What's behind this floating 'ghost ship' at East Coast Park?

A rare optical phenomena.

Joshua Lee | June 02, 2022, 03:31 PM

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There are plenty of weird and wonderful things in this world and this is one of them, but not in the way that you might be expecting.

A Mothership reader sent us this image, along with the subject header: "Ghost ship at East Coast Park":

"If I saw this with my own eyes at the sea I would be quite spooked too haha," a colleague remarked.

Spooky indeed, because that is a real ship, but not of the supernatural variety.

The reason it appears to float above the horizon is thanks to a rare optical phenomena called the superior mirage.

What's happening here?

This superior mirage occurred due to a temperature inversion — where there's a layer of cold air directly on top of the sea and a warm layer of air on top of it.

Cold air is denser than warm air. So when light passes through warm to cold air, the light bends, making the object seem higher than it is.

Here's a wonderful graphic detailing how a superior mirage occurs:


The image of the ship at East Coast is a called a looming superior mirage. This term is used to describe distant objects that appear to float above their actual position.

In other cases of a looming superior mirage, objects below the horizon appear to be above it.

Superior mirages can make things appear bigger, closer, upside-down, stretched, or even weirdly distorted.

On the other end of the spectrum (haha!) you have the inferior mirage, where a layer of cold air rests above your line of sight, while a warmer layer of air sits below your line of sight.

The inferior mirage is behind the common "blue oasis in the desert" phenomenon (it's actually light from the blue sky being bent back into our eyes).

On extremely hot and clear days, it's also common to spot the inferior mirage in action on roads, where it creates the illusion of "wet streaks".


There you have it: The science behind ghost ships out at sea.

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Top image credit: Mothership reader.