Fata Morgana: The Strange Mirages at Sea
Learn all about "Fata Morgana," a rare optical illusion and phenomenon that frightened sailors on the high seas.
If you’ve read about the sinking of the Titanic, you may have heard the term “Fata Morgana.” While there’s no doubt an iceberg was responsible for the sinking of the ship on April 15, 1912, new evidence suggests that this rare optical illusion might have also played a part.
What is Fata Morgana?
To put it simply, Fata Morgana is a type of mirage, one that is normally associated with the open ocean but can also be seen at times on land. It takes its name from Arthurian legend, named for the sorceress Morgan le Fay, who was said to use these images with her witchcraft to lure unwitting sailors into her traps.
This type of mirage is responsible for all kinds of unusual sightings, from mountains in the middle of the ocean to ships that appear to be flying. It may even be the source of the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
The Flying Dutchman, Ghost Ship at Sea
According to lore, the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever. Historians believe that this tale originated in the 17th century. In more recent years, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, sailors reported seeing light coming from the ghost ship as the Flying Dutchman tries to signal the dead. Legend has it that seeing the Flying Dutchman is a sure sign of doom at sea.
Most experts today believe that the Flying Dutchman can be explained by the Fata Morgana phenomenon. It is well documented that this type of mirage can make far-off ships look like they are floating well above the water. It makes sense that sailors in the 1600s (and beyond) would see this mirage and, unaware of this natural phenomenon, assume it to be something supernatural.
The Conditions That Cause Fata Morgana
For a Fata Morgana to appear, the atmospheric conditions have to be just right. It starts with a cold air mass close to the ground or surface of the water that is topped by a warm layer of air higher in the atmosphere. Although Fata Morgana can occur on land, they are more common at sea because water helps to form the cool air layer required.
During a Fata Morgana sighting, rays of light passing through the warm and cool air masses bend strangely, which makes the mirage appear. Usually, the image is based on a real object, such as a far-off ship, distorted to appear surreal. People report seeing floating ships, ships that appear to be flying upside down, or even landmasses that aren’t really there. Sometimes people even report flying cities, although there is some question as to whether sky bound cities are a type of Fata Morgana or some other unusual weather phenomenon. Interestingly, the farther away from a Fata Morgana you are, the taller the mirage appears to be.
Did The Titanic Sink From A Fata Morgana?
Atmospheric conditions were right the night the Titanic sank, and a false horizon may have obstructed the view of the iceberg that sent the ship and its passengers to their watery grave. The Titanic sailed into the cold Labrador Current that clashed with warm Gulfstream waters, causing a thermal inversion, creating the mirage.
Common Places to See Fata Morgana
Fata Morgana most often occurs at sea and there are certain places around the world that seem more prone to these mirages than other places. For instance, Fata Morgana often appears in Antarctica, viewable from the McMurdo Station. In the early 1800s, several Fata Morgana sightings in the northern Arctic led to the “discovery” of land masses that didn’t really exist, including the mythical Crocker Mountains and the Crocker Land Mass.
Closer to home, Fata Morgana sightings are quite common among the Great Lakes. On Lake Ontario, there have been many sightings of ships and islands. One of the most notable sightings was in July 1866, sailors reported seeing a 300-foot tall island along with a ship that appeared to be sailing upside down through the air.
In various places along the Great Lakes, you can also sometimes see mirages of cities or parts of the coastline. The Canadian coast has mysteriously appeared to residents of Buffalo, New York during a Fata Morgana event and flying ships have been seen from places like Marquette, Michigan.
The Californian coastal waters also sometimes produce Fata Morgana sightings, usually ships and islands but also mirages that appear to be massive walls of water.
Have you ever witnessed the Fata Morgana with your own eyes? If so, share your story in the comments section!
Lead blog image by thrio @flickr
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.
We saw a Fata Morgana today looking out from Ebey’s Landing Beach toward the Olympic Peninsula when a big cruise ship came by looking as if it were 20 stories high,with surf at the horizon that appeared to be a tsunami.
Interesting article. The ship in the first photo is an actual ship that I’ve sailed on. It’s the magnificent Royal Clipper- the largest full rigged sailing ship in the world with 5 masts and 42 sails.
I live near Lake Michigan and have seen this a few times. A week ago I took a photo of a Fata Morgana. Wasn’t very dramatic, but what is actually a picture of one of the cribs, or water intakes a mile off the shore looks a lot like some sort of UFO.
I live in overlooking Cook Inlet in Alaska. I have witnessed these mirages several times in the winter months. We can see what looks to be tall buildings where the mountains join the inlet. I know for a fact they aren’t really there!! Ive also seen them out in the open waters on the horizon and i actually have a very nice photo of this phenomenon. It is very awsome to witness!! Never saw or heard of it until moving to Alaska.
Dear me. Here I am 80 years old and just now getting an explanation of something I saw as a child in the late 40’s in Oakland CA.
Never heard of Fata Morgana until just minutes ago.
I was probably about 6 years old. At my grandparents home in hills of Oakland. Standing on porch waiting for parents to say goodbye and back to Menlo Park. Was looking out at sky. I saw a ship with quite a few masts and shadowy figures that seemed to be moving.
My mother came out saw same thing and said she never wanted to talk about it.
Did I see a Fata Morgana? As I read other people’s descriptions now I wonder if I saw the phantom Dutch ship??
Me too! I lived on the Irish Sea coast. I was ten years old and saw what looked like a big harbour on the horizon, complete with harbour walls, capstans and even shapes that looked like chains hanging between them. It was purple and red in the sunset. Beautiful. I thought it was the Isle of Man. But the island is too far away to be seen from where I stood. .Quite a few people stopped to look. As you say, 60 years later, I wonder if it could have been a Fata Morgana.
These mirages are amazing and I’ve caught many of them with my P900.
Here’s the thing. Those boats are right there in front of you; it’s just the mirrored image below the boat is obstructing what you know should be there: water. The water is there; it’s just behind the mirage. In the “Ghost Boat” video above, the boat is proximate and on the water. It’s just the water is behind the mirage. Please check out my YouTube channel for some amazing miraging captures!!
The Fata Morgana is a variation of the inferior mirage. This fact can be checked by applying the “vanishing line” to the alleged mirage. One thing to realize is that the mirage covers the entire field of view, not just the object to be mirrored. That is, the reason the object looks to be floating in the air is the sky is being mirrored under the ship. Pair this with the “vanishing line” it will become evident the ship is physically on water that is hidden by the mirage.
Good info, thank you, Travis.
We are in East Tawas Michigan on Lake Huron. We see Charity Island inverted on the horizon.
I took a pic yesterday of a container ship going past Tybee Island, GA on 1/6/2019. They showed the pic on WTOC TV on Jan 7th. A few other people also took pics of the ship and posted them on facebook. It was very exciting to see this phenomenon!
Hi Sherry, Wow, we’d love to see the photo! Would you mind posting it on our Facebook page? https://www.facebook.com/TheFarmersAlmanac/
I took a picture of this Fata Morgana thinking it was a UFO. Only today did Jeopardy have a question about this phenomenon so I googled it. Can I email you the picture?
Hi Karen, Great! We just sent you an email. We’d love to see the image.