Yvonne Gordon takes a monster-hunting boat trip on Loch Ness, Scotland
“We’ve had quite a few sightings of big things in the loch. About 3,500. We send away scans, but nobody knows what it is,” says Dave.
We’re on the Royal Scot, an 18m passenger boat in the middle of Loch Ness in Scotland, and I am asking crewmember Dave Thornton about monsters. Nessie, to be exact. I’ve always wondered if there’s any truth to the apparent sightings, so I’ve taken to the water to ask those who work on the lake on a daily basis.
I had always imagined Loch Ness to be a bleak, grey place – maybe because I’ve seen grainy images of it in the past – but I am surprised at how colourful it is. The water of the lake on the day I visit is a strong blue, reflecting the bright sky above. The channel we leave from at Fort Augustus, is lined with green grassy banks and to one side is Fort Augustus Abbey, a Benedictine monastery which dates to 1880.
The lake itself is long and narrow – it’s 38km long and at most, 2.7km wide. It’s a calm, sunny day and a beautiful place for a cruise. Tall hillsides lining the lake on both sides are full of green shrubs and trees – Caledonian Pine, birch, juniper, oak and hazel.
Another pleasant surprise is the wildlife. We see eight red deer on the ridge of the hill on one side, silhouetted against the skyline. Moments later, we spot a light grey wild Highland Goat with her kid on a lower slope, watching us glide past. Dave explains that there is a lot of wildlife on the shore because the road on that side of the lake is five or six miles away. He tells us to look out for golden eagles and ospreys.
But despite the beautiful surroundings, there’s an air of mystery to the lake, thanks to all the stories about the Lough Ness Monster – and also to some of the lake’s mysterious qualities itself. The water is black in colour – stained with peat particles from the surrounding soil. This gives poor visibility – 3.5m at most, and it’s a deep lake.
Dave says there’s often rain and mist hanging in the hills and, as the lake is around 5°C in temperature, there’s steam rising from it when the winter temperatures drop. It also never freezes over.
The monster him or herself – ‘Nessie’ – first came to the world’s attention in 1933 when a water bailiff and part-time journalist reported seeing what looked like a dragon or pre-historic animal on the shore. In late 1933, the first photo of the monster was published. That would make Nessie a rather elderly monster today, aged at least 81 years old. But early reports of a monster in the lake go back to the sixth century.
After numerous investigations and exhaustive hunts over the years, nobody has proved that the monster exists, but unusual photos, videos and sonar readings continue the mystery. The latest mysterious image to cause a frenzy of excitement showed up on Apple Maps on 19 April 2014. The story made headlines around the world, but experts now believe it was just the wake of a boat.
But crews on the lake have seen some strange things they can’t explain. Dave is showing me the monster-catching equipment on board – a high-tech Simrad colour sonar and the ‘fish finder’ – an Olex 3D under water imaging system. The lake’s deepest point is 227 metres. Sometimes huge objects show up on the scan and nobody knows what they are.
“We’ve had quite a few sightings of big things in the loch. We send away scans, but nobody knows what it is. Nessie is still a mystery,” says Dave. “ We have had multiple sightings on scanners – two or three sightings on scans.” He also tells me that something in the lake is going through about two tonnes of fish a day, which they can’t explain.
“I didn’t believe in Nessie when I started this job a year ago, but I believe now. Sonars don’t tell lies – they only record what they see.”
Looking out the window in to the depths, I am surprised to see a strange wave – which could be mistaken for humps – in the middle of the lake. There’s no boat nearby. But it’s not a monster – Dave explains how boat wakes meeting in the lake can cause strange waves even well after the boats have passed, and it’s easy to see how sometimes images can be misinterpreted, especially in a photo I take.
The crew have added a bit of fun to the trip by sticking Nessie shapes to the boat’s windows, so photos look like they have the monster in them.
Marcus Atkinson, the boat’s skipper, is realistic about the strange sonar image he captured in 2011, which also made headlines. It is of something long, large and round.
He’s not sure it’s a monster, but thinks there is definitely something down there, perhaps some large creatures using the lake for breeding, entering from the Atlantic at Inverness, where the lake meets the sea.
“There is something, a big fish, something that migrates into the loch,” he says. “The sonar shows something big and heavy. Maybe it’s ‘monsters’ coming into the lake via the river to breed.”
But he’s not sure. “There’s something that people are seeing. Some people are hoaxing but others are seeing stuff,” he says.
And with that, we head back to shore, and after a fun trip on the lake, I am no more the wise about the ‘monster’ than I was when we set off.
Yvonne’s tour was with Cruise Loch Ness