I live near Dana Point, a cozy little harbor town on the southern California coast, about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. It’s a hilly area and my wife and I often take walks at night, which we’ve been doing for at least five years. But it was only this past week that we finally asked the question “What the hell are those weird lights on the horizon, anyway???”
For as long as we’ve been here, looking out to sea, two brightly lit objects have been sitting on the horizon. We have a lot of shipping traffic here — a glance in that direction always reveals some big freighters on the horizon on their way in or out of Long Beach to the north. And we have our share of oil platforms, to say nothing of thousands and thousands of yachts. So a light out at sea is nothing to take much notice of.
But when we finally stopped to think about it, these lights were different. First, they never move. They’re in the same place, night after night. Second, they are far brighter than lit-up ships by at least an order of magnitude, as is obvious every time a ship goes past one of them. Third, you can’t see anything there during daylight hours.
So a few nights ago I armed myself with a GPS, a really good fluxgate sighting compass left over from my road rally days, and my big camera. I found a good vantage point, noted the exact location on the GPS, took declination-corrected bearings on each of the lights (180° and 190° south), and snapped some pictures. This was about 9:30pm at night and unfortunately some fog was just starting to descend, but I got some decent shots. Of the two pictures shown on this page, the first is a 30-second exposure to get a good establishing shot. You can see the two bright lights on the horizon. The second picture is a closeup of the northern (right) of the two lights, taken with my biggest 400mm lens and a 5 second exposure.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the light on the left did move. At first it was to the right of the second chimney on that house, but as you can see in the picture it did move to the left. The light on the right did not move as far as I could determine.
I plotted the bearings on Google Earth, and determined that there was nothing out there in that direction. No islands, peninsulas, seamounts, or oil platforms.
Here are our early theories on the lights:
- Oil platforms. I’ve been sailing the area all my life and can assure you there are no oil platforms south of here, and this is easily confirmed online.
- Fishing boats. Squid boats and bait boats, and probably others, use really bright lights at night to attract the little baitfish to the surface. This could explain the bright lights. But it’s all deep water out in that direction. No seamounts or shelves out there, so it would be a really odd place to fish. Also, the same two places, every night, for years? It’s still a possibility, just an odd one.
- Something on shore, maybe even the big hovercraft base at Camp Pendleton, which could well be brightly lit. We can see all of the shore down to La Jolla from here. At night it can be hard to judge because you can’t see the land. But the compass bearings confirmed that the lights are well clear of shore.
- Guadalupe Island off Mexico. It’s below the horizon, but we see superior mirages of our local islands all the time here. The compass bearings are close but not quite right, and Guadalupe is uninhabited and has no brightly lit areas. I’ve sailed past it. Maybe a lighthouse, but nothing like what’s shown in my closeup picture.
- San Clemente Island. It’s well to the north of the lights, though it does have a couple sparse US Navy installations on it.
- Cruise ships. Can be brightly lit, but they are nowhere near as bright as these, when you see them side by side. Also, big ships move deceptively fast. They don’t look like it at a glance, but turn your back for 5 minutes and it’s surprising how much farther along they’ve gotten.
So, that’s it. We were almost out of ideas.
It’s hard to judge their range without triangulating, which I can do if my current theory doesn’t pan out. The lights look like they are off the coast of Camp Pendleton, the US Marine training base that constitutes much of the coastline between San Clemente and Oceanside. During the day you can often see big landing ships out at sea, with helicopters and hovercraft pounding back and forth all day long. Presumably they may also practice this kind of thing at night. Might big landing ships have huge lights on them, making them 10 times brighter than regular ships? Might they go to virtually the same positions night after night?
I called Community Relations at Camp Pendleton to inquire. A Corporal Gonzales answered the phone. She was curt and gruff. I asked my question and she told me to call the San Diego Naval Weapons Station, but she didn’t have the number. I tried to find it on my own, a process complicated by the fact that the San Diego station has virtually no web presence and their listed web site, www.navybasesd.navy.mil, doesn’t work. Finally I came up with a number for their Public Affairs office, which I’ve been trying for a day and a half now with no answer. The guy who answers the station’s main number is curt and gruff too, and he gives me the same unanswered number to try. I feel a little like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake trying to reach President Merkin Muffley.
Maybe I’ll have some luck getting through and this blog post will be updated. If not, and you’re reading this sentence, it means the mystery remains unsolved.