Early sightings (pre-1930s):
Contrary to statements commonly trotted out by skeptics and journalists, there have indeed been sightings of large, unusual, unidentified creatures in and around Loch Ness prior to the rash of sightings that catapulted the beast to worldwide fame in the early 1930s. The first reported sighting was by Saint Columba in either 565 A.D. or 580 A.D. in the River Ness. A ferocious water beast reportedly attempted to eat a man, but retreated after Columba invoked the sign of the cross.
In 1696, it was reported by an English soldier stationed at Loch Ness that the local populace spoke of a "floating island" that was regularly seen in the loch. This so-called "island" was said to traverse the loch, the way a living creature would.
Several sightings were also reported in the late 19th century.
Loch Ness researcher Roland Watson has written a book about Nessie sightings prior to the 1930s titled The Water Horses of Loch Ness. For anyone seeking more detailed and comprehensive information on mysterious cryptozoological occurrences at Loch Ness in the pre-1930s era, the book can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/books/dp/1461178193 (I am not affiliated with or connected to the book, and I am adding this link merely for informational purposes).
1930s: Nessie's Rise to Fame
The beast rose to international notoriety after a flare of sightings occurred in 1933 following the construction of a new road next to the loch. In the 1930s, naturalists speculated upon the creature's identity. Dutch zoologist Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans suggested that the monster was a landlocked version of his hypothetical sea serpent, Megophias megophias, a giant long-necked, long-tailed pinniped which he had first hypothesized in his 1892 book The Great Sea Serpent. Meanwhile, Rupert T. Gould suggested that it may be something like a long-necked newt or salamander. A newspaper account stated that the monster "bore a striking resemblance to the supposedly-extinct plesiosaur." Others have suggested that the creature may be a gigantic eel. The plesiosaur hypothesis has, by far, been the most popular, and has permeated popular culture the most, but has received harsh criticism from the majority of the scientific community. The first photograph of the cryptid was taken by Hugh Grey on November 12, 1933, and has been dubbed the Grey Photo. The photo is blurry and indistinct, and some skeptics have suggested that it merely shows a dog swimming towards the camera while carrying a stick in its mouth. Conversely, cryptozoological researcher Roland Watson has conducted an in-depth, intensive analysis of the photo, and claims that, if the photo is magnified, what appears to be a head is visible on the far right side of the photo, with the mouth open wide in a gaping expression, and what appears to be a fish-like eye. Perhaps the most famous – and infamous – photo of the creature was taken by a gynecologist from London named Robert Kenneth Wilson on April 19, 1934. Known as the Surgeon's Photo, it shows a swan-like head and neck peering above the surface of the water. The photo became the definitive photo of the monster, and firmly cemented the image in the consciousness of the general public of a plesiosaur-like animal as the most likely identity for the creature, although it would eventually be exposed as a hoax 60 years later.
1960s–1970s: The Golden Age/Nessie Renaissance
In many ways, the 1960s and 1970s (especially the latter) can be thought of as the "Golden Age" of Nessie research, or a "Nessie Renaissance" (analogous to the Dinosaur Renaissance that occurred in paleontology at around the same time). In 1960, aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale recorded a film of a hump moving along the surface of the water and leaving a wake behind it. Skeptics have claimed that it shows a boat, with some even claiming that a man standing on the boat is vaguely visible. However, an analysis by JARIC claimed that the object was "animate". This film, although short and not very detailed, is often trotted out as evidence by supporters of the existence of the creature.
Numerous expeditions have been organized throughout the decades to search for the creature. One of the largest and most intriguing was the Big Expedition of 1970, in which hydrophones were planted in Urquhart Bay to monitor any sounds or movements indicative of the presence of large animals. Clicking noises reminiscent of echolocation were recorded, followed by a swishing noise possibly suggesting the tail movements of a substantially-sized aquatic animal. According to biologist Roy P. Mackal of the University of Chicago, who was present on the expedition, out of the multitude of sounds known to be produced by known species of aquatic animals, none matched the mysterious recordings from the loch that were obtained on the expedition. Mackal would eventually write a book about the monsters, titled The Monsters of Loch Ness. Published in 1976, the book documented all of the evidence (photographic, film, and sonar), that had been accumulated up to that point, and then discussed the myriad expeditions and attempts to search for the monster. It then delved into a discussion of the most plausible candidates for the creature's identity, with mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, and piscean candidates all being considered. Each candidate was assessed in a checklist that compared its physical characteristics to those of the Loch Ness cryptids as deduced from eyewitness accounts, photos, and films. In the end, Mackal arrived at the conclusion that an unknown species of long-necked amphibian, possibly related to the large predatory embolomers that existed during the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago, was the candidate that matched the evidence from Loch Ness the most, with a gigantic eel coming in at a close second.
Another researcher who contributed much to the search for the Loch Ness Monster was Robert H. Rines, founder of the Academy of Applied Science, who led two expeditions to the loch in 1972 and 1975. These led to two of the clearest and highest-quality – yet also highly controversial – photos ever taken of the Loch Ness Monster. One of them shows a diamond-shaped object that resembles the flipper of a large aquatic animal. This came to be known as the "Flipper Photo". Another photo shows what appears to be a gargoyle-like head with horn-like protrusions. This came to be known as the "Gargoyle Head Photograph". Another photo shows what appears to be the head, neck and torso of a large, long-necked aquatic animal that superficially resembles a plesiosaur. This came to be known as the "Neck & Body Photograph". At the same time that these photos were taken, sonar contacts concurrently suggested the presence of large animate moving objects in the water. The photos and sonar contacts from the Rines expeditions led many scientists to tentatively accept the reality of the existence of a large unknown animal in the murky depths of Loch Ness. British naturalist Sir Peter Scott even bestowed upon the elusive beast a scientific name: Nessiteras rhombopteryx, which roughly translates to "the Ness wonder with the diamond-shaped fin", referring to the rhomboid appendage photographed by Rines' team in 1972. Critics charged that the binomial given to the beast by Scott could be interpreted as an anagram for "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S." Rines countered that it could also be interpreted as "Yes, both pix arre monsters." The conversation – and the ensuing controversy – over the Rines photos was the closest that the Loch Ness cryptids ever came to gaining official scientific recognition.
1980s: Research Continues
Meanwhile, expeditions and searches continued. In 1987, Operation Deepscan scanned the entire loch, and although some large anomalous sonar contacts were detected, the expedition did not yield spectacular results.
1990s–present: The Modern Era
Since the 1990s or so, activity at Loch Ness regarding Nessie has somewhat quieted down compared to earlier decades, with fewer sightings reported each year. In 2009, Robert Rines speculated that Nessies may have become extinct, possibly as a result of increasing pollution. He subsequently attempted to locate a body of one of the creatures at the bottom of the loch. While some interesting objects were photographed lying at the bottom of the loch, nothing definitive was found. Rines himself died on November 1, 2009, having left behind an astounding legacy of unparalleled exploration and insight into the Loch Ness phenomenon.
Meanwhile, research and controversy continued to surround the loch and its elusive denizen, and sightings and photos have continued to come in, showing that Rines might have been premature in declaring that Nessie has vacated the premises. There were several sightings in 2011, including a sighting by the Hargreaves on June 15 in which a head and neck were seen protruding out of the water. In August, Marcus Atkinson photographed a sonar trace that appeared to show a large, superficially serpentine object in the loch. It has been suggested that it could be a school of fish or a bloom of algae, although Roland Watson has stated that it is unlikely to be algae, as the water is too dark and murky for algae to be able to photosynthesize in water as deep as the area where the sonar trace was observed.
The George Edwards Controversy (2011–2014):
In November 2011, George Edwards photographed what appeared to be a grey hump breaking the surface of the loch. In August of 2012, Edwards released his photo to the public. However, analysis by other Loch Ness researchers, including Steve Feltham and Steve Plambeck, quickly demonstrated that Edwards's photo was a hoax, and that he had really photographed a fibreglass model of Nessie that had been used in a 2011 documentary at the loch. In 2014, George Edwards filed a complaint to the Drumnadrochit Chamber of Commerce in which he stated that Nessie researchers Adrian Shine and Tony Harmsworth were harming the local tourist business, and recommended that Shine's Loch Ness Centre exhibition be shut down. Tony Harmsworth responded with a letter of his own in which he censured Edwards for his blatant hoaxes and misinformation (such as claiming that he discovered a nonexistent geological formation at the bottom of the loch called "Edwards Deep"), and said that Edwards's hoaxing was harming the reputation of the Loch Ness tourism industry by reinforcing the prevalent belief that Nessie is nothing but a scam invented to attract tourists. The Chamber of Commerce did not print Harmsworth's article, and instead printed an article about an award that Edwards had recently won. In response, Harmsworth resigned his position as Editor of the newsletter. The consternation and rivalry between Edwards and the other Nessie investigators received attention in local newspapers, with many headlines proclaiming that a war was being fought over tourism on the banks of Loch Ness. In my personal opinion, the entire Edwards affair is a sad waste of time that should never have occurred, and serious cryptozoological investigators into the Loch Ness phenomenon should just ignore it. It has done nothing but damage the reputation of serious cryptozoological research at Loch Ness even further and perpetuate the image in the general public's mind that the Loch Ness cryptid is nothing more than a marketing gimmick used to attract tourists to the loch.
With the George Edwards controversy having recently concluded, the future of the Loch Ness cryptids is as unclear as the peat-stained waters of Loch Ness itself. I personally hope that there will be no more silly hoaxes or misleading claims in the future, and that investigators use proper scientific methodology in their search for the elusive beast. In my opinion, researchers should not attempt to take photographs or videos, as we already have dozens of those, and they have proved nothing. The only thing that will finally prove once and for all that an unknown animal really does exist in Loch Ness is tangible, physical evidence – a specimen. I personally think that Mackal's biopsy harpoons were an excellent idea, and I think it is a shame that Mackal's team never had an opportunity to use them. In the future, I think cryptozoological researchers operating at Loch Ness should attempt to use innovative tactics such as biopsy harpoons to obtain biological material (such as a carcass, a skeleton, or a tissue sample from a living animal). I sincerely hope that investigators will use rigorous scientific methodology to ensure that their findings are obtained and presented with adequate integrity. If that happens, then we have a much higher probability of obtaining a specimen. When that day finally comes, the hard work of the researchers who have painstakingly searched the dark depths of the loch for the past 80 years will not have been in vain, and one of the world's greatest and longest-enduring zoological mysteries will have been solved after being shrouded in ambiguity for nearly 1,500 years.