The Scientist … and the Monster

MIT’s Bob Rines has risked his reputation on a three-decade quest to solve one of the world’s great mysteries.

bob rines

Photograph by Harry Borden

As dusk fell on June 23, 1972, Bob Rines was a former war hero, a noted MIT scientist, a celebrated attorney, and an accomplished inventor who’d spent his multiple careers following success with more audacious success. He was 49 years old, his legacy already assured. Then he saw the hump.

Rines and his wife had been enjoying the evening with Scottish Wing Commander Basil Cary and his wife, Winifred, at the Carys’ home on a hillside overlooking Urquhart Bay, on the northern shore of a remote Highland lake known as Loch Ness. After tea, Basil Cary stepped outside to the porch to smoke a pipe and saw something moving in the water below. “My dear,” Rines heard Cary say, in what Rines describes as typical British understatement. “That couldn’t be an upturned boat.”

Rines had visited Loch Ness the previous year, on a lark, to investigate the age-old reports of a large unknown animal living in the murky water. Like many scientists who’ve been drawn to the mystery of Loch Ness, Rines, a pioneer in sonar technology, was playfully skeptical of the monster stories. But he’d met enough eyewitnesses, and picked up enough unexplainable images on his sonar, that by the time he returned for this second round of searching, he was, at the least, open-minded. When Cary made his offhand pronouncement, Rines’s heart leapt into his throat.

The foursome dashed off the porch, through the yard, and across a two-lane road to a shoulder atop a steep bank that led to the loch’s edge. There, trading turns with a telescope and binoculars, they watched a large grayish hump with the texture of an elephant’s skin move across the bay. Rising at least 4 feet out of the water, the hump seemed to be about 25 feet long and attached to a creature of indeterminate size. Spellbound, they saw it plow against the current before it changed direction and began moving toward them. Then it submerged and disappeared.

The event would change Rines’s life. With the water still rippling from the creature below, he vowed he would confirm what he’d seen. No matter the beating his reputation might take. No matter how long the search would drag on.

 

“I’m excited,” Rines told me this past summer as we sat in the living room of his Harbor Towers apartment discussing the plans for the latest expedition to Loch Ness (about his 20th overall, he guessed). “I’m not always excited because I don’t always have a detailed plan. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack search. But this year, I know where to start. Or at least I think I do.” With that, the 86-year-old rose from his deep leather couch—swatting my hand away when I moved to help—and shuffled off to the so-called Nessie room he maintains in one of the other units he owns on the 24th floor.

The Nessie room, which overlooks the opaque waters of Boston Harbor, is a celebration of Rines’s three decades exploring the loch. The first thing that catches a visitor’s eye is also Rines’s greatest success to date: a series of grainy underwater photographs he took in the mid-1970s, which he believes show a diamond-shaped flipper, a gargoyle-like head, and the entire underbody of a long-necked, dinosaur-like animal. The photos, which all correspond with large objects recorded on sonar at the same time, were published around the world and prompted the Scottish Parliament to pass a conservation act protecting whatever might be in Loch Ness. After his pictures hit the media, Rines slowed his quest. He thought the hunt was about to come to an end; that scientists would flock to the lake and coax the mystery from its 700-foot depths. But that, of course, never happened. Since 1985, when he resumed the search again in earnest, Rines has enjoyed little success. His biggest remorse, he says, is that he didn’t devote himself to the pursuit when the trail was hot.

In the early years of his Nessie hunt, Rines would regularly pick up large moving objects on his sonar. But the instruments haven’t recorded anything like that in more than two decades, and the eyewitness accounts, which once flourished, have been in decline. A couple of years ago, Rines came to a sad conclusion, and shifted his approach. He believes that Nessie, like his friends from the tea party, is dead. So he’s looking for skeletons.

“These are very odd shapes,” he said as he opened the white binder, labeled “Loch Ness 2008,” and began handing me fuzzy sonar printouts. The images, he said, represented his last chance. Rines suffered a stroke two years ago, and his health is failing. He had one final Nessie expedition in him, and a final grand
idea. Before his stroke, he had made a detailed sonar map of the loch’s bottom, identifying more than 100 suspicious targets. One, he hoped, would be the remains of Nessie. As his frail fingers combed through the printouts, he spotted a long, angular image. He turned toward me and, with an infectious hope in his eyes, said, “There aren’t many long-necked animals.”

For 45 years, until he retired last spring, Rines taught classes at MIT that centered on innovation and discovery—a fitting assignment for an inventor with over 100 patents to his name who also happens to be an attorney specializing in intellectual property. Though he’s been guided in both professions by a singular belief that reason and intellect can solve problems, even reveal hidden truths, the lawyer in him has also been frequently frustrated by the standards of science—a discipline where, unlike in a courtroom, eyewitness testimony means nothing. Indeed, if Rines were called to court to argue Nessie’s existence, he’s certain he could marshal more than enough evidence to convince a jury. Science, he’s well aware, requires more than that. It requires physical evidence. And until Rines finds it, his own credibility is at stake. Bob Rines is not trying to make his name by finding the monster in the lake; he’s trying to save the staggering reputation he’s earned elsewhere.

Rines, a native of Brookline, got his start at MIT, where, as an undergrad in the late 1930s, he began the work on high-definition sonar that eventually led him to invent the foundations for the technologies used to locate the sunken wreckage of the Titanic and the Bismarck, as well as those in the guidance systems on the Patriot missiles used in the first Gulf war—innovations that would get him inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. During World War II, he was sent by the Army to erect an emergency radar system on Saipan, an island in the Pacific where Japanese bombers had been destroying American B-29s on the ground. “My little radar put a stop to that,” he said; it also got him inducted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps Wall of Fame. After the war, Rines earned a law degree from Georgetown and went into practice with his father, whose Boston patent law firm worked to protect inventors—an ideal Rines brought to MIT when he returned to the university to begin teaching there in 1963. A decade later, concerned that the rights of patent holders were endangered, Rines founded (and went on to teach at) his own law school, the Franklin Pierce Law Center, in Concord, New Hampshire. Like many polymaths, Rines has also indulged a talent for music. As a boy, he impressed Albert Einstein when the two played a violin duet at a summer camp in Maine, and, later in life, he found time to compose a handful of Broadway scores, several of which made it to the stage. In 1987, he won an Emmy when Hizzoner the Mayor was made into a TV movie.

Still, the first line of his obituary will identify Bob Rines as the man who tried to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster. He’s accepted this. He says that he’s only snapped at a naysayer once, a British customs agent who teased him after he declared the intentions of his visit. He asked the man if he believed in God and when he said he did, Rines asked him if he’d ever seen Him. “And I said nothing more,” Rines remembered, somewhat embarrassed by his tactic. “They can just call me crazy, and that’s okay by me. At least I won’t go to jail for it, like Galileo.”

 

Loch Ness is the largest body of fresh water in the United Kingdom, larger than all of the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales combined. It’s been calculated that you could fit every man, woman, and child on earth in its depths three times over. A mile wide and 24 miles long, the lake sits in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, and the lush green hills that roll gently along its banks can inspire an illusion of intimacy from shore. That is, until a boat passes and a sightseer can once again gauge how grand those hills are, how massive the water is, how large Rines’s task has been.

On a warm day this past September, the Udale, a 45-foot boat Rines had hired for his final attempt to find Nessie, motored down the center of the lake. It was halfway through the two-week expedition, and the Udale was patrolling above one of Rines’s sonar targets as I wound along the highway on the northern shore with Rines’s grandson, David. It was my first glimpse of Loch Ness, and I glued my eyes to the water, afraid I might miss something. David gave the lake only a passing glance.

In addition to David, Rines would be joined on this trip by another grandchild, his youngest son, and his wife, Joanne, the former editor and publisher of Inventor’s Digest. They’re all unquestionably devoted to Rines, but when it comes to this monster business the family’s emotions are mixed. David, who pointed out that Rines required his relatives to always have a camera with them while at Loch Ness, made the journey mostly because it was his grandfather’s last expedition and he wanted to be there with him for the milestone. But he was avoiding much direct involvement, largely, he said, “out of fear that I might see it and be equally consumed.” Yet while David is dubious about his grandfather’s theory that the monster may have been some kind of plesiosaur, a dinosaur holdout that found a refuge in the loch, he’s not skeptical about his grandfather’s belief that he saw something in 1972. “Hardly a day goes by without him talking about it,” he said. “You’re going on 40 years now, without ever flinching.”

Watching Rines spend a good deal of his time and fortune pursuing the Loch Ness monster has, if nothing else, inspired those around him to chase wild dreams. “His law clients are crazy scientists with crazy ideas, and time and time again he’s seen these crazy ideas come to fruition and have an impact on the world,” David said. “For him, the pursuit of the impossible is irresistible.”

David slowed the car as we arrived in Drumnadrochit, the undisputed capital of Nessieland. One expects Niagara Falls, a giant tourist trap with electric signs. Instead, it’s a quaint Scottish village that treats its most famous resident and chief attraction with equal parts pride and restraint. The most significant structure is the Drumnadrochit Hotel, a stone lodge in the Victorian Baronial style. The hotel has been at the center of the Nessie legend since a local gamekeeper walked in the door in 1916, “his face as white as paper,” and reported that a huge animal had surfaced by his fishing boat.

Reports of lake monsters have floated around the Scottish lochs for centuries, dating back to the kelpies and water horses of Highland folklore. In 565, Saint Columba reportedly saved the life of one of his followers who was being attacked by a “ferocious monster” in Loch Ness. The stories really got going in the 1930s, when road-building along Loch Ness improved access and thinned the trees that blocked sightlines. In 1933, the Inverness Courier ran a story about Mrs. John Mackay, the manager of the Drumnadrochit Hotel, who reported seeing something resembling a whale. There were several other sightings that year, including the first descriptions of an animal with a long neck. That year also saw the first of many hoaxes when M. A. Wetherell, a big-game hunter sent by the London Daily Mail, produced a set of giant footprints that would turn out to have been made with a trophy from a previous hunt—a hippopotamus foot that Wetherell used as an ashtray.

These days, the Drumnadrochit Hotel is under the control, ideologically speaking, of Adrian Shine, the most famous skeptic in the Nessie game. A 59-year-old Englishman with a great big Rasputin beard and a way of speaking that oozes professorial authority, Shine has built his name poking holes in the theories of Rines and the other believers. His Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, which now fills the original hotel building, features a 30-minute-long multimedia attempt to discredit claims of the monster’s existence. (Rines calls Shine a “dear friend,” though the scientist with a wall full of diplomas always qualifies any praise by sliding in the fact that Shine is a “self-trained” naturalist.)

Shine admits that there is a mystery in Loch Ness; even he cannot dispel what he says are 1,000 documented sightings. (Others put the figure at 2,000; some as high as 5,000.) People have seen something, Shine agrees, but that doesn’t mean they’ve seen a prehistoric monster. What they’ve glimpsed, he believes, can be explained as either biological, physical, or psychological: They’ve seen some other, known animal; they’ve been fooled by a wave or a wake; or they see something because they expect to see something.

Like Rines’s, Shine’s quest began with an encounter. In 1969, he set out to investigate a mystery at Loch Morar, a lake to the west of Loch Ness that has its own tradition of curious sightings, and where, allegedly, a boat had recently been attacked by a water monster. Shine rented a rowboat and paddled around Loch Morar one night with a camera. As he was rowing along the dark northern shoreline, he saw a hump, “very much like the ones I’d seen drawn in books of sightings,” emerge from behind a promontory. “I stopped rowing. It stopped moving. I took a photograph…and waited for it to move.” It didn’t, so he rowed toward it.

As Shine drew near it, the hump began to look like a huge, submerged head. “I got closer,” he said, inserting a pregnant pause. “It was a rock”—another dramatic pause—”so all my perceptions had actually been wrong. And I vowed that night that if I couldn’t believe my own eyes, I wasn’t going to believe anybody else’s, either. And that has no bearing on the integrity of the person, but only the fallibility of perception.”
David Rines describes his grandfather’s expeditions as “a cross between National Geographic and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou“—rigorous science mixed with daydream whimsy. In the ’70s, Bob Rines had a New Jersey perfumer create a chemical that he hoped would act as a pheromone to attract the animal. Another time, he trained two dolphins in Florida to carry cameras. He was constructing a saltwater pool he planned to float in the loch that would allow the dolphins’ skin to recover from the freshwater exposure when one of them died on a stopover at the Hull Aquarium. Rines believed the dolphin, who had never before been separated from its handler, had died of “a broken heart.” He was so upset that he shipped the other dolphin back to Florida and called off the scheme.

While he may have failed to locate Nessie, Rines is quick to point out that his attempts have not been without scientific success. He’s an MIT guy with MIT friends, and together they’ve found the deep, peat-stained waters of Loch Ness, where visibility is only a few feet even with powerful lights, a perfect place to innovate. Charlie Wycoff, a colleague who created the dynamic film stock used to capture early atomic bomb explosions and the moon landings, came on several expeditions. He and Rines invented a buoy-mounted mechanism that triggered an underwater camera when sonar detected an object (this is how they captured the famous 1970s photos). Another associate, celebrated MIT scientist Harold “Doc” Edgerton—who pioneered high-speed strobe photography and worked with Jacques Cousteau to develop underwater imaging—was skeptical of the monster. But Edgerton nonetheless lent his expertise to a couple of Rines’s expeditions, and also joined him in an unsuccessful hunt for King Solomon’s lost fleet off the coast of Israel. Just like Nessie, Wycoff and Edgerton are gone now, too. “I’m the last of the dinosaurs,” Rines likes to say.

Measured against his past expeditions, this year’s was comparatively simple. Rines had hired two local boats, from which operators from a Louisiana-based company called Seatrepid—which normally does oil rig inspections in the Gulf of Mexico—would pilot a pair of small submarines. The remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) were each outfitted with cameras to find Nessie’s bones, and a claw to haul them to the surface. On account of his health, Rines mostly stayed off the boats, and instead spent most of his time at Tychat, a postcard estate where he’s stayed since the ’70s (and which he’s owned since the mid-1990s). The house has a giant picture window that offers a panoramic view of Urquhart Bay, and from it, Rines monitored his team’s progress. Several times, I spotted Rines sitting alone at the window, slumped deep into an armchair, binoculars by his side, staring at the water or across the bay toward the Carys’ home, where his adventure began.

For the first week or so, the ROVs investigated the more promising spots on Rines’s sonar map. The only interesting things they found were a couple of old rifles. On the 10th day of the expedition, the sun was shining and the water was smooth. Sightings almost always occur in flat water; this was, as the locals say, “Nessie weather.” Rines called the Udale to shore, had the crew lift him aboard on a plastic lawn chair, and took his place in front of the monitor that displayed the camera feed from one of the submarines.

Almost immediately, they got lucky. The camera spotted something on the bottom that had not been on Rines’s sonar map, something long and fleshy-looking. Rines pulled himself close to the monitor. What he saw appeared mottled, like a tentacle, or maybe rotting skin. It didn’t resemble a log, which is what many of the sonar targets had turned out to be. To Rines, it had all the characteristics you’d expect of something that had lain dead on the bottom for 20 years, in temperatures about the same as a refrigerator’s.

The crew radioed to the second boat, the Highland Park, which was trolling a far-off stretch of water, and had on board a stronger ROV with a bigger grabbing claw. It took nearly two hours for the vessel to move into position. While he waited, Rines kept his eyes focused on the monitor and wondered, aloud, if he had finally found his monster.

After the Highland Park‘s ROV brought the object slowly to the surface, the sub was hoisted up by a crane. As Rines watched expectantly, the claw dropped its payload into the arms of a crew member. It was a tire. An old leather tire from a Model T that had been cut so that it was unfurled like a hose.

“If anyone wanted to fake the neck of a plesiosaur,” Rines said that night, staring into the fireplace at Tychat, “use a cut tire.” Then he turned to me and winked. “I certainly thought that was it.”

 

The expedition’s final sweep of the loch, everyone thought, was to be simply ceremonial. Since his stroke, swallowing has been difficult for Rines, and eating his biggest daily challenge, but he spent the last morning determinedly fueling up to convince Joanne he was strong enough for the boat ride.

For Rines, it was a special day. Justice, his youngest son, had arrived early that afternoon. (He was given his name after his father lost a case shortly before he was born. Dismayed at the courts, Rines vowed that he’d know justice in one way, shape, or form in his life.) Justice had grown up on the lake; the summers spent on the Nessie quest serve as his strongest childhood memory. There were definitely times, Justice admits, when he wished his father wouldn’t come to his school and talk about the monster, but he has a deep faith in his pursuit. Still, though he’s capable of delivering his father’s arguments, he doesn’t sell them with the same preacher passion. Even when he had his own unexplained sighting, it didn’t stir in him the same restless desire that his father’s had.

It was 1991. Justice was on the patio at Tychat when he saw two objects about a mile away in the center of the loch, moving next to each other and plowing a wake. He called to his parents, and they trained a video camera on the objects. The distance was too great to show more than a speck, but on the tape Rines’s voice could be heard clearly in the background. “He was excited that three members of the family had now seen something,” Justice remembered. “This is it! This is it!” his father yelled. “You’ve seen it.” What he saw, Justice won’t venture to say.

When it was time for the valedictory cruise to begin, the family members made their way to the Udale, which was tied up at the pier below Tychat. David Rines had come up with a plan to take a quick tour of Urquhart Bay, maybe drop the ROV where Rines had taken his “flipper” picture. And that would be it.

But right after the Udale coasted out onto the loch, the vessel unexpectedly turned east and suddenly picked up speed, splashing Joanne with its spray. Rines had gotten a whiff of this “funeral,” David would later tell me, and decided he wasn’t having it. He ordered the captain to head to the “circles,” a strange collection of dots that had shown up on the sonar maps.

Joanne thought the markings were probably the remnants of an old wartime experiment in sending Morse code underwater—a explanation she adopted after a bit of Internet research, and which pleased her because she didn’t want the crew distracted from the mission. “I wanted them looking for Nessie bones,” she told me. But Rines wanted to investigate for himself. There was, he declared, room for only one mystery in Loch Ness. When the submersible reached one of the circles, its lights shone on an insulated cable. That was enough to convince Rines that Joanne’s theory was correct. “Honey,” he said, patting his wife on the shoulder, “you’ve made a discovery!”

In the late 1950s, Rines, then still practicing law with his father, took a boat to Scotland for a vacation with his late first wife and their two small children. Aboard the ship, he met Sir James Miller, who would later become lord mayor of London. Miller insisted Rines visit the Highlands and offered his driver to take the family north. It was there, while staying in Fort Augustus at the southwest end of Loch Ness, that Rines came across a book titled More Than a Legend. It had been published roughly a year earlier by Constance Whyte, whose husband oversaw the Caledonian Canal, a 62-mile stretch of man-made locks and natural lakes—including Loch Ness, the system’s longest waterway—that allows boat passage between the Scottish coasts. Whyte’s book was a landmark in that it collected for the first time many of the eyewitness accounts of Nessie. To Whyte, Nessie was a zoological riddle, “a really super ‘whodunit,’ the murder without a corpse, or to put it more exactly: The witnesses have seen the corpse, but cannot produce it.” Rines was transfixed by the stories and more than a bit curious. He immediately sent a copy to Doc Edgerton at MIT, asking if he’d like to use his strobe cameras to have a look at the lake. Edgerton, who’d require several more years of cajoling before he’d agree to help his friend with his quest, returned the book without comment.

In Whyte’s introduction, the author shares an insight—or maybe a warning—that could not have been lost on Rines when he read it: “To announce to all and sundry that you have seen the Loch Ness Monster involves a step which cannot lightly be taken.” As the chronicler of Nessie-spotters, she writes with sympathy for the true believers, noting that the “ingenuity [used] in discrediting eyewitness accounts has been quite astonishing.” After three decades building his case, Rines is undeterred, and has fashioned a closing argument to focus squarely on those eyewitnesses. “Are they all liars? All drunks? I don’t believe that about human nature,” he said. The human brain, he’ll concede, is not 100 percent trustworthy. “But it’s not zero, either.”

The conundrum remains a lack of evidence, a fact uniquely clear to the lawyer whose ceaseless obsession has been to obtain it. Interestingly, Rines’s best chance might have been on his first encounter back in 1972. As he stood atop that hill watching the hump, Rines held a Super-8 camera in his hands. But—as he told me, several times—he was so captivated, so gripped by what he was watching through the binoculars, that he couldn’t bring himself to put the ocular to his eyes. He chose to see it for himself. It is a choice he says he does not regret.

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