A team of scientists gather at Scotland’s Loch Ness – a sprawling, murky body of water in the country’s Highlands. There, these experts collect scores of water samples to figure out exactly what lurks beneath the surface. For what purpose? Well, the New Zealand researchers believe they may be able to finally determine whether or not a legendary monster has ever lived here. And after performing extensive DNA testing, the group does indeed reveal a stunning revelation concerning the mythical Loch Ness Monster.
This is good news for the scientists, as geneticist Professor Neil Gemmell actually started the study with the hook of the Loch Ness Monster. For he knew that his water-sampling project would turn more heads if it incorporated the famous creature. But before Gemmell and his team launched their research, he told The Guardian in 2019 that they could reveal more about the entire loch – not just its supposed famous inhabitant.
Yet the Loch Ness Monster has been in the public’s consciousness since 1933, when a newspaper published a sensational report. You see, an eyewitness had apparently seen what appeared to be a creature with the body of a whale. This beast then rolled through the loch’s water, the article claimed. The description also referred to it as a “monster” for the first time.
And yet no one has ever been able to officially confirm the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. This is despite a few photographs claiming to do so over the years, of course. But millions of people nevertheless trek to the Highlands each year, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary beast. So it could be that Gemmell’s research crystallizes what we already know about Nessie – but the monster may not be what people originally thought.
As previously mentioned, then, the Loch Ness Monster became headline news in 1933. But an earlier newspaper account may have also mentioned strange goings on in the loch. People have had their own sightings, too, that weren’t necessarily published nationwide. For example, a person named D. Mackenzie supposedly saw a creature that squirmed and churned the water way back in the 1870s.
Yet it was the 1933 sighting of Nessie that proved to be the most electrifying. And it was the Inverness Courier that told the story of a couple named Aldie and John Mackay. The pair had apparently been driving along Loch Ness on April 15 when Aldie claimed to have spotted a massive creature rolling through the murky water.
In 2017 the Inverness Courier actually reprinted the original 1933 report, too. It was headlined, “Strange Spectacle in Loch Ness.” The piece described Aldie’s experience, stating, “The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”
The 1933 article also described the Mackays’ reactions: they thought they had seen something far beyond the ordinary. The article read, “Both onlookers confessed that there was something uncanny about the whole thing, for they realised that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by a passing steamer.”
In the same year, too, another shocking sighting made the pages of the Courier. This time, George Spicer claimed to have spotted the monster while cruising around Loch Ness with his wife in their vehicle. Yet Spicer described a much more terrifying creature that, amazingly, crossed the road in front of them. In fact, he said the beast had another animal dangling from its mouth.
Yes, Spicer told of a beast more unique than the whale-like animal that Aldie Mackay had seen. The tailor claimed, for instance, that the creature had a long neck and a high back. And, Spicer theorized, the monster had webbed feet. He told the newspaper that he saw “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that [he had] ever seen in [his] life.”
Then, in November 1933, a man named Hugh Gray alleged that he’d captured the Loch Ness Monster on camera. But the blurry photo had its critics. For many, in fact, it seemed as though the image depicted Gray’s labrador fetching a stick from the water. And Gray had actually taken his dog to Loch Ness on the day that he took the photo… Oh well.
Yet supposed photos of the Loch Ness Monster have always caused controversy among those trying to solve the mystery. In fact, nearly half a year after Gray’s picture, the so-called surgeon’s photo proved to be an even bigger phenomenon. Gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson actually took the image – but didn’t want the newspapers to reveal his identity. The press therefore ended up giving the photo its strange name.
Regardless, Wilson claimed that he had gotten a glimpse of Loch Ness when the monster had emerged from the depths. The gynecologist apparently then reached for his camera and quickly snapped a quartet of photos. Unfortunately, though, two of the four pictures came out blurry – but he only needed one shot to cause a frenzy. That’s because Wilson’s photograph seemed to reveal the shape of the monster’s head and neck popping out of the water.
Unlike many other images and stories about the Loch Ness Monster, too, the surgeon’s photograph didn’t have that many detractors. Instead, it seemingly remained a piece of evidence that “proved” Nessie’s existence. Believers subsequently used the photo to support their claims for almost 60 years. But then a relatively modern analysis in 1993 revealed that Wilson had actually staged the photo. How had he done this? By zooming in on an object much smaller than the supposed beast.
Today, then, much of the Loch Ness Monster-related arguments and evidence have ended up like Wilson’s photograph: negated or otherwise uncorroborated. Back in 1933, for instance, a team of 20 men trekked to the lake to stand near-constant guard for a five-week period. Yet all of the photos that they took were inconclusive or determined to be of other animals, such as seals.
Skeptics naturally point to plenty of explanations such as this. But it’s not just seals that they believe have been mistaken for the Loch Ness Monster. In the case of the surgeon’s photograph, for instance, some people think the creature’s long neck is actually an elephant’s unfurled trunk. It’s even said that traveling circuses might’ve brought their mammalian performers to the loch for a swim – and Wilson could’ve captured that on film. And there are more theories.
In 2013 zoologist Jeremy Wade even performed his own televised investigation. And he theorized that the Loch Ness Monster was actually a Greenland Shark. The latter’s dimensions would actually align with those of the monster, he argued. The sharks can stretch to up to 20 feet in length, after all. It was also suggested that a Greenland Shark could feast on the loch’s salmon supply, sustaining it for years.
Yet others believe the Loch Ness Monster is actually an extremely large specimen of Wels catfish. The theory goes that someone may have introduced the species into Loch Ness around the turn of the 20th century. So, by the time 1933 rolled around, one of the catfish might just have reached the supposed size of the beast.
And then there’s the theory that the Loch Ness Monster has survived all odds to continue swimming in the Scottish Highlands. More specifically, some have suggested that the beast is actually a dinosaur – a plesiosaur, to be exact. So they believe that the prehistoric creature somehow survived the mass extinction that killed off the rest of its species.
But it seems that it’s not just animals that could be mistaken for the Loch Ness Monster. For instance, the Daily Mirror reported in 1933 that a washed-up tree trunk had been responsible for one particular sighting. Then, in the 1980s, an article for New Scientist suggested that decomposing pine logs could rise to the surface, mimicking a “monster’s” motions.
Natural occurrences – including even the weather itself – could potentially create the conditions for a Loch Ness Monster sighting, too. You see, ripples caused by the loch’s stretched-out shape could perhaps give the illusion that a monster is swimming just under the surface. Many forget, of course, that the loch runs along the Great Glen fault – and a release of gas underwater could produce a dramatic effect above the water.
Ultimately, though, no single explanation for the Loch Ness Monster has ever stuck. Instead, people believe what they want – and see what they want – when it comes to the beast. This is why some hesitate to label the legend as a hoax. In fact, skeptic Ronald Binns outlined this narrative in two books on the monster, saying there is a “sociological phenomenon” surrounding it.
So this fascination with the Loch Ness Monster may explain its popularity – even though solid evidence has yet to emerge. For not only has Nessie long been a point of conversation, it’s also been a part of pop culture. In 1959’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, filmmakers created a 30-foot model of the monster. And endless other TV shows, cartoons and books have gone on to help keep the monster in the public consciousness.
And when they’re not at the movies, perusing pictures or reading up on the monster’s history, Nessie fans can try and catch a glimpse of the monster in person, too. In fact, thousands of enthusiasts do just that while visiting Loch Ness each year. The Highlands lake is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions, after all.
Experts still want to know the truth about Nessie as well. So does the monster exist or not? Well, in 2018 Professor Neil Gemmell used this undying curiosity to help launch a study into Loch Ness. For he wanted to use DNA testing to identify the many species that dwell beneath the water. And in doing so, he might perhaps reveal the truth about the Loch Ness Monster, too.
Before the start of the study, Gemmell told The Guardian, “While the prospect of looking for evidence of the Loch Ness monster is the hook to this project, there is an extraordinary amount of new knowledge that we will gain from the work about organisms that inhabit Loch Ness.” And he had “no doubt” that his team would learn something new about the freshwater lake.
Of course, anything that swims through Loch Ness will leave a bit of DNA behind in the water. Skin cells, feathers, fur and scales – and even feces and urine – all contain traces of creatures’ genetic materials. So gathering water samples will reveal what lurks beneath – as long as the DNA matches that of species already chronicled by scientists. Even if a perfect match is not found, though, the researchers could stick-compare it and learn new things.
In any case, Gemmell believed that he and his research team would uncover new species – particularly clusters of Loch Ness-based bacteria. And although a seemingly small discovery, this information would show how invasive newer species have proven to be for the loch. But, as we know, it wouldn’t necessarily be the biggest draw to the outside world.
Because, of course, there was also the potential for solving the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster. That wasn’t Gemmell’s purpose in performing his research, but – by the time his study concluded – he did have his own theory as to which species the creature truly belonged to. And he shared this in September 2019.
By that time, Gemmell and his team had completed their monumental research. Firstly, they visited Loch Ness for two weeks and gathered the numerous water samples that they needed. Then they analyzed the liquid to discern the genetic material contained within. Yet some of their subsequent findings didn’t shock anyone, as most of the Loch Ness ecosystem is comprised of small creatures.
Gemmell and his team also found DNA from humans, pigs, sticklebacks and deer. Yet what they didn’t find was evidence of any monster – at least, not in the way Nessie had been described in the past. So it seemed that the monster was not a seal or an elephant or a catfish.
Instead, Gemmell and his researchers came up with a new explanation that they could back up with DNA evidence. Yes, the team claimed that those who’d supposedly seen a monster in the past could’ve actually seen a giant eel. This species had left its traces in the water’s genetic material, you see.
During a 2019 press conference at the Loch Ness Centre, Gemmell explained to reporters, “It is possible there are very large eels, but it depends how big you think ‘large’ is.” So his speculative theory provides another possible explanation for sightings of the monster since 1933. But he emphasized that no giant eels had ever been caught and that the record weight for an eel caught in Europe currently stands at around 12 pounds.
Interestingly, though, Gemmell and his team found a high quantity of eel DNA in the waters of Loch Ness. And the study author joked about the source of that much genetic material. He said, “We don’t know if the eel DNA we are detecting is from a gigantic eel or just many small eels.”
Seriously speaking, Gemmell elaborated on the theory of the eels and how they could potentially grow to such a size. He explained, “The notion is that these eels would normally migrate to reproduce, but they, for whatever reason, don’t. And they continue to grow to a very large size, forgoing reproduction for growth.”
Crucially, though, the scientist’s research could rule out some of the other long-standing theories about the Loch Ness Monster. For example, Gemmell could definitively rule out the dinosaur theory, for one. The study leader explained, “Is there a plesiosaur in Loch Ness? No. There is absolutely no evidence of any reptilian sequences. So I think we can be fairly sure that there is probably not a giant scaly reptile swimming around in Loch Ness.”
But Gemmell did admit that the study had a few shortcomings. You see, the DNA testing had failed to detect seals or otters, both of which live in Loch Ness. In other areas, though, the results came back with stunning clarity. Gemmell said, “We may have missed things. But we found all the species we know are residents in Loch Ness in respect to fish.”
Yet the University of Otago geneticist pointed out how, in some respects, his search for the monster had ended like the others. He said, “More and more studies providing more and more negative evidence cast more and more doubt on the possibility, but we can’t prove a negative.”
But Gemmell brushed off the notion that his DNA tests had effectively ended the search for Nessie. Instead, he countered, “There’s still some level of uncertainty there, so there is still the opportunity for people to believe in monsters. Is it front-page news? I don’t know. But we’ve captured some imaginations.”
Ultimately, though, the researcher’s aim wasn’t to find the Loch Ness Monster; he wanted to flaunt the merits of environmental DNA. And by Gemmell’s estimation, he had done just that. The scientist said, “More people now know about environmental DNA than ever before, I would imagine, and I think that’s a good thing. Because we need these tools to be able to document what is living in places as, slowly but surely, our world becomes less special.”
Speaking of mysterious beasts, though, in early January 2014 scientists actually found a monster of the deep in the shallow waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre. This lagoon is on Mexico’s Pacific coast, in the northwest of the Mexican province of Baja California Sur. Laguna Ojo de Liebre – “eye of the hare lagoon” – is part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The area, once called Scammon’s Lagoon, and the surrounding waters provide excellent habitats for a wide variety of marine species and waterfowl. For example, harbor seals, blue whales, gray whales and four species of marine turtles are all to be found here. What’s more, many of the animals use these waters as their breeding grounds.
However, this particular creature was entirely unfamiliar. Once experts lifted it out of the water and were able to examine it closely, they realized what it was. Moreover, the animal was so astonishingly rare that there were no known previous scientific records of it.
The experts realized that what they were looking at was a set of gray whale twins that were conjoined. That is to say, as they’d developed in their mother’s womb, the fetuses had fused together, in this case at the stomach. Whether they had been still-born, or had died soon after birth, remains a mystery. It is also unknown if the mother survived the birth.
Although conjoined twins are not unknown in whales, the database of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County didn’t turn up any other cases of conjoined gray whale young. However, such twins have been recorded in sei, minke and humpback whales. Jim Dines, the collections manager at the museum, told National Geographic that, “because of their reproductive biology, whales and dolphins almost always have a single baby.”
However, Dines added, “In the case of twins, the mother has to provide nourishment for two growing fetuses. And that may result in two slightly smaller fetuses rather than one normal-sized one. These were pretty sizeable. There’s a fair chance the mother was trying to deliver them and couldn’t.” Given the extreme rarity of conjoined whales, it’s unsurprising that scientists are unable to come to firm conclusions.
Dines went on to say that a normal gray whale pregnancy lasts for about 13.5 months. He estimated that these conjoined babies were probably between 8.5 and 10.5 months old. Moreover, even if these twins had gone to a full-length gestation, he felt that it would have been extremely unlikely that they’d have survived in the wild.
Dines explained that because the twins were joined at the stomach, this would have made it virtually impossible for them to breathe. Like all whales, these animals would have to come to the surface for air. However, being joined at the stomach would mean that their blowholes were pointing to the side instead of upwards. Consequently, they’d be unable to take in the air they needed to survive.
Gray whales are sometimes known as Californian or Pacific gray whales and their scientific name is Eschrichtius robustus. They are a type of baleen whale, which means that they feed by swimming through the sea and filtering out their prey, such as various crustaceans, from the water. The baleen is the filter-like adaptation in the gray whale’s mouth through which it sucks in water.
These magnificent, dark gray creatures can weigh up to 40 tons and grow up to 49 feet in length, with a typical lifespan of between 55 and 70 years. The gray whale lacks a dorsal fin, instead having a back that’s humped and ridged. They generally feed in shallow waters near the shore.
The whales do most of their feeding during the summer months, when they are in chilly northern seas. This enables them to lay down fat reserves for their long journey south. Once the calves are born, they can drink up to a staggering 300 gallons of the mother whale’s milk each day. The milk is a hefty 53 percent fat; human milk, on the other hand, is just 3 to 5 percent fat.
One of the most astonishing things about these gargantuan animals is the huge distances that their annual migrations take them. The eastern Pacific gray whales travel all the way south from the cold waters of the far northern Pacific to the warmer climes off the Californian and Mexican coast. After the winter, they subsequently swim back to the Arctic region. This can mean they’ve made a round trip of around 12,000 miles.
However, it is known that at least one gray whale exceeded the usual 12,000 migration journey. Moreover, in the process they created a record for the world’s longest mammal migration on record. The whale, known as Varvara, was tracked with satellite-monitored tags by Russian and American scientists for six months in 2011 and 2012 as she swam across the Pacific. After her return journey to Russia’s Sakhalin Island from Baja, Mexico, Varvara had covered some 13,760 miles.
The whale that gave birth to the conjoined twins would have travelled south from the feeding grounds it frequents during the summer months in the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, which lie between Russia and Alaska. The female whale would have found a partner and bred once it reached the Pacific Sea off California and Mexico. Later, it would calve in the same waters.
One of the best places to see gray whales is the San Ignacio Lagoon in the Gulf of California. There, the animals will actually swim to boats carrying whale watchers. In fact, on occasion they will even allow themselves to be touched. This has earned the whales the local nickname of the “friendly ones.”
The eastern gray whales, the ones that travel each year to the Pacific off California and Mexico, are thriving. Currently, their population is estimated at between 20,000 and 22,000. In contrast, the western gray whales, which scientists believe migrate between the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Russia and waters in southern Korea, is considered to be critically endangered. Indeed, the population of this group may be as low as 130.
Furthermore, we have already lost one population of gray whales to extinction. They once inhabited the North Atlantic, but died out there sometime in the 18th century. The reasons for their extinction are unclear, but overfishing could have been the cause. There is even some fossil evidence to indicate that these whales may also have bred and calved in the Mediterranean.
When the conjoined whale twins were discovered in January 2014, it was just three years after the catastrophic tsunami that engulfed the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. This led some people to speculate that the underlying reason for this rare conjoined whale phenomenon might be radiation that leaked from the stricken plant.
However, Jim Dines offered words of reassurance. “In the past year or so, when we have marine mammals that strand here in California and we’ve had the tissues tested for radiation, there’s nothing there,” he said. “Just because an animal like a whale has twins, [that] doesn’t mean it’s been subjected to radiation. Humans have twins all the time.”