Sonar plumbs the depths in Loch Ness: James Cusick reports on the high-tech drive to make the first survey since 1903 of 'a scientific no-go area'

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The Independent Online
ANTI-SUBMARINE warfare sonar, mine detection and avoidance sonar, multi-beam echo- sounder sonar used in oilfield surveys, an acoustic tracking system, fish-finding tactical sonar, a remote control underwater colour television, an international satellite navigation system, global positioning equipment and a box of muesli for the crew's breakfast. Whatever they were doing on Loch Ness yesterday, no expense was spared.

Looking like a cross between a compact video arcade and the bridge of a do-it-yourself Starship Enterprise, the equipment room of the research vessel MV Simrad will, over the next few days, begin gathering data to determine the size and living patterns of Loch Ness's fish population and the geomorphology of its underwater terrain.

A complete underwater map of Loch Ness will be the first scientific contribution of Project Urquhart, described at its launch in Fort Augustus yesterday as 'the first multi-disciplinary exploration' of the 22.5-mile long, 1.5- mile wide body of fresh water.

Containing about 263 billion cubic feet of water - a greater volume than all of the lakes and reservoirs of England and Wales put together - and with a maximum depth of about 750ft (230m), Loch Ness's reputation was acknowledged as being a 'scientific no-go area' that had not been hydrographically surveyed since 1903.

However the Project Urquhart has the blessings of such reputable organisations as the Natural History Museum, the National Museums of Scotland, the Royal and Royal Scottish Geographical Societies, the Freshwater Biological Association, the Society for Underwater Technology and the Official (but not the Original) Loch Ness Exhibition Centre.

For the Norwegian sponsors, Simrad, one of the world's leading subsea equipment manufacturers, there is also important selling to be done. The equipment has taken a year to install and is worth about pounds 4m. When the two- week Project Urquhart work is completed, the boat will then play host to potential customers.

As Kaare Steel Groos, Simrad's senior engineer and former chairman of their Aberdeen office, explained: 'We've never had all this equipment installed in one place before. In our last week on Loch Ness, buyers from the world's military, oil companies, research institutions, fisheries, defence contractors, and I think someone from the Ministry of Defence in London, will be coming on board.'

Although there was accumulating scientific talk of 'monitoring bio-diversity, probing the depths, and unique scientific opportunities', all the gathered boffins agreed there was no real danger of the project robbing Scotland of one its major tourist attractions.

The cruising vessel Royal Scot, which makes its living taking tourists out over the loch, was the location for yesterday's media hospitality. Ronald Mackenzie who runs the Royal Scot with his father, said when Simrad's people first came aboard last week they were 'a bit surprised to see two of their own machines here'. A Simrad EQ100 sonar network has been giving tourists precise visual information on the loch's depth.

Had the EQ100 ever spotted anything? 'Plenty of fish,' Mr Mackenzie said, 'but nothing you could say was a monster.'

(Photographs omitted)