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Nessie Hoax Redux

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 6.1, March 1996

In April 1934 the quintessential photo of “Nessie,” the fabled Loch Ness Monster, was allegedly snapped by a London gynecologist named Robert Wilson. Known as the “surgeon’s photograph,” it is the most often seen depiction of the creature, showing it with a long neck and small head, somewhat resembling a plesiosaur, silhouetted against the sunlit water. A second photo by Wilson was of relatively poor quality.

Over the years, Wilson seemed to tire of the controversy he had stirred up, telling one journalist that he made no claim as to having photographed a sea monster and that, moreover, he did not believe in the Ness creature. Subsequently, Wilson’s youngest son “bluntly admitted that his father’s pictures were fraudulent” (Binns 1984).

Then, in 1994 two Loch Ness researchers made news when they provided information that the photos were indeed a hoax, that they depicted a model made from a toy submarine to which had been affixed a neck and head fashioned of plastic wood (Nickell 1995). The researchers’ source was the late Christian Spurling who, two years prior to his death in late 1993, told how the prank had been conceived by his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, with Dr. Wilson agreeing to take the photos (Genoni 1994).

Subsequently, writing in Fate — a magazine that promotes belief in paranormal topics — Richard D. Smith (1995) claims the hoax was itself a hoax, that Spurling’s story does not ring true. Smith claims the uncropped photograph shows it was not taken in “an inlet where the tiny ripples would look like full-sized waves” as alleged, and he raises other objections. For example, he says that an estimate of the scale based on the presumed size of the ripples argues that the creature was larger than the model Spurling describes. Then there is the supposed implausibility of why the model no longer exists: “Supposedly because the water bailiff [Alex Campbell] appeared and Wetherall quickly stepped on the toy, sinking it,” Smith rejoins. Smith’s article was sandwiched between a testimonial, “My Glimpse of Bigfoot,” and an article suggesting that “alien technology” was responsible for the strange hybrid creatures of Greek mythology.

It seemed to me that Smith’s points ranged from weak to dubious, but I decided to forego a response in hopes of soliciting a more expert opinion. I therefore wrote to Ronald Binns, author of the definitive skeptical book on the subject, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (1984). Binns soon responded with a detailed three-page letter. He began by conceding that Smith’s perceived faults with Spurling’s story might suggest it was bogus. However, he said:

On the other hand, as Spurling was an old man when he was interviewed maybe he was just confused. After more than half a century anyone’s memory would surely be unreliable. Maybe he was right about how the model was made but wrong about the dimensions. Maybe the model sank accidentally (as did the hugely expensive model monster made for the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.)

Even if the object was 1.2 metres high, so what? It could still have been a model. My own fake Nessie (Plate 3 of The Loch Ness Mystery Solved) was a tiny cardboard cut-out head and neck stuck in the neck of a mineral-water bottle and covered in black plastic from a garbage bag (about 12” out of the water). It took ten minutes to make. I don’t doubt the Wilson model was better constructed. In the Wilson photo the dark shapes to the left and right of the head and neck could very well be the top portion of a toy submarine.

The second Wilson photograph obviously portrays a different object photographed in different weather conditions (and I suspect from a different angle). It may have been a cruder model, or it may have been a bird. If it is “rarely seen,” as Smith claims, that is because it is a bad photo of a very dubious object. Since it obviously isn’t the object shown in the more famous photo, the obvious question is how did Wilson manage to photograph two monsters?

Binns continued:

Black and white photographs are so much easier to fake than colour photographs, and still photographs are so much easier to fake than home-movie or video film. The fact that the object shown in Wilson’s photograph is very close to the shore is itself very suspicious, as this is just what one would expect from a model thrown into the loch. There is also almost what amounts to a basic rule about Nessie photos and films. The photos, being fakes and/or models, are always of an object relatively close to the photographer. The movie film, being genuine footage of an object which is not a monster, is always too far away to be properly identifiable.

Richard D. Smith is wrong about the object not being photographed in an inlet. The part of the loch where Wilson said he took his photo consists of a series of inlets and there is no reason to suppose it wasn’t photographed in one of these inlets (the promontories of which would not have shown in the Wilson photo). Now that we have most of the original print what is surely striking is how the object photographed is more or less dead centre — rather too neatly and well composed for what is alleged to be an animal photographed by chance.

Lastly, there is the curious anomaly of the date. Wilson told the Daily Mail he took the photograph on April 19th (1934). However, in Rupert Gould’s book The Loch Ness Monster (1934) the date is given as April 1st. Perhaps this was a misprint, or perhaps the information come from Wilson and was his way of signalling that the photo was a leg-pull (since in Britain April 1st is “All Fool’s Day” when leg-pulling and practical jokes are the order of the day and even the newspapers carry deliberately bogus stories as a joke) . . .

Binns concluded with some philosophical thoughts:

I suspect after all this time we are never going to find out the full facts of the Wilson photo. The telling case against this and all the other Nessie photos is that in later years no one has ever managed to film the objects shown in either colour film, on a home-movie or on a video. The only photographic evidence from the loch which is at all intriguing is the Raynor film of 1967, and that, in my opinion, shows an otter or otters.

I was interested to read in the last edition of Nicholas Witchell’s The Loch Ness Story that he had discovered that the famous Lachlan Stuart photograph was a hoax involving bales of hay covered in tarpaulin. What has probably been lost sight of over the years is the impact which the Wilson and Stuart photographs had on monster-hunters back in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days we all firmly believed that they were genuine photographs and that the monster was indeed a very big animal with a long giraffe-like neck, capable of transforming itself into a three-humped object.

My impression from a UK perspective is that interest in Nessie has ebbed in a big way since the 1970s, and nowadays people interested in mysteries are far more likely to go in pursuit of crop circles (which from a sociological perspective has many curious parallels with the Loch Ness monster saga).

In addition to Binns’ review, another critique of the Spurling story comes from a fine new book, Bizarre Beliefs, written by Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson (the latter being the Skeptical Inquirer's official and indefatigable representative in the United Kingdom). Citing arguments against Spurling’s account — e.g. that the toy submarine would have been unable to have carried the weight of the plastic-wood neck and head and the lead ballast strip used to keep the model stable — Hoggart and Hutchinson state:

“...given an explanation which fits virtually all the facts, and meshes in so neatly with what we know of Duke Wetherell (and the gullibility of tabloid newspaper editors) it seems positively perverse not to accept the Spurling account.”

(Wetherall had perpetrated an earlier Loch Ness hoax in which a set of “monster tracks” turned out to have been made by a hippo hoof, apparently taken from an umbrella stand.) Hoggart and Hutchinson point out that, in all probability,

“The dark patch in front of the neck, often described as a ‘flipper,’ was in fact the deck of the [toy] submarine.”

Even aside from the specific Spurling claim, the authors of Bizarre Beliefs go on to say:

To be fair, very few people who have examined the Loch Ness legend, with the exception of the most dedicated believers, ever doubted that this picture was a hoax — or at least that it showed something other than a monster. There were many possible explanations: the shape of the head and neck had been cut out and stuck to a bottle which had been floated on the loch; perhaps it could have been a log, a bird or an otter’s tail. In any event, though there was nothing else in the picture to judge how big the object was, it was clear that the size of the ripples around the neck didn’t match the bulk of a full-size monster. These ripples were also consistent with something which had been dropped into the water rather than one which had risen up from underneath. It was pretty clear to reasonable observers that if there was a monster, its most famous portrait was of something else. (Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995)

Long ago, Time magazine pointed out that “There is hardly enough food in the loch to support such leviathans,” adding that “in any case, there would have to be at least twenty animals in a breeding herd” for the species to have continued to reproduce over the years.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at