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So called "sea monsters" have been recorded since men began plying the waves. But, one elusive beast in a loch in Scotland continues to capture our imagination. Nessie has become a major celebrity in her native country.

It's worth noting, creatures once thought to be extinct have been found alive and well in our time. In 1938, for example, fishermen caught a strange fish off the coast of South Africa. It was a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish dating back at least 350 million years and one thought to be long extinct.

A monster in Loch Ness was first noted in AD 565 in an episode concerning the Irish missionary/saint Columba. According to his biographer, writing one hundred years later, one of Columba's disciples was swimming across the water to fetch a boat for his master. Suddenly, something broke the surface, "with a great roar and open mouth." The onlookers were understandably frightened. Columba made the sign of the cross and told the creature to go away, which apparently did the trick, as there is no record of the swimmer being injured.

Sightings of the Loch Ness monster have continued with some regularly since that early date. The loch lies at the northern end of the Great Glen fault line, which cuts across the Highlands of Scotland. It's a narrow body of water, 24 miles long and only one mile wide. The loch is very cold, very deep and murky.

Around 1930, popular interest in Nessie grew, after several people reported they had encountered the creature. One particular photographic image helped spark this modern surge of interest. Called "the surgeon's photograph," it was snapped in April 1937, by R.K. Wilson and shows a creature with a long neck and head jutting out of the water. That photo has been reproduced numerous times.

The first truly scientific investigation was organized in 1962. Combined teams from Oxford and Cambridge found solid sonar evidence of large objects within the loch, not likely to be schools of fish. Some years later other submersibles also had encounters with large objects. Yet conclusive evidence remains aloof. At one point, a serious move was made to bring in teams of trained dolphins to join the researchers. However, the obstacles proved to be insurmountable.

Another search in 1987, called "Operation Deepscan" was an ambitious attempt to detect the monster. A flotilla of 24 motor launches, each equipped with sonar, spent a week patrolling the loch in unison. All this effort was rewarded by three strong contacts. One of these, a sonar echo from a large and moving object 200 feet down, remains unexplained.

What kind of beast could Nessie be? A number of experts believe she is a plesiosaur-like animal and some film evidence does point to this possibility.

For now, research continues. Is there a sea monster in the loch? Until more solid evidence is found, it's anybody's guess.