Simone Engels had cast her eyes across the water of Georgia Strait from a beach on Vancouver Island when she caught a glimpse of something bright and shining on the horizon.
She had come to Moorecroft Regional Park in Nanoose Bay, BC, Sunday, to photograph the mountains on the mainland at sunset on a beautiful clear winter day, but the object in the distance did not look like any mountain she recognized.
Engels lifted his camera to take a closer look.
“I zoomed in on it and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing because it looked like there was a big iceberg floating past,” she told CBC News.
The sight, first reported by NanaimoNewsNOW, seemed impossible, but the object remained on the horizon for a full half hour while Engels remained on the beach.
When she posted a photograph on social media, everyone was convinced it was an iceberg – even a friend who had studied iceberg geomorphology for his PhD, Engels said.
“I was very amazed,” she said. “We generally do not see icebergs here.”
It turns out that Engels had taken pictures of an unusually clear optical illusion.
“It’s not an iceberg,” said Colin Goldblatt, associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Victoria.
“It’s a beautiful photograph, and what we see is a wonderful example of a superior mirage.”
He explained that this kind of mirage is possible during an atmospheric inversion when hot air sits on top of a layer of cooler air, causing the light to bend downwards.
The weather pattern made the light bend
That Engels then were the peaks of the Cheam Range near Chilliwack, more than 180 miles away. Normally, these mountains would be on the other side of the horizon, hidden by the curvature of the earth and invisible to anyone in Nanoose Bay.
“We can see it because of the bending of light in the atmosphere,” Goldblatt said.
In this case, Sunday’s dry conditions allowed for a particularly crisp and clear mirage.
According to Goldblatt, aerial reflections are a much more common phenomenon in BC waters than the average land crab may be aware of.
“We actually see aerial reflections a lot. I see them when I’m out kayaking or sailing on the Salish Sea,” he said, referring to coastal waters off BC’s south coast.
Aside from superior aerial reflections that the Engels captured, there are also inferior aerial reflections where something like a ship may appear to have been turned upside down. Goldblatt explained that an inferior air reflection occurs when a layer of colder air sits on top of warmer air near the sea surface.
Nevertheless, the experience was unique to Engels, an avid photographer who tries to get out into nature as much as possible.
“I will definitely enlarge this picture and put it up on my wall,” she said.