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Fata Morgana, Encore!

The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again. Frank R. Stockton (1872)

Paranormal investigator Jonathan Bright has taken the somewhat dubious use of Fata Morgana to explain so-called “floating ships,” which we have discussed previously, and run with it. Everything from the Flying Dutchman to UFO’s to The Loch Ness Monster can, he tells a tabloid eager to re-churn an eye-catching photo, be explained by this atmospheric phenomenon.

Photo by Colin McCallum

The captain […] explained to the sailors that this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. Frank R. Stockton (1872)

The Fata Morgana go-to explanation, which the Daily Mail had apparently un-ironically earlier tagged onto this still evolving story of an apparent fleet of these so-called “floating ships” across the UK, despite their own source describing the phenomenon as “rare,” is seemingly so weak that even the Daily Record, for it is they, runs the more plausible false horizon hypothesis before letting Bright loose.

There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, [the captain] said, when the sun's rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed—turned bottom upwards. Frank R. Stockton (1872)

Mirages, as the good captain indicates, tend to show elements of magnification, multiplication, inversion and distortion, and in their more complex form show a combinations of these in a rapidly changing and short lived ethereal show worthy of the name Fata Morgana. As this does not seem to be the case in McCallum’s photo, false horizon or even looming do indeed seem much more likely explanations.

In a moment it would change into a confused mass of long colonnades, lofty towers, and battlements waving with flags, and then the mountains reeling and falling, a long row of windows would appear glowing with rainbow colors, and perhaps, in another instant, all this would be swept away, and nothing be seen but gloomy cypress trees. Frank R. Stockton (1872)

But, what about Bright’s claim that Fata Morgana can be used as a natural and normal explanation for all manner of paranormal experience from the Flying Dutchman to UFO’s and The Loch Ness Monster? Well, it can, especially those that include the sort of visual distortions associated with the phenomena, and it certainly seems it was good enough an explanation for the captain’s crew.

Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships. Frank R. Stockton (1872)

The vast majority of such sightings, much like the one in McCallum’s photo, do not, however, demonstrate such distortions. This seemingly pseudoscientific silver-bullet explanation is, therefore, quite limited, despite its appeal. And besides, there are as Bright himself intimates, plenty of other factors related to perception, interpretation, recollection and reporting that we might wish to attend to first.

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