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Monday, 11 November 2019

FOLLOWING THE SHOALS

When a Monster, of the sea serpent variety, was filmed 3 times in the River Thames in March to April 2016. I was reminded of an old theory I had pondered upon, regarding the creatures of Loch Ness and other seldom sighted water cryptids.  

The mosaic which adorns the floor of the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia,
Italy and depicts the prophet, Jonah, being swallowed by a sea monster.
(4th Century AD)


My theory in regards to the seldom sighted creatures of 'Ness and their numerous relatives, is that they are seasonal or occasional visitors, following fish migration routes and that they are spotted by members of the public, when they are travelling through our lochs, lakes and rivers or around our coasts.

This is theory only, but one that could be applied to many lake monster sightings around the British Isles in both coastal and inland waters. Because the search for food is a behaviour defining necessity for all animals, I began to wonder if we could track these creatures' movements via the monitoring of fish migration patterns? Maybe, even predict the times and places that they are most likely to visit a particular coastal spot, river, lake or loch, based upon real-time updates of fish migrations to and from our waters. Then at least, we might just have a chance of proving the existence of these creatures through repeatable and predictable sighting hotspots, creating protected nature reserves and arranging for scientific monitoring of the species via non-intrusive remote high tech ROV's and online camera surveillance.

Special data collection and collation would be required for such a theory to work, including cooperation with various fisheries departments and monitoring bodies. But, in the absence of this great feat of (assumed) government cooperation in the search for sea monsters, there is another quite important technique or method that can be derived from this 'pie in the sky' idea and that is the collation and data-basing of locations, times and dates of spawning and migration of known prey species, weather conditions etc. and then correlating this information against sightings of these magnificent and elusive creatures in the hope of finding repeatable patterns of predation. This information could then be used to create an algorithm or a 'key' for predicting the time and season of future appearances of any number of cryptids upon which to base an expedition

This theory is based partially upon an assumption that repetitive feeding patterns or migration routes of most animals are habitual, and that a location that has had one sighting is likely to have another, and if that sighting observes feeding or predation, then it can safely be assumed that this location and sighting are potentially repeatable. In cases of the predation taking place during a fish migration, then the reliability of the method for predicting the approximate timing and locality of the 'monsters' appearance could be increased tenfold. 

Another possible theory is that they are seen when searching for a mate. As most sightings of sea serpents and lake monsters are of single animals and very rarely feature 2 or more creatures together (multiple sightings are often assumed to be adults with young), I would propose that it is safe to assume that they are solitary, possibly territorial animals, that only seek the company of their own kind as juveniles or during natural breeding seasons, perhaps somewhere out at sea (like eels) or maybe; leaving their lakes and waterways to move across land, driven by some inexplicable natural sense to propagate their species.

The possibility of water monsters feeding on migratory fish like eels and salmonids is very probable and there have been several eyewitness accounts that describe them doing just that. 
What follows are some examples of alleged plesiosaur sightings that describe the animals in the act of hunting or predation. I think these serve as a small sample of the type of information that could be collated nationwide to include not only observed predation but also 'regular' monster sightings where the witness' did not see voracity per se, but the sighting still coincided with the location of a known fish migration or congregation. (river mouths, etc.)


Let Us Prey
Fisherman along the stretch of coastline between Paignton, Plymouth and Falmouth in the south-west of England have for many years blamed a poor day's fishing on the presence of Morgawr and it's many relatives that inhabit this corner of the British Isles. Although most of the British coast is replete with monster sightings, this little corner of our waterlogged island seems to be particularly popular with these mysterious creatures

The Saltern Cove Chameleon was witnessed by several people in July 2010, chasing shoals of Mackerel in the shallows of Saltern Cove, Paignton, Devon. The frightened fish were actually seen beaching themselves in an attempt to escape the creature, which was seen hunting the fish in and out of the water by several witnesses. 

What has become known as The Plymouth Crocodile was sighted at Devil's Point, off Plymouth in 1987 by an experienced diver who says he saw a 'dog-like head on a neck rising 1 metre out of the sea'. He noted that it was in a 'spot favoured by conger eels'

Probably the most famous Sea Monster in this part of the British Isles is Morgawr (which means Sea Giant in Cornish) that was first seen by 2 witnesses at Pendennis Point, Falmouth; in September 1975. The witnesses claim to have seen a humped figure with 'stumpy horns' and bristles on its long neck, catching a conger eel in its mouth, 

Navy Seals
The Welsh coast, as well as its inland lakes, have their fair share of water monster stories, one of which recounts the predatory pursuit of several seals by a plesiosaurid sea monster. It is notable that other Sea monster reports around the world have also made mention of seals as an occasional prey item for these aquatic cryptids. The eyewitness account, related here and which was first reported in Paul Harrison's 'Sea serpents and Lake Monsters of The British Isles', is quite plain and yet definitive in its description of both predator and prey. 

In 1963, Mr P Sharman whilst on Holiday in New Quay, Wales (Dyfed) saw a plesiosaur-like creature from a clifftop as it was chasing seals in a rocky cove, (presumably in an attempt to prey upon them as a food source)He described 'watching the seals flee from the animal, which was 30-40ft long and black in colour, with a short tail, four flippers and a long neck with a small head.'

What's This All A Trout?
Loch Ness, Scotland's most infamous and over investigated tourist attraction, has very few observed sightings of predation. One reason for this could be that the creature either hunts in the deeper waters of The Loch or both preys on and eats the fish it catches underwater. Salmon inhabit the Loch and its rivers all year round and there are also, sea trout, char and eels amongst other fish species, that could provide a regular supply of food for any proactive predator willing to travel. 

One example of Nessie hunting fish was witnessed by John Mclean, whilst standing at the shore near the mouth of the Altsigh Burn. He was looking for a good spot from which to fish and was watching to see whether any trout were rising when he saw something very frightening. 

He said: "It was the monster's head and neck, less than twenty yards from me and it was, without any doubt, in the act of swallowing food. It opened and closed its mouth several times quite quickly, and then kept tossing its head backwards in exactly the same manner as a cormorant does after it has devoured a fish. 1 was absolutely petrified with astonishment, and if I did have a camera with me I was so excited that I would probably have spoiled the chance of a lifetime. The monster, I am sure, is eighteen to twenty-two feet long, the tail fully six feet, and the largest hump was about three feet high. The head is small and pointed, the skin very dark brown on the back, and like that of a horse when wet and glistening. The neck is rather thin and several feet long, but I saw no flippers or fins."  Although the witness did not actually observe the fish being eaten, the fact that this extraordinary sighting took place at a river mouth popular with fisherman, in conjunction with the action of swallowing, in which the creature was observed, clearly leads to the conclusion of feeding. 

Something Smells Fishy? 
For the purpose of matching Nessie sightings to fish migrations and movements, the year-round salmon supply in The Loch makes things a little difficult. To add to this, the eel migration happens in August at night, a time when this rural setting provides a dark cloak of invisibility to any creature that wishes to remain hidden and unobserved. There are however some very interesting facts which were gleaned from Nessie sightings over the last 20 years that provide other methods with which to streamline this which-hunt. Geographically, the majority of sightings are in the northern half of the Loch and where they appear in the southern end, they are usually exclusively near the 'Inver' (Gaelic - River Mouth) villages. In fact, almost all sightings apart from 'mid loch' sightings are in the vicinity of river mouths emptying into The Loch. The only section of The Loch lacking in any sightings at all is the south-east end, which coincidentally perhaps, does not have any rivers at all. This adds a sense of gravity to the theory of temporary and transient habituation of The Loch as a place to hunt fish that congregate at the river mouths, which are in turn attracted by the nutrients that are stirred up by the current and its insect life, but it is also this concentration of fish that is indicative of the creatures presence or lack thereof! 

Salmonids and eels are insectivorous fish and therefore the availability of insects upon which to feed will directly affect their numbers. When looking at the last 20 years of Nessie sightings at Loch Ness, an environmental influence on the frequency of sightings becomes apparent. For example, there was an average of 5 sights per year between 2001 -2005 (which culminated with a heatwave) but then the sightings dipped right down to 1-2 sightings in the years 2006-2010, which had 4 incredibly wet summers. As many a beekeeper will testify, bees like many other insects will fly in the snow, frost and fog, but not the rain! And if the bees won't fly, then neither will the other insect species, leaving a much smaller food supply for the insectivorous fish population and in consequence reducing it, thus leaving Nessie & friends to seek their fare elsewhere! This for the moment is just a theory, but I think that the data supports the idea of Nessie being a part-time resident in Loch Ness, a fair-weather friend, if you will, willing to wander to wherever the food supply is plentiful. Yet, another environmental lesson for us to learn about how weather affects every aspect of the natural environment and can even change the behaviour of both predator and prey!

An illustration of the type of correlation one would expect to find if this theory were true can be demonstrated in the concordance between the yearly salmon catch in Loch Ness and reported Monster sightings. For example, in 1999 there was a huge drop in the salmon catch in Ness' which was also matched by a significant drop in Nessie sightings!  

The table below is based upon a 16 year period in Loch Ness, utilising data such as salmon catches, weather conditions (where available) and Nessie sightings, to validate a correlation between fish numbers and the predictability of 'monster' sightings.

SEE TABLE: 

In the figures for each year below, there is a general correlation between salmon numbers and Nessie sightings, but also some anomalies. For example, in 2013, only had one sighting all year but nothing to indicate the reason why. Although, it was colder than the average, with several months of disruptive snow and further summer months of downpours. 2010 also stands out, but Met office data for this year provides a possible answer.

Year
Number of Nessie sightings
Salmon catch
Amount above/below 5yr average catch
Weather data using 1981-2010 average
2015
5
1222
+276
mean temp  +0.2C
rainfall 105-115%
2014
5
815
-120
mean temp +0.5-+1.5C
rainfall 105-115%
2013
1
930
-26
mean temp -0.2- >+0.5
rainfall 85-105%
2012
2
847
-144
mean temp -0.5 - +0.5C
rainfall 85-105%
2011
4
917
-199
mean temp +0.2-1.5C
rainfall 115-135%
2010
1
1166
+1
mean temp -1.2 - 0.5C below
rainfall <65-85% average
disruptive snow and rain
2009
1
923
-376
mean temp +0.5 - 0.8C
rainfall 95-115%
2008
2
1102
-321
mean temp +0.2-0.8C
rainfall 105-135%
2007
2
1471
+81

2006
1
1174
-144

2005
4
1823
+496

2004
3
1546
+402

2003
2
934
+20

2002
5
1114
+84

2001
5
1218
+284

2000
11
910
+10

1999
4
595
-545
large drop off in numbers of sightings with a huge drop in the catch


Most interesting is the huge drop off in salmon catches in 1999 which links with a drop in sightings overall. The sighting figures do not recover with the fish catches suggesting people are NOT reporting or misidentifying salmon as 'Monsters'

Sources:
  • Total Ness District Rod Catches of Salmon (salmon and girls combined), 2015 season catch analysis, Ness District Salmon Fishery Board. www.ness.dsfb.org.uk
  • The Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register, www.lochnesssightings.com
  • Annual Weather Summaries, www.metoffice.gov.uk

    The Absence of Evidence
    Many theories have been put forward over the years as to what Nessie could eat in The Loch as it has been estimated that only 27 tons of fish exist in its 'unproductive' Waters (excluding eels). This theory in particular, realistically only acts as an 'academic' Straw Man, a protest from researchers too busy trying to prove a truth instead of discovering one and a study too personal to view as unbiased. In rebuttal, it could simply be pointed out that this information was gathered from a ship that only trawled to a depth of 100 feet and it should reasonably be assumed that the study chose a small section of The Loch within which to statistically demonstrate the population of the entire water, which would naturally exclude its great depths. After all, as it is commonly boasted that the Loch is between 700-900 feet deep,(there is some dispute over this) I feel that it would be safer to conclude that the outcome of this research was the discovery of only 27 tons of fish in the first 100 feet of Loch Ness (excluding eels); and the acceptance that there may be more or fewer fish stocks in the deeper places of this massive body of water, not forgetting its rivers. There are also large numbers of zooplankton in the Loch, that could easily sustain a very healthy population of fish, or perhaps, even a monster if it were so inclined to eat such fare. 

    The fish species in the Loch are salmon, trout and sea trout, eels, char and very occasionally sturgeon. There are also many sheep grazing in the surrounding hills, that could become a choice meal on the odd occasion, as well as deer in healthy numbers, there have been several 'alleged' sightings over the years of Nessie emerging from the undergrowth with 'sheep' and other animals in its mouth.  Some claim that there have been a significant drop in Nessie sightings per capita of visitors to Loch Ness over the years, with some of the more evangelical sceptics claiming that the increased traffic on and around The Loch should yield a significant increase in sightings, as there are quite simply, more people to witness her than ever before. 

    Again, another common 'Straw Man' that is regularly used as an example for 'the absence of evidence, being evidence of absence'. This argument, of course, quickly succumbs to the powers of 'the monster' to frustrate the sceptics at every turn - I am of course alluding to the year 2016 being one of the busiest years on record with 7 recorded Nessie sightings! In regards to the supposed absence of scientific evidence and preferring always to name the elephant in the room, I would say something more along the lines of  'If there's enough evidence for a court to convict you, then it should surely be enough to convince you!'

    Nessie, Where Art Thou? 
    So if there is a breeding population of prehistoric animals in and around the waters of the British Isles, why don't we see them more often? Surely, a large air-breathing creature like a plesiosaur would be seen frequently by anyone within the vicinity of its habitat? Not so! There are a few points to make about this, the first of which is the misconception that wild animals somehow want to be seen by people or are oblivious to our presence. This is patently untrue and wild animals; even predators will usually avoid contact with humans if possible. The second point is that there are populations of known animals in the British Isles in great numbers which are very rarely seen, even in areas they are known to inhabit. There are, for example, an estimated 1.5-2 million deer roaming free in England that are rarely seen by the majority of the population. Why? because these animals are cautious, reclusive and wary of humans. I am reminded of a story related to me of a party who had stalked a known population of sea otters on Loch Fyne for several days. The otters were known to inhabit the loch and are rather conspicuous animals. After a very unsuccessful search of several days, one of the party after sitting motionless for 2 hours in a rather inaccessible part of the lochside, was lucky enough to glimpse one of the animals for 10 seconds, at dusk. 

    In the case of lake monsters, counterbalancing the creatures reticence for public display makes a focus on corroborative and especially antagonistic witness reports extremely importantIt is easy enough for our debunkers and researchers to neutralize and nullify a lake monster photo as nothing more than a log or a seal, but if 3 unconnected witnesses claim that, that log or seal was, in fact, a 40ft long serpent, with reptilian features that reared up 10 ft out of the water and growled at them...well, then that's a little harder to dispute.


    Roman mosaic from around the 3rd Century AD,
    found at Lydney Park Temple in Gloucestershire, UK

    All in all, I think that it's highly likely that these creatures eat a varied diet of fish and other marine animals, such as seals, squid and eels, with the occasional land animal thrown in for good measure. Whatever their dietary outlook, they certainly do seem to be of a transient inclination, at least in the waterways they are said to inhabit, and I can only join the great throng of speculators, who postulate not only about the preferred plaice for their palate, but also the mode of their habits and habituation. Are they migratory fish eaters, stalking and hunting the shoals throughout the offshore and inshore waterways of the British Isles? One thing is for certain, and that is that Nessie and her many friends are seen both in fresh and saltwater, more frequently than some would like to admit, in and around the British Isles. It would be reticent of us to not consider that some of the animals we see in the rivers and off the coasts are of the same genus as those in lake and loch and are on occasion, perhaps even the same animal, far away from home, searching for its next meal. So it would seem (at least in theory) that the discovery of these elusive creatures is not altogether impossible, but is fraught with difficulty and distraction as has been proven in the last 80+ years. 

    But, If we can map the movements of their food sources, we should be able to predict, within a reasonable margin of error, the time and place of their appearance. The author is not a statistician however and his conclusions could by his own admission, be quite fallible. However, there is a seed of an idea in this hypothesis, a working and wonderful blueprint for tracking down all unknown animals. That is, follow the food - find the beast! 

    In conclusion, if we follow the source of their food with quietude and discretion, with carefully placed hides and remotely monitored game cams at conspicuous locations that have a history of sightings, we may indeed find our elusive cryptids, engaging; just as all other animals do, in the eternal and unending lifelong search for food! 

    Addendum:
    Originally written between 2016-17 and redrafted for the 2nd edition of this title in 2019, this chapter was published before the results of Professor Neil Gemmel's eDNA were announced. However, although the results of this extraordinary new technology seem somewhat damning, I do not believe that they were exhaustive nor conclusive in disproving whether or not 'the monster' exists. The study itself even failed to obtain DNA samples of otters, which are known to frequent Loch Ness and seals, which although rare, do occasionally enter the Loch, from time to time. That being said, one would have hoped for at least some ambiguity or some unknown, yet quantifiable evidence, of our beloved cryptid mascot to have been found...

    Written by Andrew McGrath

    'Following the Shoals' is an excerpt from my debut title - Beasts of Britain.

    For more on Beasts of Britain, check out:
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