A Titanic Fata Morgana

By now most of you know that today was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic.

Astronomy Pic of the Day, which isn’t limited to covering things celestial, has a photo of a very curious natural phenomenon which is proposed as, perhaps, having something to do with Titanic’s collision with the iceberg and subsequent foundering.

Behold… Fata Morgana.

Did this mirage help sink the Titanic? The optical phenomenon called Fata Morgana can make strange shapes or a false wall of water appear above a watery horizon. When conditions are right, light reflecting off of cold water will be bent by an unusual layer of warm air above to arrive at the observer from several different angles. A conceptually comparable mirage can make a setting Sun appear strangely distorted or a distant pavement appear wet. One hundred years ago today, such a Fata Morgana mirage might have obscured real icebergs from the clear view of crew onboard the Titanic. Additional evidence for this distortion hypothesis arises from the nearby vessel SS Californian which reported sightings consistent with Fata Morgana mirages. The above Fata Morgana mirage was taken off the US Pacific coast in 2008.

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  1. Rob in Maine says:


    That picture reminds me of the wall of water separating Narnia from Aslan’s country in the final chapter of the “Dawn Treader.” Would this mean that Aslan’s Country is a mirage? Perhaps Lewis might reply that the Fata Morgana obscures our mortal vision of the True Heaven.

  2. ContraMundum says:

    You’re close, Rob, but in actuality the wall of water in this case is the path off the round earth to Valinor in the True West.

  3. Random Walk says:

    I had always figured that it was the fact that the moonlight was absent, coupled with little wind (meaning no real waves, therefore no breakers around the iceberg base, etc).

    This on the other hand is a cool explanation as well.

  4. paglia says:

    My husband and I were out in the Gulf of Mexico on our jet skis for our anniversary in March, when on the horizon there appeared a huge mountainous island — complete with mist-covered peaks. If we didn’t know for certain that there is nothing here other than sandbars and sand-built barrier islands.. we would have been entirely convinced. It was RIGHT THERE — King Kong island.

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    For the iceberg strike, I can blame no one but the captain (yes, I am aware of SOP at the time); but for the California, I truly hope there is some excuse for their inaction. Right now, they are an object lesson against stunning disinterest on the high seas. I’d like them to be an object lesson against popular rush-to-judgment, but, well, we’ll see.

  6. Tina in Ashburn says:

    If the Titanic hit an iceberg in the middle of the night, in temperatures colder than normal, I’d be surprised if sunlight and warm weather necessary for the Fata Morgana would have played a role. One theory is that the ship was racing faster than normal and, because of the unusually cold weather, that icebergs were unexpectedly in the area.

    Did anybody notice the story about the Jesuit amateur-photographer priest who took pictures while on the Titanic? His pictures were the basis for James Cameron’s recreations of scenes in the movie. Obedience to his Provincial’s message saved the Jesuit’s life. From CNS and in our Diocesan paper http://www.catholicherald.com/stories/Jesuits-Titanic-photos-resurface,18684

  7. tealady24 says:

    I think it was God’s will that a beautiful, brand-new, state-of-the-1912-art ship would never even get to sail across the Atlantic, not even once! Whether there was fog, or Fata Morgana or just the arrogance in an “unsinkable” ship that the captain didn’t slow down, will never be known.

    At the time no radio operator had to stay at his post overnight; how stupid this seems to us now, and once the Titanic was tragedy, that rule was changed. We tend to think about all these things as if there was certainly something that could have been done; some action at a mere human level. What we tend to forget is that God is in control. Even in terrible sea tragedies where those few hours from when the ship hit the iceberg until its sinking into the sea must have been pure terror for those who were there. I am thinking that as that ship went down, the good Lord scooped all those souls into heaven!

  8. Cantor says:

    The Titanic incident is also a good paradigm for us to use when we evaluate the condition of our own Church as a Ship of State.

    Most of us grew up learning that Titanic sank as a result of a massive gash down her side. But Woods Hole Institute analyzed the time it took for her to sink in relation to displacement, pump capacity, etc., and determined that the total area of the damaged hull was only about 1.5 square meters … less than half the size of a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood! (Do the math. It’s startling.)

    For all that our Church has gone through in its millenia, we remain afloat, which can give us three lessons:

    1) We’ve barely felt the true force of evil as it could be used against us.
    2) We must be ever vigilant, with qualified “damage control parties” to shore up our hull.
    3) God builds pretty good boats.

  9. Random Walk says:

    @Dr. Peters:

    There was one crucial tidbit that also contributed to the collision: The lookouts had no binoculars. They were locked up in some officer’s locker, but the officer in question had been transferred off to another ship before RMS Titanic departed, and no one had the key. This meant that the lookouts didn’t have binoculars as they normally would have.

    Certainly, that was Smith’s fault in the ultimate sense. OTOH, another tidbit: Smith was assigned as captain on just this trip before being ‘retired’ (due to previously having collided RMS Olympic, and a string of similar small accidents). In other words, the White Star Line was pretty much quietly shoving him out anyway due to a record of goofs and missteps. Smith was pretty popular with the wealthy who frequented the trans-atlantic routes (he was known as “the millionaires’ captain”), so it made sense that the line wanted to keep it on the down-low, and let him do the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic as a ‘one last run’ thing, as opposed to just firing him outright after he got the Olympic into a wreck * back in late 1911.

    As for the SS Califonian? That’s a tough call, as the story is rather muddled, and everyone who was on that ship are dead now (the captain eventually committed suicide over it, most of the rest are dead of old age, the rest dead by injury or accident, etc).

    * Funny thing, RMS Olympic was actually considered to be among the most reliable and indestructible ships on the Atlantic (in spite of being torpedoed once during WWI – the torpedo failed to detonate) – it was eventually scrapped in 1935, after Cunard bought what was left of the White Star Line.

  10. relee54 says:

    I always wondered how the Titanic could have sunk, till I read this excellent article:


    An anti-catholic work force blaspheming the pope (St. Pius X ) with every hammer swing, and about three million rivets! No wonder the unsinkable ship went down!

  11. Tina in Ashburn says:

    @Random Walk, great details.

  12. Random Walk says:

    Heh… sorry – admitted Titanophile of sorts raises his hand meekly, and promises to shut up ab’t the thing. :)

  13. Denita says:

    Funny, I’ve been reading up online about another shipwreck -actually I don’t know if it was called a “ship” or not- and forgot all about the Titanic. I’m referring to the Edmond Fitzgerald. Yes, it’s a real ship, not just a folk song.

  14. bookworm says:

    The Titanic is the most famous maritime disaster ever, but far from the worst in terms of lives lost.

    The deadliest sea disaster ever recorded was the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine in 1945; the ship was evacuating civilians from East Prussia at the time and of the more than 10,000 people on board at the time, 9,300 died.

    The deadliest peacetime sea disaster happened fairly recently, in 1987, when the Phillippine ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker. Because many passengers were not listed on the manifest a reliable death toll was not easy to come by at first, but the best estimates are that at least 4,300 people perished.

    Finally, the worst U.S. maritime disaster happened not on either coast nor in the Gulf of Mexico, but on the Mississippi River in 1865, when the steamboat Sultana exploded near Memphis, Tenn. More than 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers died, many of them Union soldiers headed home from the just-ended Civil War.

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