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Are Loch Ness Monster hunters really environmental conservationists?

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Are Loch Ness Monster hunters really environmental conservationists?

Reviewing ‘A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness’

In The Natural History of Hidden Animals, Bernard Heuvelmans – the Belgian-French zoologist considered to be the “Father of Cryptozoology” – argues that one of the chief benefits of the practice is its potential to identify previously unknown animals in need of conservation. More recently marine biologist R.L. France argued in his study of the Gloucester Sea Serpent that one of the primary motivations of the people who become involved in cryptozoology is to conserve what they perceive to be endangered species.

And while stories of attempts to extend conservation status to Bigfoot may strike many as preposterous, this link between the flights of fancy of cryptozoologists and the often quixotic aims of wildlife conservationists is, nevertheless, very real. Both David Quammen in The Song of the Dodo (1996), and Scott Weidensaul in The Ghost with Trembling Wings (2002), have written about the overlap in thinking of cryptozoologists and conservationists.

Are Loch Ness Monster hunters really environmental conservationists?

But no recent work highlights the relationship between cryptozoology and conservation better than Gareth Williams’ A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness (Orion: 2015), which tells the fascinating story of celebrated British conservationist Sir Peter Scott’s lifelong pursuit for proof of the fabled Loch Ness Monster. The founder of one of the most respected conservationist organizations today, the World Wildlife Fund, Scott became one of the most important actors in the quest for Nessie  during the 1960s, and remained so through the early 1980s.

Williams is Emeritus Professor and former Dean of Medicine at the University of Bristol, and son of geologist and paleontologist Alwyn Williams, who Scott once approached about joining his elite team of Nessie hunters. Thoroughly researched and drawing heavily on Scott’s private archives and unpublished personal correspondence, A Monstrous Commotion sets the stage in the first several chapters by introducing the Loch and its environs. Williams then provides readers with a standard early history of the monster, from St. Columba in 565 AD to the Surgeon’s Photo of 1934.

While Nessie’s first brush with the media came about in the early 1930s, Williams argues it was the publication of Constance Whyte’s book More Than A Legend (1957) that truly propelled the beast – and the idea that it might be a relict plesiosaur – into the public consciousness. One of Whyte’s most ardent converts was aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale who, in turn, was first to bring the matter of the Loch Ness Monster to the attention of Scott.

Williams describes Scott as initially intrigued by the mystery of the monster, but appropriately hesitant. Scott founded the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau (LNPIB) in 1962, and enlisted British politician and war hero David James to scour the Loch over the course of the next decade. Williams introduces readers to a number of colorful characters, including disgraced ichthyologist Denys Tucker, habitual Nessie witness Alex Campbell, University of Chicago microbiologist turned cryptozoologist Roy Mackle, hoaxer and playboy Frank Searle, journalist Nicholas Witchell, and angler Ted Holiday: who came to believe that Nessie was an interdimensional telepathic slug. Even Heuvelmans cameos, having been a guest on Scott’s hit television show Look.

When the LNPIB folded in 1972, Boston attorney Robert Rhines and his Academy of Applied Science stepped in to fill the void. Utilizing state of the art underwater camera equipment, Rhines produced what he claimed to be a striking photograph of Nessie’s flipper that same year. The image fully converted Scott, and led to him coauthoring a short article with Rhines which was published in the one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, petitioning the scientific establishment to formally recognize Nessie as real, so she could be awarded conservation status. Williams presents this moment as the crescendo of his story, though it was far from the climax.

Williams is nothing if not critical (even scathing at times) in his analysis of “the mysteries of Loch Ness” (he all but accuses Rhines of having faked the infamous flipper photo), but he nevertheless refuses to play the role of the capital “S” Skeptic, whose only tools for evaluating a subject like Nessie are cynicism and contempt. This means, among other things, that Williams acknowledges the complex relationship between belief and doubt related to a topic as multifaceted as that of the Loch Ness Monster.

This is demonstrated in Williams’s exhaustive discussion of the iconic Surgeon’s Photo, which he concludes is, unquestionably, a hoax, though he notes that one of the two men to expose it was Alastair Boyd — a dyed-in-the-wool Nessie believer. A more ardently skeptical writer might have ignored this fact, since it hardly helps their case to point out that the man who debunked the most famous photo of the monster continues to affirm the creature’s existence, regardless.

loch ness surgeon's photo

The ‘Surgeon’s Photo’

But that’s exactly the situation one can find when wading into the murky waters of a subject like cryptozoology. Proponents of the Loch Ness Monster and other cryptids are seldom zealots who dogmatically affirm that everything related to the monster must be true, or none of it is. It’s entirely possible for someone to simultaneously believe in Nessie while also denying the validity of most of the photographs and film allegedly showing her. It’s also possible for that someone to be as knowledgeable and passionate about the natural world as Sir Peter Scott, a man who dedicated his life to preserving Earth’s many amazing creatures, including one whose domain appears to be solely that of the human imagination.

A Monstrous Commotion runs 365 pages in hardback and includes voluminous endnotes, a bibliography and index, a timeline of major events, a handy reference guide to its numerous dramatis personae, and more than 50 black and white and color illustrations and photographs.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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