Fake in the Lake

updated 03/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN HER WORLD FAMOUS PORTRAIT, NESSIE glides through the cold, gray waters of Scotland's Loch Ness with bone-chilling majesty. She could be the prow of a Viking ship or some creature from darkest prehistory. Turns out, the "monster" was a child's windup submarine fitted with a foot-long plastic neck.

Yes, the grainy black-and-white snapshot of the Loch Ness monster, a sensation when it was published in London's Daily Mail on April 21, 1934, was a hoax, say two Nessie researchers, Alastair Boyd and David Martin, who have limed their revelation to the picture's 60th anniversary. They tracked down the creator of this "Nessie," modelmaking enthusiast Christian Spurling, and got the truth out of him not long before his death at age 90 last November.

The man really responsible for the Nessie picture, by Spurling's account, was his stepfather, a producer, self-promoter and big-game hunter named Marmaduke Arundel Wetherell. In 1933, Wetherell was dispatched by the Daily Mail to find evidence of the "fearsome beastie" said to haunt the loch. When he triumphantly produced casts of dinosaur-size footprints, zoological experts suggested they'd been made from a hippo-footed umbrella stand. According to Spurling, Wetherell decided to have the last laugh. He recruited Spurling to outfit the toy sub, and a friend of a friend, gynecologist Robert Wilson, to pretend to have taken the photograph—which became such a phenomenon it possibly stunned the pranksters into silence.

Boyd and Martin say the first clue to the fraud came in 1991, when they ran across a 1975 news clipping that mentioned that Wetherell's son Ian had once admitted to collaborating on some phony Loch Ness photos. Because Ian was dead (as was his father), the researchers sought out Spurling, who confessed.

Boyd and Martin still believe there is a Nessie. Boyd says he saw her in 1979. Now they know there's a fake Nessie out there too. When old Wetherell noticed a member of the lake patrol approaching, he scuttled the little monster in the banks of Loch Ness.

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