Frank Searle

Loch Ness monster hoaxer

Driving along the south shore of Loch Ness in the mid-1970s you would have come across a hand-painted sign announcing "The Frank Searle Loch Ness Investigation". A bleak stretch of waste ground by the loch shore at Foyers was home to Frank Searle's isolated blue caravan and exhibition centre, and provided a base for perhaps the most colourful and controversial character ever to join in the hunt for the Loch Ness monster.

Eric Frank Searle, photographer and monster hunter: born Staines, Middlesex 18 March 1921; died Fleetwood, Lancashire 26 March 2005.

Driving along the south shore of Loch Ness in the mid-1970s you would have come across a hand-painted sign announcing "The Frank Searle Loch Ness Investigation". A bleak stretch of waste ground by the loch shore at Foyers was home to Frank Searle's isolated blue caravan and exhibition centre, and provided a base for perhaps the most colourful and controversial character ever to join in the hunt for the Loch Ness monster.

Searle became a local celebrity in the 1970s for capturing more pictures of Nessie than anyone else in history. But his dedication to his monster hunt bordered on the obsessive, and stories of his eccentric behaviour were legendary, even inspiring a character in the 1995 film Loch Ness, in which Keith Allen played a fiercely territorial monster investigator. But this fictional representation little prepared me for the bizarre real-life tale I uncovered in a documentary on Searle's 14 years at Loch Ness, The Man Who Captured Nessie, soon to be broadcast by Channel 4.

In the context of the Nessie phenomenon, Frank Searle was a paradox. Although a passionate champion of the monster's existence, he will be remembered as the person who did most damage to serious scientific investigation by attracting ridicule and disrepute. This was all down to Searle's role as the monster's resident portrait photographer, and the infamous images that became an all too common tabloid currency.

Born in Staines, Middlesex, in 1921, Eric Frank Searle remained guarded about his life prior to arriving at Loch Ness, though in a self-penned biography he described an early incident in which his nascent skills in deception led him to join the Army, straight from school, at age 14.

Searle saw the end of his military service in Palestine when he lost his lower left leg in an alleged anti-terrorist mission. But his exit from the Army coincided with the appearance of a book that would influence his future choice of life. More than a Legend by Constance Whyte, published in 1957, was perhaps the most influential account of the Loch Ness monster ever written, and it inspired the entire modern era of monster investigations, which ran through the 1960s to the 1980s.

In 1969 Searle gave up his job as a greengrocer in London, to relocate to Loch Ness. He relished the change, and spent his first three years in a tent on the loch shore. To keep him company through long winter nights, Searle successfully advertised for "Girl Fridays" to join the hunt.

After two years with sightings but no evidence, Searle hit the headlines with his first major photograph of Nessie. The image, which many likened to a floating tree trunk, was widely reproduced and brought Searle to the attention of the world's media and established an adoring fan-base.

One photographed sighting led to another and Searle experienced a period of incredible luck with over 20 images produced during the 1970s. He credited his year-round presence and army-training sniper skills for his unparalleled success. Yet many thought his fortuitousness too good to be true and sought to disprove Searle's work.

Rival monster hunters saw his images as the nadir in the long tradition of Loch Ness hoaxes. A dossier produced on Searle's work convinced many that his "monsters" were really constructed from fence posts, socks, tarpaulins and on one occasion the cutting and pasting of a dinosaur postcard on to an image of disturbed water. The lowest ebb perhaps came when Searle attempted to sell a photograph of Nessie and a ufo in the same shot. A backlash materialised, in 1975, when the future BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell debunked Searle's photographs in his book The Loch Ness Story.

All the while Searle vehemently defended his photographs against claims of fraud, and numerous tales of his sometimes violent altercations with journalists, television crews and rival hunters have entered Loch Ness folklore.

Searle's attempt to set the record straight badly backfired in 1976 when his own book, Nessie: seven years in search of the monster, found itself at the centre of a plagiarism dispute, and was withdrawn shortly after publication.

By the late 1970s, Searle could be seen wearing a badge proclaiming "I'm nearly famous". But in reality his style of investigation was seen as, at best, outdated, and, at worst, a hindrance to more professional and technologically advanced efforts. Searle grew increasingly bitter about these scientific endeavours. Adrian Shine, of the Loch Ness Project, openly criticised Searle's dubious reputation and hoax images, and a war of words ensued, culminating in Searle's writing a libellous second book about his rival.

When, in 1983, Shine managed to halt publication of this book, he and his team found themselves on the receiving end of a Molotov cocktail attack from a mystery assailant. Although no one was injured, the finger of suspicion fell heavily upon Frank Searle, and shortly after he disappeared forever from Loch Ness, remaining missing for the next 21 years.

Until I began researching The Man Who Captured Nessie documentary, Searle's fate had remained a mystery. Rumours on his whereabouts ranged from treasure hunting in Cornwall to lecturing on monsters in the United States, or even lying at the bottom of Loch Ness. But during the production a lead brought me to Fleetwood in Lancashire where I discovered that the elusive Frank Searle had lived quietly for the past 18 years, and had in fact died just four weeks before my arrival.

Loved and loathed though he was in equal measure, Searle's place in the history of Loch Ness hoaxes is assured, but perhaps he also warrants recognition for tirelessly attracting public attention to the loch during the lean years of the great monster hunt.

Loch Ness, according to local tradition, never gives up its dead, and so maybe even the monster itself owes a debt of gratitude towards the Frank Searle Investigation.

Andrew Tullis



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