Seeing shouldn’t always be believing, as a Nelson skeptic discovered thirty years ago.

One night nearly thirty years ago, three men were driving back to Nelson from French Pass after a fishing trip. Road access to the Pass was quite new and there was very little traffic even by day. The road climbs steeply from French Pass, then follows a high ridge with tremendous views of Marlborough sounds on one side and Tasman bay on the other. The headlands and islands showed pitch-black on this moonless night and the sea gleamed in starlight.

As the vehicle reached the ridge, three or four dozen brilliant and mysterious lights could be seen in Tasman bay and further out to sea.

“The Japanese are stealing our fish!”

This was a hot topic in 1965. For years Japanese line fishers had been fishing for high value snapper (quite legally) very close to shore. But a new law excluded foreign vessels from fishing in a region 12 nautical miles (just over 22 km) from the coast.

“That big bright patch must be a mother ship out to sea, these points of lights must be dinghies fishing for snapper, some are right under the cliffs. They are all in the forbidden zone.”

We agreed and each estimated the distance to the nearest light. The maximum guess was three nautical miles.

All of us were experienced at night navigation. One had had a lifetime in small boats, another was a retired senior air-force flying instructor. These two had sufficient confidence in me (very much the junior) to sleep in the cabin while I had brought the boat the full length of D’Urville island (over 30 km) after nightfall.

A brilliant idea was developed, we could measure the distance to the poachers.

We could make out the headlands below us in the starlight and we had a map. With the car we could measure a baseline distance along the road. By sighting the lights over headlands at either end we could determine the angles. A ruler on the map would give the distance and even a calculation would be unnecessary. A crude measure perhaps, but we did not need a high degree of accuracy. All were convinced the boats were fishing well inside the limit.

Thirty minutes later we stared at each other in disbelief. The plan had worked well but it showed the nearest light was at least 15 nautical miles from the coast and the furthest was out more than 40 (28 km and 74 km). How could we be so wrong? Relief mingled with the other emotion, at least we had not driven to the nearest phone (a long distance) and made fools of ourselves. The Navy would not have been pleased to be turned out to apprehend poachers and then find only legal fishermen. These boats were not even in Tasman bay, they were well out to sea.

Only then did we think to use binoculars. Each of the nearer lights was not a point, but a vessel illuminated by many lights. This was our first sight of a squid fishing fleet, then relatively new in New Zealand waters. Each squid-fishing vessel has rows of powerful lights in the rigging. Squid are attracted by these lights and caught by jigging. Thirteen years late a squid fleet off Canterbury was to be one of the UFO sightings in the great Kaikoura UFO mystery. According to Philip J. Klass “the best documented of all UFO cases”.

In our case nobody cried “UFO” (one was a believer but had never seen one). We knew these were lights on boats but otherwise we were horribly wrong. We completely misinterpreted what was visible. We assumed (without considering the possibilities) that the lights were only moderately bright, therefore they had to be close. Because they were close we assumed we were looking down at them (just under the cliffs!). In fact we seemed to be looking down at them — until we knew they were well out to sea. Then we realised we were looking out towards the horizon! They dazzled us, therefore we could not see the horizon (it is usually visible on a clear, starry night).

The big glow well out, originally assumed to be a mother ship, was probably a cluster of lights over the horizon.

It is difficult to get across just how much illumination is used by a squid boat. The night after the Kaikoura UFO sightings, the RNZAF sent a plane out to investigate. It reported the squid fleet was putting out more light than the city of Christchurch!

The incident taught me some skeptical lessons.

Some were negative. Judging the distance of objects is very difficult at night. Judging their position in relation to the horizon is even more difficult. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions. Even when all of a party agree exactly on what they have seen, they can still be completely wrong. Highly experienced people can make quite ridiculous errors. What people report as “sightings” are really conclusions.

Some were positive. It pays to use one’s brains. It is possible to make rough but objective estimates of distance. Binoculars enable details to be resolved even at night.

And when the Kaikoura UFO was in the news I had a really good laugh — until I realised how much money was being made out of the incident. It really pays well to see UFOs instead of squid vessels.

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