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There is absolutely no photographic jiggery-pokery going on in the images above. No photoshopping, no special effects. In both cases, the camera is capturing exactly what people were seeing with their own eyes, in person, or, in the case of the top photo, on TV as they watched a broadcast of the Scottish Open golf tournament. The BBC switchboard was clogged with callers exclaiming there’s a flying bloody ship hovering over the crowd!

Perhaps you recall the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a floating ghost ship said to be filled with the souls of the damned, cursed to sail above the seas for all eternity? They made use of the old legend, with considerable embellishment, in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Among sailors back in the day, the Flying Dutchman was reputed to have been a merchant vessel lost at sea en route to Amsterdam, loaded with silk and spices, by various accounts an unlucky victim of a storm, negligent seamanship, or a bad bargain made with Satan himself by a drunken and tyrannical captain named Hendrick Van der Decken. Terrified sailors kept rolling into port claiming they’d actually seen the doomed vessel, hovering in the sky. Those who’d never been to sea assumed, of course, that they were all a bunch of superstitious booze hounds having drunken hallucinations and telling tall tales. They said the same thing when sailors told stories of the ghostly glow they’d sometimes see hovering amid the topsails, which they called St. Elmo’s Fire.

Well, St. Elmo’s Fire is a real thing (it’s the coronal discharge of a mast interacting with an atmospheric electric field), and so, probably, was the Flying Dutchman, inasmuch as what sailors were almost certainly seeing were ordinary ships made to appear ghostly by the simplest of atmospheric phenomena: light refraction. When conditions are right, overlapping layers of air with different densities and temperatures can bend the light of distant objects, presenting the viewer with an image of something that is actually much lower than it appears. Sometimes, what the viewer observes floating in mid-air is actually well over the horizon.

The result is what’s known as a looming or superior mirage, A.K.A. the Fata Morgana Illusion, and it must be awfully disconcerting if you don’t know what’s going on. Or even if you do.

It’s a rare effect, but not all that rare, if the plethora of posted images is any indication. A Google search will bring back hundreds of pictures that seem to show the impossible.

Floating boat???????
What is the cause of the looming mirage formed in very cold regions? - Quora

This is better than quantum theory, yes? There’s actually an answer, and it actually makes sense.

One comment on “Your Daily Mind-Bender, Issue #4: Ships That Fly

  1. sprytely50 says:

    Atmospheric conditions can cause other odd sights.
    On a camping trip several years ago my wife I caught a “Second Sunset”. At first we didn’t know if it was a star or planet (unlikely as it was so bright) or UFO!?.
    A pair of binoculars solved the problem. We could easily see a trees, a beach, and a very bright sunset, at almost 11PM. We had seen a beautiful sunset at about 9PM (all times EDT at appox. 44.5° N). No midnight sun here.
    Some type of mirage to me. A great gift from the western sky.


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