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That wasn't always the case. The first written account of the monster was in a seventh-century book on the life of the Irish saint Columba. One of his companions was swimming across the River Ness at the head of the loch when an "aquatic monster" surfaced and, "giving an awful roar," attacked "with its mouth wide open." The others were "stupeïed with terror," but St. Columba coolly made the sign of the cross and commanded the beast to stop. It fled at once.

In those days people most likely imagined the Loch Ness monster as a sea serpent or a water kelpie, a diabolical beast with a horse's head—creatures said to lurk in the lakes and coastal waters of Scandinavia and Scotland. Nessie only morphed into a plesiosaur many years after the first fossil of a strange marine reptile was discovered in 1719 in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, England.

By the early 1800s fossil hunters had unearthed more plesiosaur skeletons as well as those of other ancient marine reptiles, including big-eyed, dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs and the shorter necked pliosaurs with their massive jaws and huge, crushing teeth. Dinosaurs had yet to be scientifically recognized, and the huge sea monsters of the past—none of them dinosaurs—gripped the public's imagination, especially after artists began painting scenes of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and giant crocodiles writhing in combat. "Those paintings put a plesiosaur-like animal into the public mind," says Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, noting that nothing shaped like a plesiosaur swims in the oceans today.

Nessie got a boost in 1933 with the film King Kong, set in a land where dinosaurs roam and a long-necked creature surfaces from a lake not unlike Loch Ness. That same year a "prehistoric" animal was spied crossing a road near the loch. The next year the London Daily Mail published a photograph depicting a creature whose small, snaky head rides above the loch on a long neck: Nessie was now a certified plesiosaur.

That photograph and others have been proved to be hoaxes. But who cares? Every summer Loch Ness is packed with tourists. They come in busloads to Feltham's trailer, and one by one they ask him, "Have you seen it yet?"

"They want me to say I've seen a plesiosaur," says Feltham. "And they all hope to see it for themselves. It's just not likely to happen."

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