In A Nutshell
Sailors have long reported seeing the Flying Dutchman and other ghost ships haunting the world’s seas. Far from being a ghost ship, the actual explanation is thought to be a very complicated sort of mirage that only occurs during very specific conditions and can produce some breathtakingly real images. A fata morgana occurs when there are multiple layers of air currents at different temperatures which magnify images and refract light, seeming to create ships, mountain ranges, and entire cities on the horizon.
The Whole Bushel
The Flying Dutchman is one of many ghost ships that’s said to haunt the world’s waters. Condemned to never make it to port, there are numerous sightings of this—and other ghost ships—dating well back into the age of exploration.
All those sailors reporting seeing this doomed ship probably weren’t lying or just simply buying into a little bit of suggestive folklore. They probably really were seeing something, and it’s called a fata morgana.
A fata morgana appropriately gets its name from King Arthur’s shape-shifting half sister, Morgan Le Fay; in early mythology, she was a water nymph. The phenomenon is a mirage, but a very complex one that happens only with a very specific set of circumstances and on a massive scale. At its most basic level, a mirage happens when differences in the temperature of the air form layers. The place where the layers come together will shimmer; when light shines through it, it’s refracted and images are reflected. When it happens on the street on a hot, sunny day, it produces a shimmering effect that is nothing that we’re not used to.
When that same phenomenon happens over the open ocean, the effect is much, much more epic.
A mirage that happens over a massive piece of open water means that the layers of air will curve along the horizon. When that happens, that relatively flat surface that refracts light becomes a curved lens that can magnify whatever is in its path—and that includes things that are miles and miles out of sight beyond the horizon. In a real fata morgana, there are more than two different layers of air, meaning that the image isn’t just magnified and refracted, but it’s also reflected. That combination means that suddenly, the different air layers are reflecting images that aren’t necessarily upside down or distorted, but frighteningly clear.
According to folklore, appearances of the Flying Dutchman and other ghost ships are often seen as a sign that something terrible is about to happen. That’s also not a coincidence, as the very specific set of conditions that causes a fata morgana often happen with the changes in weather that happen just before a storm.
The Flying Dutchman isn’t the only example of this phenomenon, either. Since conditions have to be very specific to conjure a true fata morgana, it’s not surprising that there are some areas that are better known for the phenomenon. Once are is the Strait of Messina, near Sicily. In the early 16th century, Antonio Ferrariis described looking out over the Gulf of Taranto and seeing entire cities shimmering on the horizon. A few decades later, other writers also referenced the phenomenon, then associating it with—correctly—the calm weather after the passing of a storm. It’s was written that they could even see men floating in the air above the water, going about their daily business.
And by the early 17th century, they’d recognized the phenomenon and knew that it was a strange reflective quality of the air that was magnifying things that really existed, rather than magic creating something that didn’t otherwise exist, or opening a gateway to another world. The stories persist, though, not surprisingly.