The Blob Ness Monster

May 21, 2012

Has Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, best known from a 1934 photo that has since been revealed as an April Fool’s prank, once again been recorded—this time on sonar?

The picture was reported by England’s Daily Mail (online) on April 20, 2012. Tourist boat skipper Marcus Atkinson recorded the grainy image on his vessel’s sonar-fish-finder device when it was in the Scottish lake’s Urquhart Bay. The serpentine “monster”—actually a long, horizontal blob nearly 5 feet wide—was recorded at a depth of 23 meters (about 75 feet). Nessie enthusiasts like Steve Feltham—the world’s only full-time Loch Ness Monster hunter—claim the image depicted none of the usual suspects: neither a seal (the River Ness connects the lake with the sea), nor driftwood, nor a fish. For example, “It can’t be a fish,” says Feltham, “because you just wouldn’t find them in water 75 ft. down.”

Now my interest in the image was piqued—not only because of my longtime work as a skeptical cryptozoologist and lake-monster hunter, but also because, a month before, I had been at the very site. Along with British skeptic and investigator Hayley Stevens and her father Andy (a photographer and professional driver), I surveyed the bay’s waters from near Urquhart Castle (see my drawing), monitored sonar scans onboard a boat (that crossed the loch from the opposite shore to the castle and back), and spent some pleasant time with Feltham at his small trailer on the lake, for years located at the village of Dores.

Feltham was himself the most interesting Ness creature I encountered. He has lived on the loch since 1991. He supports his endeavor by selling whimsical little Nessies (shaped of polymer clay that he then bakes in his oven), along with driftwood art and watercolor paintings. An intelligent, thoughtful man, he said that even if there were no monster legend, he would still have his beachcomber life—“only in a warmer place!” He brings a good deal of experience to the debate—something skeptics would do well to acquire. Noting that tourists’ reported sightings often occurred at a particular time of the afternoon, he explains how an earlier tour boat’s wake shows up then, sometimes looking like a multi-humped monster and with no boat in sight! He also conceded to us that “Nessie” might be nothing more than a Wales catfish of great proportion.

But then what about Marcus Atkinson’s sonar image? As it happens, a marine expert, Dr. Simon Boxall from Britain’s National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, offered his opinion: “The [sonar] picture is built up slowly as the boat moves. So it’s not a snapshot and thus the image is not an image of a single object unless it is very still. The image shows a bloom of algae and zooplankton that would exist on what would be a thermocline [a layer of water with an abrupt temperature gradient]. Zooplankton live off this algae and reflect sound signals from echo sounders and fish finders very well. They will appear as a linear ‘blob’ on the screen, just like this. This is a monster made of millions of tiny animals and plants and represents the bulk of life in the loch.”

In 2003, the BBC sponsored a sonar survey of the entire loch. One of the searchers reported, “We went from shoreline to shoreline, top to bottom on this one; we have covered everything in this loch and we saw no signs of any large living animal in the loch.” Later that year, a man in an old-fashioned diving suit completed a 12-day charity walk of 26 miles along the bottom of Loch Ness. But Nessie was a no-show, the experience “very cold and very lonely.” (For more, see my chapter on Loch Ness in Lake Monster Mysteries, co-author Ben Radford, 2006).