Thursday 15 July 2010

Ben Radford discussing Nessie with Steve Feltham

Life on the Loch The lonely hunt for truth and monsters
By Benjamin Radford
Steve Feltham’s eyes and smile grow wide when the subject of the Loch Ness monsters comes up. “I think they’re out there, certainly,” he says, though he adds with a hint of sadness that it may not be true for much longer. He estimates there are probably a half-dozen creatures left in the lake (down from dozens in earlier eras) and will be fewer each passing year: “Sightings have declined. They’re gradually dropping off of old age, I think.”I found Feltham more or less by accident. I was at Scotland’s famous loch for about a week in 2006 following a speaking engagement in London. There I discussed my original research into “America’s Loch Ness Monster,” the creature supposedly inhabiting Vermont’s Lake Champlain. I had spent much of the day near Inverness, conducting a series of experiments to judge the size and distance of unknown objects in lake waters. But by mid-afternoon, the weather had grown too Scottish, and I had to pack it up. Instead of experiments, I walked along a chilly beach near the town of Dores, where, to my surprise, I found about 20 Loch Ness monsters. They were mostly red, green, purple and blue. Some were perched on rocks, others on little clear acrylic ice cubes, all on a wooden shelf supported by a waist-high tree stump. They were only a few inches high, and had big, cute eyes. Above them was a multicolored, hand-drawn sign that read, “Nessie Models For Sale.” Just behind that lay a converted minibus with faux wood paneling and a giant logo that read, “Nessie-Sery Independent Research.” It’s part tourist shack, part library, part monster research facility and all home to Feltham, the world’s only full-time Loch Ness monster researcher. Feltham, with his easy grin, a shock of gray and white hair, and clipped British accent, is a fixture at Ness. He’s lived on its shores since 1991, when he abruptly moved from England. The vehicle, which is not much bigger than some walk-in closets, has everything he needs: a sparse bed, a desk, a tiny sink and a cooking burner. The walls are plastered with posters, photographs, maps and shelves with Loch Ness-related books and papers. (I was pleased to see some of my own Loch Ness has been searched for more than 70 years, using everything from miniature submarines to divers to cameras strapped on dolphins. In fact, just three years earlier, a team of researchers sponsored by the BBC undertook the largest and most comprehensive search of Loch Ness ever conducted. They scoured the lake using 600 separate sonar beams and satellite navigation. One of the lead searchers, Ian Florence, was quoted in a BBC news release: “We went from shoreline to shoreline, top to bottom on this one, we have covered everything in this loch, and we saw no signs of any large animal living in the loch.” No monsters, no nothing. I asked Feltham what he thought about that. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “It was flawed,” he sniffed. “Yes, it made the papers, but they didn’t scan [the loch] all at once, so to me the results are suspect. They searched it over three days in three parts, so the animals might have moved around between the searches.”I understood his point, though it seemed unlikely to me that such a thorough search had somehow missed a half-dozen or more large creatures. I didn’t challenge him on it. Though I was used to being the skeptic when it came to eyewitness reports, Feltham shared my doubts about many sightings. One of the most popular theories about what the Loch Ness monster might be is a dinosaur-like plesiosaur. There are myriad problems with this theory, including that plesiosaurs died out millions of years ago and that Scotland’s lochs are only about 10,000 years old. Feltham rejects that suggestion, offering instead his best guess: Nessie are probably fish, most likely catfish.I asked how he would feel if he was proven correct—if, after all the monstrous speculation and blurry photos, the world-famous Loch Ness monster really did turn out to be an ordinary catfish (albeit a large one). How would he feel if, after spending 20 years of his life searching for the mysterious beast, the monster turned out to be something most people can find in their local supermarket? He thought for a few moments and answered in a soft voice. “I guess I’d be philosophical about it,” he said as his sweatered shoulders betrayed a slight shrug.
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