Q: I’m curious as to what you think these two images could be of. They are screenshots I took from Google Earth and are off the coast of Borneo.
A: We can begin with what they’re least likely to be: something mysterious, such as a sea serpent or top-secret experimental snakelike submarine. It’s difficult to tell without a scale—and we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the two images are of the same type of thing—but a boat or watercraft wake seems likely, especially because of the varied width of the trails. That’s of course a signature of airplane contrails and boat wakes; anything on the surface of a fluid will typically be widest toward its geographical origin and narrower where most recently made.
It’s unlikely to be underwater piping, which is used to transport liquid or gas from Point A to Point B, because although the piping may curve around terrain, it doesn’t typically go in circles (by contrast, Jet Ski riders, for example, often make wide turns and loops as seen in Figure 2). Another possibility is commercial fishing nets. The fact that the images are in the tropics and near the coast—where water sport tourism and fishing are common—may be significant; the same images taken in the middle of the South Atlantic, for example, would likely have a different origin.
This is only one of many such “mysterious” images. A 2014 satellite photograph had many people wondering whether the elusive Loch Ness monster might finally have been photographed from space. The image seemed to show a strange, ghostly oval shape with trailing white tendrils either on the surface or just below the surface of Scotland’s famous Loch Ness (Figure 3). The images had been taken years earlier but resurfaced when the story was picked up by British tabloids.
Monster fans debated the new evidence, but soon several websites debunked the “Nessie” photo, including Sharon Hill’s DoubtfulNews.com and Mick West’s Metabunk.org, which offered clear explanations for the image. The conclusion: the image of the Loch Ness Monster was … an ordinary boat wake. In fact, the distinctive wake pattern exactly matches that created by other boats, both on Ness and other lakes. The satellite image is not a single photograph, as many apparently assumed, but instead a composite of several different images, each with a different contrast; this helped create the illusion of a creature.
Why Satellite Images Mislead
While early proclamations of Nessie having been found by a satellite caused some red faces, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge those who saw a monster where none existed. The idea that a satellite could capture an image of a giant monster is not necessarily far-fetched. Many lake monsters and sea serpents are reported to be fifty feet or longer. If armchair investigators are up to the task, they could monitor reputedly monster-inhabited lakes such as Scotland’s Ness, Canada’s Lake Okanagan, and America’s Lake Champlain using satellite technology. Monster buffs don’t need to dip their toes into cold lakes or brave the wilderness to search for their quarry; they can scan a dozen square miles over a cup of hot coffee at their leisure.
In their 2007 book Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation, authors Thomas Lillesand, Ralph Kiefer, and Jonathan Chipman explain why satellite images can easily mislead the public:
Although most individuals have had substantial experience in interpreting “conventional” photographs in their daily lives, the interpretation of aerial and space images often departs from everyday image interpretation in three important aspects: 1) the portrayal of features from an overhead, often unfamiliar, perspective; 2) the frequent use of wavelengths outside of the visible portion of the spectrum; and 3) the depiction of the Earth’s surface at unfamiliar scales and resolutions.
Strange satellite images have caused controversy and consternation before. In 2011, people reviewing images on Google Maps spotted a tangle of mysterious, connected white lines in the Chinese desert. The strange images spurred a furor on the internet, where amateur sleuths offered learned—and not-so-learned—opinions about their function, ranging from UFO landing strips to top-secret military bunkers. The lines were eventually identified as a grid used to calibrate Chinese spy satellites.
As satellite images become more common, these sorts of “mysterious” photographs will also likely become more common unless the public becomes more educated about satellite imagery. After all, only photographs that are ambiguous and mysterious enough will come to the public’s attention. If a photograph is crystal clear and unambiguous, no one will pay attention to it, because its identity is obvious. On the other hand, if a photograph is too ambiguous, it is likely to be ignored or deleted as an obvious mistake of such poor quality that it’s worthless; it’s the same reason we don’t see the worst photos that people take with their smartphones—they’re soon deleted. From ghosts to Bigfoot, for an image to be “mysterious” it needs to fall into that Goldilocks zone of being just clear enough to give an idea of what it might be but not clear enough to actually tell what it is.
The images discussed here were the result of anomaly hunting, or basically perusing or scouring a data set (hundreds of photographs of a supposedly haunted church, for example, or terrestrial features on satellite images), until noticing that one or more looks odd for some reason. As I discussed in my books and previous columns (e.g., Skeptical Inquirer May/June 2011), anomaly hunting is a very poor investigation technique; it is not particularly useful in solving mysteries and is in fact usually counterproductive. That’s because scientific paranormal investigation begins with a specific claim (e.g., “A ghost in my house throws plates at me” or “My Elvis statue is weeping bloody tears”), which is then closely analyzed. Anomaly hunting reverses this process, essentially putting the investigator in the position of needlessly generating spurious new claims.
It’s the classic fallacy of arguing from ignorance (or personal incredulity): “I don’t understand X, therefore it’s an anomaly.” Without access to far higher resolution images, it’s difficult or impossible to conclusively identify what one or both of these images are, but as is often the case, the most likely explanations are also the most mundane.