Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Five Takeaways of the Loch Ness Monster: Adrian Shine

There are many mysteries in life that will never be solved.  Who makes the crop circles in farmers’ fields?  Who built those statues on Easter Island?  How did they build the pyramids?  Do aliens exist?  Why is Christopher Walken so scary?

One such mystery that has persisted over centuries is that of the Loch Ness Monster.  In 565 AD, St. Columba, a Gaelic monk, had come to Scotland to spread the word of Christianity.  He was the first person to have reported a Nessie sighting, claiming to have “drove away a certain water monster” by making the sign of the cross with his fingers and yelling religious verse at it.  The “water monster” fled.

Centuries and centuries of sightings followed around Loch Ness.  Old grannies, policemen, monks (Ed. Note: what is with all these monks sighting Nessie?), tourists, shopkeepers all claimed to have seen her.  A photo of Nessie then surfaced, which disappointingly, proved to be a hoax.  With so many sightings, and this one disputed photo, did or didn’t she exist?

Such a mystery brought me forward several hundred years to a little town named Drumnadrochit, Scotland, a little town in Inverness that finds itself the capital of the world’s most legendary lake monster.  I arrived at the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, now The Loch Ness Centre, a multimedia exhibition of all things Loch Ness related.  This centre is also the workplace of the world’s foremost expert on the topic, Adrian Shine.
Shine has been studying the loch for over forty years.  Despite not being formally educated in any institution of higher learning, he has written over 60 academic papers and has had some of the best hands on learning from various naturalists.

“I became interested in the Loch Ness monster when I was a schoolboy in the 1960’s.  I grew up in England and was unsatisfied with all the explanations I had been given about the loch, but was a lazy and somewhat mediocre student and decided to come see it for myself.”

Four decades later, Shine is still at the loch studying its mysteries.  Below, he’s provided some of his five takeaways on Nessie and Loch Ness.

1)  Nessie has been spotted as either a plesiosaur or a serpent type animal.

Over a thousand sightings of a “monster” have been reported since 565AD.  Nessie has often been reported in two forms.  One form is the plesiosaur, a long necked dinosaur, while the other reports have detailed Nessie as a sea serpent.  The former has been more commonly portrayed, and as a result, souvenir shops all over Scotland have been quick to sell merchandise emblazoned with tartan cap sporting plesiosaurs.

2) Nessie is the world’s most pervasive lake monster due to the long timeline of sightings, the Scottish diaspora and lastly, the resurgence of interest in dinosaurs.

In the world of lake monsters, no lake monster has been as revered as Nessie.   Certainly, lake monsters like the Ogopogo and Storsjon lake monsters have strong local followings, but do not even hold a candle to Nessie.  The number of alleged lake monsters abound in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and amount to around two hundred and fifty.  I ask Shine why he thinks that the legend of Nessie has endured.

“First, there is the fact that the legend of Nessie has been around for a very long time.  Very few lake monsters have been around since 565AD.  The other thing I think is a large part of it is after the Jacobite wars in 1741, many Scottish people immigrated overseas – I think many of them took the story of Nessie with them.  Lastly, I think that in North America and Europe, there is an unprecedented amount of enthusiasm for dinosaurs.  This was especially the case after the release of Jurassic Park.”

Somehow, the movie captured the notion that Nessie, or other dinosaur like creatures, are still living in our midst.

3) Most of the sightings could actually be attributed to wakes, rocks, and waves.

Because the loch can be windy, foggy and choppy, many illusions are created.  Many sightings reported over the centuries have been attributed to things as varied as mirages, windslicks, boat wakes, deer, logs, waterbirds, rocks, and boats.  In one unusual case, a Nessie sighting turned out to be an escaped horse from a local barn.

4)  Nessie could be a catfish or a sturgeon.

One explanation for a Nessie sighting could have been that of a sturgeon.  It is not uncommon for strange fish to be seen in Loch Ness – for example, salmon live in salt and freshwater conditions, and come back through the loch to spawn.  Although a sturgeon is not native to the area, there have been cases of Atlantic sturgeon found in the UK wandering through various rivers and locks throughout the 1800s and 1900s.  Though the Atlantic sturgeon is extinct in the UK, Shine suggests that with a horse-like head, the sturgeon could certainly account for the strange fish or kelpie “Water Horse” sightings of some of these years.

Another hypothesis of Shine’s is that Nessie could be a catfish.  There is a predatory European Catfish called the Wels, which lives to approximately 100 years and can grow to 9 feet and 300 lbs.  Shine suggests that, like a salmon, which spawns in the Loch, the catfish eats nothing in fresh water.  The catfish even matches the description of one of the sightings – “In 1932, the year before the monster sensation, a Miss MacDonald saw a crocodile-like creature swimming up the River Ness.  It had a short neck but a long snout and most improbably, two tusks.”  These two tusks could easily be the whiskers of a very large catfish.

5) Nessie could also be caused by underwater waves.

As part of Shine’s study of the topography and biology of the loch, he noted the existence of a thermocline.  A thermocline is a sharp density change between warm and cold layers of water.  Because the loch is aligned directly with the winds, it seesaws the warm and cold water layers, sweeping any debris along with it, causing objects to move in the opposite direction to the wind.

This would explain why certain sightings, where people were certain that it was Nessie since the object was swimming against the wind, could be explained by this natural phenomenon.

Interestingly, other lakes where thermoclines occur – Lake Okanagan, Lake Champlain – also have lake monsters.

Whether Nessie is a plesiosaur, serpent, wake, rock or result of a thermocline – no one will ever know.  However, one thing is certain – Nessie will continue to befuddle people for centuries to come.

More about Adrian Shine and the Loch Ness at http://www.adrianshine.com and http://www.lochnessproject.org.

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The Five Takeaways of Urban Exploration: Sylvain Margaine

I had always been fascinated by old, decaying buildings and what was contained within them – there is a certain romance to them, dreaming of what they were used for, what kind of people were in them, why they were abandoned – however, as a bit of a wimp I never dared venture into them.  Who knew what lurked inside?

Sylvain Margaine, on the other hand, is a seasoned urban explorer and has explored hundreds of abandoned buildings.

Urban exploration is the examination of the unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities, such as factories, storm sewers, old hospitals, offices, or schools.

Sylvain Margaine is a French engineer who lives in Brussels, and has been doing urban exploration since he was a child, along with his father.

“My interest has evolved since I was a child.  Whereas before I did it as an adventure, over time I have become more conscious of the heritages of the buildings, and noted that these heritages disappeared when they were destroyed.  It has become a documentary hobby in a way, particularly when I began to  bring my camera with me five or so years ago.  I had this realization that so many of these buildings, built for utilitarian reasons – factories, subways, hospitals – could also be beautiful.”

Since then, Sylvain has documented these buildings on his website, with hundreds still to come.  Below, Sylvain describes his five takeaways of urban exploration.

1.  Sometimes abandoned structures have some strange guests.

Sylvain has come across a bevy of people in the many abandoned structures he’s visited.  “I’ve seen photographers, other urban explorers, squatters, drug addicts – it’s different depending where you are.  The one time where it was a little bit scary was in the UK, when I visited an abandoned mental hospital.  Throughout the 1970s and 1990s, a lot of hospitals shut down due to the improvement in medical techniques, better facilities, and new drugs, and many patients were released.  This one particular hospital I visited, a former patient was inside, and insisted that he show me around, and that we have dinner together – he ended up being really nice, but when you’re in a place like that, the imagination plays tricks on you.”

Sylvain recommends shouting a big hello when first walking into an abandoned building, so as to not startle the person, or yourself, if there are some unexpected guests.

2. To go urban exploring, it’s best to bring at least some gloves, rubber boots, a lamp and some spares, and a multitool.

Sylvain changes the list of items to bring with him depending on the conditions of the building.  However, there is a standard set of items he brings with him every time.

“There are four things that I find very important to bring.  First, gloves are important and people often forget these – people will scrape their hands when climbing around or examining things.  Rubber shoes are also important to keep your feet dry and to protect them.  Lamps are also important to bring – there was a time when I was leading a tour in Paris’ catacombs with five people, we didn’t bring maps and we got lost, and a couple people’s lamps burnt out.  It was very scary, with all of us in the dark with all those human remains.  Now I always bring spare batteries and spare lamps, or both.  The last thing to bring with you is a multi-tool and batteries – one time I got locked in a room when the door shut behind me.  However, with the multi-tool, I was able to open the door again.”

Sylvain suggests a couple extra things.

“It depends on the building – a camera, tripod, lenses, gas masks if the air is foul or contaminated.  Also, I find a yellow jacket helps for safety, and in case anyone is suspicious of what you’re doing, to look like you’re working.”

Sylvain suggests that other people he’s met like to bring other things, like a Maglite or tools – however, he much prefers to store extra things in his trunk and come back out to get them.

Photo from The Horror Labs or The Veterinary School of Anderlecht, by Sylvain Margaine

3.  It’s also a wise idea to bring a friend.

Sylvain also suggests bringing a friend or two, or going in a group, particularly when going into unfamiliar territory.  For example, when going to a local veterinary hospital in Brussels that had been closed for almost 20 years, Sylvain had to enter through a hole in the ground, and then fell into a deep and dank basement.  When he turned his headlamp, he was surrounded by preserved animals and dozens and dozens of rats.

“It was like a horror movie,” he shudders.

It is times like that when a friend can come in handy as support or to get help.
4.  Old buildings are like a puzzle.

Most of the time however, urban exploration is not as frightening as it may seem, and it’s the intellectual challenge that loops Sylvain in.

“First, you have to identify access points to get into the building, and when you are in the building, you have to find the hatch that will give you roof access – you end up learning intimately about architecture from different centuries.  For example, it can take hours to get from Point A to Point B even though its very close – sometimes you have to go through a ventilation shaft to get to the other side of a wall,”  he explains.

As an engineer, Sylvain is always up for a good puzzle.

5.  To stay out of trouble in urban exploration, it’s best to look like you’re not causing trouble (and actually not cause trouble).

I ask Sylvain if he’s ever gotten into trouble while urban exploring.

“Nothing serious – I’ve never been arrested, but at times it’s been very close.  I’ve been stopped by security many times.  However, because they see me with cameras, not smashing, stealing or spray painting – only documenting – they recognize that and are accepting,” Sylvain says.

“It also helps that I have prepared a speech to explain what I do – and it tends to turn out good,” he laughs.

More about Sylvain’s urban exploration can be found at http://www.forbidden-places.net/ and his book can be found at http://www.forbidden–places.net/book.php.

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The Five Takeaways of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Captain Charles Moore

In the movie Wall-E, the title character spends his days dutifully compacting trash that generations of humans have left behind.  Much of it has barely degraded – things like shoes, toys, appliances, plastic fodder.  Today, far out in the Pacific Ocean, a similar landscape exists.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be the size of two states of Texas, filled with plastic garbage.  The flotsam and jetsam in the area are a concoction of trash thrown off of boats, garbage from the West coast of the US, and from the Asian Pacific rim.  It is a veritable graveyard of nets, plastic bottles, caps, dolls, syringes, boots, laundry detergent containers, balls, and practically anything else you could imagine.  There are also little pieces of plastic floating in between, chewed up by the power of the currents.

How did it all end up there?  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was not intentionally created.  It happens that The Great Pacific Gyre, a large high pressure system the size of Africa, circulates currents between the Pacific coasts, creating a vortex effect.  Debris accumulates and gets sucked into the centre of the Pacific Ocean.  The majority of the debris is made up of human created waste that doesn’t biodegrade – plastic.

Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying this growing garbage patch for the past couple of years.  A Long Beach native, he grew up with the ocean in his backyard.

At first, it wasn’t the garbage he wanted to research – it was bacteria.  After a surfing accident where his arm was almost amputated from an infection from flesh eating bacteria in the ocean, he knew he had to do something about the imbalance in the water.   However, lacking the equipment to study the bacteria, he decided to tackle a more visible issue.  Since the 1950s, he had seen pieces of plastic debris washing up on the beach in increasing numbers.

Moore decided to get more involved in the marine research effort beyond the citizen’s monitoring team he had been involved in, and started studying the debris in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of some prominent scientists in the area.

Moore describes the technique he has used to conduct his research:

“What we do is drag a net across the area to catch zooplankton – we have a net with mesh a third of a millimetre thick, and we drag it a few inches deep into the water.  This area is called the sea surface microlayer, where the sea surface meets the atmosphere.  There are certain animals who go down half a mile during the day and come back to the surface at night to feed – we wanted to see the effect of plastic particles on this life.”

Over the many years of study, Moore provides below some of the five takeaways he has realized about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

1.  The garbage patch keeps growing.

Moore can no longer place an estimate on the size of the patch – some people estimated it was the size of France – some say it’s the size of two states of Texas.

“We went 10,000 miles and all we saw was plastic.  We sailed 2/3 of the way to Japan and there was plastic coming from all directions – it was like a disgusting plastic cesspool.  No one really has a handle on the boundary, or what it might even mean.”

All that to say, that given our current rates of consumption of products encased in plastic, or made of plastic, this patch will only grow bigger.

2.  The ocean is becoming more and more dangerous to navigate through.

In the ten years that Moore has been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it has gotten so muddled with plastic waste that you can’t safely go into the ocean.

“At night, I have to scuba dive under our boat to cut debris off of the motors so we can keep going – this involves risking the lives of my crew members, which is not what I want to do.  It’s becoming too dangerous to navigate over millions of square miles of the North Pacific.”

3.  Animals have started ingesting the plastic pieces.

“We have found that virtually every creature could be eating this plastic – we looked at seven or eight species of fish, several types of invertebrates, and some birds – they were all eating it.  It didn’t matter if it was a small or a large animal – all of the animals were on some kind of strange, plastic diet directly or indirectly.”  Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it might just so happen that the plastic container that we’re eating food from may actually one day be in the food we’re eating.  If it’s not already.

4.  The garbage patch is one of many things contributing to death in the oceans.

Already, there have been stories in the news of entire coral reefs dying out, marine pollution, and massive overfishing.  The garbage patch only makes things worse.

Larger species of fish, such as tuna, or large mammals, such as whales, already have high levels of mercury and PCBs concentrated in their bodies.  On top of this, the plastic pieces tend to concentrate these chemicals, so when animals swallow these plastic pieces, this adds to the chemical concentrations in their bodies.  This is particularly troubling in countries that rely heavily on marine proteins, such as in Japan., where cases of mercury poisoning or Minimata disease seem to be on the rise.

On top of that, the plastic is adding to ocean warming.

“The plastic pieces act as a heat sink – they are like little tiny heaters that block the transpiration of gas, and also concentrate the sunlight.”

Ocean warming is seen as a precursor to dying oceans.

5.  There isn’t an easy way to clean up the garbage patch, but there is a way to slow it down.

Unfortunately, we can’t hire a few barges to vacuum up the mess, since there is now sea life thriving among the garbage patch.  Secondly, the large size and remoteness of the patch makes it difficult to even know where to begin.

However, Moore suggests that there are a couple things we can do to slow the patch from growing, and over several millennia the ocean will have to heal itself.

“First, which is not so easy, is insist on a zero waste philosophy.  In an era of diminishing resources, it’s immoral to use so much when we’re coming to the end of our ability to feed, house and clothe humanity.  From a closer perspective, we should also use less plastic or buy things with less packaging.  Essentially, packaging has a very short shelf life – products only need to be protected from air and moisture for a short period of time.  Plastic as it is currently made, lasts forever – it could very well be that the plastic we make now will last longer than we do.”

Certainly, if we don’t do something, plastic could very well be the artifacts we leave behind for future generations, or for lonely trash compacting robots.

More information on Captain Charles Moore’s research can be found at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website.

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The Five Takeaways of American Chinese Food: Jenny 8 Lee

Jenny 8 Lee is a metropolitan reporter at the New York Times and author of the extremely funny and informative The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. As an American Born Chinese woman, Lee grew up eating both home cooked Chinese food and American Chinese food at restaurants.  She had always noticed, despite “Chinese” as a descriptor, there was a significant difference between the two.

“I thought it was just that my mom was a bad cook,” she laughs, referring to her mother’s home cooked Chinese food.

However, it wasn’t until she traveled to China for a year after college, where she started noticing patterns in how Chinese people ate food, how Chinese Americans ate food, and how Americans ate Chinese food.

It was, as Lee says, “an impetus for me to think about Chinese Food in a more critical way.”

The book details Lee’s travels around the world in search of answers to such confounding questions as “where do fortune cookies come from?”, “who is General Tso?”, and “where do Chinese restaurant workers come from?”

Chinese food is ubiquitous and as Lee says – it can be found anywhere that there is oxygen.  Or even in places where there isn’t oxygen – Chinese food is even served on the space shuttle menu.

Lee shares some of her five takeaways about American Chinese food below:

1.  Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable.

Despite all the “Chinese” dishes with broccoli – beef with broccoli, stir fried broccoli with scallops, and many others – broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable.  It became popular in American Chinese food in the 1920s.  There is Chinese broccoli, or kai lan, which is related to kale.

“I can guarantee that General Tso never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life,” exclaims Lee.

2.  Chinese takeout boxes exist only in America.

The quintessential cardboard Chinese takeout boxes as popularized on television (Friends, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and beyond) can only be found in America.  They were not a Chinese creation, nor are they available anywhere else in the world.  What are Chinese restaurants’ usual takeout container of choice?  Styrofoam clamshell boxes.

3.  Americans really love chicken.

In most American Chinese dishes, restaurants cater to Americans’ love for chicken.  Chicken balls, chicken and broccoli, General Tao’s chicken.  And if it’s deep fried, it’s even better.

4.  Americans don’t like food that reminds them of something that was alive.

American Chinese food is very much dissociated with the food from where it came from.  No one wants to know if an animal swam, walked, or moved.  As far as people know in the US, Chinese food is born in a Styrofoam tray – there are no feet, ears, claws, lungs, heads or blood hanging about.  Meanwhile, the Chinese like the “holistic” animal – they don’t let anything go to waste.

5.  There are dramatic variations between regions for American Chinese food.

American Chinese food varies significantly by region.  In the US, even fried rice can look different depending on where it is from.  In New England it’s brown, whereas in Miami it’s yellow, but in the Midwest it’s white.  In the south you can find Chow Mein, and in other places only Chow Fun.  This is largely an accident of history, dependent on regional flavours or even the mobility of restaurant workers who move one recipe from one region to another.

More information on Jennifer 8 Lee can be found at www.fortunecookiechronicles.com and at www.nytimes.com.

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