Course Part 6


Investigating Mini-Mysteries: The Case of the Disappearing Dhow

Hello there! Welcome to Part 6 of my ten-part introduction to the basics of scientific paranormal investigation, adapted from my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the workshop I give of the same title. It’s intended to give the layperson a taste of how a science-based paranormal investigator goes about solving mysteries.

This time we’re going to take a look at two mini-mysteries, taken from my personal experience. Not all mysteries are high-profile ones like the 1947 Roswell UFO crash, or Louisiana’s haunted Myrtles Plantation. Though I’ve tackled some of the highest profile mysteries in the world, it’s best to start with smaller, everyday mysteries.

In July 2007, on a visit to east Africa, I visited the Bamburi beach resort, a small hotel north of Mombasa, Kenya. I spent a few days relaxing on a patio overlooking the Indian Ocean, sipping cold beers and taking in the scenery. From my comfortable patio perch I had a magnificent view of palm trees, sunny beach, and the ocean. I watched local hustlers badger strolling tourists into buying their carvings and riding their sullen, saddled camels. In the trees above me I watched two monkeys with gigantic, neon-blue gonads fight over Doritos and chunks of banana. But the strangest thing I saw was a disappearing dhow.

The dhows boats are of ancient design, and come in many variations. The smallest ones, common along the east coast of Africa, have a small sail and two stabilizing frames that stick out on either side:

Figure 1

Figure 1

On my first morning at the hotel, I went to the patio where breakfast was served. As I waited for a cup of wretched instant coffee, I surveyed the scenery and skies, planning out my day in paradise.

Looking out over the water, I saw a dozen or so identical dhows anchored in the shallow waters a few hundred meters offshore. One in particular caught my eye, because it was closer to shore than the rest, and lay low in the water—intact but apparently sunken:

Figure 2

Figure 2

I noticed that it had a small band of white paint on the mast. I wondered why it hadn’t been removed (aren’t sunken boats a hazard so close to shore?), but my musings were soon ended by the lovely scenery. I gave the dhow little thought for the rest of the day and soon headed out for a beach jog.

Later that afternoon I returned from a trip into town and headed to my favorite table on the patio. I turned to face the warm ocean breeze and noticed something odd: the sunken dhow was gone. In its place were a dozen or so boats, high in the water and doing just fine. I pointed it out to one of my companions, saying that I was surprised someone had salvaged the dhow and hauled it away during the four hours or so since breakfast.  The wreck had probably been there for weeks or months, but it was clearly no longer there, apparently removed that day.

The next morning I slept in late, and (being on holiday) I got up a bit before noon. As I waited for my plate of fruit and very mediocre pancakes, I glanced out at the ocean. To my astonishment, the dhow had reappeared! I sat up in my chair and squinted against the sun.

“What the hell?” I said, mostly to myself. I got up and walked to the edge of the deck. It was the same boat, confirmed by the small but clear white band on the mast. What was going on? How could the boat disappear, then reappear? Why would someone remove a sunken boat, take it away for the afternoon, then replace it overnight? It was very mysterious, and though this scientific paranormal investigator was off-duty, I set about solving the puzzle.

As it was nearly noon, the first step was to immediately order a cold Tusker beer to help sharpen my powers of deduction. Usually I celebrate a solved mystery with a beer, but I wanted to mix things up a bit. I spent about fifteen minutes writing down a few observations in my journal: Despite appearances to the contrary, it was possible—though highly unlikely—that the boat had in fact become invisible. Occam’s Razor (see the next section) required that before I explore the idea of mysterious sea vorticies or UFO-generated invisibility fields, I look for simpler explanations. The half-naked women wandering the beach nearby did not help my concentration, but none of the explanations made sense.. Either the dhow had pulled a Houdini and disappeared while I wasn’t watching, or someone was pulling a prank, or moving the boat for arcane reasons, or… or….

Or the boat had not disappeared, and was in fact there all along.  I looked more closely at the shore and realized I had been fooled by an interesting optical illusion—two, in fact. Both parts of the illusion were caused by the tides. During the morning’s low tide, as I had first seen the ocean, the floating boats were farther back in the ocean, leaving the disappearing dhow obviously low in the water and clearly set apart (Figure 1 again).

During the afternoon’s high tide, however, the dhow no longer appeared sunken because it was buoyed along with the rest of the boats; all of them were at the same water level, and all of them rocked with the waves. The high tide brought the rest of the anchored boats closer to shore, surrounding the sunken dhow with nearly identical boats (see figure 2 again). If I hadn’t noticed the small white band on the mast, I might not have been able to pick it out from shore.

But why hadn’t I noticed that the group of boats were farther away during low tide? The movement of the boats would have been more noticeable if not for the second part of the illusion. I had gauged the boats’ locations in the water by their distance from the shoreline, and from there it looked like the boats were at about the same place in the water. But I hadn’t realized that the shoreline moved so dramatically with the tides. Neptune was playing tricks on me, deviously moving my reference point so that the boats appeared to be the same relative distance from the shoreline at both high and low tides. I later measured the difference between low and high tide on the beach, and found that there was at least a 160 foot (53 meter) difference.

The disappearing dhow (and the moving shoreline effect) may have been obvious to locals, and it’s true that I grew up in the New Mexico desert of the American Southwest, wholly devoid of either oceans or dhows. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time in and around the world’s oceans and beaches, and I’d never noticed anything like it.

Common misperceptions and misunderstandings can make ordinary things seem extraordinary. When people encounter something they can’t explain, their first assumption should always be that they might have misunderstood something. Decades of research show how unreliable and error-prone our perceptions can be. Most of the time our perceptions are pretty accurate, but sometimes they are not—and we don’t necessarily know when they are wrong unless we are confronted with an obvious paradox, as I was with the disappearing dhow.

In the next part we’ll examine two more mini-mysteries. As you read them, try to solve them yourself before I give you the answer!

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six || Part Seven || Part Eight || Part Nine || Part Ten