Inferior Mirage and the Californian


Former Member
Thought I would start a topic on inferior refraction as I believe that was the primary cause for the unusual observations between the Titanic and the Californian. I see inferior mirages quite regularly where I live, and I noticed that the witnesses that night were describing the same thing.

Inferior refraction does the following:

- Makes ships and lands that are well beyond the horizon rise high upwards so that they appear on the horizon or higher. This creates the false impression they are very close.
- They rise up so much that their upper half doubles / inverts - a single light becomes two lights (one above the other).
- The effects are much stronger in clear calm weather and the object reverts to its original size and distance when the wind and clouds pick up.

Overall, this creates the illusion that a stationary ship that is a considerable distance away and well beyond the horizon, suddenly appears to be an approaching ship.

Example: Photo of a stationary ship caught by inferior refraction.


(left). The ship is almost 20 miles away and already affected by inferior refraction. The horizon is only 8 miles away and she was not visible just moments before the refraction intensified. She is stationary for the entire night, but the inferior refraction is creating the false impression that she is approaching and getting bigger and higher.

(right). Strong inferior refraction has now elevated the ship so much that her light has doubled / inverted. She now appears so close that her lights are seemingly reflecting on the calm sea around her. It is entirely an illusion. She is still stationary almost 20 miles away. I continued to track her by radar throughout the night and as the wind and clouds started to appear the vessel returned to her original size and distance. As the clouds blew over she got big again, then small again. When dawn came and the wind picked up she disappeared entirely as she had reverted back to her original size as the inferior refraction had reduced her back to normal and beyond the horizon again - yet the vessel was stationary the entire time almost 20 miles away.

This is what inferior refraction does to a ship. She could easily be mistaken for a ship that is approaching and is getting bigger.


Here is a 'single light' from a lighthouse almost 30 miles away caught by strong inferior refraction. During the evening and the night the inferior refraction continues to change her size, getting stronger (light rises higher and doubles) and then weaker, and then stronger again.

Single light from a lighthouse almost 30 miles away. Turns into a ship with two masthead lights that appears to be a few miles away.



Sadly, no matter how hard the crew tried to row towards the vessel they saw, they could not get any closer, and as dawn arrived the light reverted back to its original distance and disappeared over the horizon, despite being stationary the whole time.

Mr. Beesley:
"We saw what we all said was a ship's lights down on the horizon on the Titanic's port side. Two lights, one above the other, and plainly not one of our boats"

Mr. Fleet
"We pulled for it, but we did not seem to get any nearer to it."

Mr. Rowe
"We did not seem to get nearer to it."

Mrs. White
"It was evidently impossible to reach it.....We made no headway toward it at all."

Mr. Hichens
"We did not get any nearer the light."

Mr. Crawford
"Sometimes she seemed to get closer; other times she seemed to be getting away from us......we could not seem to make any headway."

Q - What lights on her did you see? One masthead or two masthead lights?
A - Two masthead lights.
Q - You say you rowed how long?
A - Until we left the ship, because the ladies urged us to pull for the ship.
Q - Until daylight?
A - Yes, sir.
Q - And you got no nearer to that light?
A - We did not seem to be making any headway at all, sir.
Here is vessel caught by inferior refraction. Let us pretend the vessel below was seen by the crew of the Californian. She is well beyond the horizon but inferior refraction has made her top half rise high up and double / invert. As the refraction gets stronger the vessel's lights rise higher in unison. Gibson saw her lights rising higher (masthead light and side light) and he could not understand or describe exactly what he was seeing. Without pictures it is not easy to describe.


Californian - Gibson
He saw her "white masthead light" and a number of other lights rising up in unison. He said:

"Her sidelights seemed to be higher out of the water."

Q - Did you look to see whether these after-lights seemed higher up out of the water, or lower in the water?
A - I noticed them all at the same time.
Q - What, the red light and the others too?
A - Yes.
Q - And do you mean that the white light (forward masthead light) seemed higher out of the water as well as the red light?
A - Yes.

Gibson could not describe the effects of inferior refraction because it is not an easy thing to identify at night.

Q - What was the difference?
A - That I cannot say.
Q - Were they in the same position as they were before?
A - They were in the same position, but they seemed to look different.
Q - They merely seemed to look different?
A - Yes.
Q - Am I to understand that, as far as you could tell, the position of the white lights had not changed?
A - They seemed to have changed, but I cannot say how.
Q - Changed in what sense? How had they changed?
A - They did not look the same as they did before.
Q - I know; you have said that two or three times, and you have been asked what the difference was, and I should have thought you could have told us what the difference was. What was it?
A - I cannot say, my Lord.
Q - Cannot you tell us what the difference was?
A - No.

Her side light and masthead light had risen up in the same manner that is caused by inferior refraction.

Inferior refraction only affects objects that are caught inside the thermal layer that is affected. Objects that are high above (exploding rockets) would not be affected and would explode at their normal perspective. So when the Californian saw the Titanic's top half elevated high up and appear closer due to the refraction, her rockets would explode at their normal height and the illusion would create the impression that the rockets were exploding very close to the ship's masthead light.

Californian - 2nd officer Stone.
"These rockets did not appear to go very high; they were very low lying; they were only about half the height of the steamer’s masthead light and I thought rockets would go higher than that."

3rd officer Pitman was asked:

Q - If there had been a vessel that night within 5 miles of the Titanic, could not her whistle have been heard that distance?
A - No; but you could have heard her blowing off steam at a far greater distance than you could hear the steam whistle. She was blowing off steam for three-quarters of an hour, I think, and you could hear that much farther than you could hear any steam whistle.
Q - Then it would stand to reason that if there was a ship or vessel of any kind within a distance of 5 miles it ought to have heard the blowing off of the steam?
A - She could have heard that 10 miles that night.

Yet the crew on the Californian heard nothing. Captain Lord thought the other ship was "within 4 miles". Yet Pitman believed a ship 10 miles way could have heard their steam blowing off in such a clear calm night. Nothing was heard, not even the sound of her rockets exploding. They observed the ship in absolute silence. I believe that is because the inferior refraction made each vessel believe they were 5 miles apart when in reality they were significantly further away from each other as the inferior refraction was creating the illusion both ships were close to each other.
The Carpathia

Bisset on the Carpathia said - "The peculiar atmospheric conditions of visibility intensified as we approached the icefield." This sounds very much the same conditions that Titanic's lookouts had observed and they mistook the huge greyish mass on the horizon (the ice field) for a dense haze which would have elevated and appeared like a haze blanketing the horizon and stars directly ahead.

On the Carpathia, Bisset said - "We sighted a green light on the horizon ahead." (Boxhall's green flare) "It had been a pyro-technic rocket, flaring at 500 feet above sea level, to appear to us to be on the horizon from our distance of twenty-five miles away." Captain Rostron said the green light "seemed so high" when he looked at it. I believe the inferior refraction had elevated Boxhall's green light onto the false second horizon and Bisset mistakenly thought it was a rocket shooting 500 feet up.
Continued below

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Former Member


Edith Russell and Philip Mock were in the same lifeboat. Edith said at 2:10am there was a green rocket / flare coming from the top deck of the Titanic. That was Boxhall's green flare. The distance between their boats could indicate the abnormal atmospheric conditions that were producing this effect. The Titanic by her mere presence and bodily mass and temperature may have affected the atmosphere around the ship. Helen Candee said the stars were so bright that they illuminated their surroundings and she witnessed a remarkable halo effulgence over the Titanic as various light and heat sources clashed together to produce the effect.

When the Titanic went down Colonel Gracie was on a collapsible boat. He noticed there was a layer of smoke / steam, or vapour of some kind which hung low above the surface, yet Philip Mock (who was in Edith Russell's boat) had witnessed a cloud "slightly lighter than the sky" rising high into the sky and flatten out at the top like a mushroom as it struck a different layer / barrier / in the atmosphere. If Mr. Mock and Colonel Gracie were observing the same thing and Boxhall's green flare and Edith's green rocket were both the same thing, then it tells us that the refraction was affecting both observations from vessels afar but also between lifeboats at a closer distance.
The Iceberg

Inferior refraction can be very erratic and unpredictable. If I look a few degrees to my left a passing ship looks normal, but when it passes in front of me it changes rapidly as it crosses over into the affect region, and it will get bigger and smaller continuously as it passes by, and when the vessel passes to my right it reverts back to normal again.

The same could have occurred with the icebergs that passed the Titanic on either side. There were reports that the lookouts warned the bridge several times. It is possible that they could see something from their height, while the officers on the bridge would see something entirely different. The continuous change across their path would mean icebergs may have suddenly loomed up and then disappeared and it would be difficult to tell if they were significantly far due to strong inferior refraction, or very close.

A sketch made by lookout Frederick Fleet shows an enormous iceberg on the horizon. This is possibly what he really did see as the inferior refraction had elevated it and doubled / inverted its size, making it appear enormous, but it would take a very long time before they actually encountered it due to the illusion in her real distance.


The elevation of the huge ice field would also mask its appearance as the ice field and the icebergs would all be affected by strong inferior refraction to various degrees. Quite possibly Fleet did originally believe it was this enormous, but he dare not admit that at the Inquiry i.e. How could they miss such an enormous iceberg so far away? But it was just an illusion brought about by inferior refraction and as time went on it would revert to its original size and disappear, or possibly elevate so high that it would mask the stars above the horizon and would be mistaken for a cloud e.g.

Similar with Scotland as she rises up, inverts and turns into a cloud. "Full steam ahead, there is nothing ahead but clouds!"



The above is just my own analysis on a plausible cause for the unusual events that occurred that night. Do you agree this may have been a possibility, indeed a very strong possibility?.
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