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Looking to Loch Ness

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With "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" splashing onto big screens across the country come Christmas Day, a lot of kids will want to visit Scotland. Consider this film the beginning of their travel dreams.

"The Water Horse" is the story of a very engaging computer-generated creature — sort of an impish and basically friendly green Barney with horns, who has its ferocious moments. It hatches from a mother-of-pearl-lined, bowling ball-sized egg found on the muddy shores of what is arguably the Scottish Highlands' most frequented tourist attraction: Loch Ness.

The boy befriends and protects the dinosaurlike creature — which he calls Caruso, but which many Highlanders dub "Baby Nessie," an obvious reference to the legendary monster that bears the loch's name and is the area's biggest draw.

Not that anyone's seen Nessie. Not for sure.

"Not that Highlanders would want to. The Scots can be quite superstitious, and generations of local people have averted their eyes as they passed the loch, for fear that an accidental spotting of Nessie would bring them bad luck," comments Adrian Shine, the director of the Loch Ness Project. Shine's a scientist — sort of the Cousteau of Loch Ness — who spent his early career huddling in a submersible, eyes peeled for sea monsters.

"I saw fish, if anything. It's dark, the water is murky. You can dive, but you barely see 5 feet ahead. It's eerie, a bit disconcerting, but I never encountered anything more dangerous than the currents," says Shine, who looks like Dumbledore and knows as much as Hagrid about mythical creatures. He served as beast, lore and environment consultant on the film.

"Actually the currents created the idea that a creature's present," says Shine. "People spot things in the water moving against the wind. That implies they're swimming. But years of investigation show that wind and water move in opposite directions on the loch because of currents caused by temperature differences between deep and surface water. Interesting to study — so much so that my current research is mostly on the surface rather than beneath it."

Shine's submersible and documentation of his observations — the loch's bare, thick silty bottom and steep sloping sides, the explanation of currents and other unusual natural phenomena occurring in this unique geological formation — are displayed at Loch Ness Center in the loch-side town of Drumnadrochit.

The fabulous little museum is packed with exhibits chronicling Nessie sightings so varied you wonder whether they could all be wrong. Believer or not, you certainly will want to cruise the loch to look closely, even if there's no close encounter.

Shine plies the loch regularly, sometimes taking tourists on his scientific research excursions. Or regularly scheduled boat tours await visitors who want to get out on the water. Guides tell tales of Nessie and other lore, and they explain fascinating geology that's exposed such exquisite landscape.

"The loch is extremely deep — 754 feet, to be exact," Shine says. "That's deeper than BT Tower (which, at 620 feet, soars over London) is tall. It contains more fresh water than all lakes in England and Wales combined. Most importantly, it's on the Great Glen geologic fault, which stretches from Inverness — the Highlands' capital, 23 miles northeast of the loch — to Fort William in the south. It's an extremely old fault line, which exposes lots of sedimentary evidence for us to study." says Shine.

It's easy to understand Shine's fascination. Loch Ness has an air of mystery. It's absolutely alluring. And aside from Nessie tracking, there're many mountain treks to take.

It's terrific that local merchants and tour operators have banded together to protect the environment by applying for World Heritage status. Their conservation theme resounds in the movie: "The Water Horse" hatches from one egg — the only egg — which, as the story goes, is laid just before the old water horse expires. The egg, the species' sole chance to survive, is in the boy's hands, implying that humans can protect or destroy nature. But maybe that's simplistic because if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.

One surprise, though, is that the landscape isn't exactly familiar from the movie because "The Water Horse" was filmed in New Zealand, rather than at the renowned loch. But New Zealand's farther away and doesn't suggest possibilities of seeing the world's most famous nonexistent beast.

For more info: www.sonypictures.com/movies/thewaterhorse and www.visitscotland.com.

To find out more about Jennifer Merin and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2007 JENNIFER MERIN

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



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