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This undated file photo shows a shadowy shape that some people say is a the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, later debunked as a hoax. Image Credit: AP

Inverness, Scotland: Hundreds of monster hunters equipped with drones and infrared cameras have gathered here in the Scottish Highlands with a singular goal: to be the ones to finally find the Loch Ness monster. But it won't be easy.

On Saturday, the rain was lashing and the skies were gray, hampering visibility in the search for the folkloric creature, affectionately known as "Nessie." The mythical monster, which legend says lives in a freshwater lake in Scotland, has eluded capture, or any definitive proof of existence, since its first recorded sighting in the 6th century.

But trying to find Nessie is an age-old tradition, and the volunteer hunters who showed up Saturday are dedicated - and better equipped than those who came before. The search for the monster, organized over two days by the local Loch Ness Center in Inverness, is the biggest in a half-century, and certainly the most high-tech. Some people drove hours to be here, while others flew in from overseas.

"I believe," Isabelle Rambaud, who was on vacation here from the south of France, said of the monster as she stood in the local Loch Ness gift shop. Rambaud and her husband spent part of their Saturday searching for Nessie.

"We did not see Nessie," she said, holding five packets of traditional Scottish shortbread. If she did, Rambaud added, it would "change her life."

The Loch Ness Center launched the event - which they called "The Quest" - in partnership with Loch Ness Exploration, a research group that studies the lake and other unexplained phenomena. They put out a call for volunteer hunters "fascinated by the legendary tales of Nessie" and with "a passion for unraveling mysteries and exploring the extraordinary."

The center was later forced to close online registrations for volunteers "due to an overwhelming surge in demand," according to the website. The global fascination with Nessie and Inverness brings more than 1 million visitors to the area each year, according to Alan Rawlinson, business development manager at Visit Inverness Loch Ness.

"I'd love to get some answers this weekend," said Paul Nixon, who leads the Loch Ness Center, adding that the tale of the monster is "one of the greatest unsolved mysteries that exists."

These are not just people "with binoculars and a tub of sandwiches," he said. "If we did find it," he added, it would be "a global sensation."

Indeed, some hunters with drones are equipping them with infrared cameras to seek out heat spots in the lake - as well as sending them underwater. They've also come armed with a hydrophone to pick up acoustic signals 60 feet below the loch's surface - although nobody really knows what the monster would sound like.

Other participants can join several surface-watch locations staged by organizers or cruise the 23-mile-long lake by boat. They have been asked to document everything they see - from surface movements to weather changes - and are getting lessons on how to capture potential sightings on their phones.

For those who aren't here in person, a live stream of the hunt is available online. Nixon said he hopes that the weekend's events inspire a new, younger generation of Nessie hunters. The center will also conduct a "sentiment test" to gauge whether skeptics have turned into believers or if people's opinions on the monster's existence have changed.

Interest in cryptids, which are animals whose existence is unproven, such as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, has persisted for so long because "people's imaginations are fired up," said Michael A. Little, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University in New York.

The frequent portrayals of fantastical creatures such as Nessie in movies and on television also perpetuate the myths, he added. "People really believe it and spend enormous amounts of time and energy searching," he said. "But there's no evidence."

The myth originates with a recorded sighting in 565 A.D., when an Irish saint was "said to have driven a beast back into the water," according to the Inverness website. More incidents were reported in the intervening years - and in 1933, fascination with Loch Ness skyrocketed after a local hotel worker reported seeing a "whale-like fish" in the water.

The Inverness Courier published the hotel worker's story under the headline "Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness," and referred to the creature as "a monster," which was picked up by domestic and international media. A year later, a photo published in the London Daily Mail - and attributed to a local doctor - showed a long-necked creature poking out of the loch. The grainy image is to this day the one most commonly associated with Nessie, but it was later revealed as a hoax.

In the 1970s, a group called the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau set up "camera watches" and conducted the last major surface watch. In 1987, another team swept the loch with sonar.

"The Quest" in Scotland this weekend is therefore "long overdue," said Gary Campbell, who, along with his wife, runs an online register of all reported Nessie sightings.

His interest was sparked in 1996 when, as he sat in his car next to the lake, he said he spotted a "big black hump" emerging from the water before it dipped back below the surface. "It was about 10- to 12-feet long," Campbell said, adding that it then reappeared for a few moments before vanishing from view.

He soon realized there was no comprehensive list of sightings - and created the Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register, which includes more than 1,000 alleged incidents.

"Whether they're a skeptic or a cynic, if they visit Loch Ness they will look for the Loch Ness monster," Nixon said of visitors to the lake. "Everyone looks at the water and there is some voice in their head saying: You might spot something here."

Since Mark Thewlis was a child in Australia, he has had a lifelong obsession with Nessie. He now works as a store manager at the Nessieland souvenir shop near the lake.

"There's something strange going on in that loch," Thewlis said. "There's some theories that it's not even a flesh and blood creature. It could be supernatural."

For Rawlinson of Visit Inverness Loch Ness, the hunt is an opportunity to raise awareness of the area - a region steeped in history and known for its picturesque landscapes, trails, castles and whiskey distilleries.

But does he believe?

"Why not?" he said, adding that the likelihood of spotting Nessie is closely linked to how much whiskey one might drink.

"Nessie is smarter than those people," one Facebook user wrote on the platform before the hunt. "She won't be caught."