your web-site repeats the claim that the so called “surgeons photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster (reportedly taken by Dr Robert Kenneth Wilson) represents “a small model of a sea serpent made of plastic wood attached to a 14-inch toy submarine”, a fact supposedly revealed by a death-bed confession, made 60 years after the event, by the witnesses step-brother.
reply: For clarification: the death-bed confession was made by the one who allegedly made the model sea serpent attached to a toy submarine. He was not just the stepbrother and stepson of the witnesses, but an alleged co-conspirator in the hoax.
Philosophically speaking, surely this statement raises some difficult questions about the true nature of “sceptical thinking” (as it is commonly applied by debunkers)?
If an alleged sighting of – for example –the Loch Ness Monster was reported to you 60 years after the event, with the sighting related second-hand by a step-relation rather than the principal witness, and furthermore related by a person who was on their death-bed so that no further questioning or clarification was possible, and with absolutely no written or photographic evidence offered in support of the alleged claim, would you accept it? I suspect not! But if not, why do the same standards of scepticism not apply to the story of the toy submarine? Why should we accept the toy submarine story for the origin of the “surgeons photograph” without question? Surely a true sceptic should be asking questions such as;
* Why invoke the rather bizarre and complicated “toy submarine” scenario for an image that could far more simply be interpreted as a diving otter, a swan or (perhaps even more likely) a static piece of driftwood?
reply: Given the distance between the camera and the object photographed and given the physical appearance of the object in the photograph, none of the objects you suggest seem plausible candidates. Still, it's always possible you're right.
* If the point of the toy submarine was to produce a “monster” that appeared to be in motion through the water (I can think of no other reason to adopt such a convoluted faking technique), then why is such motion not clearly evident in the resulting photograph?
reply: As far as I know, nobody has suggested that the purpose of the toy submarine was to give the illusion of motion. Rather, the general belief seems to be that the toy submarine served as an underwater platform for the model serpent.
* If the hoaxing photographers had complete control over the position of the model and the composition of the photograph, why is it that the quality of the resulting image so poor? Why not get closer to the model so that it does not look so tiny (and unimpressive!) in the frame? Why not include a recognisable Loch Ness Landmark to make the hoax more convincing? The fakers are given credit for an ingenious hoaxing technique, but at the same time they would seem to be hopelessly incompetent at photographing the model that they had worked so hard to produce!
reply: The original photo has the shoreline in the background, which makes the object appear to be large in perspective. If it were a plesiosaur, as some have suggested, then the waves around it would be larger than any waves ever seen on Loch Ness.
I should say that I have no particular interest in the "reality" of the Loch Ness Monster (I agree with you, the probability of its existence is vanishingly low!) but I am interested in the philosophy of scepticism, and (as it seems to me) the occasional double-standards that scepticism (or should I say debunking?) can sometimes seem to apply to claims of the paranormal. The uncritical acceptance of the “toy submarine” story would seem to me to be a good example of this. But in the spirit of rational, skeptical inquiry and discourse, I would be most interested to hear your views.
Thanking you for your time (and your stimulating and informative web site)
reply: Mr. Hall raises an important question. Why is the newspaper story, appearing sixty years after the photograph was allegedly taken, not viewed with a more skeptical eye? I suspect that the sources of the story, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Martin, were above suspicion of creating a hoax about a hoax. Mr. Boyd in particular is trusted because he was a believer in the existence of Nessie at the time he helped discredit one of the more important (at the time, anyway) pieces of "evidence" in support of the existence of Nessie. On the other hand, Boyd believed Nessie was more like a whale than a plesiosaur; at least, that's the impression he gave of his 1979 sighting. Of course, Boyd is the perfect candidate for a hoaxer, since his reputation was impeccable. Who better to get away with a lie or two than someone nobody would suspect of lying?
Another reason Boyd's story might have avoided more careful scrutiny over the years is what appears to be his finding of a second source (Christian Spurling) to back up the published claim made by Ian Wetherell in 1975 that his father, Duke Wetherell, was the brains behind the hoax. Why would a son lie about his father? I'm sure the reader can think of many reasons, but is there any evidence that Ian held any kind grudge toward his father? Apparently, Ian Wetherell's confession didn't cause much of a stir, coming forty years after the alleged event, but that is irrelevant to whether his story was a hoax about a hoax. The general idea that his father was angry with the Mail and enlisted his son to help him in a hoax isn't incredible on its face.
Anyway, the fact that Spurling was in his 90s and died soon after the "confession" that he was the one who made the fake Nessie at his step dad's request makes his story suspicious because he was the last of the hoaxers still alive, if indeed there ever were any hoaxers. Was he protecting his stepbrother's lie about the Dukester designing the hoax? I don't know, but I have no reason to think he was.
The story Boyd and Martin pass on seems better than anything most fiction writers could come up with. Spurling's father-in-law, Duke Wetherell, enlisted him to hoax the Daily Mail because he (the Dukester) had been hoaxed by somebody else while on assignment for the Mail. Somebody apparently made some footprints with a lamp stand made from a hippo's foot and the Dukester took a photo of the prints and sent them to the Mail expecting they'd like his "monster prints." Now here's the part that I can't quite believe. The Mail had the photos checked out. The prints were identified as baby hippo prints by an expert at a museum of natural history. The expert concluded that somebody used a hippo-foot lamp to hoax others, and Wetherell fell for the hoax. The reason I find this part hard to believe is that the Mail doesn't check things out very carefully these days. But, I must admit that I know nothing of the Mail's ancient history and, for all I know, it was a reputable fish wrap at one time. Anyway, Spurling's story via Boyd and Martin is that the Dukester was angry at the Mail for being angry at him for sending them hoax prints instead of a picture of the Loch Ness monster, which is what the Mail supposedly hired Wetherell for. The alleged hoax was perpetrated to embarrass the Mail. However, if that were true, it makes no sense that Wetherell wouldn't reveal it at some point before his death. It's hard to believe a man would go to all that trouble for revenge and then keep it to himself and a few others. What kind of satisfaction could that give?
Then, there's the claim by Boyd that he saw an original 1934 photo that was sent to the Mail, which "corroborated" the claim of Ian Wetherell that such a photo existed. Boyd reasons that the only way Wetherell could know of the photo is if he took it or was there when it was taken. Maybe so. But how do we know for sure that Boyd actually saw such a photo. Anyway, Boyd's and Ian Wetherell's stories would have been more credible if either Ian or his stepbrother had produced the alleged toy or an actual photo or negative. (The picture above is a fake, by the way. The one below is allegedly the original.)
One last bit of info to consider involves the question of who took the photo. We know that the Mail attributed the photo to Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London surgeon. Did Wilson even exist? It seems so. Here's a photo of him (he's the one on the left, the other photo is allegedly of Alastair Boyd), though I agree it could be a fake. The source is NOVA Online:
There seems to be general agreement that Wilson provided the photo to the Mail but later distanced himself from the claim that he took the photo, which is now widely known as "the surgeon's photo." Why would an apparently respectable physician agree to the hoax, if indeed it was a hoax? That the Dukester, his son, and stepson might hoax the Mail is plausible. Why a London surgeon and his friend (who accompanied Wilson to Loch Ness on the fateful day) would be accomplices to the Dukester and his kids in such a prank has never been adequately explained, as far as I know.
Was the Wilson photo a hoax at all? Perhaps we'll never know for sure. Was the photo touted as that of a plesiosaur by believers in Nessie? That we can be more certain of, but it doesn't help resolve the question of whether the story told by Boyd and Martin is true. Did Christian Spurling really make a deathbed confession? Why would a London physician lend his name to the prank, if it was a prank? The claim that the Daily Mail hired somebody to photograph the "lake monster" is credible on its face, given the tabloid's history. (Whether the object is a natural phenomenon or a constructed object involving a "submarine" is somewhat of a red herring. The photo is obviously not of a lake monster. If it's a fake object that was photographed, what the fake was made of is irrelevant. I don't think we need to take Spurling literally for his story to be credible. Whether he used a "submarine" or just some material that didn't sink and didn't float but could support the piece above water isn't really essential to the believability of the story.)
The most puzzling aspect of the hoax story is Wilson. Why would he get involved? I can understand why, once the story got rolling, he wouldn't want it known that he was part of a monstrous prank. It would be embarrassing. But wouldn't it be embarrassing to claim, as he apparently did,* that while driving along the northern shore of Loch Ness he noticed something moving in the water and stopped his car to take a photo, which he then sought to sell to the Daily Mail? He says he went to Loch Ness to photograph birds. Why would he not assume the object in his photo was some sort of local wildlife? Also, if the photographic analysis by Stewart Campbell in 1984 is correct, then Wilson probably knew the object he photographed was small, not a "monster." So, whether Wilson photographed a real object or was part of a hoax involving at least four other people, he brought a photo to the Mail that he knew wasn't that of a lake monster. The Mail bought it and published it, letting the readers' imaginations take them wherever they might like to go. That Wilson later tried to distance himself from the photo tells us nothing about his character. Was he a gentleman who was duped into doing a favor for a hoaxer? Was he a co-conspirator in a hoax? Was he an amateur photographer who saw a chance to take advantage of other people's gullibility by offering his vague photo for sale to the Mail?
Anyway, thank you Mr. Hall for raising some interesting questions by your desire to see us be more skeptical.
The Surgeon’s Photo The Museum of Hoaxes
The Surgeon's Hoax from The Unmuseum
12 Nov 2003
I carry a passing interest in the paranormal and just plain strange myself, and your site has often been a point of reference for the more rational explanations for things. I must say, however, that I don't agree with everything you say, but I suppose that's to be expected.
Regarding Loch Ness, I wish to refer you to two sources which I found interesting. I'm a Nessie agnostic, so to speak, but I found this page compelling:
It details "Operation Deepscan," wherein a whole flotilla of boats scoured the loch for any sign of Nessie. They did, in fact, report three contacts, at a depth of 78 meters. The contacts were "larger than a shark, but smaller than a whale," according to the site. If it's a fish, that's one huge fish. If it's not a fish, it might be...well, something else. I'll leave that to you.
A list of all the known instances in which Nessie (or something) has been caught on film, including as recently as 1992. I have read a report that someone photographed or videotaped Nessie (or something) in 2002, but cannot locate that source at the moment.
Additionally, I once had (but am kicking myself that I cannot now find) a link to a set of three photographs taken of Nessie, within seconds of each other. One photograph is easy to take, granted, but three of the same object is a little harder, especially if there is motion between the pictures (e.g., Nessie [or something] was in a different pose and position each time). Admittedly, it doesn't prove a thing, but it does raise the possibility that there might be some wiggle room. During the sonar scan operation, one of the boat operators logged a sonar depth of 812 feet, despite the known fact that the loch is only 748 feet deep. This means that he found an underground cave, which could conceivably be the place Nessie (or something) is hiding. In my book, absence of proof is not proof of absence, and I have to ask myself (especially in the instances in which multiple hundreds of people reported seeing the creature) if it wasn't Nessie, what was it? The existence of two or three plesiosaurs beneath the lake seems a far more plausible explanation to me than that thousands of people, over fifteen hundred years, have all been delusional.
I doubt you have the time to visit those links, but if you can take the time, thank you in advance.
reply: You don't have to be delusional to misperceive or draw erroneous conclusions from murky data. But, if I had to bet on either 2 or 3 plesiosaurs in the lake or thousands of people being delusional, I'd go with the sure thing.
Below is Julie Atkinson's response to Jim.
25 Dec 2003
Let's get a few things clear about the Nessie legend:
1) It is NOT ancient. Please see my previous letter for more information about the Columba "sighting", a garbled version of which appeared in a Scottish newspaper in 1933 and has been misleading the public ever since. The letter's author, D. Murray Rose, also claimed that Nessie was seen in 1520,1771 and 1885 but provided no evidence for this - and his own theory was that Nessie was probably a shark! Claims that a number of books written between the second and nineteenth centuries mention a large unknown animal in Loch Ness are equally worthless; the passages have either been wrenched out of context or simply don't exist. Finally, the folk culture of the Highlands has been studied extensively and there is not a trace of Nessie in song or story.
2) Where is the evidence that Nessie has been seen by "thousands of people over fifteen hundred years"? No-one saw monsters in Loch Ness before the early 30s! When Nicholas Witchell wrote "The Loch Ness Story" in 1974 he claimed that there were 4000 eyewitness accounts; when Ronald Binns investigated ten years later he found fewer than 400 recorded between 1933 and 1984, most of them extremely ambiguous. Believers often overlook the fact that most "eyewitnesses" are visitors who are familiar with the legend and would dearly love to see Nessie, not local people who are familiar with local wildlife, boat wake patterns and weather conditions.
3) There have been many reports of large mysterious objects in the Loch showing up on sonar - who can forget "Dr" Robert Rines and his sonar-triggered photographs of Nessie's face and flippers? The fact remains that that the interpretation of such data is as much an art as a science (sonar evidence has been used both to confirm and deny the existence of underwater caves), and the hundreds of sonar-equipped trawlers which have sailed up and down the loch over the years have discovered nothing.
4) Just suppose for the sake of argument that big unknown creatures have been living in Loch Ness for centuries. In order to survive they would need a fairly large breeding population, in which case the animals would have been seen by local residents on a daily basis; they would need an ample supply of food, and there is no reason to suspect the existence of fish predators larger than otters in Loch Ness; and what happens to the dead creatures? Why do we never hear of bones, skin and bits of flesh washing up on the shore or turning up in fishing nets?
I can understand the appeal of Nessie. So can the Scottish Tourist Board. But most visitors to Scotland will have to be content with seeing him/her in the form of a plush toy or cartoon, which in a way is entirely fitting for a character younger than Micky Mouse!
Julia D Atkinson (proud owner of a toy Nessie!), York, England
07 Aug 2003
If only Stephen Lyons ("Birth of a Legend" link) had bothered to do his homework!
Eighteen years ago Robert Binns, in his meticulously-researched book "The Loch Ness Mystery Solved", pointed out that the St Columba story is a typical "saint-overcomes-monster" tale which owes more to Irish folklore than Scottish history. The encounter took place not in Loch Ness but in the shallow River Ness, and only a very petite monster would have been able to make its way into the Loch. Adamnan's "Life of Saint Columba" is full of descriptions of the saint's miraculous power over animals, such as a giant wild boar.
The Pictish "monster carvings" are found throughout Scotland and have no local connection with Loch Ness. The serpent design is one of the most commonly used of fourteen Pictish symbols, and there is no reason to believe that it represents a real animal.
As for the theory that the construction of the "new road" next to the Loch disturbed the creatures and led to a mass of sightings - this road has existed since the end of the 18th century and is clearly marked on old maps of the region, including the 1906 "Red Guide to Oban, Fort William and the Western Highlands". In 1933 parts of the road were merely repaired and resurfaced, and it has been suggested that floating debris and empty tar barrels dumped by the workers may indeed have been mistaken for large animals. Ironically, the Great Glen Exhibition at Fort Augustus once included an old large-scale Bartholomews map of Loch Ness which clearly shows the "new" north shore road...
The number of sightings seems to be wildly exaggerated, and it is worth pointing out that taken as a whole they do not indicate a plesiosaur-like creature. Nessie has been seen sporting hair, horns and huge sturdy legs.
In short, there is no evidence of an ancient monster tradition at Loch Ness. Contrary to the impression given by pro-monster authors, the Loch Ness area has been a popular holiday destination since late Victorian times yet not a single tourist, fisherman, or local resident reported seeing large unknown animals before the early 1930's. Without Alex Campbell, the Loch's publicity-loving water bailiff and part-time contributor to the local paper, there would be no Nessie industry today.
Best wishes, and I hope the new book reaches a large audience!
Julia D Atkinson
21 Sep 2000
I have read with interest the discussion on the Loch Ness events. I find the discussions interesting but believe that there may be a simpler answer. I live near Lake Ontario in New York state and have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time there. ( I have also visited Loch Ness but I digress) The wind is almost always present in this region due to the temperature differences between the lake and shore. However at dusk and dawn the wind has died down and lake is calm. One early fall evening just before sunset I was observing a wonderfully tranquil and flat lake surface. To my surprise a torrent "magically appeared" on the surface of the water about 30m offshore. The Lake churned and foamed and large ripples about .5m appeared and then turned to move away from shore. Ah the sea monster, you say! No I say a school of Salmon or Lake Trout following a smaller school of fish feeding on surface insects. As fall approaches the big fish come in closer and closer to shore, with the dropping water temperature they are able to do so with better feeding opportunities. They are also preparing to spawn. I believe the big fish followed the smaller in and all the fish scattered as the realized how close they came to the shore line. I have never seen the event again, but it easy to see how someone could have mistaken that for a humped creature who arose and then turned quickly out to sea.
reply: There's just one problem. Loch Ness is not full of nutrients and as far as I know there are no large schools of fish in the lake, nor is it known as a great breeding ground.
15 Jul 2000
I think the mystery of the Loch Ness monster has been clearly solved: sightings tend to take place some years after there has been mass tree-felling. The theory relies on the fact that the trees are mainly pine and the water is cold. The trees go in the loch, become waterlogged and sink. The pine resin however seals the logs at a point at which there is still some microbial decompositional activity within what is now a log. The microbial gas creates pressure, which is eventually released, under pressure. The blackened slimy logs are now propelled to the surface and a monster is seen. Thus also accounting for foaming water and undulating movement.
reply: You could be right, Gary. Then again, you could be wrong. How do the surfaced trees go back underwater? Adrian Shine thinks people have been seeing an underwater wave. Maybe the underwater waves are bobbing the underwater trees. Then again, maybe not.
14 Jun 1999
Are you aware of Richard Carter's simulation and analysis of the Loch Ness film by Tim Dinsdale? His write-up is on the Legend of Nessie site. It is worth noting that Richard Carter is a Nessie-believer. The film simulation hopefully lays Dinsdale's film finally to rest, as it really does show that he merely filmed a boat under poor lighting conditions. Stills from the simulation (which involved filming a boat) very closely resemble stills from Dinsdale's film. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you, but it is significant for two reasons: (1) It is surely the end for the one remaining piece of "evidence" the believers have been clinging onto for the last 39 years; and (2) This is the most important thing: It tells us a huge amount about false perceptions of objects on the loch.
Tim Dinsdale was a well-respected figure, with a scientific background. However, he filmed a boat, and subsequently recalled: "Unhurriedly I stopped the car and raising my binoculars, focused them carefully upon it. The object was perfectly clear and now quite large.........It lay motionless on the water, a long oval shape, a distinct mahogany colour and on the left flank a huge dark blotch could be seen, like the dapple on a cow. For some reason it reminded me of the back of an American buffalo - it had fullness of girth and stood well above the water...." [this is a quote from Dinsdale's book 'Loch Ness Monster' - the quote is featured in Witchell's 'The Loch Ness Story'.
Dinsdale's experience when making this film in 1960, led him to dedicate much of his life to searching for the monster until he died in 1987. He inspired many other people to search too. For me, this is very significant. It shows the extent to which expecting to see a monster distorts perception when people visit the loch. It also says something about the reliability of recollections of events. The text in the above quote cannot be true in the light of the fact that it clearly was only a boat in the film, yet it is detailed and stated with absolute conviction - which no doubt strengthened over time [if he hadn't at first at least slightly doubted what he'd seen, it's unlikely he'd have sent out a boat and filmed it for comparison later on in the day].
The whole saga says so much about unsubstantiated eyewitness
accounts. Here was an intelligent man, utterly convinced he'd seen a hump
in great detail, with a film which he thought backed this belief up.
However, due to the fact that we can see that he was wrong, we can
discount his "sighting". If we hadn't seen the film, he would've
been recorded as one of the very many convincing eyewitnesses - who are
very convincing because they have successfully and completely convinced
8 Jan 1999
Your web site is wonderful! I had to write after recently viewing (and sleeping through parts) of the Nova Loch Ness Monster gush-a-thon. Although Nova usually does a good job of not suffering fools lightly, they really missed the ball on this one. My wife and I (when I wasn't sleeping) were just rolling on the floor over some of the drivel they were trying to pass off as serious.
reply: I, too, thought the Nova piece was poorly done. I would have focused on how there is obviously no connection between intelligence and the ability to think critically. What a waste of brainpower on the part of the big brains featured as the centerpiece of the show: "Robert Rines, a lawyer trained in physics....Harold "Doc" Edgerton, the legendary MIT scientist who had invented side scan sonar and strobe photography; and Sir Peter Scott, one of Britain's most respected naturalists." The show reminded me of one of Francis Bacon's sayings: "the lame man who keeps the right road outstrips the runner who takes the wrong one. Nay it is obvious that when a man runs the wrong way, the more active and swift he is the further he will go astray."
Another thing I would have focused on is sense perception. Nova spent a good bit of time focusing on whether the Wilson fake photo was really a fake. Recreating the fake monster and trying to recreate the same background in a photo was insignificant, I think, compared to what might have been done by exploring the question as to how so many sightings could all be of a non-existent creature. Nova could have explored pareidolia, misinterpretation of sense data, the power of suggestion, the role of desire in perception, etc.
Having been to Loch Ness myself, I observed a couple of phenomena that you might be interested in. My wife and I rode bicycles along the Caledonia Canal in 1984 from Inverness to Fort William. Because we were traveling at a much slower speed than most tourist we were able to observe the amount of optical equipment that people had set up in each pull-out along the Loch. Curiously from Inverness to Urqhart Castle every pull-out had several people with high power binoculars, telescopes, telephoto lenses, etc. all pointed out over the Loch.
However once you passed the Castle the amount of viewing dropped to zero. From the Castle to Fort William, we did not see anyone looking over the Loch. Another phenomenon we observed was at Urqhart Castle itself. While touring the castle ruins we both happened to notice a boat go by a few tens of meters from the shore line, an event which was unremarkable except for what followed. Several minutes later after the boat had gone down the Loch and was no longer in sight, we observed a wave building to the northeast of the castle, about 30m to 40m off shore. The wave swirled around and around in a circle, drawing ever tighter and building up until it had reached a few centimeters in height (maybe as high as 30 cm) with a loud rushing sound until it abruptly disappeared, exactly like the description in the Nova piece from the head investigator.
I think that Urqhart Bay has a curious structure that allows waves to be reflected back on themselves. To the northeast of the castle is a curved bay which allows boat wakes to be reflected on focused to a certain spot long after the boat has passed. Along with the legend and an active imagination, anyone could build monsters out of these waves. In fact one of the famous Nessie pictures showing Urqhart Castle in the background and Nessie in the foreground has Nessie almost perfectly positioned in the focus of the bay.
Keep up the good work! Your site is a barrel of laughs!
17 Nov 1996
I have just read your piece on the Loch ness monster in the Skeptic's Dictionary, and although I am a Ness investigator and on the "other side" as it were, I think your work was well-written and logically thought out.
However there is one piece of info you divulge that is a bit off the mark. You refer to the Nessie business as providing full employment to cryptozoologists like Alastair Boyd. I thought you ought to be aware that Mr Boyd does not profit from full employment in this field. I have spent many months this year in his company and can assure you he makes nothing out of cryptozoology. In fact he makes nothing out of anything, simply because he has been the victim for quite a few years of Myoencephalic Emeylitis or M.E. as it is more commonly known.
Alastair is unable to work and it is nothing short of superhuman that he found the strength in his condition to track down Spurling and obtain the story on the surgeon's photo hoax. It would be good of you if you were to alter the offending paragraph in the interests of complete accuracy in your otherwise splendid article.
As a skeptic you surely must believe that accuracy is the best policy.
* AmeriCares *