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Geo-Joint: Lake Monsters

Posted on June 28 2016

There’s nothing like obscurity to command attention. If you can’t see it, you’ve just got to see it! That truism of human behavior, along with the desire to solve a mystery, has kept the legend of the Loch Ness monster alive for centuries. Ever since the late 600s, stories have fed the legend of a huge, elongate beast in this vastly more huge, elongate body of water in nothern Scotland. Twenty-three miles long and a mile wide, Loch Ness is the largest of a handful of lakes that formed along the Great Glen Fault system, a strike-slip fault that cuts a straight line all the way across Scotland. The volume of Loch Ness is the largest of all Scottish lakes, and its waters are greater than all the lakes and rivers of England and Wales put together. It’s a great place to hide.

A biography of Saint Columba written over a hundred years after the event, includes a tale of the saint while at Loch Ness. As one of his monks swam to a boat, he was confronted by “an unknown beast” clearly intent on devouring the man. Invoking the name of God, St. Columba sent the fearsome animal back to the depths, but not out of mind. The monster was reportedly seen now and again during the many years since, but it was in 1933 when a photograph of “Nessie” was published in the Daily Mail, that the legend really took off. Rewards for the capture of the mysterious animal were offered, but never collected. People claimed to have not only seen something in the water, but moving over land as well. Some crank made footprints in the mud with a taxidermied hippopotamus foot and caused quite a stir til the fakery was discovered. More photos were snapped – most notably one in 1934 that looked like a long-necked dinosaur. All were grainy, out of focus, or in some other way highly inconclusive. Some only showed what appeared to be the wake of some unseen underwater object. Of course, despite the total lack of hard proof and the revelation that that striking 1934 photo was a hoax, much money was made from the increased tourist travel to Loch Ness inspired by the legend. Everybody hopes to see her themselves.

Theories that Nessie could be a relict dinosaur, a plesiosaur, are not credible because Loch Ness froze over during the ice ages. Any representative of this species would have had to navigate the River Ness from the sea to the loch. And considering the likelihood that plesiosaurs were cold-blooded, they wouldn’t have done so well in chilly Loch Ness.

As technology has advanced, Nessie’s hiding places have become less obscure. Sonar, scuba, and submersibles allow for more extensive exploration of the loch’s 745-foot depth, but so far the best that science has to offer still can’t come up with a definitive answer. Several of these serious attempts have reported data showing unusual movements of large objects at depth, but it’s all so hazy…. One search team actually found the outline of a large monster-shaped thing on the floor of the lake – it looked like all the photos and stories had described! But sadly, it was a life-sized model of Nessie used in the 1970 movie, “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” which had sunk during filming. Every time Nessie looks close to being documented, she slips away.

Loch Ness doesn’t have an exclusive on harboring elusive cryptozoology (storied, but probably fictional, wildlife). There are more than 30 legendary denizens of lakes in the US, and who knows how many worldwide. Large bodies of water just lend themselves to speculation since there is so much room that we can’t easily see into. Most of the supposed creatures are pure fantasy, but some are thought to be big versions of well-known animals. In Lake Iliamna in Alaska, a huge body of water just north of the Alaska Peninsula, a mystery fish has intrigued locals for decades. First seen in the 1940s by flying pilots, something silvery and fish-shaped looked to be about 30 feet long. For years, other reported sightings kept the story going. But as in Loch Ness, even a reward posted by the local paper for proof of the big fish’s existence turned up nothing. Lately, scientists are thinking “Illie” might be an oversized sleeper shark. At 20 feet, such an animal could pretty much fill the bill, but witnesses say they have seen the beast break the water surface during daylight hours, which isn’t usually the sleeper shark’s habit. Also, their tolerance for fresh water isn’t known. Further scientific searching is planned, so this mystery may be solved, but what about that horse-headed alligator in the Great Salt Lake? Surely, it will turn up again….

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