Article by Andy McGrath, author of “Beasts of Britain.”
A Real Creature Feature
At this point in our conversation, it would be reasonable to assume that I am a proponent of the plesiosaur theory, but that doesn’t mean that I believe that every water monster report I hear always has to be a plesiosaur. I am just as enthusiastic about giant eel, catfish, sturgeon, otter, beaver and seal sightings, and would readily agree that over the years many serpentine, humped, snake-like and crocodilian-like sightings, especially when observed just above the surface of the water; could easily be explained by misidentification of these common water monster impostors.
Such animals are unfamiliar to the majority of British people and cases of mistaken identity could be quite high amongst witnesses who are unfamiliar with the natural environment, especially when the animal witnessed is large or viewed from a distance. Even for those trained in the art of observation, it is commonly accepted that estimating the size of an object in water, especially at distance, is notoriously difficult.
This however, only makes the criteria for the plesiosaur theory easier to prove, due to some of the very obvious anatomical differences and restrictions that these other animals have in comparison to our alleged plesiosaur friends.
One of the creatures I want to put forward for examination under these criteria is ‘Bownessie’ of Lake Windermere, Cumbria, in the North of England.
‘Bownessie’ has been recorded on camera several times in the last 11 years and I believe that the descriptions of the animal clearly pass the test for misidentification, with many of the sightings leaving little room for rebuttal of the plesiosaur theory. However, as it is important, especially for the ardent believer in these creatures, to remain skeptical, an attempt shall be made in this chapter to expedite, not neutrality, but fairness in examining the enigma of this Dragon of The North. Here, I will place in juxtaposition, this creature’s reported and recorded attributes to a list of commonly sighted ‘imposter animals’ to discover whether we can find the match with which to set this peevish plesiosaur theory alight and in so doing, find that one size fits all proposition; to simultaneously please no one and therefore by dereliction, everyone.
Using the most recent photographic evidence and sightings as a guide, let us try to compare the evidence, with our list of ‘imposter animals’ and see what it is we discover about these alleged photos of prehistoric animals and the witnesses who claim to see them.
Creepy Critter Corroboration
‘Bownessie’ was first reported in 2006 by journalism lecturer Steve Burnip. He said: “I saw a straight line of broken water with three humps. It was about 20ft long and it went in a straight line up the lake. I nudged my wife and watched open-mouthed as it gradually faded from sight. The water was not choppy, so I know it wasn’t the wind, and I know what the wake from motor boats looks like and it wasn’t that either.”
Photographer Linden Adams took a picture of a creature estimated to be around 15-feet in length from Gummers How overlooking the lake in February 2007. He was so affected by his experience that he went on to set up a website, http://www.bownessie.com (now defunct) to enable people to record details of their own sightings.
Later that year a sailor reported an attack on his boat. The six-tonne yacht was moored at the north end of the lake at night when the crew was awoken by a loud banging noise, which shook the vessel.
|Photo by Linden Adams 2007|
In 2009, a Mr Noblett was hit by a three-foot wave whilst swimming Windermere.
Tom Pickles took a photo of a humped object early in 2011, whilst kayaking on the lake. He described the object as “a giant dark brown snake with humps measuring three car lengths” and said its skin texture was seal-like, but that the creature had a “completely abnormal” shape. The creature moved very fast and with an undulating motion. The creature was also observed by his colleague Sarah Harrington who described it as being “like an enormous snake”.
|Photo by Tom Pickles 2011|
Holidaymakers, Brian and June Arton from Hovingham, North Yorkshire, spotted something unusual in the lake from the Beech Hill Hotel, on February 16th, 2011. Brian said: “We’d just checked into our hotel room at around 4pm when I opened the veranda doors and saw something about 300 yards away in the middle of the lake, I joked to my wife:‘There’s the Loch Ness monster’ as it had humps, but I thought it had to be a pontoon or a very strange shaped buoy. It wasn’t until we saw The Westmorland Gazette the next day that we realised that it could have been a sighting of ‘Bownessie’ ”.
Retired vicar Colin Honour and his wife spotted a mysterious creature in the waters of Windermere. After reading a story in The Westmorland Gazette about witness, Matt Benefield taking a picture of a strange ripple on the lake in 2014. He felt compelled to recount an encounter he and his wife, Christine, had with the legendary‘Bownessie’ on November 17, 2012. The couple were out walking on the north side of the lake by Wray Castle when something caught their eye in the water.
Mr Honour said: “It was a very calm and clear day. We were looking at the Lake and my wife spotted something in the water. She thought it was a log at first but then it moved. There were no boats around and we could see three definite humps in the water – it must have been about five or six metres in length. We didn’t do anything with the photographs we took at the time because we felt they weren’t terribly conclusive, but in the light of the recent article, perhaps they’ll provide further evidence of Bownessie.”
|Photo By Colin Honor 2012|
Petrophysicist, Matt Benefield had his sighting on January 12, 2014, whilst at the north of the Lake, taking photographs. Although he was not aware at the time that he had seen anything, when flicking through the photos back at home, he noticed a strange anomaly in the water. He said: “It was a really calm day and the water was very still. There was nobody out in the water, it was very quiet. When I was looking back through the photos, one caught my eye, I wouldn’t normally think anything of it, but it was the two ripples in the water that got me thinking there was possibly something strange in the Lake.”
|Photo by Matt Benefield, 2014|
Ellie Williams accidentally captured ‘Bownessie’after setting up an automatic camera on the shore of the lake. She had set up the camera to take photographs at one minute intervals throughout the day to document the changing colours of autumn. After she retrieved her camera and downloaded the pictures she was amazed by what she saw.
Elle, who works for Autographer Magazine in London, said: “My brief time at Windermere was to try to create a video through time lapsed photographs showing the seasonal changes over a day. I put the camera in place at around 7am and collected it again around 3pm. When I downloaded the pictures to my phone I thought great I have caught some wildlife – I thought it was a swan. However, when I download the imageonto my laptop I could tell it definitely wasn’t a swan – it was far too big. I was shocked but also very excited by the find. I checked the pictures taken on either side of the lake and can say it was definitely not the result of a prank because I would have captured those responsible on film. It certainly is very interesting.”
|Photo by Ellie Williams, 2014|
In order to understand the differences between what our eyewitnesses are reporting and what their cameras are recording, we will compare them against the classic ‘Monster Imposters’ that are oft invoked to explain them. Here, I have detailed a short definition of each ‘imposter’ in turn with a reason as to why they could not match the descriptions and evidence that we have for a plesiosaur in Lake Windermere:
The Eurasian Otter which reaches a maximum length of 4.5 ft is slender and agile, a rich brown colour above and cream coloured below. It is an excellent fisherman but even at its maximum length, it can hardly be mistaken for a for a large aquatic monster.
The Wels Catfish was first successfully introduced into the UK over 130 years ago by the Duke of Bedford who stocked 70 of them into his now famous lakes at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. It is still considered rare in Britain, although its distribution is increasing every year and there are now catfish waters in nearly every county in England. They can reach a length of 5 meters (16ft). It has a very serpentine appearance and if a large specimen was residing in the lake, it could explain some of the sightings of a long serpentine animal, but does not sadly, explain the long swan-like neck and serpentine head often observed in Lake Windermere, sticking six feet or more out of the water.
|Caught in Feb 2017, a 8ft, 9in Wels Catfish
Photo by Dino Ferrari
Pike can grow to a relatively large size: with maximum recorded lengths of up to 150 cm (59 in) The Pike is quite a distinctive and recognisable fish, however and although it has quite a crocodilian or reptilian looking head, it is in both size and appearance nothing like our slippery denizen of the deep.
|The Plymouth Crocodile
Photo by Allan Jones
The Giant Eel theory is the most plausible as far as mistaken identity is concerned, however, these giant sterile eels cannot reach the lengths that Bownessie is claimed to be by those that witness them. Also, Sterile Eels tend to grow in girth rather than length. There was a case of a giant conger eel, 20 feet long, being trawled up by fisherman just off Plymouth, in Devon in 2015, in an area that has had more than its fair share of monster sightings. But this later turned out to be a hoax, a little inside joke by the fisherman concerned, playfully pulled off using nothing more than the power of perspective!
Also in 2015, Photographer Allan Jones took some pictures of a creature dubbed the PlymouthCrocodile, wallowing in the waters off Plymouth Sound in Devon. He said the ’20 foot long’ animal was swimming against the current about half a mile offshore, The animal looks strangely serpentine with a somewhat crocodilian back.
These 2 images of the Plymouth Crocodile and a Giant Conger Eel show that there is definitely a world of difference between reported sea monsters and large eels. But for those who would like to exclude the mistaken identity theory, I guess the ridged or ribbon like back or the pointed hump would be proof enough in the case of Bownessie, or the scaly reptilian back in the case of the Plymouth crocodile, as well as the rather inconvenient fact that the latter was photographed holding its head above water, would also be proof enough to exclude ‘giant sterile eels’, as possible culprits for these sightings, due to the anatomical impossibility of an eel moving in this way.
Sturgeon are among the largest fish with some in the Caspian sea growing up to 5.5 m (18 ft) They are also among the longest-lived of the fishes, some living well over 100 years
The Sturgeon could definitely account for some of the reptilian descriptions of scaly, armoured or serpentine creatures that some eyewitnesses have seen, but in deference to some very prominent characteristics they are incredibly lacking. For example, they do not undulate, or have paddle like flippers, they have a prominent dorsal fin towards the end of their tails with a shark like fluke, instead of the long straight tail of the lake monster. They are likewise, also inadequate in their lacking the long serpentine neck and head that Bownessie is alleged to have.
|White Sturgeon –
source of photo unknown
|Grey Seal – source of photo unknown|
Grey seals can be seen in the inshore waters of Cumbria, including the salt water stretches of rivers draining into Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. The U.K.’s largest native mammal, grey seals can be 3 metres long and weigh 300kg. The seal is so often a candidate for the ‘monster imposter’that it is important to deal with its impotence in imitating anything more than the humps of a monster, and then only if photographed quickly, as the optical illusion of this formation will not hold line or synchronicity long enough to fool the observer for long. (There was in 2016, a very famous photo that was claimed to be taken at Loch Ness. What can clearly be seen in that photo is that three seals that are definitely givingthe optical illusion of a humped beast swimming in the Loch. I have serious doubts however, as to whether the animals could maintain this ‘natural hoax’ for very long!)
Feeling Sorry for the Seal, Sturgeon and Eel
The most likely large candidates for ‘Mistaken Identity’ in lake Windermere are the Otter, Sturgeon, Catfish, Pike and Eel. These animals are commonly used as scapegoats for witness and even sometimes photographic reports of lake monsters. Claims of overactive minds, frail brains, poor depth perception and mistaken identity are delivered with the usual, off handed, snub like scepticism, that seems to try to paint a picture of sceptics as benevolent long suffering keepers of scientific fact, trying to educate the ignorant witness about the impossibility of his/her sighting due to the unfortunate hindrance of these animals no longer being in existence. Requiring no proof at all, they conjure up animals such as the ‘giant long necked seal’ (a fictional animal, completely absent from the fossil record) or insist on the mistaken identity of a known species that quickly becomes an ill fitted match compared to the descriptions of the eyewitness reports. Some less careful sceptics even employ animals that are not known to frequent the areas in question or grow anywhere near to the sizes described by the eyewitnesses, in order to debunk their sightings and convince people of their fallible source.
What are the Features of these Creatures?
Here are some of the many characteristics attributed to lake and sea monsters, many of which it will be clear to see are rather unyielding when we attempt to explain them with our regular host of ‘Monster Imposters’.
- A long neck, raised 6 ft or more out of the water.
- Four distinct flippers or paddles, unlike the fins or tail of the sturgeon or the 2 front flippers and fused hind flippers of the seal.
- A fat round body, that is sometimes arched in a steep hump and sometimes stretched out.
- A long tapering tail. Far to long to be that of an otter or catfish and not fitting the anatomical profile of a seal.
- A horse-like mane of what looks like hair or fibres, This is only occasionally sighted on some sea and lake monsters and is also unlike the description of otters or seals.
- Two stubby giraffe like horns, on a horse or camel shaped head, with what appear to look like rounded buds at their ends (There is no known sea creature that has stubby horns on its head).
- Several humps. Many water monster eyewitnesses reports describe 2-5 humps that undulate and straighten out, indicating the creature has a lot of spinal flexibility. This unique physical attribute has literally been a staple and regular description provided by witnesses of water monsters all around the world (Bownessie, Morgawr, Nessie, The Tay River Monster, Tamsin, Ogopogo, Caddy, Champ and many others).
- Clawed feet, round like a hippos, but with very distinct claw marks, as witnessed several times around the beaches and mudflats of Barmouth Estuary in connection with the monster of the same name.
- A diamond shaped head as described by witnesses of the Pembroke Dock Monster. This is a very reptilian characteristic and unlike any known seal or cetacean.
- Amphibious behaviour, as witnessed on several occasions at Loch Ness, Lake Bala, Barmouth Estuary and others (seals are amphibious yes, but never reported at these giant sizes and would be very hard to mistake one for a long necked plesiosaurid beast when seen out of the water).
- Although migrating eels do occasionally take to land when trying to reach another waterway that leads to the sea; they are very distinctive and slither and writhe. They are most likely to be mistaken for a snake before being mistaken for a monster. They do not waddle, hop or lumber as Nessie has been witnessed doing, and definitely cannot raise their head from the ground in any way that would resemble or be mistaken for a plesiosaur.
The lady doth protest too much
So why not a Plesiosaur? Why do we despise this elegant creature so much, that the very question of its existence partitions perceptions even before the evidence is presented and the facts are understood. I believe that much of this comes down to the pervading paradigm of our time which maintains that these animals died out long ago and their absence from the fossil record, after a certain time period, is ‘absolute proof’ of their demise. It is not my intention in this book to enter in to the arguments of materialism or creationism, suffice to say that I hold the opinion that the geologic column is a mental abstraction, compiled through the process of correlation (the co-relating) of fossils from different rock layers around the globe to form a guide to how life should have evolved according to the theory of evolution.
Even the most hardened sceptics know that this denial of a fair hearing for our ‘long necked friends’ largely boils down to an amalgamation of science and philosophy, an anything but ‘this extinct fossil anomaly’mentality. Combined with peer pressure; which has on occasion even been known to have had an undesired effect upon employment and opportunity for the serious scientist, the encouragement to hold to the official line is somewhat paralysing. The point I am gingerly trying to make is this, that since the geologic column is itself a mental abstraction about the origins of life in our world and does not (by the open confession of geologists) actually exist in any one place in the world in its proposed order, then, we really don’t have to let the ‘fact’ that plesiosaurs died out millions of years ago, stop us from believing that they could still exist in our rivers, lakes and seas today!
I think that I will leave this argument here to others far more learned than myself to make, as I truly have no interest in entering in to this minefield, from which few return intact. My intent is to simply put forward evidence in this book, anecdotal and otherwise, that these creatures still exist! the objective reader will no doubt find arguments for and against prehistoric aquatic reptiles frequenting the waters of the British Isles throughout this chapter and will be left alone to come to their own conclusion.
|Map of the Lake District, Cumbria|
Where you been hiding?
Why wasn’t the Monster of Lake Windermere seen before 2006? Bownessie witness, Steve Burnip has a theory as to why it may have not been sighted until now. He believes a speed limit imposed on the lake in 2006 may have led to an increase in sightings. There are several theories about this new phenomenon, some of which may be true or at least partially true. When theorising that our creature could be a plesiosaur and therefore amphibious in nature, it is reasonable to assume that it might be capable of travelling, if needed, at least some short distance over land. There are other lakes that could sustain a monster or two: Coniston Water, Bassenthwaite Lake, Buttermere, Loweswater et al; most of which connect to the sea. I am personally of the opinion that these creatures reside in the lakes of Cumbria at certain times of year and at others make their way out to the open sea, most probably following food sources like salmon and eels.
The Beast of Bassenthwaite Lake
There is really only one other substantiated report that I could find about other water monsters in the lake district, which fortunately comes with a wonderful black and white ‘Nessie-like’ photo as well and that is the Beast of Bassenthwaite Lake.
In the summer of 1973, Rudolf Staveness and Gunnar Jacobson photographed a strange creature in the water, whilst holidaying at Bassenthwaite Lake. Rudolf said: “Resting near to the Lake I saw something that made me both excited and intrigued at the same time. Something strange was swimming in the lake. It ducked below the surface and reappeared some distance away. The speed that the animal moved was amazing. I have never been able to find out what it was I saw, and my story has been met with some ridicule.”
There have not been any reported sightings of the creature in recent times and diving is not allowed in the Lake, so I would assume that this body of water could provide a more secluded or quieter homestead for these beasts, if beasts they be, from which to spread out to the other lakes and perhaps even travel to and from the sea.
|The Beast of
Lake Rudolf Staveness
and Gunnar Jacobson , 1973
The River Leven– A Monster’s Ingress to the Sea
The River Leven is a short river in the county of Cumbria, It drains Windermere from its southernmost point and flows for approximately 8 miles (13 km) into the northern reaches of Morecambe Bay. The Leven is navigable upstream as far as Low Wood, and downstream from Windermere to Newby Bridge. The Leven is a noted salmon river. At spawning time the fish can be seen jumping up the waterfalls at Backbarrow. The river is also popular with kayakers due to the rapids found between Newby Bridge and Haverthwaite.
What’s on the Menu?
Windermere has plenty of fish species on the menu, more than enough to feed a hoard of hungry monsters and the local angling community in the form of arctic charr, brown trout, pike, perch, roach and eels. Salmon and sea trout also pass through the lake to spawn in its tributaries whilst the young trout or salmon migrate downstream through the lake in spring, on their way to the sea.
This article was originally published on the website “Beasts of Britain” by author Andy McGrath, reprinted here with permission from the author.
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