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SHARP-eyed Nessie spotters from around the world have made it a bumper year for the annual Best Nessie Sighting competition – and prompted speculation that a family of mysterious creatures inhabits Loch Ness.
A total of seven contenders will compete for a £1000 cash prize from sponsors bookmaker William Hill, which has again teamed up with The Inverness Courier to run an online vote.
The encounters have been recorded by Gary Campbell who keeps the official register of sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. He is impressed by the quality of this year's entries which are all accompanied by photographs and have been reported by people living outwith the area.
"There is such a variety of sightings," he said. "We have people on the water seeing things, we have people on both sides of the loch seeing things and people from different parts of the world seeing things.
"It shows what a global phenomenon Nessie truly is."
He noted two sightings were reported on the same day at different locations by different people unknown to each other within minutes of each other.
"Finally, we have proof there is not just one Nessie people are seeing in random places," he said. "Potentially, we have a family of Nessies. That makes it a tremendous year."
Two entries have been submitted from overseas by people browsing images from a webcam above Loch Ness while another two – on separate dates – were snapped by visitors taking a trip on one of the loch's cruise boats.
One sighting was reported from Dores Beach, on the loch's quieter southern side.
It is the highest number since 2000 when there were 11 recorded encounters. Last year, four reported sightings, including two verbal accounts, were accepted for inclusion on the list.
Mr Campbell attributed the increased number of photographed sightings to the growth of smartphones and webcams.
"It makes it easier to make sure we have something worthy of inclusion on the register," he said. "In the past, we have relied on eyewitness accounts but photographs give a bit of extra evidence.
"It also allows to explain a number of reports which we don't include on the register – that what people have seen is perhaps a boat wake, for example."
The number will also come as relief to Nessie believers who were concerned in 2013 that there were no confirmed sightings – for the first time since 1925.
"We were in a position three years ago everyone thought Nessie had disappeared but she is back with a vengeance!" Mr Campbell said.
Rupert Adams, of William Hill, is struck by the quality and variety of sightings.
"It is an interesting selection," he said. "Two sightings were on the same day at separate places which is very interesting. As far as I can tell, this has never happened before."
Mr Adams said all the entrants would receive a free £50 bet.
Last year's winner was Inverness lorry driver Conor McKenna. Although his was one of two verbal accounts, while the other two were accompanied by photographs, his encounter was reckoned by voters to be the best.
The former Gulf War veteran, of Maclennan Crescent, Merkinch, was on one of his regular routes along the A82 on September 15 2015 when he spotted a dark-coloured 15-20ft long object in the water about a mile south of Urquhart Castle.
"It was long enough, whatever it was, to leave a crest," he recalled afterwards. "A wave broke on the left-hand side and I wondered if it was a log or a tree, but then it disappeared."
As he was driving at the time Mr McKenna was unable to take a photograph.
"I don't really know what it was except it was big enough to make me question myself, and I don't like that," he said.
Despite his initial reluctance, he eventually registered his sighting which netted him the first prize of £1000 in the best Nessie sighting competition.
Recorded sightings in 2016:
• March 24 – Joaquin, of the Canary Isles, spotted a shape on the Nessie on the Net webcam. He said there were no birds or other debris around and when he refreshed the screen, the creature was gone.
• April 15 – Mr Smith and his family, of Aberdeenshire, saw a black shape low in the water while looking west from Dores beach. He said that the sighting lasted about a minute at noon.
• May 1 – A visitor from Texas took pictures of a dark creature just under the surface following the boat she was on. The sighting happened about 1.30pm and lasted 30 seconds. She initially thought it was a shadow but then realised that there was nothing behind her that could cause such a reflection.
• May 21 – Jolene Lin, of London saw "a snake-like head emerging from the waters". It was reported as being relatively far away but she said she could see the head clearly and the "monster" appeared to be greyish-green or something along that lines. The sighting took place at 1.29pm from one of the cruise ships on the loch.
• June 21 – Jim from Iowa saw something on the Nessie on the Net webcam. while watching it during his lunchtime. He said that the second picture showed the normal view without the object in it. The sighting lasted 10-12 seconds and he reported that there was no boat activity in the area at the time.
• August 21 – Ian Campbell, a government worker from Argyll, was cycling along the west side of the loch near Drumnadrochit with his son and family friend when he pictured two creatures in the loch about 10m in length just out from the shore.
• August 21 – On the same day Mr Smith, visiting the area, also saw something very similar. He said he and his son saw some dark or black shapes moving around in the water near to Urquhart castle. He estimated them to be about 800 yards away but they managed to take some pictures.
* Go to www.inverness-courier.co.uk/News to cast your vote for this year's winner. The poll is located near the foot of the page, in the right column. Voting will close at midnight on Sunday, January 8. The judges' decision is final.