February 25, 2011
Much brouhaha over a lake "monster" was sparked by a camera-phone photo taken on England's Lake Windermere by a kayaker named Tom Pickles on Friday, February 11, 2011. The purported creature is known variously as "Winnie" and (after the nearby town of Bowness) "Bownessie." (See Nick Collins, "New photo of ‘English Nessie' hailed as best yet," The Telegraph , Feb. 18, 2011).
The photo presents many common problems (in this case including foggy conditions and digital file size), and raises many of the questions posed by other such photographs. For example, it might really be a "fauxtograph," such as a Photoshopped image that, especially given its small file size, would make it difficult to detect alteration. Therefore, since the burden of proof in such cases is on the claimant—not on someone else to prove a negative—the photo is not proof of anything.
Again, it might be an unaltered photo of an altered scene. Someone suggested "possibly a plastic garbage bag with trapped air pockets, being towed behind a boat." (See comments on Darren Naish's posting on Scienceblogs.com, Feb. 22, 2011.) Or it might be an unaltered photo of an unaltered scene that, although understood by the photographer—a row of rocks say, with water flowing past to create a wake effect—is presented in a deliberately mysterious way. (One person's assertion that the photo was definitely not made from a kayak but from higher above the water, meaning Pickles was lying, was misguided, in my opinion and that of a photo expert I consulted.)
For the sake of argument, however, if we accept the photograph as genuine and the eyewitness accounts of Pickles and his companion Sarah Harrington as sincere, we can pose a different solution. Consider Pickles' description of "a giant dark brown snake" with skin "like a seal's" and "humps measuring three car lengths" (he thought that for each hump there was more bulk beneath the water) together with his comment that "Each hump was moving in a rippling [i.e., undulating] motion and it was swimming fast," indeed "moving really quickly at about 10 mph." Except for size, which is often exaggerated in such instances, this is a credible description—shape, skin, speed, undulation, and all—of large European otters swimming in a line (spaced apart, before subsequently bunching together) to create the well-known illusion of a single serpentine creature. (See my "Lake Monster Lookalikes," Skeptical Briefs , June 2007.) Otters are definitely among the major fauna at Lake Windermere.
Applying this hypothesis to Pickles' photo, we can see possibly two wakes, converging in the image of two or more otters. Reading the "monster" left to right, there is the long thick tail, a first hump which is the hunched body, and a second hump consisting of the arched neck and head; the second two humps would represent at least one other creature, also hunched—the otters possibly caught on camera just before diving from sight.
The least likely possibility is that the "monster" is some great leviathan, such as a prehistoric plesiosaur, given the relative modernity of the lake and the fact that a breeding population of such creatures would be necessary for the species to propagate. Surely the carcass of one would eventually surface, unless, of course, we recognize that imaginary creatures are immortal.