Arts, Culture & Media

This man’s been searching for the Loch Ness monster for over 20 years

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The monster affectionately known as “Nessie” may be a myth, but its most dedicated seeker doesn't care.

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Pop Art illustration

LOCH NESS, UK — The monster hunter isn’t quitting.

Do not believe the news reports that pinged around the world last month faster than the flick of a dragon’s tail.

Steve Feltham, full-time professional seeker of the Loch Ness Monster, holder of the Guinness World Record for longest continuous vigil for “Nessie,” has reached no conclusions about the cryptid that may or may not inhabit this freshwater lake in the Scottish Highlands.

He has not determined that Nessie is a giant catfish. He has not ended his search. He is not walking away from his dream.

“I’m not leaving Loch Ness,” Feltham, 52, says in a video filmed inside the van where he lives and posted to his website. “Never have intended to. Never will, until we solve this mystery.”

In 1991 Feltham sold his house, quit his job and left his girlfriend to search for the Loch Ness Monster.

He bought a 1970 Commer van formerly used as a mobile library and drove it north from Dorset, England to the Scottish Highlands.

On July 18, 1991, he looked out on the lake for the first time as a full-time monster hunter.

“This is it,” 28-year-old Feltham said, in a moment captured by the BBC’s “Video Diaries.” “I am home.” Then he let out a whoop of joy.

“July 18th. That’s when my biggest hunt starts. It’s gonna go on for years. And what it holds, I have no idea.

“Not the loch. I’ve got a vague idea of what the loch holds,” he says almost dismissively, as if that isn’t the point. The mystery is “what the hunt holds.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest secret: The monster hunter has already found what he was looking for.

Great loch

Surrounded by forested hills, often covered with a cloud of mist, Loch Ness is stunning.

At 23 miles long, a mile wide and 755 feet at the deepest point, it holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined, Scotland’s tourist literature notes with a hint of satisfaction.

At the northern end the River Ness wriggles upward to the Beauly Firth, an inlet opening onto the North Sea.

It’s not Scotland’s biggest lake (loch means lake in Scottish Gaelic). By many accounts, it’s not the most picturesque.

But it is the only loch with worldwide recognition. The name instantly evokes its famous maybe-inhabitant: the Loch Ness Monster.

Since the peak of Nessie mania in the 1930s, there have been thousands of eyewitness sightings, many from sober, sincere people who describe remarkably similar things: a smooth back, a dark shape, a heavy-seeming object moving through the water.

About 200,000 people visit Loch Ness each year, many inspired (at least in part) by the Nessie legend.

There have been several serious searches for the animal — boat expeditions, sonar soundings. None have turned up anything conclusive. But nothing dissuades the believers, like Feltham, who look out on the lake’s placid waters and see a mystery to be solved.

The monster first surfaced in a seventh century account of the life of St. Columba, an Irish monk who impressed his followers by repelling a violent “water beast” with nothing more than the sign of the cross and some stern words.

The creature was mostly quiet until 1933, when the Spicers, a London couple driving around the lake’s newly completed road, claimed to see a long-necked "prehistoric animal” slithering across the highway into the lake. Dozens of similar sightings followed.

“Sir Godfrey Collins, Secretary of State for Scotland, authorized Inverness police to warn residents and visitors that the creature, if sighted, must not on any pretext be molested, shot or trapped,” The New York Times reported Dec. 9, 1933.

In 1934, a London doctor named Kenneth Wilson snapped a photograph of a mysterious shape rising from the lake’s still surface. The Daily Mail published the monster’s most famous portrait, a grainy image of what looks like a hump and a dinosaur-like neck.

Within days, a line of cars was snaking to Loch Ness. A legend was born.

Mad about the monster

Steve Feltham visited the lake for the first time as a 7-year-old on a family vacation in 1970. He was captivated.

"They sort of knew Loch Ness was the perfect babysitter,” Feltham told the Inverness Courier in 2011. “I’d be in a tent beside Loch Ness and they could go into Inverness to do some shopping, when they got back three hours later I’d still be there, staring at the water, not having moved.”

As an adult Feltham worked as a potter, then a bookbinder, then a graphic artist. He went into business with his father installing security alarms. He bought a house and got a steady girlfriend. He was miserable.

“The thing that got to me most while working in people’s homes was the number of retired folk who would say, ‘Oh, I wish I'd gone and lived in America when I was your age,’ or climbed Mount Everest, or whatever,” Feltham wrote in the Guardian.

“What would I regret not having done when I reached 70? It was obvious: I knew where I was at my happiest, and what I was most interested in. So I quit the relationship, and put the house on the market.”

He spent the early years roaming around the lake in the van, which has a potbelly stove and space to sleep but no running water or electricity. He used buckets of icy lake water for baths and refrigeration.

In the late 1990s the van broke down for good. He parked it on the shores of Dores, a village on the loch’s northeast bank, and has remained there ever since. The pub nearby gave him a key to their outdoor bathroom.

He has seen an unexplained object in the loch exactly once, sometime around 1992. It was a torpedo-like shape pushing through the water. Feltham made a mental note to take a photograph the next time he saw it. He never did.

“I never set a time limit, but I suppose I thought that within the first three years I would surely see and film something,” Feltham wrote.

“I now know that was a wee bit optimistic.”

To find a seeker

I want to find the Nessie Hunter. This is a bit of a quest in itself.

Emails to the address on his website, NessieHunter.co.uk, go unanswered. So do messages to his 1,400-plus member Facebook group.

I check with Ellie House, a reporter from the Inverness Courier, where Feltham is so well known to staff and readers that headlines refer to him by first name.

House doesn’t have Feltham’s phone number either. The best way to find him, she offers, is to simply show up at the van where he lives on northeastern beach next to the Dores Inn pub.

Some days later I am crossing the Firth of Forth in a rental car. I am driving to the Scottish Highlands to find a monster hunter who may or may not be home.

In my defense, it is not the strangest search ever undertaken at Loch Ness.

At Inverness, the Scottish Highlands’ biggest city, the road boomerangs south and forks toward the lake at a traffic circle crowned in the middle with a cheerful wooden statue of Nessie. Off a smaller road sits the Dores Inn, an attractive little lakeside pub with sweeping views of the loch.

The van is parked on the beach, just behind the dirt parking lot. It’s painted with a jolly, gently psychedelic aesthetic reminiscent of Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. A table of handmade Nessie models sits out for sale, next to a pair of signs reading “Nessie Hunter: Nessie-sery Independent Research.”

And there is the monster hunter, sitting under a canopy out front, rolling out tiny Nessies from Fimo clay that stains his fingers green.

 

He supports himself through the sale of his handmade Nessie models. Full disclosure: my kid owns one of these now. #globalpost

A photo posted by Corinne Purtill (@corinnepurtill) on

In person, Feltham is more subdued than the zany character of his homemade videos. The last few weeks, he says, have been a mess.

In July, over lunch with a local journalist, he mentioned that he believes that the thing in the water was most likely a wels catfish, a theory put forth by fellow Nessie-phile Dick Raynor in the 1980s. 

Meet the wels catfish.

The reporter wrote up a few paragraphs for a local paper.

A national newspaper seized the story, Feltham says, adding the “completely made up” twist that he was giving up his search. A wire service picked that up, and within days, false reports of the world’s most dogged Nessie hunter’s retirement had zoomed around the globe.

Feltham is about as reasonable about the prospect of unexplained life in Loch Ness as a person certain there is unexplained life in Loch Ness can be. He does not expect a plesiosaur-like creature to suddenly rise from the water, though that certainly would be exciting.

It is more accurate to say that he’s searching for the truth — the reason for multiple strange sightings over the years — than for an animal that looks like the popular caricature of Nessie.

“There has been something living here that we haven’t identified,” he tells GlobalPost. “There’s definitely been something. There’s been a small population of something. I think that small population is nearly gone now. We’re looking for the last one or two.”

There are people who think the lake’s bottom contains a portal in time to prehistory. Others think it is holds a passage to Hollow Earth.

Feltham believes the explanation for the similar sightings over the years is rooted in physical science. He’s drawn to the pleasurably puzzling nature of one of Britain’s few uncharted places.

“The British Isles is this relatively small country. We know who owns every square inch of it. But in the British Isles we’ve got this very large body of water with some unknown animals in it,” he said, his hands busily shaping more clay mini-Nessies.

“I’m trying to solve this mystery.”

What mystery?

If you want to be a total buzzkill about it, the mystery is already solved. There is no Loch Ness monster.

On the other side of the lake from Feltham’s van is Drumnadrochit, the unofficial capital of Nessiephilia.

It’s home to Nessieland theme park, several boat cruises, and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, where tour buses disgorge an international tide of passengers.

Inside the Gothic stone building, a multimedia tour narrated by Adrian Shine, pre-eminent expert and leader of the Loch Ness Project, debunks one Nessie theory after another.

The loch’s icy waters are unusually devoid of nutrients. There isn’t enough food to support the amount of fish a dinosaur-sized creature would need to feed. Sonar and video surveillance have found no monsters, either.

A lot of people have indeed seen things they genuinely could not explain. They’re not lying. They just probably didn’t see what they think they did.

The shapes people describe can all be created by common phenomena in the lake — seals, twigs, boat wakes.

Even the Spicers, the 1930s couple who saw the animal slither in front of their car, were probably misinterpreting the shimmering heat off the freshly laid asphalt.

A 1984 analysis of the famous “Surgeon’s Photograph” in the British Journal of Photography concluded that it was likely a fake.

Ten years later, an elderly man confessed to having helped his stepfather fake the photograph, using a toy submarine and a model of a monster’s head. (The stepfather was a grudge-bearing big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell. We don’t have time to get into it here, but he is totally worth a Google.)

Other famous “photos” of the monster have been proved hoaxes as well, or found to have another explanation.

It has been clear for decades that there is no Loch Ness Monster.

But here’s the thing: nobody cares. The tour empties out into a giant gift shop selling Nessie T-shirts, dolls, pens, pencil cases, snow globes and storybooks. Tourists get back on their buses and drive away down the A82 where every hotel, café, gift shop and traffic sign seems decorated with Nessie’s serpent-like silhouette. The monster is almost always smiling.

 

Walls of Nessies at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition gift shop. Nessie displays the size of a man. #globalpost

A photo posted by Corinne Purtill (@corinnepurtill) on

The Highlands need Nessie. A dry spell of sightings in 2012 was broken when a local cruise operator named George Edwards produced a photo that appeared to be a leathery, arched back rising from the water.

The shape was a fiberglass shell he’d put there himself. When outed a year later, Edwards was unapologetic.

"How do you think Loch Ness would have fared over the years without that picture?” he said in news reports at the time. “I have no guilty feelings at all about what I have done."

Even if the 1934 photo wasn’t a hoax, it’s unlikely that any creature photographed then would still be alive more than 80 years later.

But there are too many people invested in the Nessie legend to ever let it die — both those who profit from it, and those who come to the lake for a beautiful view and a harmless bit of myth.

In the mid-1990s, a study estimated that the Nessie phenomenon had brought an estimated 40 million pounds to Scotland’s economy — about $94 million in today’s dollars, said Kate Turnbull, a spokeswoman for Scotland’s official visitor’s bureau.

“The mystery of the monster is our best tourist attraction and I would hate to see the mystery exploded, as it were,” Robert Wotherspoon, then mayor of Inverness, told The New York Times in 1960.

Then he said he’d personally witnessed the monster sunning itself.

Maybe all you need is Nessie

Feltham is well aware of the body of evidence in the no-Nessie camp. Still, to him, the mystery feels unsolved.

Finding Nessie — that is, conclusively proving the existence of a living creature responsible for the sightings along the lake — “would open up a lot for me,” Feltham said.

He envisions a career as sort of a global sleuth, traveling on to other spots with cryptozoological mysteries. Barring that, he would like to add a conclusive piece of evidence to the Nessie canon.

Critics sometimes needle him about his continued pursuit of an animal that probably doesn’t exist. They’re missing the point. Feltham found what he was looking for on July 18, 1991, the day he stepped out of his van, looked at the water and began a life lived on his own terms.

“I absolutely am in my utopia,” Feltham said. “I long ago broke it down: Constant adventure. Unpredictability. Chance of making a world class discovery. Having those three things in my life — yeah, I’m quite happy with my lot.”

Feltham’s life is a simple one. He chats with visitors and locals in the pub, and with online fans all over the world. He has a cat named Meow and a little piano in his van that he plays when it rains. He wakes up every morning to fresh lake air and a stunning view.

It’s not a bad gig.

“If Loch Ness was next to an industrial estate in England, I’d be interested, but I wouldn’t jack my life to go sit beside it,” he said.

People tell him his story gave them courage to emigrate to America, or to climb a mountain, he says. A guy wrote a book crediting the Nessie Hunter with inspiring his move to Vietnam.

It sounds like a self-lionizing anecdote. But then he goes into the van and emerges with a hard-backed copy of “Eating Viet Nam,” food blogger Graham Holliday’s memoir of Southeast Asia.

Chapter three is called “In Search of a Monster.” In it Holliday describes being a bored 23-year-old in Rugby, England, and coming across “Desperately Seeking Nessie,” the video diary of Feltham’s first year on the loch that aired in 1992 on the BBC.

He was taken with Feltham’s pursuit of his passion. The decision to move to Vietnam, he wrote, was the moment he’d “found my monster.”

So no, the monster hunter isn’t quitting.

“It doesn’t matter what your personal dream is,” Feltham said, as rain began to fall on the lake. “Do the thing you want to do. Just follow your dreams. I’m living proof that it doesn’t matter how specialist or whimsy-esque your dream is. If it works for you, if it fills your heart with joy, do it.”