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Discussion in 'General Titanica' started by Dave Gittins, Jun 11, 2001.

  1. Dave Gittins

    Dave Gittins Member


    Some time ago it was suggested that seafarers who contribute to the forum might like to tell of the unusual sights to be seen at night, some of which may be relevant to the Titanic story.

    I am an inshore cruising yachtsman and my home waters are the South Australian coast between Adelaide and Ceduna, as well as the waters of Gulf St Vincent and Spencer Gulf.

    Data from NASA shows that these waters are notable for exceptional darkness and great freedom from air pollution. This means that when well clear of the lights of Adelaide I experience conditions of visibility very close to those experienced by Titanic on the open ocean. West of Port Lincoln, a city of about 11,000 people, there is no town with more than a few hundred inhabitants and light pollution is effectively zero. In summer it is possible to see the Milky Way stretching from the northern horizon to the southern. I consider that these conditions give me a better than average appreciation of the difficulties facing Titanic’s crew.

    After careful study, I am not of the opinion that abnormal refraction played a part in the disaster or in the Californian affair. However, I have seen some examples of the phenomenon that may be of interest. It should be remembered that these cases all occurred in much higher temperatures than are experienced on the North Atlantic.

    Case 1. This is not super-refraction but may be connected with the famous “green flash”￾ effect sometimes seen at sunset in the tropics. At about midnight I was entering Gulf St Vincent at its southwestern end, about five miles off the coast and steering about NE. Looking astern, I sighted a green light, very low down and to the SW. Logically a single green sidelight would indicate a sailing vessel passing astern and steering about NE towards a minor port nearby.

    I kept an eye on the light and slowly it turned into two lights which gradually turned white. More lights appeared over the horizon and it became obvious that a large ship was overtaking me and would pass some distance to starboard. I was eventually able to see her red sidelight with the aid of binoculars. The entire ship was brilliantly lit from stem to stern and may have been a live sheep transport, which are common here.

    The interesting thing, of course, was the change of colour.

    Case 2. I have often experienced examples of abnormal refraction by day and by night. It is common to see lights at twice their charted distance. Sometimes this happens early in the night and the lights disappear later as the air cools down.

    The most remarkable example occurred last November. I was steering about SSW from Adelaide toward Kangaroo Island. The night was warm and the wind was offshore. When about 35 miles from the island I was not surprised to sight the light on Point Marsden, which has a range of 16 miles. That was typical of what I expected. What followed was really weird. I trained my 7 X 50 glasses on the light and saw to the left of it two small flashing lights. These were clear enough to be timed. They proved to be two very small harbour lights at Kingscote. Their nominal range is 8 miles and they are on poles maybe 30 feet high. Refraction had brought them above the horizon and the light-gathering power of the glasses made them visible.

    I might add that I once nearly fell for the old trick of mistaking a planet for a ship’s light. I thought was seeing a steaming light on a fishing boat but I soon realised it was Venus. I am convinced that at least some of Titanic’s passengers made the same mistake. For some time the bright star Capella was setting about NW of the ship and may have been taken for a ship's sternlight.
  2. One afternoon on Lake Erie, my father and I observed the Lorain, Ohio lighthouse from a position near the east breakwall light at Cleveland, Ohio. The problem is that a large point of land -- Avon Point -- lies between these two locations. The mirage, for it was that, was displaced at least 40 degrees north of the actual position of the Lorain lighthouse. In addition, the mirage was about as tall as a 30 story building, even though it is a relatively small structure. This mirage held steady for several minutes while we were able to see details such as windows and doors in the structure. Then, it was gone.

    Thirty years ago, the Cleveland main entrance light flashed alternately red and white. The red color was created by a rotating filter. When more than 10 or 12 miles away, however, the pattern of the light appeared to be two white flashes, one twice the intensity of the other.

    I am skeptical about the ocean air in Titanic's day being completely pollution free. Steamships ruled the waves in 1912 and they were anything but environmentally friendly. I can recall ships leaving a long pall of black smoke behind them that would hang in the atmosphere for an hour or longer in calm weather. If several ships used the same steamer track, that pall could become somewhat of a "fog" on the horizon.

    -- David G. Brown
  3. Can't say as I've seen a whole lot of strange things, but I've seen a few. Cruising under clear skies while surrounded by rain squalls, sea life looking larger then they were when seen just under water, and on a low visibility watch at night, I could have sworn I could make out the water ahead of us. Probably just tricks of the eye.

    Michael H. Standart
  4. Erik Wood

    Erik Wood Member

    Most Sailors, me included are fairly superstitious and won't devulge stories for fear that they may be ridiculed or that they may become a strange site.

  5. Although this conversation focuses mostly on refraction, and lights seen, I was fortunate to witness a very strange sight at sea that may be directly linked to the Titanic disaster: a flat calm sea.

    The testimony of Ernest Shackleton, at the Board of Trade Inquiry, confirms that this is a very unusual, and rare event.

    Anyway, I witnessed a flat calm sea while crossing the English Channel many years ago. The water was flat (no waves, nothing), the ocean liner seemed to plow through it, there was nothing around, no ships, nothing. There was something very eerie or mysterious about it, particularly since I understand the Channel is often quite rough. It must have been very strange to witness this on the North Atlantic.

    I haven't read all the Titanic books out there, but it seems to me that the "flat calm" adds a dimension to the Titanic disaster that hardly anyone really appreciates.

    The mysterious parts of the Titanic's story mostly focus on her purportedly being unsinkable, nearly colliding with the New York, seeing a fireman's face atop the fourth funnel, her meeting her destiny in ignoring the ice warnings, her maiden voyage, her speed, and the peculiar way that she was damaged so that she sank. From this, the story focuses on the crew and passengers, and how each of them handled the sequence of events over the two and one-half hours preceding the sinking. The flat calm is often overlooked --probably because few people have actually witnessed such a thing.

    James Cameron showed the flat calm as just another event in the sequence leading to the collision with the iceberg. The scene with Captain Smith and Second Officer Lightoller, where the Captain looks into his cup of tea, and they talk about the difficulty of seeing "bergs," kind of misses the point. They could have done a lot more with that sequence.

    Further, in a film that showed ghostly images of the wreck at its beginning, quite effectively, the failure to create the mysterious atmosphere surrounding the actual collision and sinking, is unfortunate.

    I sometimes wonder if the crew, when they were going through the flat calm looking for the iceberg, might have been a bit spooked. I know I would have been. The "flat calm" is so rare that even experienced seamen like Fleet, Murdoch and the others must have felt something foreboding when crossing that sea.

    The cold, the dark iceberg suddenly appearing, the mysterious lights seen, are all pretty creepy. It's not like your usual ship sinking saga, where the seaman are fighting the elements, and lose (as in "The Perfect Storm"). The flat calm was like a natural stage, or a theater, for a major killing event.

    The whole disaster took place in the middle of that flat calm. After the ship sank, and the people were dead, the flat calm went away. If we are to believe eyewitness accounts, the victims disappeared with it.
  6. The Green Flash is a phenomenon common here in New England off Jamestown Island, (near Newport) You have to get up early, just before the sunrise to catch it. Yes- I have been in the North Atlantic in a dead calm sea like glass-it is eerie, all oily and gray. YANKEE magazine had a piece about the Green Flash about 25 years ago-I should have kept it. Anybody want to get up early with me????
  7. Erik Wood

    Erik Wood Member

    The "Flat Calm" in the ways of the sailor usually means trouble. Either bad weather or worse. Thing on it hard and you realize that most major disasters whether any other factor caused them. The ocean was a flat calm. It is said (something that echoes a saying by sailors on the Great Lakes) that "the ocean claims those who dare to sail on when the gods of the seas rest". It is further rumored "that lake superior never gives up her dead".

    Superstitions from the sea number in the 1000's. In my time on the sea I have learned that the older the sailor the more he believes. Although he may not come right out and say it. You can tell by his actions. Avoiding fog banks (which usually are accompanied by a flat calm), adding to the watches at night if there has been a flat calm all day, if there is a flat calm they put on as much speed as they can to get out of the flat calm. A "mill pond.." like ocean is a good thing for sea sick people but not for those who know what that means. A calm can also be followed by a storm.

  8. Yes indeed- Hurricane Edward arrived the next day!
  9. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    Where I live I often see ships that are over 20 miles away affected by sea mirages which makes them appear 8 miles or even 6 miles away on the horizon and at night their lights are affected so much that they appear much stronger, so strong that I have mistaken them for fishing boats just 3 miles away and even for street lights less than 1 mile away, despite the fact the ships are still over 20 miles away. There is a light house almost 30 miles away. On clear nights it just appears as a dot on the horizon, but when the mirage appears the light is enormous and the intensity is so strong that it shines through the curtains and on several occasions woken me up. On calm nights it is impossible to tell if the ships are on the horizon or below the horizon because the mirage reflects their lights as well and creates the illusion that the ships are so close that their lights are reflecting on the water, when in fact they are still over 20 miles away. Here is a video I made showing the kind of mirages I see all the time on the Irish sea. Is there any possibility that the people on the Titanic and the Californian were experiencing the same thing? Were these mirages discussed at the Inquiry?

    Last edited: Nov 12, 2016
    Rahul likes this.
  10. Jim Currie

    Jim Currie Member

    Hello Aaron. Nice video. wish I could do that, but not relevant to the Titanic Californian relationship.. despite Tim Malten's documentary.

    While certain conditions produce the mirages you illustrate very well with the French warship and the Belfast ferries, the condition you describe occur mostly near land and not out in the middle of the ocean. I am a native of your area and have sailed in it in many different types of vessels, in all conditions and in all seasons. so I know very well what you mean. I also spent a lot of time on the New York and Gulf of St. Lawrence run.

    As you know, Mirage causes everything to be seen at unusual ranges and that includes signal lamps. Hence your lighthouse example.
    Californian had a very powerful morse signalling lamp. If those on Titanic were seeing her masthead lights and side lights, they would also see all her other lights, including the morse light.

    By the way, what were the film excerpts from? Obviously the film makers, like a lot of folks on these pages, did not do their research properly. It was Gibson on Californian who saw what he thought was a masthead flickering on the nearby vessels, not the QM on Titanic. Additionally, in the film, the signaler on Californian was using a hand held device on the bridge. How could that be mistaken for a masthead light flickering? In fact Californian's powerful morse light was mounted in a pole on top of her bridge. It looked something like this"
    wp0a94888a_05_06.jpg The key was portable and plugged into a socket specially for that purpose. We were still using the same things well into the 1960s Additionally. Californian's high steaming light was on the wrong mast.
  11. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    Interesting. The film footage is from 'A Night to Remember'. From what I understand there were similar atmospheric conditions to create the mirages that night. It would certainly explain why both ships could see each other. It would explain why Titanic's rockets did not appear to burst very high because the ship was being levitated high out of the water which gave the illusion she was much closer and the rockets would not appear to burst high above her. It would also explain why they could not hear her. Surely if it was another ship that really was 5 miles away on a calm night the crew on the Californian were bound to at least hear her engines because on calm mornings I can hear the engines of ships 9 miles away, yet the Californian heard nothing? The mirage would also explain why the port light was seen to rise very high out of the water when Titanic's was getting much lower because the mirage had reflected her lights and created the illusion her port light was going up instead of down.

    From the footage I captured above the aircraft carrier turned slightly and morphed into a ferry and a small navy ship and a strange looking structure and what is interesting is that they all appeared in a haze. What I mean is, the cruise ship appeared normal on my video camera but the aircraft carrier which continued to morph into other ships was affected by the mirage and appeared in a strange haze, because even my camera couldn't focus properly on it as it was just a blurred image and it gave the illusion that they were so close that they were reflecting on the water. This haze could explain why the iceberg appeared to the witnesses to be in a haze and the light of the other ship (if it was the Californian) appeared to those in the lifeboats to be hazy and in a glare and morphed so many times that some did not believe it was a ship at all but some kind of reflection or smear of light reflecting off an iceberg as the ship slowly turned away. The lookouts also described a haze on the horizon which extended 2 points to port and starboard and I think many have agreed that this was in fact the ice field that was several miles away and quite possibly the mirage caused it to levitate and obscure the horizon making it difficult to see the oncoming iceberg they struck. It may also have levitated the sea itself which reflected the stars, so that it would obstruct the iceberg from being seen.

    Perhaps it is also possible that the iceberg itself was affected by the mirage and would appear 10 miles closer to Fleet but not to Murdoch who was lower down and his vision would not be affected as much by the mirage from his lower altitude and he would see it was further away or not at all. This could explain why Scarrott said the bell rang up to 8 minutes before the collision because the lookouts saw it well in advance believing it was very close, but Murdoch could see it was far away or not at all, until it was too late. If he saw it too late it could explain why Boxhall heard the order "hard a-starboard" as he was approaching the bridge and felt the collision a few seconds later and therefore he did not believe there was time to turn the ship away and believed the ship was still facing west, then again maybe Murdoch saw the iceberg but judged it to be far away owing to the mirage perhaps not affecting his position on the bridge and acted accordingly to rapidly slow down the ship as this would explain why survivors who saw the iceberg pass the ship said she was barely moving forward in the water and they believed the ship stopped or had almost come to a complete stop as the iceberg was still passing. I like to think there is an explanation for everything and that none of the survivors were grossly inaccurate information but simply seeing different perspectives. The mirage could be the missing piece of the puzzle which makes a lot of things fit into place. Lightoller was a little too hard on the 'superior rank = truth' because when Fleet gave one version and Hichens gave another, Lightoller told the Inquiry: "If Hichens is right then Fleet must be wrong." I like to think that all were right to an extent based on each person's perspective of the situation and what they saw.

    Last edited: Nov 12, 2016
  12. Sorry, but the title of this thread makes me think of these lines from "The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service.

    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
    But the queerest they ever did see

    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee.

    Back to the topic at hand. I think anyone who has navigated on water big enough to have an empty horizon has seen things with fall in the broad category of "mirages." And, it's entirely likely that the "seeing" conditions played a role in the accident. Unfortunately, we can't go back and grab a sample of the air over the ice field that night. It's possible -- even probable -- that some form of mirage created what the surviving witnesses saw. But, we'll never know for certain.

    And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
    And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,

    It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
    And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

    -- David G. Brown
  13. Jim Currie

    Jim Currie Member

    Nice poem, David.

    Aaron. You wrote: "From what I understand there were similar atmospheric conditions to create the mirages that night. It would certainly explain why both ships could see each other."

    There are two types of mirage at sea, Aaron...Inferior and Superior.

    An inferior mirage decreases the distance at which objects are visible in a horizontal direction. It is due to the rapid increase in the density of the air with height close to the surface of the sea. It occurs when air of comparatively low temperature blows over warmer sea. (or over a tarred road).

    A superior mirage is produced when the air above the sea is appreciably warmer than the sea. The, then observer sees an inverted image over the real image.

    Since the sea and air temperatures were close to one another during the Titanic disaster, there were no conditions which would produce either type of mirage.

    There is a third phenomenon which you referred to concerning lighthouses. This is by far the most common one experienced by seamen and happens near to land it is called "Looming". This is when the searchlight-like beam of a powerful lighthouse is seen long before the light itself is visible above the horizon. This is caused when there is alight wind and an unusual lapse rate of temperature with height immediately above the sea or land.

    Looming did not take place that night. There was no wind..it was flat calm and again, there was no significant change in temperature between the sea and air.

    Sad to say, Aaron, there were no unusual atmospheric conditions during the sinking of Titanic. Californian was over 22 miles away from her and the evidence clearl;y shows that there wwere at least three other ships in the immediate vicinity.
  14. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    There was a recent documentary on TV which analysed the original weather reports and temperature data over the Titanic region at the time she sank and they proved the conditions were exactly right to create the mirages. When I saw the mirages outside I checked the local temperature and it was 12 degrees C. I checked the sea temperature as well and it was 13 degrees C. Perhaps the ice field was slowly melting and causing the icebergs to capsize, creating what Olliver described as a blue iceberg that had recently rolled over while creating mirages on the surface. The documentary showed original weather data and conditions recorded at the time and proved the conditions would have been the same and they analysed survivor accounts who described the same effects and how they saw a very low lying cloud of haze hovering just above the surface of the sea when they were in the collapsible and when the ship exploded and went down they could see a large plume of heavy smoke rising high into the sky and then suddenly it flattened at the top like a mushroom and stopped at a certain height as it could not penetrate the layer of air higher up. I recently watched farmers burning weeds etc on the hills of Scotland and when the smoke reached a certain height it also stopped and flattened at the top. The documentary was quite adamant that the conditions were exactly right for mirages to be seen and create the illusion that both ships were closer. It may even have made the Mount Temple rise up higher and appear closer and create the illusion there was a ship approaching from the west, including the schooner that passed by her. In the morning the Mount Temple could see the Carpathia but didn't Captain Rostron say he couldn't see the Mount Temple? Wonder if the Carpathia had steamed into the mirage and his ship had levitated and became much more visible to the Mount Temple.


    Last edited: Nov 13, 2016
  15. Jim Currie

    Jim Currie Member

    Aaron, I am fully aware of the meteorology that was present at the time. Titanic was located at or near the center of an intense, large Anti Cyclone producing abnormally High Pressure covering the entire region. That was the reason why the wind dropped completely away and they had a flat calm situation. The sea and air temperatures show that there was little difference between the two. For mirage or "Loom" conditions to be present, there must be a substantial difference between the sea and air temperatures. These conditions are very localised and transient. The overall meteorology conditions are no guarantee of anything except the formation of fronts and centers. Additionally; the pack ice reported was relatively small in North Atlantic terms. It was simply a long, narrow ribbon of ice, not a vast area. Incidentally, I served aboard the RMS Sidonia on the New York run. Then I acted as a Weather Observer for the Met Office and kept the official records so I think that experience if nothing else qualifies me to make the foregoing observations. I say again: the conditons for any form of mirage were simply not there that night.
  16. Totally agree with Jim on the macro, or large scale. On a very localized scale, however, I think there may have been a slight chance of mirage over the relatively warm surfaces of the ice just after sunset which could have created some optical effects. But, I doubt it. Conditions by the time of the accident certainly did not lend themselves to optical illusions -- towering and such.

    No do the observations of the ship's lights appear to be descriptions of "looming." The sailors who saw them were specific about their color and purpose -- side light, steaming light, etc. Also the observed lights were described as distinct from one another which would not likely have been the case if looming conditions obtained that night. That could have caused ship's lights to blend together into the appearance of a single blob of light.

    So, I have come to the conclusion that the lights were ships. And, that Californian's "rockets" were fired from Titanic. The descriptions fit too well for other explanations. Note the use of the plural, "ships," and not the singular. Titanic sank near two major trans-Atlantic steamer tracks. One of the purposes of steamer tracks was to bring traffic together in order that ships would be near enough to each other to offer assistance in emergencies. The meager handful of vessels identified as being in the area seems woefully small for those major routes.

    Who else was within 9 to 11 miles of Titanic (typical bridge or crow's nest horizon distances) that night? I think prospecting into this aspect of the story will yield more treasure than digging into thin air for nonexistent mirages.

    -- David G. Brown
  17. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    Just saying, the documentary was quite adamant that the conditions were present that night and went into detail about the effects the mirage may have had on the appearance of ships and spotting the iceberg in time. The mirages I saw seemed to occur on random days with nothing unusual about the weather. I looked up the weather for the day I recorded the aircraft carrier morphing into other ships and levitating. The weather was 12 degrees C. and the sea temperature was 13 degrees C. So nothing out of the ordinary, unless that 1 degree made a big difference, or perhaps there was some kind of localised temperature in the immediate area around the ship. This made me think that the ice field may have affected or helped generate the mirage seen that night. The ship that was seen by the survivors was vague to say the least for some. e.g.

    Mr. Stengel
    "We followed a light that was to the bow of the boat, which looked like in the winter, in the dead of winter, when the windows are frosted with a light coming through them. It was in a haze."

    (This is what I saw when I later tried to focus on the ship's lights when it was dark and even the camera had a hard time trying to focus on it, as the ship appeared only a few miles away by the sheer intensity of the lights and it's reflection on the false horizon, but she was really 20 miles away and the lights appeared in a glare and as they were levitating and reflecting it made me wonder if the Titanic's port light was getting lower, it would appear to get much higher. James Gibson on the Californian noticed her port light was very high - "He said, “Have a look at her now, Gibson; she seems to look queer now.” I told him, “She looks rather to have a big side out of the water.”)

    Major Peuchen saw the other ship in a glare and not a distinct light.

    "I did not think, from my knowledge of yachting, that it was a boat light. I think it was one of those reflected lights. The northern lights were very strong that night. It might have been some reflection on ice. I was not satisfied it was the light of a steamer, by any means.....It was a glare. It was not a distinct light, it was a glare.......it was a beautiful night. It was a dark night, but starlight. We could see some distance. We could see another boat without a light, some distance away, by the shadow."

    I know you don't believe the Titanic turned northwards, but let's say she did. When she faced the Californian almost bow on the Titanic would also appear as a strong glare of light.

    Californian - Apprentice James Gibson
    "I saw a glare of lights on her after deck.....A glare of white lights on her after deck."
    Q - Did you or did you not see any second white steamer lights?
    A - Not distinctly, sir.
    Q - Do you mean you are not sure whether you could see it or not?
    A - No.
    Q - Did the glare of light that you saw on the afterpart of this boat seem to be a pretty considerable distance from the masthead light?
    A - Yes.
    Q - It seemed to be a pretty considerable distance?
    A - Yes.
    Q - So that she seemed to be a big steamer?
    A - Well, a medium size steamer.

    Californian - 3rd officer Groves
    "Yes, a lot of light. There was absolutely no doubt her being a passenger steamer, at least in my mind."
    Q - When you saw these deck lights, was the vessel approaching you obliquely?
    A - Obliquely, yes.
    Q - So that the deck lights would not indicate to you the probable length of the steamer showing them?
    A - Well, no.
    Q - They would be all bunched up?
    A - They would be bunched up together.
    Q - That being so, how did those deck lights communicate to you that this was a large passenger steamer?
    A - Well, as I said before, by the number of her lights; there was such a glare from them.
    Q - You mean from the brilliance of the lights?
    A - Yes, from the brilliance of the lights.
    Q - But I suppose a small passenger steamer might have brilliant light?
    A - She would have brilliant light, but they would not show the light I saw from this steamer.

    The Titanic survivors could not agree if she was a single bright light, a sailing boat, a steamer, or just a glare of reflected light from an iceberg. I think there might have been some mirage work at play. If the Titanic's upper decks were levitated high up and reflected onto a false horizon it would explain why the port light went up instead of down, why her rockets burst not far from her mast, and why there was no sound at all coming from her. If she was really that close on a calm night they were bound to at least hear her engines. Unless she was really much further away and the mirage gave the illusion she was much closer? It certainly would explain a lot. Unless another ship was listing heavily and firing rockets before disappearing shortly after 2am?

    Last edited: Nov 14, 2016
  18. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    Here is the documentary. It is quite long but it discusses in great detail the atmospheric events that night. They discuss the mirages at 1 hour 4 minutes onwards.

  19. Rob Lawes

    Rob Lawes Member

    Good lord, what engines are they using? I've done numerous replenishment at sea exercises with tankers of various ages and navies and believe me, those ships aren't built to be quiet, and you'd do well to hear their engines a few hundred yards away on the clearest of days.

    That said, as has been posted elsewhere, at a range of 5 or 6 miles, I'm certain the Californian should have heard the destination of the socket signals and quite possibly the venting of steam from the funnels.
  20. Aaron_2016

    Aaron_2016 Member

    The above documentary proves the conditions were right for mirages to appear and were seen by passing ships with great refraction and sea mirrors. If it could affect light, perhaps it could also affect sound waves as well and bend them upwards with the projection of the ship as well?


    Perhaps the sound was trapped in a vacuum? Survivors heard hundreds of people screaming while others heard nothing. Some heard low muffled explosions, while others heard rumbling sounds, others heard very loud and distinct explosions, while those on the actual ship did not hear any explosive sounds at all e.g. Harold Bride said - "I felt I simply had to get away from the ship. She was a beautiful sight then. Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was gradually turning on her nose, just like a duck does that goes down for a dive."

    Reading personal accounts about sound waves on the physics website physics.stackexchange.com

    Brandon Enright - "I've heard fireworks from at least 15 miles away."

    Rob Jeffries - "I think the key here is the question of isotropy of propagation. The speed of sound in an ideal gas goes as the square root of the temperature. Another way of saying this is that the refractive index for sound waves goes as the inverse square root of temperature. Colder air has a higher refractive index. At night, it can be the case that the temperature close to the ground is colder than higher up - a temperature inversion. A wave travelling away from the ground will be bent back towards the ground by the decrease in refractive index with height. This (along with the fact it is generally quieter!) can enable you to hear distant events at night."

    The documentary above certainly proves there were the right conditions for mirages to be seen that night and how other ships witnessed them. (1 hour 4 minutes onwards). Perhaps the sound was affected as well?