Listen to the scientist who gave the Loch Ness monster credibility
It is not untenable that members of the plesiosaurus family have survived from the Jurassic period
BE CAREFUL before dismissing recent reports in the British and American media of the latest sighting of the Loch Ness monster.
Imagine if one of Britain's top Second World War scientists, Barnes Wallis, say, the inventor of the Dambusters' bouncing bomb, or Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, had claimed to have seen 'Nessie' and had then devoted the rest of their lives to tracking her down.
This is pretty much what happened to the distinguished American scientist, inventor and polymath Robert Harvey Rines. As an officer in US Army Signals during the war he helped develop the first microwave early warning system just after Pearl Harbor.
Post-war he had a distinguished career lecturing at Harvard and MIT and was one of the original minds behind ultra-sound technology in both medical and military arenas. He was also a lawyer and composer – almost a modern Da Vinci.
On 23 June 1972, Rines, on vacation in Scotland, was invited to tea at a house overlooking the northern end of the loch, near Inverness. Looking out of the window he spotted an odd shape moving across the water. He grabbed a telescope and through it spied "a large, darkish hump, covered... with rough, mottled skin, like the back of an elephant".
His estimate was that the creature was big, about 45ft long including the tail - 7ft longer than a Borismaster bus - with a 4ft or 5ft neck.
The encounter kicked off a passionate quest to find 'Nessie', bringing Rines back to Scotland every few years until he died in 2009. Many of his colleagues implored him to abandon what they saw as an unscientific fantasy. The otherwise admiring academic community in Cambridge, Massachusetts rolled their eyes and giggled into their martinis.
As the inventor of the technology that located the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 in 13,000ft of water, he was ideally equipped to adapt his own imaging and tracking techniques in pursuit of the legendary beast. In four major expeditions to the loch he claimed many sonar soundings and a number of tantalising underwater photographs – a reasonable body of evidence but none of it quite conclusive.
Rines was absolutely sure that a large creature (never 'monster') lived in the loch, explaining in an interview in 2000: "If I didn't trust the people I've talked to and our own scientific evidence, I'd say I was crazy. I may not be able to prove it, but I know there was a plesiosaur in Loch Ness because I saw it."
There is nothing outlandish in believing that members of the plesiosaur family - marine reptiles from the Jurassic period with long necks and flippers - have survived into the modern era. Scientists quite often find stay-behind creatures from the past, thought to be long extinct, but alive today – known as 'Lazarus species' after Jesus's miracle in St John's Gospel.
Everyone knows the story of the Coelacanth - a fish thought from the fossil record to have become extinct 65 million years ago, only for a live specimen to appear in a fisherman's net off Eastern Cape, South Africa in 1938.
There are numerous other similar examples across the world and the animal kingdom. The Laotian Rock Rat, a very unattractive looking squirrel-type creature, was thought to have handed in its dinner pail 11 million years ago – only to be rediscovered in 1996.
Loch Ness would be the ideal place for a plesiosaurus group to survive. The surrounding countryside is remote, rugged and sparsely populated. Although only the second largest loch in Scotland by surface area, its great depth (maximum 755ft) means it contains more water than all the other lakes in England, Scotland and Wales combined. It's very murky because of the high peat content of the surrounding soil but unpolluted.
Put it this way, if Rines's reports and photographs had arrived on our desks at the Joint Intelligence Committee where I used to work we would have been inclined to believe him - at the very least classifying them as "Partly corroborated reporting from a highly reliable source with a track record of telling the truth".