The inside story of an Otago professor's rise to become the face of the hunt for Nessie. By Greg Bruce.

The tweet you are about to read is the genesis, the big bang, the moment the most anticipated Loch Ness Monster hunt of modern times sprang into being. It was sent at 1.56am NZT on April 12, 2016, by British zoologist and author Darren Naish and it was very boring.

"Am always looking for more #zoology tweeters to follow. Do you work on #amphibians #reptiles #birds #mammals #evolution #conservation?"

What follows is the seemingly unlikely story of how that tweet led to an Otago University professor without any prior expertise in this area becoming the international face of the hunt for the world's most famous monster, to the extent that in one six-week period earlier this year, while he was at Loch Ness, his story appeared in 2962 international media stories, reaching a potential audience of 2,895,059,280 people.


At the time Naish sent his innocuous tweet, Professor Neil Gemmell, who had never before heard that name, was probably asleep, possibly dreaming about his internationally important but publicly underappreciated toil in the mines of academic genetics research.

He would probably have never even seen the tweet but for the fact his colleague Helen Taylor, who also did not know Naish and who is still not sure how he came to be following her on Twitter, saw it and replied: "Seeing as you got me, you could also check out my boss, @ProfGemmell :)"

She says now she made the introduction because she thought, "Neil could probably tell you more about that than I can."

At the time, Naish was in the midst of promoting a recently published book about cryptozoology, which is the study of, and search for, animals that probably don't exist.

After Gemmell discovered Naish's tweet the following day, he discovered that his book contained a chapter on the Loch Ness Monster, but he doesn't now remember the precise train of thought that inspired him to then tweet at Naish: "Any cryptozoology interest in Loch Ness Monster?"

"It was an off-the-cuff tweet," Gemmell says now. "I even thought, 'Well, should I ask him? Will he think this is just silly?' Because I don't want to be seen as... I'm not a Nessie believer, and there are many people out there who are."

Now, two years after the events described here, Gemmell's search for the Loch Ness Monster using environmental DNA (eDNA) is "by a country mile" the biggest research-based media story to ever emerge from Otago University, which is also home to world-leading, history-shaping researchers Parry Guilford, who found the genetic basis for a rare form of stomach cancer, and Richie Poulton, who leads the 40-year-old, world-famous, internationally-acclaimed Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health And Development Study.

In the media communications department at Otago University, they call it, "The gift that just keeps on giving".


Professor Gemmell is embarrassed by all this, but not embarrassed enough to want it to stop.

The complete interaction between Gemmell and Naish extended to seven tweets and, after the introductions, it went as follows: Gemmell asked if there was any chance of getting water samples from Loch Ness for a new type of analysis; Naish said he had talked about eDNA testing while at Loch Ness the week before; Gemmell said this was exactly the type of testing he was thinking about; Naish said he would look into it and get back to him.

Naish never got back to him. Months passed and the Loch Ness Monster began to slip from his gaze. He was content to let it. More accurately, he just forgot about it. It looked for a while like it would just be one of those things that flashes into and out of a life - an interesting but unlikely idea, eventually forgotten.

Then, almost a year later, journalist John Paul Breslin from Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post came across the Twitter exchange, contacted Gemmell and wrote a short article about it.

"News of the potential DNA study has sent shockwaves through the Nessie-monitoring world," Breslin wrote, not particularly accurately. The conversation between Naish and Gemmell had, at that stage, been publicly available on Twitter for nearly a year, had attracted not a single retweet and the only person that had even "liked" any of the exchanges was Naish. There was no sign anyone else had even read it. But the article was about to make its own truth.

Asked now what would have happened to the monster hunt were it not for that article, Gemmell says, "Oh, I probably never would have done it."

"I would have continued to think it was a good idea and then at some point somebody would have done it and I would have gone, 'Oh yeah, I thought of that.'"

Almost as soon as the article was published it went, as they say in the online world, nuts. Suddenly, Gemmell's monster hunt - only seven speculative tweets and one overreaching newspaper report long - made him a worldwide scientific celebrity.

"I sat there and I thought, 'Gee, I've been dumb'," he says now. "I thought, 'Why didn't I think about this 10 years ago?'"

In the early 2000s, Gemmell had published a paper looking at how many moa may have been in New Zealand prior to human arrival. That story attracted a reasonable amount of media interest, in New Zealand at least.

"It was one of the top stories on Yahoo News that day," Gemmell says, "until Yasser Arafat died."

That was media coverage of the type scientists like. It was built on research - long, hard, laborious, important work of the type Gemmell is paid for and has made a reputation for - important work that has a positive impact on the world. And, 17 years later, it was dwarfed by the amount of coverage he was getting for an idea he hadn't even properly thought through and had last seriously considered a year earlier.

He didn't know whether he even wanted to do it. There were questions of funding and risks of reputational damage and potential accusations of wasting taxpayer dollars and the challenge of finding and building collaborations with serious researchers and labs also not afraid of becoming pariahs.

But when some of his son's primary school friends told him they'd seen him on the news and thought the project was cool, he decided it was worth the risk.

So he built the team, attracted partners and funding, and in June this year he went to Loch Ness and took 230 samples, which his lab and several others around the world are now analysing to find what's been swimming through them.

Neil Gemmell on Loch Ness.
Neil Gemmell on Loch Ness.

Adrian Shine, who runs the Loch Ness Centre and Loch Ness Project and has been the media's first stop for comment on the monster for 40 years, describes eDNA testing this way: "In a little tube, a little filter, no bigger than a thumb, you might find an elephant."

If there's a monster swimming around in Loch Ness, chances are it will be in one of those 230 tubes.

Humans don't grasp the likelihood of things very well. We're often inclined to amazement at the occurrence of things that are not especially unusual.

What statisticians call "the birthday problem" does a good job of explaining it. Let's say you're at a party with 22 other people and during a random conversation with one of them, you discover you share a birthday. You might go, "Wow! What a coincidence!" You might be so surprised that you start to look for meaning in it. Maybe you'll assume some powerful romantic force is bringing you together. Maybe you'll fall in love, start a relationship, something wildly misguided like that.

But actually, the chances of two people in that room sharing a birthday are 50 per cent. What you thought of as an amazing coincidence is basically as likely to happen as not. It's not a sign you're meant to be together; it's not a sign of anything. There's a good chance that after a few weeks, or a few hours, of romance, you'll realise you've got nothing else in common with that person and wish you'd done more basic statistics at university.

This is low-level stuff but it shows it doesn't take big numbers to make surprising events surprisingly likely. As the number gets bigger, so does the scale of surprise and its likelihood according to "the law of truly large numbers", a term coined in a landmark 1989 paper by two Harvard University mathematics professors, Dr Persi Diaconis and Dr Frederick Mosteller.

"When enormous numbers of events and people and their interactions cumulate over time," they write, "almost any outrageous event is bound to occur."

When something happens that's out of our ordinary experience, we seek meaning in it. But what the law of truly large numbers tells us is that even the unlikeliest event in our lives is not at all meaningful. To us, it feels special, but to the rest of the world, we're just another number.

Seen through the lens of mathematical validity, it's not at all incredible that a professor of genetics from New Zealand's fourth largest university became the world's best-known monster hunter following an unlikely Twitter exchange that would have disappeared without incident were it not for the stumbling upon it of a Scottish journalist a year later.

But mathematical validity doesn't make for a great story. Sure, it's important to be accurate and to properly understand the world but is it necessary to strip all the mystery and wonder from life? Is it possible that the need to be right isn't always the most important thing?

I guess what I'm saying here is: what are the odds that those two people who met at a party and fell in love for a few wonderfully misguided weeks after discovering their shared birthdays were statisticians?

In 1987, Shine led Operation Deepscan, which was probably the biggest, most highly anticipated, most media-saturated search for the Loch Ness Monster in history, using a line of sonar vessels to scan the length and breadth of the lake.

Shine says Operation Deepscan's appeal was that "It had the smell of decision about it: the remorseless advancing curtain, the inescapable line of sonar vessels". Maybe more than the smell of decision, though, it had the smell of something we could understand.

Operation Deepscan failed to find a monster: "There you are," Shine says now. "I'm afraid that prehistoric monsters are not swimming around in Loch Ness. But of course, nobody believed me, because they didn't want to."

Operation Deepscan failed, but it failed in front of more than 20 international television crews and a massive worldwide audience, and Shine was soon invited to create the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition and Loch Ness Project and he has since used those mechanisms to undertake and communicate a huge amount of biology, geology and evolutionary history to a huge amount of people, many of whom thought they were just going to be finding out about a monster.

The Loch Ness Centre, home of
The Loch Ness Centre, home of "Mr Loch Ness" Adrian Shine.

In recent years, Shine, who is a naturalist, has become increasingly interested in psychology, and particularly in the psychology of human perception.

When he first arrived at Loch Ness in the 1970s, he felt there was almost certainly something to the monster mystery. He felt the answer was in his grasp. But within three years, he says, he became sceptical. Having said that, he says he also believes that almost all the eyewitnesses are giving honest and sober reports.

"One of the most fascinating things is that over 1000 people have seen the Loch Ness Monster and it isn't there," he says. "That's actually a lot more interesting than if it was."

The first time I talked to Gemmell, in the middle of this year, he put on a drawling American accent and imitated someone who had made contact with him during the international media firestorm that blew up when he went to Loch Ness:

"Well Neil, would you get on a boat and go lookin' for Bigfoot? We'd like to film you on the front of this boat, lookin' out over this river, lookin' up into the Pacific Northwest…"

Gemmell replied, "Yeah, no, that's not me."

I asked why.

"I don't want to be the monster guy," he said. "I mean, I think it's a fantastic piece of bait, but I think in the long term, I'd like to do other things."

Two months later, when I spoke to him again, he told me the exact opposite: that he was thinking about going looking for more monsters once his work at Loch Ness was done.

I reminded him of what he'd said during our first conversation and asked if he'd rethought.

"I think I have," he said. "I think what I am encouraged by is, I guess everybody's got a niche or a thing, and if this ends up being my thing it's not the worst thing that could happen. Because, at the moment, I've got a platform to tell people about science."

"So without trying to sound too flamboyant or arrogant, I want to give it a go."

Among the 14 people currently working in Gemmell's lab is Taylor, the scientist who first connected Gemmell and Naish on Twitter.

Taylor is a well-known and successful scientist, who had her own international media success earlier this year with a stunt where she raised funds for the endangered hihi by taking sperm samples from a population and getting the public to place bets on which would swim fastest. The success of this stunt was part of the reason she won this year's Callaghan Medal, which rewards "outstanding contribution to science communication and raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress".

Taylor says, "If you're not talking about your science you're not really doing science."

Gemmell doesn't believe in the Loch Ness Monster, but he does believe in the power of monsters. He's ridden to fame on this prehistoric plesiosaur he believes does not exist, and most of us believe does not exist, but which we all really, really want to exist.

Shine says people have approached him to look at other mysteries. "And actually I have… Yes, I have dabbled a little myself." He says you get more media coverage from talking about a monster than you do from almost anything else if you can manage it so "you don't come over as a complete wacko".

Gemmell says: "I worked my way up to professor some years back, I run a fairly big lab, I've been a head of department and I've done a bunch of other things around the university.

"But I guess, I don't know, maybe I'm having a midlife crisis, because I know I can do all that other stuff now. I can get the grants, I can train the students. We're internationally recognised for our work in our sphere, so I'm known within a sphere but I don't know if I'm particularly well known within the New Zealand context. I don't know. I've done quite a few interviews and articles on issues over the years but I think most times it's kind of invisible to the New Zealand public."

"Maybe I'm just looking for a change. I like to talk and I like to talk about science and I could be effective in this context and I'm thinking that this is an opportunity to try something new."

The law of truly large numbers does not offer a lot of hope for repeat strikes. You will probably only get one chance to be the monster guy. You probably shouldn't blow it.