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CINDY DAY: Mystery over Murray Harbour

What do you think Debbie Hill saw the afternoon of December 31 over Murray Harbour, P.E.I.? Whatever it was, science played a roll in it.
What do you think Debbie Hill saw the afternoon of December 31 over Murray Harbour, P.E.I.? Whatever it was, science played a roll in it. - Contributed

As you can imagine, I receive lots of wonderful photos from every corner of Atlantic Canada.  Sorting through them is one of the highlights of my day!

Just over a week ago, I came across a very intriguing photo.  Debbie Hill submitted the picture and was looking for some kind of explanation.  She took the photo on New Year’s Eve day in Murray Harbour North, on Prince Edward Island.  Debbie says it was between 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and the sun was going down behind her. 

Sometimes you see things that don’t seem to make any sense… or that you just can’t work out.  I’m so grateful that Debbie snapped a few photos, so I could attempt to explain the bizarre formations she observed above the water that afternoon. 

What Debbie saw – and what you’re seeing in the photo – is an optical illusion, known as a mirage.  A mirage is a naturally occurring optical phenomenon in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky.

There are several types of mirages; this one is a superior mirage.  It occurs when the air below the line of sight is colder than the air above.  The light rays are bent down as they travel through the inversion, and so the image appears above the true object; that’s why it’s called a “superior” mirage.

Now to take it one step further, Debbie’s superior mirage is known as Fata Morgana, a complex and rapidly changing form of a superior mirage.  

A superior mirage can be made up of several inverted and upright images stacked on top of each other; they are usually warped and often unrecognizable.  Often the image resembles a distorted mixture of up-and-down parts that appears to be floating above the horizon.

Fata Morgana is the Italian name for Morgan le Fay – King Arthur’s mischievous sister.  It was believed Morgan possessed magical powers and was often accused of causing strange mirages over bodies of water.  Today we know that such optical illusions are really caused by atmospheric conditions, but we still sometimes use “fata morgana” as a synonym of “mirage.”

So, what are we seeing in Debbie’s photo?  The reflection of distorted clouds, the Murray Harbour Islands, vessels off in the distance… or the work of Morgan le Fay.

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