Richard Svensson's excellent demonstration of how a single lake monster can be interpreted in very different ways, based upon conflicting eyewitness accounts (Richard Svensson)
Today, the classic, pre-eminent image indelibly engrained in everyone’s mind when speaking of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster (LNM), is that of a plesiosaur lookalike, complete with long slender neck and tail, small head, and four large diamond-shaped flippers.
Nessie's most popular, plesiosaurian identity (Richard Svensson)
However, this was not always the case. In the past, a great diversity of alternative ideas concerning the likely appearance and identity of Scotland’s cryptozoological megastar existed. Nevertheless, with the exception of just a few (such as a sturgeon, a hypothetical long-necked seal, or various misidentified familiar animals like otters and swimming deer) that still linger tenaciously in the romantic but decidedly plesiosaurian shadow of the general public’s favourite concept for Nessie, these other options have largely been forgotten or discarded.
Peter Costello's book In Search of Lake Monsters espoused a hypothetical long-necked seal identity for Nessie (Peter Costello)
Yet they included some truly extraordinary notions and fascinating sightings, which richly deserve their belated resurrection here, as we examine just a selection of those most curious of LNM identities - identities that may have been, might still be, and surely could never, ever be...could they?
The most familiar cryptozoological identity proffering a furry or hairy mammalian Nessie as opposed to a sleek scaled or scaleless reptilian counterpart is a giant long-necked seal - of the kind first postulated during the 1960s by pioneering cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans for his ‘longneck’ category of sea serpent, and later adopted for lake monsters too by Peter Costello. This identity still receives some attention today. In contrast, a second mammalian cryptid contender has long been consigned to obscurity – a giant long-necked otter.
Its principal proponent was British zoologist Dr Maurice Burton. Although dismissing most Nessie reports as floating algal mats or misidentified known animals, in his book The Elusive Monster (1961) he considered it possible that a small number of reports genuinely featured an undiscovered lutrine form. And perhaps his most memorable claim was that if a long-necked giant otter did exist, it should not be looked for in the loch but on land instead: “…in the marshes or on islands (e.g. Cherry Island), up the burns and rivers or along the shores of the loch, although it may also be seen occasionally in the water”.
An otter impersonating Nessie (Dr Karl Shuker)
How ironic it would be if generations of Nessie seekers have been looking for the LNM in entirely the wrong habitat! Intriguingly, an unknown long-necked giant otter-like beast has long been reported from western Ireland, where it is termed the dobhar-chú or master otter.
A FROG AS BIG AS A GOAT?
What may well be a unique sighting of Nessie, made as it was underwater, took place one day in 1880, when diver Duncan MacDonald was lowered into Loch Ness at Johnnies Point, close to the loch’s Fort Augustus entrance to the Caledonian Canal. Not long afterwards, however, he resurfaced, gesticulating wildly to his colleagues to pull him out, and in such a terror-stricken state that it took several days before he was finally able to explain why he had been so scared.
He revealed that while he had been examining at a depth of around 10 m the keel of the sunken ship that he had been sent down to investigate, he had been horrified to see a very large and truly frightening creature lying on a shelf of rock that was supporting the ship. According to his description, the creature resembled a huge frog, at least as big as a goat, and it was staring directly at him! Not surprisingly, MacDonald refused outright to enter Loch Ness ever again.
Could Nessie be a gigantic salamander?
The concept of Nessie being a gigantic amphibian was revisited most notably almost a century later. This was when, in 1976, veteran cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal, a Chicago University biochemist by profession, published what remains the most scientific, rigorously objective study of the LNM in book form.
Entitled The Monsters of Loch Ness, in it Mackal meticulously examined every reasonable zoological identity, and concluded that the most plausible Nessie candidate was a giant newt- or salamander-like amphibian, which in his view would account for 88% of the LNM characteristics on file (as opposed to 56% for a species of seal, 47% for a sea-cow, 69% for a plesiosaur, 78% for a species of eel, and 59% for a mollusc). Yet despite the convincing and thorough nature of his researches, Mackal’s mega-newt theory failed to break the plesiosaur’s limpet-like grip upon the imagination of Nessie seekers and the media at large.
MIGHTY MANTAS AND EUNUCH EELS
Two of the fishiest Nessie identities – zoologically – feature a couple of very different contenders of the piscean persuasion. Cryptozoologists Paul and Lena Bottriell are most famous for their king cheetah researches, but in 1988 they turned their attention briefly to Nessie, and in an exclusive High Wycombe Star newspaper interview published on 28 October they offered a new identity for this cryptid.
Based on personal sightings of a school of rays seen while snorkelling off Queensland, Australia, Paul postulated that the LNM may be a very large ray, sporting a series of dorsal fins along its lengthy slender tail (as species such as the electric ray possess), thereby producing the characteristic Nessie humps if protruding through the water surface. He also proposed that its elongate tail could create the familiar ‘head and neck’ Nessie image if lifted up out of the water (rays do lift their tails in warning displays). Although an ingenious, original idea, the notion of a ray’s tail explaining Nessie’s head and neck clashes with LNM eyewitness reports that have claimed the head and neck to be unquestionably sentient, actively observing while above the water surface.
An underwater moray eel impersonating Nessie's famous 'periscope' head and neck pose at Sea World in San Diego, California, as witnessed by me during a visit there in 2004 (Dr Karl Shuker)
Equally ingenious is the most recent non-plesiosaur identity of note to be aired for Nessie. Expanding upon the longstanding belief of various investigators that extra-large eels may be responsible for at least some LNM reports, in 2003 Richard Freeman of the CFZ suggested that Nessie may well be a gigantic, sterile or eunuch specimen of the common eel Anguilla anguilla – one that did not swim out to sea and spawn but instead stayed in the loch, grew exceptionally long (8-9 m), lived to a much greater age than normal, and was rendered sterile by some presently undetermined factor present in this and other deep, cold, northern lakes.
I would not be at all surprised to learn that extra-large eels do exist here (indeed, such fishes have been reported by divers in the loch), and they could certainly explain some Nessie sightings of the ‘humps above the water’ variety. However, I cannot reconcile any kind of eel with the oft-reported vertical head-and-neck category of LNM sightings, nor with the land sightings that have described a clearly visible four-limbed, long-necked animal.
Also, in response to this ‘eunuch eel’ theory, Dr Scott McNaught, Professor of Lake Biology at Central Michigan University, has stated that even if such eels did arise, they would tend to grow thicker rather than longer. Nevertheless, giant eels remain a distinct possibility in relation to some of the world’s more serpentiform lake monsters on record.
IS THE ELEPHANT SQUID A WIZARD IDEA?
Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels is familiar in the fortean community as a wizard, surrealist artist, showman, and cryptozoological enthusiast, with a particular interest in water monsters, and he claims to have photographed several, including the LNM. Moreover, in relation to this latter cryptid he has proposed a highly original zoological identity – an as-yet-hypothetical, extremely modified species of enormous squid, which in 1984 he dubbed the elephant squid Elephanteuthis nnidnidi (a name that needs no explanation for anyone acquainted with Shiels's experiments with psychic automatism). This was because its most distinctive feature is a long flexible prey-capturing structure resembling an elephant’s trunk, which, held above the water surface, would account for Nessie’s ‘head and long neck’ image. Shiels also postulated the presence of inflatable dorsal airsacs for buoyancy purposes, which would explain the many LNM sightings of humps breaking through the loch’s water surface.
Doc Shiels's sketch of his hypothetical elephant squid (Tony 'Doc' Shiels)
Naturally, however, so dramatically different a species of squid as this would require a very considerable evolutionary deviation from the more generalised squid blueprint, and not just morphologically. Currently, there is not a single scientifically-confirmed species of freshwater squid on record – every squid presently known to exist today is exclusively marine. So for Shiels’s elephant squid to be a reality, it would need to exhibit profound osmoregulatory adaptations to a freshwater lifestyle.
"I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT IN MY LIFE!"
The above words, as sung by circus owner Albert Blossom in the classic 1960s Warner Brothers film musical ‘Doctor Dolittle’ upon first seeing the incredible two-headed pushmi-pullyu, came unbidden, but very aptly, into my head when, after first reading the thoroughly astonishing, one-of-a-kind Nessie sighting claimed by L. McP. Fordyce, I looked at the accompanying artistic reconstruction based upon his own sketch of what he allegedly saw. According to his report (Scots Magazine, June 1990), his extraordinary encounter occurred in 1932 (just a year before Nessie fever filled the headlines worldwide and the term ‘Loch Ness monster’ was coined).
Driving along a woodland-surrounded stretch of road leading away from the lochside and towards Fort William, he and his fiancée were amazed to see a huge creature come out of the woods on their left and step over the road about 150 m ahead towards the loch. Fordyce described it as having “the gait of an elephant, but looked like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck…From the rear it looked grey and shaggy. Its long, thin neck gave it the appearance of an elephant with its trunk raised”. He stopped the car, and followed this bizarre animal for a short distance on foot before deciding that it may be safer to abandon his pursuit and go back to his car.
An artistic representation of Fordyce's extraordinary 'giraffe-camel Nessie' (Scots Magazine, June 1990)
So unlike the typical LNM is this truly weird entity, depicted in Fordyce’s account with long slender legs far removed from the flippers more commonly associated with Nessie, that I swiftly checked that this was not the April issue of the magazine in question, but the article ended with an even stranger note. Fordyce revealed that, as stated in Ronald Binns’s book, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (1983), in 1771 a Patrick Rose had learnt of a monster seen in Loch Ness that was said to resemble a cross between a horse and a camel. However, this no doubt referred to Nessie’s head and neck (rather than to the entire animal), which have indeed been likened to those of a horse on many occasions. So too have those of water monsters elsewhere, including North America’s Caddy, a sea monster whose head has been compared with that of a camel as well.
A NOT SO MONSTROUS TULLIMONSTRUM?
One of the most bewildering Nessie sightings was that of Mr and Mrs George Spicer. Driving along the road between Dores and Foyers on 22 July 1933, they spied a very large entity emerging from the bushes onto the road ahead. They described it as “an abomination…a loathsome sight”, with a long neck, but no apparent limbs, later likened to a massive slug or worm-like beast in some accounts, which lurched rapidly across the road and into the bracken separating it from the lochside.
One Nessie investigator impressed with the prospect of a worm as a suitable explanation was F.W. Holiday. In his book The Great Orm of Loch Ness (1969), he nominated a particularly unusual animal as his favoured Nessie. Namely, a hypothetical giant modern-day descendant of a bizarre prehistoric vermiform creature called Tullimonstrum gregarium, or the Tully monster (after Francis J. Tully, who first brought this fossil species to scientific attention in 1955).
A representation of Tullimonstrum gregarium (Apokryltaros at en.wikipedia)
What intrigued Holiday about this animal was its unexpectedly Nessie-esque morphology. Unlike more conservative vermiform creatures, Tullimonstrum sported a pair of small anterior flipper-like appendages (though these are now known to have been eye-stalks), a sizeable three-part diamond fin encircling the rear portion of its body, and a very long, slender jaw-containing proboscis superficially resembling an elongate LNM-type neck and head. However, unlike Nessie, which is often claimed to measure around 10 m long, Tullimonstrum was only a few cm long, is known only from Illinois, and became extinct over 300 million years ago – no doubt explaining why this identity never captured the public imagination. Interestingly, in March 2016 a research team featuring Dr Victoria E. McCoy revealed in a Nature paper that Tullimonstrum was actually a vertebrate, possessing a notochord, and was closely related to the lampreys and other agnathans.
THE ELEPHANT OF SURPRISE?
As revealed here, several Nessie identities contain more than an element of surprise, but none more so than when the element is an elephant. After all, whatever Nessie may be, she is certainly no pachyderm...is she? Remarkably, in a New Scientist article of 2 August 1979, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History director Dr Dennis Power and Illinois University geography research associate Dr Donald Johnson cited similarities between the controversial Surgeon’s head-and-neck Nessie photograph of 1934 and a frame from a film taken on 15 July 1960 by Admiral R. Kadirgamar of an elephant and her calf swimming from Ostenburg Ridge to Sober Island in Trincomalee Harbour, Sri Lanka, and speculated that perhaps travelling circuses have occasionally released their elephants into Loch Ness to bathe, which might then explain the Surgeon’s photo (an image, incidentally, that in years to come would be famously condemned – but never confirmed!! – as a hoax).
The above-documented frame from Admiral R. Kadirgamar's film of an elephant and her calf swimming off the coast of Sri Lanka in July 1960, yielding a surprisingly Nessie-like outline (Admiral R. Kadirgamar)
And as proof that history, even of the strangest variety, does repeat itself, in 2006 the startling elephant-Nessie scenario unexpectedly returned to the headlines when the very same notion was offered up by palaeontological curator Dr Neil Clark from Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum. An elephant in the loch’s waters, or a camel in its woods? Bring back Tullimonstrum – all is forgiven!
MONSTERS, MONSTERS, EVERYWHERE!
Unlike Nessie’s many investigators, Robert Lawson Cassie was one seeker of Scottish Highland water monsters who never had problems finding them. On the contrary, ever since he began his observations, in June 1934, everywhere he looked near his home village of Achanalt he saw monsters! As revealed in this 77-year-old author’s mesmerising, self-published 2-volume book, The Monsters of Achanalt (1935-36), the local rivers and lochs were - at least as far as he could see – quite literally bursting at the seams with monstrous reptiles, and of gargantuan dimensions.
Indeed, one such denizen of Loch Achanalt that he dubbed Gabriel was estimated by him to measure approximately 300 m long, which meant it was only 50 m shorter than the loch itself! Moreover, it was, he claimed, just one of countless other, smaller monsters inhabiting this modestly-sized expanse of freshwater, with plenty more in Lochs Cronn, Culon, Garve, and Rosque - even though most of these are no deeper than 10 m.
Loch Achanalt (Dave Conner/Flickr/Wikipedia)
Nor were Cassie’s sightings confined to the aquatic domain. As soon as he started looking for monsters on land, where he was convinced that they must breed, he was equally successful - even reporting a sighting of two giant reptilian necks outlined against the snowy face close to the summit of Morusig! Not surprisingly, Cassie’s absurd observations and books rarely rate a mention in other cryptozoological publications, and are generally dismissed either as the outpourings of an extreme eccentric or as a tongue-in-cheek hoax.
Why, with such a range of other candidates to consider, does the plesiosaur identity steadfastly remain so popular? It is true that, on the one hand, some of the land sightings of Nessie have described an undeniably plesiosaurianesque entity. On the other hand, however, all manner of scientific objections to the likelihood of a modern-day representative of this officially long-demised lineage of prehistoric aquatic reptile persisting in Loch Ness have been aired over the years. My own belief is that there is no single answer to the mystery of Nessie – instead, I consider it most likely that what we refer to as the LNM is in reality a composite of several different phenomena.
Be that as it may, what seems to raise the plesiosaur’s profile far above that of any would-be pretender to the Nessie throne is that the notion of some lingering race of antediluvian monster - an erstwhile contemporary of the mighty dinosaurs, no less - lurking reclusively beneath the loch’s dark, mysterious waters conjures forth an incomparably romantic and, equally, chilling scenario that no over-sized newt, emasculated eel, trunk-erecting squid, vermiform wannabe, or even the (very) odd giraffe-necked water camel could ever hope to compete with!
A truly wonderful Nessie-inspired cartoon by Keith Waite that originally appeared in London's Sunday Mirror newspaper on 2 April 1972 but which surely cried out for inclusion in any article dealing with the many different faces of Nessie! (Keith Waite/Sunday Mirror)