The man who found Sherlock’s Monster: an interview with Adrian Shine

Monday, 10 April 2017

A year ago, in April 2016, a momentous discovery was made in the depths of Loch Ness. Newspapers displayed a sonar image, collected by a state-of-the-art autonomous submersible, that was unmistakably monstrous—and not only because it was rendered in lurid green, blue and brown striations. There was its thick body, there its slender, curving neck. The mystery of Loch Ness had been solved!

Well, not quite. If the mystery might be supposed to have begun with Saint Columba’s encounter with a water beast back in 565 (it’s a matter for debate), then this was a minor branch of it, dating from 1969. The discovery was of most interest to film historians, in fact, and particularly to those happy few of us who are dedicated fans of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. During the making of that film, the director had commissioned special-effects master Wally Veevers—the man who’d created the spaceships for Kubrick’s 2001—to build a water-going Monster prop for his film. But during testing, Wilder ordered the removal of the model’s humps, which had doubled as floatation units, and the thing had duly sunk without trace beneath the loch’s surface.

But who was responsible for finding it again, and perhaps more pertinently, why had they employed such extraordinarily up-the-minute tech to do it?

‘That was me, actually,’ says Adrian Shine. ‘That was good fun.’

Adrian is leader of the Loch Ness and Morar Project, a naturalist who uses the ‘the Loch Ness controversy’, as he calls it, ‘as a vehicle for interpreting the dynamics and diversity of deep lakes.’ His employment of the Munin underwater robot, operated by Kongsberg Maritime of Norway, is a case in point. Finding Billy Wilder’s model was no surprise, even if it wasn’t the reason for the mission.

‘We did, frankly, know that it was there,’ he tells me, ‘but we were allegedly—and actually—sending this autonomous vehicle out to look at a claim of a deeper area. Every now and again, boatmen with their little echo sounders report deep holes, always close in by the shore. The George Edwards Deep, as it’s been called, and then one from Jacobite Cruises. It’s actually a little anomaly: the side echo from an echo sounder hitting the wall, which returns a range greater than the depth of water beneath your keel.’ In fact, the Project holds the record for such incredible readings, at over a thousand feet. ‘But it’s completely false,’ Adrian adds. ‘As we say, but not everybody does say.’

Instead of blinding people with mathematical calculations and a demonstration of the ways in which the beams might mislead, Adrian—with his characteristic sense for what might really be persuasive—decided to send the autonomous torpedo right down to the bottom of the loch, to fly over the place where people have claimed to have detected a trench.

‘We did it, and of course the trench wasn’t there. This was a very expensive piece of kit we were using, with a very sophisticated sonar on it, not the little consumer echo sounder that people have been using to make those claims. And I noted that in a talk given some time later, that people couldn’t understand why the Munin had not found the trench. The fact that it wasn’t there never occurred to them!’

But the model was there, of course, as he had known it would be.

‘We thought that it would be a lovely end-game to the exercise,’ he says. ‘And we got it on the first pass. So that was fun—and it was certainly a very popular story.’

 

A large part of my novel, The Continuity Girl, is set in and around Drumnadrochit in 1969, and features the eponymous film-crew member, heavily fictionalised, interacting with members of the Loch Ness Research Group, an equally fictionalised version of real-life groups such as the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau. Though I was happy to keep things as fictional as possible, I wanted the science to at least ring true, and Adrian very kindly checked over the claims made by my imaginary scientists. My vision of the group’s working practises is mostly fantasy, too, but Adrian did point out one or two things he recognised as fitting the era.

‘The idea of the chap sitting on the van, you know, that’s pretty much exactly what they did,’ he says, referring to the passages in which my hero, Jim, drives out to likely spots on the banks of the loch and shoots footage from the vantage of his vehicle’s roof. It is also true that researchers at the time used good quality film, including 35mm colour stock. ‘That was the whole point: to apply the best optic and film format that they could, on the basis that they were trying to improve upon the classic pictures that had been taken at opportunity by a number of people. So, they were looking for moving film, the best resolution and format, and there were good telephoto lenses.’

‘I do divide the history of this thing on a decade scale,’ Adrian explains. ‘It doesn’t mean that every decade is free of the methods of the previous one, or indeed the methods of the succeeding one, but I mention the decades in terms of the dominant method of the time. So, the ’60s are surface surveillance, even though they had a submarine by the end; the ’70s are definitely underwater surveillance, visual photographic surveillance; the ‘80s is the sonar era; the ’90s is undoubtedly mainly general science—the indirect method, as I call it; and since then, a bit of indulgence, really, looking back at some of the history and the old sightings, very much in terms of explaining what people are seeing.’

Adrian’s time as a researcher at Loch Ness post-dates the original Loch Ness Investigation, and in fact, his life as a ‘monster hunter’ began on a different loch altogether.  

‘It was ’73,’ he says. ‘I expected to find the Loch Morar survey at work at Loch Morar when I came on the scene. And by the way, that was at Loch Morar, not at Loch Ness, on the basis of the McDonnell-Simpson attack—alleged attack—of 1969.’

On 16 August of that same summer when Billy Wilder was shooting scenes with Robert Stephens and Christopher Lee on the banks of Loch Ness, two local men out fishing on that other loch claimed that their boat had been struck by an enormous water creature, some 25-30 feet long. While one of them (McDonnell) had tried to push the beast away with an oar, the other (Simpson) had fetched a gun from the cabin and had fired a shot at it. The scene could almost have been a rehearsal for the one Wilder would eventually shoot in a tank at Pinewood, that autumn. Four years later, Adrian was drawn to the same stretch of water, where he spent his time ‘drifting in a small boat waiting for an encounter.’ But for now, he was on his own: ‘Both the Loch Morar Survey, which I succeeded directly, and the Loch Ness Investigation, which I was ultimately to succeed at Loch Ness, had finished in 1972.’

The advantage Loch Morar had over Loch Ness—apart from the draw of that dramatic McDonnell-Simpson story—was clear waters. ‘I knew that things had reached the point where the surface photography had failed to reproduce these classic pictures effectively,’ Adrian explains. ‘Because I saw how clear the water was, the next year I built a small submersible observation chamber. In ’75, we did a glass-bottomed boat survey of the shoreline, looking for bones. And in ’76, it was underwater television, which was a lot safer than the submersible.’

Still, no controversial contacts were made by photography under Loch Morar, despite its clarity. At the same time, over in the opaque waters of Loch Ness, something did seem to be occurring. An American team, led by Robert Rimes, had taken some remarkable photographs using a submersible camera. After some initial interest, Sir Peter Scott—the great British naturalist who had been an inspiration to Adrian and a whole generation of scientists—became suspicious and went looking for a second opinion.

‘The directors at the Loch Ness Investigation, particularly David James, picked us,' says Adrian. ‘Peter Scott wanted us to check out some of the circumstances behind the controversial underwater pictures. So, I had a mandate, and in the ’80s, we did return to Loch Ness, which was more suitable for sonar work because it’s much more regular than Loch Morar.’

After the sonar profiling of the 1980s, culminating in 1987’s Operation Deep Scan—an action that involved a big fleet trailing a sonar curtain—there came a shift in emphasis. ‘We went much more for something we had actually been doing all the time, which was the general science of Loch Ness. We knew what the temperatures suggested, in terms of what could live there, and that the food resources were limiting in terms of populations of very large predators, and that sort of thing. We had collaborations with a number of universities on the general science at Loch Ness. No commitment to monsters from them, but we had the logistic infrastructure to support our own programme. We provided the boats, and sometimes the ideas, but they were able to get funding for the study back in the lab.’

In The Continuity Girl, I depict this kind of collaboration occurring much earlier than it really did, but I leave the conclusions that such scientific analyses reached to the novel’s 21st-century timeline. I also leave till its appropriate time my unnamed version of the ROSETTA Project—the plunging of bores into the sediment at the bottom of the loch, to retrieve columns of mud rich in data about the loch’s history, going back several millennia—which Adrian describes as one of his favourite things.  ‘In a way, and in the end, the indirect approach taught us a lot more about the possibilities than any amount of standing around with cameras and binoculars.’

A key location in my novel is the Drumnadrochit Hotel, which I make the base of operations for Billy Wilder’s film crew. In reality, that was the Station Hotel in Inverness. I have this on the authority of Paul Diamond, who was there at the time, and whose father, I.A.L. Diamond, co-scripted the movie with its director, as he had every Billy Wilder movie since 1957. But the Drumnadrochit Hotel suits me as a location because it’s within walking distance of all the other locations in this portion of the novel. As Dr Watson puts it when Holmes complains about the descriptions of him in The Strand Magazine, ‘Poetic licence.’

Nowadays, the Drumnadrochit Hotel is partly morphed into the Loch Ness Centre, an exhibition space where Adrian Shine and the Loch Ness and Morar Project can display their findings. I cannot recommend it highly enough: it combines the dramatic curation you want from a holiday attraction with real historic and scientific rigour, and leaves you with a good deal to ponder. My make-believe version of the hotel has become a somewhat different exhibition, with a different name, run by one of my fictional scientists. Nevertheless, talking to Adrian, I’m keen to know how the genuine article came into existence. 

‘That was in 1980. It was set up by Ronnie Bremner, who was the proprietor of the Drumnadrochit Hotel. We had set up some material down at Fort Augustus, and I didn’t want to see a proliferation of exhibitions, because I thought it would lower the tone. So, in the end we threw in our hand with the Drumnadrochit Centre, to support what we were doing, but also so as not to have a conflict. Seven years later, there was a conflict,’ he adds ruefully, ‘when another exhibition was set up just a hundred yards away, calling itself the "Original Exhibition". But you might have read about those rivalries in the press…

That’s another thing that finds a fictional echo in the novel, albeit set in an earlier era: the rivalries among those involved in what might be called the ‘Nessie industry.’ But my favourite echo—the one I’m pleased to discover is as important to the real Loch Ness investigators as it is to my fictional ones—is a fascination with what makes people want to believe. Of course, that yearning in the population to see something extraordinary in the waters is something Mycroft Holmes understands and exploits in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (and I’ll say no more about that here, in case some of you still have the pleasure of watching that wonderful movie ahead of you). ‘Nowadays,’ says Adrian, ‘we’d be interested in any phenomenon on the loch which might be of interest to people, or cause them to think they might be seeing a monster. That’s where the originators of the Loch Ness Investigation began, but things sort of wandered off those rails in the course of the history of the thing. It became purely a hunt for a monster.’

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