Debunked: Hovering Ship "Fata Morgana" or "Mirage" [False Horizon]


Senior Member.
silly idea... are the tops of the waves white? this pic looks like the angles are not all flat or that the top piece is in sun... but it is not and they are both flat. ripped a piece of sandpaper in half. in this case teh beige color is the paper and the rough sand is dark. so as it flattens with my eye height i only see the dark bits.

(not sure this effect would produce such a hard edge where the sea changes color though.

Mick West

Staff member
Here's a fairly extreme example of a distant light patch being illuminated by the sun with the near sea being under clouds . I don't think this is it.


[Note: photo is by Rick Warren who took some photos of the Mystery Missile 11 years ago. I remembered his view was over the ocean, so I looked at his Flickr feed ]

Mick West

Staff member
Looking through my photos from a trip to Alaska years ago. Glacier bay.

Shows the various different type of water surface, with quite a glassy on near the far shore. You would not get that level of calm in the ocean.

In close-up

More layers of light and dark, with a bonus whale tail
Notice here, even though the regions are irregular in shape, the further away they are, then more parallel to the horizon they become. Also notice the quite start contrast between dark and light.


Senior Member.
Another suggestion, seeming from David Morris, who took that Cornwall photo.

It is likely the remarkable optical illusion was caused by a cloud formation closer to the shore, which changed the colour of the water closer to the land.

The boat, being further away, was in a cloudless area and therefore the sky reflected the sea - making it look like the boat was floating.

It's a shame non of those clouds show up in the image. But I don't feel like they would really have this dramatic effect. All the water seems to be sunlit. But it's hard to tell without wider context.
A crop from Aqua image on March 4, 2021

I also have checked the Meteostat-11 footage on the day, the window in the cloud layer over the relevant spot of the sea stayed most of the daytime.

The photos were reported first at 11:18, 4 MAR 2021, so the Terra image should better approximate their time:

There were two different cloud layers over the land and the coast and over the sea.

Edit 2:
The darker triangular patch south of Cornwall corresponds to a clear sky.
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Immediately when I saw this stunning photo of a boat "flying in the air" with the explanations emerging in the medias I was shocked. The fact is that we rarely (never) have a mirage without a certain level of distorsion or "glitches" in the resulting image. The refraction surface or conditions are never perfect...

So, thank a lot Mick West for your intervention and explanations.

In fact, the propagation of this "fata morgana" fake news is quite impressive! It is not only due to tabloids: the same explanation has been copied/pasted in all the medias, including scientific channels which share a part of the responsibility giving their approbation to this "Fata Morgana" frenzy.

We should be more conscious that our personal beliefs are our daily driver of our actions and interpretations of the reality.
As we cannot verify everything every days, these insidious convictions tell us when an information should be True (or False). As a result, we let (naturally) our convictions driving most of our choices. For example: "Scientists are serious, so what they said is (probably) True". The Milgram experiment is the result of this kind of cognitive conditioning.

Most of people define the reality in this manner, even scientists are subjects to bias ( Scientists acknowledge the information of others scientists, or "well formatted" information (when you respond to the standards of a community you rise your chances to be believed : see how nonsense papers can end up in respected scientific papers: or )

And when most people are saying that something is "True", then it is the whole reality of humans which is redefined.
Back to our subject: when a meteorologist ("the man of science") say about this viral photo that it is a "Fata Morgana" it will trigger an uncontrollable propagation of this "fake news".

In fact, who is likely to give a "good" opinion on this type of phenomenon ? Not a meteorologist but much more a specialist of optic and refraction calculation. These specialists are rarer and this is where your video :
is very usefull and the Metabunk tool for refraction calculation wonderful! (

Another thing is very annoying in this story: we do not have the original photo (the photo is extremely reduced in size) and meta-datas.
Alas, it is often a signature of "fakes" and, in any cases, this makes any further analysis more difficult.

In fact, the photo has been cropped and extremely zoomed. This is adding to the subjective impression of distance between the boat and the

My question after all of that was :
1- is it a photo montage? (a pure fake)
2- or a false horizon?

ITrailblazer found the "good place" and this place fit perfectly with the larger version of the photo published by the BBC.


Using these photos in superposition we are able to verify the position of the "real horizon". We are using the line of rocks emerging from the surface on the upper right side of the photo.

And yes! It appears that the real horizon extends beyond the one seen in the original photo. When shown in context, this band of water which reflects the light is really tiny, located very far on the horizon. The published part of the photo is highly zoomed, which enhanced the visual effect.

For a larger picture you've the links. I've used an old version of Photoshop so my superposition is hand-made / not perfect: to realize a better adjustment you can use the "warping tool" of one of the last Photoshop versions - but in any cases, you'll have some limitations because the surfaces of the rocks are not flat! The "must" would be to go in the same place to take a photo with a good weather.

The line between the sky and the sea is almost visible in the second photo of the BBC (egalization tool in Photoshop).




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Senior Member.
Does the effect ever occur in the other direction, with the brighter water close and the darker water further away?


Senior Member.
I wonder if refraction is to blame. Close to the water surface, refraction is different, and low-angle rays traveling through this layer may be refracted and act as collimator, increasing the amount of light that reaches the viewer by compressing the image.

I saw a series of videos a few months back where somebody (a FEer) shot video across a lake from different heights, and there was a "compression" effect noticeable, and bright spots of light in that compression zone would obscure darker objects. But I'm not too certain about the physics of this.


Senior Member
Does the effect ever occur in the other direction, with the brighter water close and the darker water further away?
Yeah, but the reflection of the sky lightening smooth water near you is usually less pronounced, in my experience.


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Active Member
The UK media continue to feature stories about these levitating ships, invariably explaining them as mirages. There have been several reports in the Times (paywalled, so I won't link to them) and this one on the BBC website:

This one concerns a ship off the coast of north-east England. (I'm not sure if it has already been mentioned, but I don't see it in this thread.) A BBC meteorologist is again wheeled out to 'explain' how it is a mirage. As bunk goes, I suppose this is relatively harmless, but it is annoying that 'experts' keep trotting out the same explanation despite the strong doubts (to say the least) about its validity.

Mick West

Staff member


Active Member
Am I wrong? To me, those patches of sea which seem to be flat and still, thence reflecting the sky perfectly, and thus, if they meet the sky, indistinguishable from it, are just "slicks". You don't need oil to cause them, they're entirely natural phenomona. And they're as common as muck. As Mike says, it's good that people are paying attention to them now, as it demystifies something, but it's a bit of a shame that it was a mystery in the first place.


Active Member
I noticed this YouTube video by Mila Zinkova headed 'Superior mirage of a cargo ship'. I don't think there is much doubt about this one, as the ship appears conspicuously distorted.


Zinkova's channel has several other videos of mirages, looming, fata morgana, sunset refraction, and other optical phenomena, as well as wildlife. Searching Metabunk for the name I found a couple of previous mentions, but not in connection with mirages. I haven't found much information about her. She is described as female, but I don't know if this is from personal knowledge, or just an assumption based on the Slavic name 'Mila', which is usually female. Slavic names can be a bit tricky; one might think that 'Misha' and 'Sasha' (or 'Sacha') are female names, but not always. She is also described as either a photographer or a meteorologist. Of course the two descriptions are not mutually exclusive. Her video channel is worth checking out.

Kieron McNulty

New Member
The UK media are at it again. See the following from today's Guardian which confidently ascribes a hovering ship of the coast of Dorset to a superior mirage.

In this case there is even less excuse for the error, as the true sea horizon is faintly visible even without enhancing the contrast.
Also I believe you can see the bow wake as well. which I think is a giveaway. I have emailed the journalists / science desk to try get it corrected, or at least for them to relook at it but there was no response. I thought The Guardian was quite responsive as they have a corrections and clarifications part but alas.....When the actual reason for these images is pointed out it does seem obvious!


New Member
The refraction theory may come from the astronomical effect where the rising and setting sun ( and stars) are refracted up by 1/2 a degree, as shown in astronomy books and websites. Although this refraction happens as the light passes through hundreds of miles of atmosphere, not from a ship 3 miles away. And if such a severe refraction could happen, then the water around a ship would also be refracted up. I notice the Guardian got their refraction image from "Source: HyperPhysics, Georgia State University", so perhaps that is why they thought it is reliable. This website exists, but looks very old and archived. Can you see if they really are linked to a physics dept of a university, or is that a fake link ? The mirage page is here I would hope a real physics dept would correct any mistakes, their pictures have gone viral. The author is . The rest of the site looks ok, no obvious mistakes. Thanks.
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Mick West

Staff member
If you zoom in and enhance the contrast, then you can clear see the ocean surface, and the true (ish) horizon, with windmills, and minor inferior mirage (hot road effect)



Senior Member
The Weather Channel have deleted that video, and their tweet!
Nice. I complained about it, potentially others did as well. I am not impressed that a company blessed with a lot of meteorologists ever posted that. But I am impressed that they took it down. I'd be REALLY impressed if the posted a real explanation, and a debunk of all the many claims that this illusion is Fata Morgana.
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