Cold ocean temperatures and warm air combine to create the type of mirage known as a Fata Morgana, the Latin name for the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay. Unless otherwise specified, all photos in this post are © 2016 S. Guldimann
At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in a crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made from fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising...
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Anyone in pursuit of marvels in Malibu need look no farther than the horizon this week. The unseasonable warm weather combined with cooler water temperatures has created a host of fantastic castles in the sky.
This type of mirage, known as a Fata Morgana, transforms the coastline, islands, container ships and clouds. Objects on the horizon are warped, twisted, spun into impossible spires and mesas or set adrift to float above the sea.
Morgan Le Fay's name appears to have only been attached to the phenomenon in the 18th century, but the idea of a mirage as the work of a sorceress or sea goddess in Western culture has its roots in the Mediterranean. The Sirens of Sicily have a long connection with this type of mirage. The spectral castles visible when conditions are right in the Straits of Messina were once said to be created by magic to lure hapless sailors to their death.
In August of 1643, Jesuit Priest Fra Domenico Giardino wrote a detailed account of a Fata Morgana mirage at Messina. Here's a quote from an article in the January 21, 2015 Wired Magazine article by writer Matt Simon:
especially known for their heavy drug use, but it would seem that Father Domenico Giardina was tripping pretty hard on August 14, 1643. Looking out over the sea from Messina, Sicily, Giardina saw “a city all floating in the air, and so measureless and so splendid, so adorned with magnificent buildings, all of which was found on a base of a luminous crystal.” The metropolis suddenly transformed into a garden, and next a forest. And then in a flash it all descended into chaos. Huge armies sprang forth, as did the towns they had laid waste to, before the whole mess disappeared."
In Iceland, where arctic water temperatures frequently generate mirages, the Fata Morgana is known as hafgerdingar, or sea hedge. The hafgerdingar was also thought to be a supernatural phenomenon, one with the potential to wall ships in.
Malibu's Chumash were familiar with the phenomenon. Anacapa, the only island in the Channel Islands chain that has retained its Chumash name, is said to mean "Island of the Mirages."
The technical term for the Fata Morgana is a "superior" mirage, because the illusion is projected above the object that is the source of the image. There are also inferior mirages—visible under the object, like the illusion of water in the desert.
This schematic diagram created by Wikipedia contributor Brocken Inaglory provides a good visual guide to the Fata Morgana phenomenon. The object can be projected right-side up or upside down, and may be composed of multiple layers of reflections that form the illusion of towering cliffs or vast cities. Image: Wikipedia
When conditions are right, both types of mirage can occur at the same time. The superior mirage is a complex image made of many layers of reflections, some inverted, others right-side-up, created by refraction. Light bouncing off an object like a ship or island is bent by the lens of air trapped between the cold air and the warm air. This duct of air creates a sort of fun-house mirror that distorts the reflections, stretching, twisting and multiplying them.
Fata morgana mirages can appear as complex layers and often change rapidly. This is the same view of Santa Barbara Island, a few seconds later.
A minute later, the mirage no longer resembles the island at all, it's been stretched into an elongated swordfish shape.
Here's Catalina Island on a relatively clear, cool evening.
Add the inversion layer, and suddenly the island becomes a very strange place, a city of illusion perched above impossibly high cliffs.
Here's a closer look.
As the daylight fades, bits of the island appear to break off and float away.
Anacapa's towering cliffs and jagged rocks lend themselves to bizarre mirage transformations.
One of the smaller Anancapa Island peaks appears to have levitated into a true castle in the sky, suggesting M.C. Escher's floating castle, or the legendary floating island of Laputa.
The Fata Morgana mirage revisioned by M.C. Escher
An inferior mirage transforms the islands into a floating world.
The duct formed by the inversion layer can also act like a magnifying lens. In this photo, the lighthouse on Anacapa Island, more than 11 miles away, appears like a giant's castle atop a mighty mountain.
In the Arthur stories, Morgan le Fay, as healer rather than shape-shifter and sorceress, is one of the three woman who accompany the mortally wounded Arthur on his journey over the sea into the west to Avalon.
It's probably not a coincidence that Etta Whitney, the sister in law of 19th century real estate speculator George Shatto and a fan of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's newly published Arthurian epic Idylls of a King, named the only city on Catalina Island for that magical land in the west.
The infamous ghost ship the Flying Dutchman may be Fata Morgana's most famous illusion. The sorceress may also be responsible, in more recent times, for a certain number of UFO sightings.
The phenomenon is no longer inexplicable, but it is still wonderfully mysterious and magical to behold. When conditions are right, Fata Morgana builds her castles in the air, offering us a glimpse of the blessed realm of Avalon, or perhaps the gardens of the Hesperides where the golden apples of the sun still grow.
Viking mariners feared the dreaded sea hedge, but here Morgana seems to have created the Garden of the Hesperides, where clouds, transformed into golden trees, might bear the apples of the sun.