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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 by flying, and 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 so 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.

Fata Morgana - Mirage

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 are bent strangely and that is what makes the mirage appear. Usually, the image is based on a real object, such as a far-off ship, just 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

A Fata Morgana seen from the coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo by Timpaananen @wikipedia

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. Her article on woolly worm caterpillar folklore appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.

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Mollie Ann Reingpach Edwards

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??

Travis Finley

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!!

Travis Finley

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.

Susan Higgins

Good info, thank you, Travis.

Mary Poole

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!

Susan Higgins

Hi Sherry, Wow, we’d love to see the photo! Would you mind posting it on our Facebook page?

Karen Hamilton

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?

Susan Higgins

Hi Karen, Great! We just sent you an email. We’d love to see the image.

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