A Very Deceiving Night: Camouflaged iceberg

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Titanic iceberg. Captain Lord had been only 1.5 miles from the field ice, when he first noticed it, but the iceberg which sank the Titanic was 2-3 miles ahead of this field ice, as we have seen.  Therefore when Titanic’s lookouts spotted the iceberg, when it was only about a mile away, they were therefore still 3-4 miles from the field ice, too early for the glare of it to be seen, as Captain Lord did.

And when there is a soft horizon, when the sea and the sky are the same colour, because the water is flat calm, as it is in this photograph and as it was on the night the Titanic sank, you can see how distant objects can be completely hidden by an almost invisible superior mirage, as James Islands nearly are, here, in this view from Chesapeake Bay:

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Superior mirage of James Islands from Chesapeake Bay  © Fritz – A View From The Beach Blog

Interestingly, this mirage also appeared to Fritz as a line of fog or mist:

“An unusual mirage, showing James Island(s) in the distance. I guess this would be categorized as a Fata Morgana type mirage, but this one was new to me, with what looks like a line of fog or mist separating two parts of the image [the upper and the lower part, at the horizon].”

But Titanic’s lookouts did not see the iceberg until it was only about a mile away, when only the horizon beyond the iceberg would be miraging, not the nearby iceberg itself.  The miraging horizon was drawn up behind the iceberg, camouflaging the iceberg in front of it and below the false horizon, which would have looked clear:

titanic iceberg

Miraging horizon over sea ice © Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute http://blueocean.org/home

The nearby iceberg was camouflaged in front of and below the false horizon in the way that the nearby island is in the top one of the following two photographs by Pekka Parviainen, showing an abnormally refracting horizon being drawn up beyond a nearby island:

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Superior mirage at different heights behind an island, photographs by Pekka Parviainen

Even though the island itself is not miraging, it is hidden below the false horizon, which looked clear to Titanic’s lookouts that night.  By the time they recognised the iceberg in front of the miraging band on the horizon, it was too late.

titanic iceberg

The iceberg which sank the Titanic: At no more than 100 feet high, it was at or below the Lookout’s eye level and therefore remained in the bottom half of the miraging zone at all times

Titanic’s lookouts were placed in the worst possible position to spot icebergs in miraging conditions.  They were high up, nearer the base of the inversion, where the light-bending was strongest and therefore the refracting band on the horizon would appear deepest; and their eye level was about the same height as the top of the iceberg.  A plane from your eye level is known as your astronomical horizon and the miraging band in a superior mirage is always centered on this. Therefore, however near the iceberg got to the Titanic, her lookouts could never have seen the top of the iceberg above even the middle of the refracting band behind the iceberg, which was removing the contrast the lookouts relied upon to see it.

This is illustrated in the following diagram, where we can see that, had the lookouts been at the level of a lifeboat, they would have noticed the berg towering above the hazy, refracting band as it approached:

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Indeed, before dawn, passengers in the lifeboats did see the icebergs, revealed against the stars, above the refracting band, as would normally have been the case for Titanic’s lookouts, had there not been a superior mirage on the real horizon, as First Class passenger Martha Stephenson noted:

 “The sea was smooth and the night brilliant with more stars than I had ever seen. We could see the outline of several bergs and scanned the horizon hoping to see the light of some vessel. Occasionally a green light showed which proved to be on the emergency boat and our men all recognised it as such. We all prayed for dawn.”

titanic iceberg

Captain Smith, seated left, with First Officer Murdoch, standing left, Dr O’Loughlin, seated right and Purser McElroy, standing centre, on board the Olympic. They were all lost on the Titanic.

© Mary Evans Picture Library

Titanic’s officers and lookouts were relying that night on spotting icebergs this way, but the false horizon caught them out, compounded by their height above the sea and the lack of contrast between the icebergs and the refracting band below the false horizon.  Had Titanic’s officers realised that a superior mirage could have this effect, they would have slowed down, just as if there had been a real haze:

CHL417. From 6 until 10 o’clock was the captain on the bridge at all?
– Yes, sir.

CHL418. When did he arrive?
– Five minutes to 9.

CHL424. When he came to the bridge at five minutes of 9 what did he say to you or what did you say to him? Who spoke first?
– I could not say, sir. Probably one of us said “Good evening.”

CHL425. But you do not know who?
– No.

CHL426. Was anything else said?
– Yes. We spoke about the weather; calmness of the sea; the clearness; about the time we should be getting up toward the vicinity of the ice and how we should recognize it if we should see it – freshening up our minds as to the indications that ice gives of its proximity. We just conferred together, generally, for 25 minutes.

CHL427. For 20 or 25 minutes?
– Yes, sir.

CHL428. Was any reference made at that time to the wireless message from the Amerika?
– Capt. Smith made a remark that if it was in a slight degree hazy there would be no doubt we should have to go very slowly.

CHL436. How long did he remain on the bridge after coming there at 5 minutes of 9?
– He remained there until about 20 minutes past 9, or something like that.

CHL438. Then did he leave the bridge?
– He left the bridge.

CHL439. With any special injunction upon you?
– Yes, sir.

CHL440. What did he say?
– “If in the slightest degree doubtful, let me know.”

CHL441. What did you say to him?
– “All right, sir.”

CHL442. You kept the ship on its course?
– Yes, sir.

CHL443. And at about the same speed?
– Yes, sir; as far as I know.

CHL444. When did you next see the captain?
– When I came out of the quarters, after the impact.

CHL4456. You mean that he did not return to the bridge until your watch expired?
– No, sir.

CHL446. About 10 o’clock?
– Yes, sir.

CHL447. You left?
– Yes, sir.

CHL448. And Murdoch took command?
– Yes, sir.

CHL449. Do you know where you were at the hour that you turned over the watch to Mr. Murdoch?
– Not now, sir.

CHL450. Did you know at the time?
– Yes, sir.

CHL451. Can you give us any idea?
– When I ended the watch we roughly judged that we should be getting toward the vicinity of the ice, as reported by that Marconigram that I saw, somewhere about 11 o’clock.

CHL455. I say, did you talk with Mr. Murdoch about the iceberg situation when you left the watch?
– No, sir.

CHL456. Did he ask you anything about it?
– No, sir.

CHL457. What was said between you?
– We remarked on the weather, about its being calm, clear. We remarked the distance we could see. We seemed to be able to see a long distance. Everything was very clear. We could see the stars setting down to the horizon.


I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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