The Shag Harbour UFO
Comparing the actual evidence to the Canadian claim of best evidence for alien visitation.
by Brian Dunning
April 4, 2017
They call it "Canada's Roswell", supposedly the strongest evidence of extraterrestrial visitation ever in Canada. It happened at Shag Harbour, a small fishing port near the extreme southern tip of Nova Scotia. On the clear night of Wednesday, October 4, 1967, shortly before midnight, a number of witnesses observed a row of lights, said to be on a craft about 60 feet long, descend with a bomb-like whistling sound, hover above the water for a moment, and then submerge. Emergency crews responded to what they thought was a plane crash. Divers spent a few days scouring the harbor bottom, but found nothing. But then, a quarter of a century later, the story exploded into something the like of which we'd never seen. The Shag Harbour UFO became one of the best cases ever for proof of alien visitation... supposedly.
On the night the incident was reported, Coast Guard and civilian boats swarmed Shag Harbour looking for what they hoped would be plane crash survivors. All that was found was a patch of foam, described by the fishing boat captain who saw it as "At least 80 feet wide", and that in the darkness he thought it was "yellowish in color." Divers spent three days combing the bottom of the bay in the area where everyone thought the crash had happened, but they found nothing at all.
Often cited as the reason that Shag Harbour should be considered Canada's best evidence for alien visitation is the number and reliability of the witnesses. The lights descending into the water were reported by about a dozen people, including a Mountie. Two more Mounties and a few other people called to the scene reported seeing one light bobbing in the water for a short time.
Another reason it's cited as an important case is that a few other UFO reports were made in the weeks before and after this one in various parts of the province. But in fact, rather than strengthening the case, it dilutes and complicates it. These reports included blinking lights, lights turning on and off, large colored spheres, lights going up in the air, and what sounds like a exploding meteoric bolide reported by an airliner. And sure enough, what's happened is that these reports have all become conflated. Many online descriptions of the Shag Harbour UFO now include these "enhancements" to the story as well; when in fact, they had nothing at all to do with Shag Harbour.
The best way to find out what really happened is to go to the primary sources: the newspaper reports written immediately after the event, getting the exact words from the witnesses first hand. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald did just this, in a series of articles. A pair of teens reported three reddish-orange lights descending, each appearing in order, forming a line declining at about 45 degrees, but then their car drove out of view. Four other teens saw the same thing, but got the number at four instead of three, and called them yellow or white, and watched them descend gracefully all the way down to the water. One of these said he remembered them turn off and back on, but the others did not. One person said he heard them make a whistling noise, the others did not; another person said she heard a loud noise when they hit the water, but nobody else reported this either. So, all we can say from taking the witness accounts as a whole is that a small number of bright lights were seen to descend toward the water, where one remained floating for a short time. That's probably the best rough description we can come up with for what was actually seen.
After the reports became public, and news broke about the other sightings, the stories changed a bit to accommodate all the new information. For example, the light that a few people had seen floating became connected with the foam reported by a fisherman later that night, and now accounts read that they saw the floating light moving around leaving yellow foam. In fact, nobody reported seeing this at the time.
Where this case flew off the rails — and what I alluded to in the introduction — was the 1993 involvement of UFOlogist Chris Styles, who said that as a boy, he had witnessed a UFO in one of these other events some weeks after Shag Harbour. Styles then co-authored a book called Dark Object: The World's Only Government-Documented UFO Crash in which they claimed that the Shag Harbour object was a spaceship which, about a week later, traveled underwater some 70 kilometers northeast to HMCS Shelburne, a small US Navy support facility for an offshore sonar array for anti-submarine warfare, and part of a large worldwide network. Styles and UFOlogist co-author Doug Ledger claimed that it was joined by a second underwater spaceship, where they were both monitored by naval forces, before both finally launched back off into space. They presented no evidence for any of this, nor has any ever been put forward by anyone else. I suggest this creative addition to the story — invented a quarter century later — be enjoyed as fiction.
As with so many other UFO cases, witnesses and armchair analysts raised the possibility of the Shag Harbour object being some sort of top secret military aircraft. This has always been a terrible explanation, as it fails at plain logic on at least two points. First, top secret military aircraft have never been flown in plain view of civilians at low altitude directly over population centers far from test facilities, and there's every reason to believe this would never be done. Second, flying saucers or rows of lights reported by UFO witnesses have never corresponded to the properties of any military aircraft, so there's no logic that can support such a match. When you don't know what something is, it doesn't make sense to suggest that a likely identification is something that is logically excluded as a possibility. You might as well suggest that it's a flying llama, because it doesn't share any properties with a llama either.
But the reported object did share properties with several commonplace phenomena. Meteoric fireballs often break into a line of several lights as they fall, and they are often at oblique angles to the viewer and appear to be moving slowly and at a low angle. It may not be a perfect match, but it does share many properties with the reports.
The candidate explanation that was first raised on the scene in 1967 was one or more marine distress flares, such as those fired into the air from a flare gun. Flare guns are standard safety equipment on boats. They're usually an orange plastic pistol that fires a 12-gauge flare round. After you fire it in the air, the flare starts burning after some inconsistent number of seconds, sometimes nearly immediately, sometimes not until it's already on its way down — much like the witnesses described. Is it outside the realm of possibility that someone was playing around with a flare gun at 11:00 at night after killing part of a six pack? And that when the military showed up the next day the guilty party — feeling more than a little sheepish — resolved to take that secret to their grave?
Like the meteor, flares are an excellent match for the reports. They're not a perfect match for any of the reports, but keep in mind that none of the reports agree on everything. That one or more lights fell into the bay is about the only thing they all have in common. Flares can do that.
Keep in mind that the famous "Phoenix Lights" UFO event of 1997 is known to have been flares (albeit a much bigger military type). It was fully disclosed by the squadron that dropped them, and repeated for local news. Nevertheless, it fooled half the city into thinking a giant UFO was overhead, when in fact it was a line of parachute flares approximately 100 kilometers away. Anyone discounting flares as a possible explanation for the Shag Harbour UFO is on very thin ice. The flares check all the boxes, and in the words of Joe Nickell, the person who thinks he can't be fooled has just fooled himself.
The foam described by one boat, which may or may not have been yellowish, may not have had anything to do with this event at all. But what does a distress flare do when it lands in the water? It keeps burning. Does it make yellow foam? I don't know, and I couldn't find video of a floating flare burning itself out. But again, the foam may or may not have had anything to do with this. Foam at sea is certainly not unheard of.
Proponents of the "alien spacecraft" explanation have consistently claimed that the government ruled out flares as a possible explanation. If true, it would be interesting to see what led the government to this conclusion. It turns out that the source of this assertion is a memo from October 6 written by Col. W. W. Turner:
The [illegible] Co-ordination Centre conducted preliminary investigation and discounted the possibilities that the sighting was produced by an aircraft, flares, floats, or any other known objects.
OK, but this still doesn't tell us how this determination was made. The only source I could find was from the day before (the day after the incident), a telex report from the Coast Guard cutter that conducted the search with all the fishing boats:
MANY SMALL BOATS - NIL RESULTS.
ALL OTHER POSSIBLE LEADS (A/C, FLARES, ETC.) CHECKED - NIL RESULTS.
That's it. None of the many small boats found anything, and no evidence of aircraft or flares was found. It most definitely does NOT say that these things were "ruled out" — it says they found no evidence of them. No evidence identifying Jack the Ripper was ever found, but we don't say the possibility of his existence was ruled out. It's a fact: Despite Col. Turner's loose paraphrase of the Coast Guard report, the government absolutely did not rule out flares or aircraft. The searchers simply didn't happen to come across any; no surprise, since it was after midnight in the Atlantic Ocean, and the remnants of a tiny, burned cardboard tube would be virtually impossible to find even if you knew what to look for.
The Coast Guard cutter called in to search for possible air crash victims, and the Navy divers brought in to search for wreckage, appears to be the extent of government involvement in this case. No documents have ever surface indicating any further action or acknowledgement.
Proponents have declared this event to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitors. Can we indeed make that conclusion? To start, we'd need to match up the details of what happened that night with the known properties of an alien spacecraft. Hmmm. Well, it looks like that path doesn't take us very far. We've never had any alien spacecraft to know anything about them, so the set of possible matches between an alien spacecraft and this (or any other UFO report) is null.
So can we say what the Shag Harbour UFO was? Certainly not; we can't say it was flares any more than we can say it was the mentally projected image from a yogi in Rangpur. But we've no reason to exclude either of at least two unremarkable explanations, and definitely have no reason to exclude everything from Earth — whether known or theoretical — and allow only explanations from deep space.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Shag Harbour UFO." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
4 Apr 2017. Web.
24 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4565>
References & Further Reading
Clark, J. The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1998. 134.
Condon, E., University of Colorado. Scientific study of unidentified flying objects. Fort Belvoir: Defense Technical Information Center, 1969.
Editors. "Search for Object Called Off." Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press. 9 Oct. 1967, Newspaper.
Ledger, D., Styles, C. Dark Object: The World's Only Government Documented UFO Crash. New York: Dell, 2001.
MacLeod, R. "Could Be Something Concrete in Shag Harbor UFO - RCAF." Halifax Chronicle-Herald. 7 Oct. 1967, Newspaper: 1.
Randle, K. The Randle Report: UFOs in the '90s. New York: M. Evans and Co., 1997.
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