The Impact of the Loch Ness Monster

And there, in the distance of the calm marble Scottish Loch, you see a dark protrusion out of the corner of your eye.  In sharpening perception you see what seems to be a head, a long neck, and two, maybe three humps on what appears to be the posterior of the object.  And, in a swift ripple, just as suddenly as it had surfaced, the object dives back in the depths of the Scottish abyss.  Without a photo for reference, your mind begins to wander.  Was it a floating log carried by a solitary wake?  Or could it have been an eel surfacing for air?  Or, maybe, just maybe, it was the elusive Loch Ness Monster!  After all, anything can happen in Loch Ness.  As your rational explanations table themselves, you become convinced, obsessed even, of your sighting of the mysterious monster.  Your tunnel vision creates a fluidity of the creature’s head, body, and appendages.  You try to extrapolate a size, thirty feet, no, sixty feet.  And, in a matter of minutes, your imagination starts to create an image to fit the traditional Nessie mold.  A memory, a sighting you swear you saw.  Within the week, your sighting headlines blogs and local newspapers as another reappearance of the world’s favorite lake monster.  While sightings like this add kindling to the curiosity of the Nessie mystery, what was it you actually saw?  Why are we so drawn to the possibility of a monster living in a freshwater lake in Scotland?  What impact does your sighting, and the thousands of other Nessie sightings, have of the credibility and popularity of the creature?  One fact remains true above all else.  Whether there is a Nessie lurking in Loch Ness or not, the Loch Ness Monster certainly exists, thrives even, in our popular culture.  The Loch Ness Monster has become a global phenomenon that has not only become a brand in itself, but also an inspiration to allow mystery back into our hubristic approach towards science and zoology.  The Loch Ness Monster has enraptured the world, bringing with it an intrinsic curiosity of the unknown and an unrelenting, unapologetic search for answers.  Using the lens of a pop-culture approach, I will investigate just how expansive the Loch Ness Monster’s cultural empire has become to the contemporary world.

Before exploring the Nessie phenomenon, we must understand the origins of sea monsters.  Since antiquity, creatures of the abyss have been ever prevalent in religious scripture, maritime legends, and Greek mythology.  From the Old Testaments’ Leviathan to the feared Kraken, sea monsters have been incarnated into countless shapes, sizes, and geographical locations.  While during antiquity, a majority fear sea monsters from locus of religion, a frightened minority heed caution on the high seas with a very literal fear.  This fear encompasses the very question of the unknown, the great mystery of the unexplored seas.  In this, the only limit to the existence or creation of a sea monster is the unfathomable limitation of the cognitive imagination.  The result is always unanimous, however.  Sightings and stories of sea monsters conceive a fear and curiosity, maybe even a skepticism, yet nevertheless a faithful optimism of those who dare to sail on the surface of unknown waters.  While sea monsters are found in varying degrees in countless cultures around the world, there exists a curious phenomenon when a single sea monster is consistently sighted in a single area.  Enter Loch Ness.

Loch Ness, literally translated into “Lake Ness,” is a twenty-mile freshwater lake along the Highlands in Scotland.  Created over 10,000 years ago, the lake was formed by the melting of massive glaciers and reaches depths of nearly 800 feet.  Surrounding the loch are ten small villages with pockets of only several thousand inhabitants.[1]  While Scotland is known for its rich history of castles and revolutions during the Middle Ages, an overlooked history drew its first breath in 565, with the first report of a monster in Loch Ness.

Researched retrospectively, a monk named Saint Columba wrote of his encounter with a water beast after watching it attack and kill a swimmer.[2]  While insufficient information dismisses his story from creating the legend of Nessie, this was certainly the sighting that set the stage.  The creature was unsighted for several centuries thereafter, however in 1933, a woman named Aldie Mackay would witness Saint Columba’s monster and be regarded as having the first modern sighting.  On April 14, 1933, Mackay saw a strange beast creating a large wake in the loch.  This sighting was to her, undoubtedly a continuation of the beast of Saint Columba, fifteen centuries ago.[3]  Mere months later, a second witness saw what looked like a seal/dinosaur hybrid cross the road and enter the loch, causing a deep ripple to echo the undisturbed waters.  And, on November 12, 1933, a blurry photograph was taken of the elusive creature’s third modern appearance.  Dismissed by some a an image of a dog swimming with a long stick in its mouth, photographer Hugh Gray swore he captured the first image of the large creature of the lake.  With skeptics and believers alike, this image started a fire.

A year later, in 1934, the infamous portrait of Nessie, the “Surgeon’s Photograph” would be taken and capture the curiosity of the world.  Taken by Dr. Kenneth Wilson, the Surgeon’s Photograph is single handedly the most famous picture of the Loch Ness Monster and undoubtedly the source of the classic “long-necked protrusion” image that many of us believe Nessie to look like.  However, in a deathbed confession several decades later, the photographer of Nessie’s most famous photo revealed that he manifested the picture as a hoax to gain fame and bring the eyes of the world to Loch Ness.[4]  Perhaps the confession of the falsified photo was too little too late, or perhaps it was a necessary crucible in which the legend could be forged.  Regardless, Dr. Wilson’s Surgeon’s Photo gave the world an image of the unknown.  He gave the world back a humbling sense of curiosity in the form of a long-necked dinosaurian monster in Loch Ness.

When we hear the words ‘Loch Ness Monster,’ we typically imagine a fairly ubiquitous image, a long neck, small head, four flippers, a stretched torso, and a lengthy tail.  Described loosely by the prior accounts, but made famous largely by Dr. Wilson’s Surgeon’s Photo, the image we are imagining is that of a Plesiosaur.  Plesiosaurs were large marine reptiles that existed during the late Triassic Period and are thought to have gone extinct during the KT extinction event, 66 million years ago.  Through fossil evidence, we know that they were apex predators that lived worldwide.  Plesiosaurs also needed to periodically surface to breathe, which coincides with the sightings of longed necked creatures on the surface of the loch.[5]This undoubtedly spurred a movement concluding that Nessie is a member of a relict colony of plesiosaur.  However, the scientific community has largely rejected the plesiosaur theory on the grounds that not only could a plesiosaur not anatomically bend its neck like that of the Surgeon’s Photo, it could not sustain itself on the fauna found in Loch Ness, and would have no way of finding its way into a lake created 10,000 years ago by freshwater (not saltwater) glaciers.[6]  A bitter truth to swallow, if there is a Nessie living in Loch Ness, it certainly does not look like what popular culture leads us to believe.  Therefore, we are forced to draw new conclusions of an image of the Loch Ness Monster, or for that matter, rethink whether the “monster” exists at all.

In a Baylor Religion Survey of 1,721 participants, the study extrapolated that only 18% of Americans were open to the belief of a Loch Ness Monster.[7]  For the large majority, Nessie was no more than a misinterpretation of Scotland’s local sea creatures.  Many zoologists try to explain Nessie sightings as a surfacing eel or a large sturgeon, both of which are more than prevalent in Scottish waters.  Other analysts believe Nessie to be a floating log or rogue wave, combined with the cognitive predisposition of humans toward finding something they’re told to look for.  Regardless, the vocal majority of the scientific community feels doubtful that such a large reptile can remain undiscovered in today’s age.  In this logic, the study of cryptozoology is seen as not only blindly agnostic, but also ultimately foolish.  However, it is in our overconfidence, dependence even, of our knowledge of hard science that proves our folly.

In my opinion, it is hubristic of us to believe that we have thoroughly investigated enough of the oceans to draw conclusions that sea monsters may not exist.  While healthy skepticism can be useful in setting expectations, nothing should be written off.  After all, only about 10% of our oceans have been explored.  Researcher Dr. Charles Paxton of St. Andrew’s School of Mathematics and Statistics has created a curve to predict how many new species of giant marine animals we will likely discover in the future.  By plotting the cumulative number of species reported every year since 1750 (when modern biological descriptions begins), Paxton has extrapolated a curve that estimates that we will discover as many as 15 new species of giant unknown animals per year for the foreseeable future.[8]  Supporting his argument, we have discovered in the last century, several species of marine animals once thought to be “monsters” and “sea serpents.”  Among these are the ferocious looking Oarfish (thought to be a sea serpent), the Giant Squid (a likely conclusion to the Kraken sightings throughout history), and the Coelacanth (thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago.)[9]  By this example, it seems irresponsible to conclude that this, the 21st century of the Common Era, is the apex of human zoological discovery.  In my opinion, whether you believe the Loch Ness Monster exists or not, there are certainly sea monsters that we have yet to discover.  Perhaps elusive, unknown creatures thrive in the 90% of the ocean we haven’t explored and must serve to free us from our overconfident mentality.  In this frame of mind is the essence of the believers in the Loch Ness Monster.

Ever since the Surgeon’s Photo enraptured the world and ignited a curiosity, fans and believers have flocked to Loch Ness in hopes of spotting the creature for themselves.  With this, a cultural phenomenon, a brand, a million dollar tourist industry was born.  According to Visit Scotland, Nessie tourism brings in more than $1.6 million each year to the small villages around Loch Ness.[10]  Businesses from B&B’s to visitor attractions and cruise operators have thrived on the excitement of the world’s favorite lake monster.  In their minds, tourists come for Nessie, but stay for the intrinsic charm and rich history of Scotland.  Even through these means, the Scottish Highlands, a once quiet corner of the world, is now a highlight on the tourist map.  However, the local community is divided in the way the legend is portrayed in promoting a creature that is perhaps more mythical than pragmatic.  Truthfully, most locals do not believe in the Loch Ness Monster, yet shamelessly use it as an asset to attract business.   Locals even will go so far as to support hoaxes, as no publicity is bad publicity.  Whether there is a creature or not is for tourists to decide, but nevertheless the legend attracts visitors to enjoy the home of the proud residents.  However, the global audience of Nessie is not limited to only those who are able to make the pilgrimage to Loch Ness.

Since the Surgeon’s photo, and through the 80 years of countless sightings, headlines, and hoaxes, the world has come to adore the Loch Ness Monster.  Unsurprisingly, with global popularity comes profit.  Nessie has been playfully distorted in dozens of depictions in popular culture.  In 1996, billion-dollar media franchise Pokémon created a character in respectful homage to the Loch Ness Monster.  Shown as a gentle giant, Pokémon creature “Lapras” is a common household name for the generation of today’s youth.  Pixar Animation Studios even created a clever short movie called “The Ballad of Loch Ness” depicting a fictional origins story of the misunderstood and cheerfully benevolent creature.  Scooby Doo has an entire film revolving around a search for Loch Ness Monster.  Disney Pixar film “Monsters, Inc.” shows Nessie as a banished creature from the world of monsters, creating a bridge of fiction and real life that allows viewers to respectfully take with it what they wish.  Both the History Channel and National Geographic Channel have, on several occasions, featured television specials dedicated to the Loch Ness Monster.  Scotland’s unofficial mascot, Nessie had a world-wide feature film debut in 2007 in a picture called “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.”  In this particular incarnation, the “monster” is depicted as a misconceived last-of-his-species that befriends a young boy.[11]  In the film “Incident at Loch Ness,” Nessie stars as an angry antagonist that serves to attack fishing vessels and retreat into mystery and disbelief.  There even exists a Nessie-inspired roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg called “The Loch Ness Monster” that takes riders through the thrilling helixes and loops that represent Nessie’s elusive maneuvering through the water.  Through popular culture, Nessie lives in the image of the Surgeon’s Photo and is sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, but always mysterious and always plucking the heartstrings of our adoration of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our love for Nessie has spawned popularity, and perhaps an inspired possibility, of other alleged lake monsters throughout the world.  The Loch Ness Monster’s charming nickname “Nessie” has even created a universal suffix (ssie) that has been since given to several other cryptids.  Lake Tahoe in Nevada has its own “Tahoe Tessie.”  Canada is home to Crescent Lake’s “Cressie” and Muskrat Lake’s “Mussie.”  Other Nessie inspired plesiosaur-shaped creatures include: Argentina’s “Nahuelito,” Quebec’s “Champ,” and British Columbia’s “Ogopogo.” [12]  Since the modern sightings of the Loch Ness Monster in the early 20th century, the world has started looking for lake monsters.  Nessie has not only inspired its own legend, a global search for sea monsters, and a popular culture phenomenon, but also a hope in the unknown.  Even if there is not a plesiosaur swimming in the depths of the Scottish loch, Nessie undeniably exists in our history and culture.

In my opinion, the world needs a hero.  The world needs a mystery beyond what we can see and touch with our hands.  Sometimes mysteries masquerade themselves as nothing more than a collective need in society.  Sometimes a necessary evil, such as the faked Surgeon’s Photo, is fundamental in sparking a curiosity beyond our tangible, hubristic grasp of science and zoology.  Sometimes the lines are blurred, and history and fiction blend to create a magic that challenges each of us to question our own faith in the unknown.  While science and all means to a rational conclusion stack against me, I choose to believe in the Loch Ness Monster.  I choose to focus not on what has been discovered, but what has not yetbeen discovered.  I choose to believe in something beyond our humanistic folly that we have explored every inch of the world.  So, does a real Loch Ness Monster exist?  We may never know.  However, I will be one of the agnostic hopefuls unapologetically flocking to Scotland to carefully watch Loch Ness for a dark protrusion breaking the surface of the calm marble loch.



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