The first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness Monster took place more than 1,000 years ago - is it time to set the record straight?
If you’re a Scottish resident, it might never have crossed your mind that the wider world is overly concerned with or even aware of Loch Ness and the elusive creature that may or may not live there. But, according to a scientist from New Zealand and his international team, Nessie is big in Japan.
“They seem to know about four things about Britain, and Loch Ness is one of them,” says Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago.
“It probably is the world's most famous body of water. I think it's hard to imagine going anywhere and people not knowing it.”
An international affair
During our call, Gemmell is in Scotland (looking out across Loch Ness, in fact) and a few days away from completing an initial DNA sampling of the loch. He and his colleagues from Otago have been joined by scientists from Denmark, the University of Hull and the University of the Highlands and Islands. Everyone has pitched in to collect hundreds of samples in a relatively short space of time and, miraculously, it hasn’t even rained.
“I get up just at the back of 7am, and I'll work through, probably until about midnight,” says Gemmell.
“Last week we sampled right around Loch Ness, as well as several nearby lochs as controls. And then we had a team in the University of the Highlands and Islands boat - a 15 foot Pioneer - and they also sampled extensively on the shoreline of Loch Ness.
“And then, that evening, we all jumped on the big boat and we went and we sampled the deep water, down to 200 metres.”
Cutting edge science versus urban legend
Fascinated by the folklore surrounding Loch Ness and its alleged monster, but hungry for scientific proof, Gemmell hatched a plan. He would use DNA sequencing technology to find out once and for all what is currently living in Scotland’s most mysterious body of water.
“We've taken the deepest fresh water samples for environmental DNA ever, as far as I know, so what's down there will be interesting,” the scientist reveals.
Those who claim to have seen the Loch Ness Monster often compare it to a diplodocus, so when examining their samples, Gemmell and his team will be keeping an eye out for any prehistoric-like DNA sequence matches. Equally, they will also be looking for evidence of large fish that could potentially have been mistaken for Nessie in the past.
“I guess we are interested in the idea of some of these hypotheses being put forward to explain the monster legends,” he says.
“I suspect we'll find DNA from eels in the loch, but I don't know about catfish and sturgeon, so we'll be looking out for those specific sequences, because that would be interesting.”
Finding new species
Monsters aside, this is some of the most thorough research that has ever been carried out in Loch Ness. Though it is too early to say definitively at this stage, Gemmell suspects that the project will turn up some new types of bacteria, and possibly uncover more about the pink salmon that have recently been spotted in the area.
“They were first seen breeding in the Ness last year, and I guess we're not 100 per cent sure how well established [the species] is through the loch and river systems,” he explains.
“Maybe our project will turn up some evidence of that species, and will be important for future monitoring.”
Understanding the myth
You might expect a scientist to be a sceptic, but - as Gemmell points out - it is difficult to prove a negative. Even if there are no traces of anything out of the ordinary in the team’s DNA ‘stock take’ of Loch Ness, fans of the monster may not take the findings as gospel.
“The reality is that it takes a hell of a lot [to change a person’s mind], and they are more inclined to initially dismiss the evidence and really hunker down on their beliefs,” says Gemmell.
But the project may explain why so many people have consistently reported strange sights on and around Loch Ness for centuries. After studying the hydrology of the loch, Gemmell is now aware of underwater waves and shifts in temperature that could even move objects against strong wings. Suddenly, the sightings of huge creatures swimming across the moonlit loch make more sense - an optical illusion combined with a curious natural occurrence.
“Your mind plays tricks in various ways. And because of the mystique around it, yeah, everyone's out there looking for something, I think,” says Gemmell.
“It's a very complicated body of water.”
Neil Gemmell and his team hope to present the findings of their search in January 2019 - lochnesshunters.com
Video: Bass Rock Films