Saturday 2 November 2019

The Ghost Dory of Cape St. Mary’s - Was it a Mirage or Phantom?

The Ghost Dory of Cape St. Mary’s

In 1999, John Lou Ennis of Placentia released a book about the changes that have taken place in Placentia Bay over the centuries. Ennis, the son of John Louis Ennis and Leah Best of Merasheen, included in his book one example of a ghostly encounter which he explained as being caused by a mirage.

Ennis’ father was a fisherman out of Merasheen, and would often fish off the coast of Cape St. Mary’s. One night while anchored near Cape St. Mary’s, the man saw what he believed to be an optical illusion.

“Looking out through the thick fog, he suddenly spotted a dory coming towards his boat, rowed by two men,” writes the witness’ son. “He had no idea who the men were although he could dimly see their faces.”

The first thought of the fisherman was that the men in the dory must have gotten separated from their schooner, or that they were in need of something. He called to another man on watch, who could also see the dory approaching them.

Together, Ennis Sr. and the man on watch ran to assist the small vessel. The two rushed forward to catch hold of the thrown rope as the dory came closer to them. As they did so, the dory vanished before their astonished eyes.

“Mirages are a fairly common sight at sea and I’m sure sailors still get a shock when one occurs,” writes Ennis.

While visually startling, the concept of a mirage has been well understood for many years. This natural phenomenon may explain some ghostly sightings from Newfoundland and Labrador. The 1915 edition of The New Practical Reference Library defines a mirage as “the appearance of an object in the sky, due to the reflection of rays of light by a layer of atmosphere of different density from that in which the object is situated.”

One type of mirage presents the appearance of ships and icebergs, sometimes inverted and suspended in the clouds. This particular type of mirage is frequently observed at sea in the northern latitudes. It occurs when the lower air is very much colder and therefore denser than the air immediately above it, causing distant objects to appear in the low sky.

This type of mirage is known as a “superior mirage” and is most common in the Arctic and Antarctic. One phenomenon commonly associated with superior mirages is a repeat sunset. In this, the sun appears to set, reappear, and then set again some time later. This was witnessed in 1915 on a Antarctic expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton encountered many mirages, and in January of 1915 he wrote, “From the mast-head the mirage is continually giving us false alarms. Everything wears an aspect of unreality. Icebergs hang upside down in the sky; the land appears as layers of silvery or golden cloud.”

The ghost dory of Cape St. Mary’s may have been a mirage of an event occurring at some distance. Or could it have been a phantom boat doomed to row for all eternity? Optical illusion or true haunting? You will have to decide for yourself.

- by Dale Jarvis, originally printed in "Wonderful Strange" published by Flanker Press. Photo credit: Three men in dory, circa 1930s. George W. Bailey fonds, Item B 22-3, The Rooms. Inscription: To Geo. W Bailey from [Eben] A Ayers for The Associated Press

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