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Solving the Mystery Lights at Sea

by Brian Dunning, Feb 12 2009
Mystery Lights on the Horizon

Mystery Lights on the Horizon

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.

Detail of the North Light

Detail of the North Light

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,, 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.

40 Responses to “Solving the Mystery Lights at Sea”

  1. MadScientist says:

    Any chance of dragging along a buddy with an astronomical telescope and CCD camera? With a multi-filter camera you can even get a ‘true-color’ image!

    I’m thinking that the lenses on lighted buoys may make the light appear much brighter than they actually are, but buoy lights really aren’t bright at all so I can’t imagine them appearing brighter than the deck lights of ships.

    Nice story – I can’t wait to hear what the lights are.

  2. Frank says:

    Some form of research vessel perhaps? There are some types of sea creatures (e.g. Humboldt Squid) that only come to the surface to feed at night (on Zooplankton, or on those animals that feed on the Zooplankton), so some form of research vessel may be there studying them. I could be wrong, but vessels underway will generally not have bright deck lights on, typically only navigation lights would be on.

    Navigation light
    International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea

    On the other hand, a research vessel may have bright lights on while anchored so that the people on deck can see what they are doing (launching submersibles perhaps). The bright lights may make the smaller navigation lights (which one could use to identify the vessel) very difficult to see.

  3. Frank says:

    A research vessel would not be in the same place every night for years though.

  4. Cambias says:

    Gambling ship? Offshore tanker terminal?

    Do you know someone who owns a boat who might be willing to sail out and take a look?

  5. Clearly, all potential natural and manmade causes have been eliminated, so it’s an alien space ship. Duh.

  6. Russell says:

    Channel markers – lighted buoys.

    Your next step might be to:

    Take pictures from another location and triangulate. Call the Coast Guard, Harbor Master or local fishing charter operator. If there’s a lighthouse nearby, make a visit. Stow away on an outbound ship. Call a local kitschy seafood restaurant and ask if they have any nautical charts on the walls. Check with a local museum or library for the same charts. Sail out and look for yourself.

  7. Mastriani says:

    “We are not alone, they are out there … somewhere.”

    Or not.

  8. Robbo says:

    So what ARE the coordinates?

    I saw one amphib out there on Saturday morning (7 Feb), so she might have been there Friday night. They rarely anchor, but while conducting landing ops the ships are usually limited to a small box, several miles to a side

  9. jrpowell says:

    It would have been cool if you included a daytime photo too. You really should triangulate and find out for SURE where the lights are.

    Love to see an update!

  10. Muero says:

    I am interested in updates to this mystery. In the meantime, can you post higher-resolution pictures? I’m assuming your camera can take pictures bigger than 225 x 150, and it’s hard to really get a feel for what you are looking at with these images.

  11. Eric says:

    I would guess that you’re looking at a oil tanker transfer station. I’ve seen them pretty far out to sea on my way into LAX. The tankers offload at the anchorage so they don’t have to come into port.

  12. Eric says:

    According to the Coast Guard, there is an offshore marine terminal for the Encina Power Plant:

    (a) Carlsbad, CA. The waters including the San Diego Gas and

    Electric, Encina Power Plant, lying within an area bounded by a line

    beginning at latitude 33[deg]10[min]06[sec]N, longitude

    117[deg]21[min]42[sec]W, thence southwesterly to latitude

    33[deg]08[min]54[sec]N, longitude 117[deg]24[min]36[sec]W, thence

    southwesterly to latitude 33[deg]04[min]30[sec]N, longitude

    117[deg]21[min]42[sec]W, thence northeasterly to latitude

    33[deg]05[min]36[sec]N, longitude 117[deg]18[min]54[sec]W, thence

    northwesterly along the shoreline to latitude 33[deg]10[min]06[sec]N,

    longitude 117[deg]21[min]42[sec]W.

  13. Mchl says:

    Eric: Those coordinates mark area way off 180S to 190S as seen from Dana Point. Or so does Google Earth say. That’s assuming I’ve found right Dana Point off course :)

  14. tmac57 says:

    Your natural curiosity and attention to detail make you a great skeptic. By the way, I was listening to Skeptoid yesterday, and for a moment I thought you were channeling Hank Hill sans the Texas accent. Hey, maybe the lights are “propane”! Oh, and I loved the Dr. Strangelove reference, but I had to Google “Captain Lionel Mandrake” to get it. I guess I am not a very good movie geek. Sigh.

  15. Sonya says:

    The fact that those people were gruff proves that they were hiding something!! Congratulations, Brian, you may have actually documented our visitation with aliens!! I bet you anything that you see the same lights over and over and in the same location is actually because that area is E.T.’s version of “Lovers’ Lane”. It’s teenage aliens mackin’ in the backseat of their ships.

  16. Derek says:

    Obviously UFO’s but covered up by BigPharma.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Personally, I’m not a fan of just theorizing about it. This is a much more interesting project for a few nights hunting with a bike (or possibly a car, it’s hard to get a sense of scale from this side of the Internet) and a GPS, camera, compass and maps. And a boat if it turns out the light really originates at sea.

  18. Max says:

    The camera’s pixel resolution and field of view can give an idea of the size of the lights in the close-up, and verify that the angle between the two lights really is 10 degrees in the establishing shot.

  19. Mat in Sydney says:

    If they are some kind of mirage, won’t triangulation yield a false location?

  20. Paul says:

    There is an odd character out there that few people know about. My cousin used to work for him as a combat marine biologist while simultaneously earning a black belt in “Tong Tyu Kai Hibachibachi” an obscure martial art where participants specialize in the use of barbecue implements. That was before the mutant octopus stampede incident. Nobody knows the boss’s given name but his close friends affectionately call him “Cueball”. His mistress is a former Ukrainian Olympic gymnast known as “Natalya Slipitov.” In spite of the gloomy economy I found some open positions on their website. They are looking for an experienced aero-sub rocket shuttle pilot and a dishwasher/laboratory sanitation technician.

  21. badrescher says:

    I’m with Derek. You can never guess what those BigPharma people have up their sleeves.

    I have some connections at Pendleton. I’ll see what I can find out. Keep in mind, however, the speed of the military. I should have an answer for you by, say, 2025.

  22. John says:

    Step 1: Rent a boat (or borrow a friend’s boat) and go towards the light. If you reach land, get off the boat and walk or bike towards the light.

    Step 2: Eventually you will reach the light, or an un-passable barrier. If you reach the object, photograph it and figure out what it is, if you reach an impassable barrier, photograph the object from the (presumably) way better position and get a better sense of where it is located.

    Step 3: Report back any progress here, ASAP. We are all curious now.

  23. Mchl says:

    A thought. Can you calculate the maximum distance at which these lights are, based on your elevation above sea level?

  24. As for me, I suspect our “friends” the dolphins are far more advanced than we thought and are up to something.

  25. llewelly says:

    Rape in games? That’s a new phenomena. It really just started with video games.

    ‘rapeplay’ as a form of sexual role-play has been around for centuries (at least), and rape in fiction goes back to the oldest myths. So I think your assertion is untrue.
    Perhaps more importantly – until quite recently, there was no social or legal sanction against men raping their own wives. (In some parts of the world, there still isn’t.)

    If the lights have a repeating pattern of flashes, it could be an off shore lighthouse. I’ve read there’s a reference which lists all lighthouses and their signature patterns of flashes, but I have failed to google it. One suggestion I haven’t seen yet is a municipal waste barge, which would make me laugh, but I’m doubtful that such a thing would have lights so much brighter than other ships.

    One thing is for sure: If you see strange lights, you KNOW the government is involved, especially if there is a nearby military establishment. In these times, we know the military is always searching for new ways to fight terrorists. One terrorist strategy which remains unaddressed is that of ramming a small boat full of explosives into a large craft, as in the USS Cole. Stopping this sort of assault requires something small and highly maneuverable which can disable the terrorist boat. For maneuverability at sea, nothing beats a dolphin. Given the virtually unlimited potential of secret government biotechnology, it is probably straightforward for black-ops researchers to mount a particle beam on a dolphin’s head. From there it is quite simple for psy-ops to train them to kill terrorists. Obviously this requires an off-shore research and training base. Mystery solved, I think.

  26. Max says:

    One word: Atlantis!

  27. The dolphins clearly know exactly what draws the attention of victi… of humans – anything resembling an anomaly, like bright lights maybe????

    Proceed with great caution, Mr. Dunning, and be afraid. Be very afraid.

  28. SionH says:

    Honestly Brian, they’re clearly alien spacecraft piloted by the ghosts of Atlanteans disguised as Orbs and filled with ectoplasm.

    Dammit, I’ve blunted my Occam’s Razor!

  29. Dimension says:

    I’m kinda nuts, but I’ve been looking at this problem for two hours now. I did kind of a different triangulation.

    Using google earth and Phil Plat’s calculations on “How far away is the horizon?” blog entry I plotted a line directly south of Dana’s Point. I used a 100 meters of elevation because as I mouse over Dana Point it seems the highest point in the area is about 96 meters. So theoretically, plugging in 100 meters into Phil’a calculation I can get the maximum distance you could see to the horizon… about 35km.

    My googlefu also pulled up two articles on “Ship to Shore” military actions. (article 1, 2)

    I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but I think I need to stop now… lol

  30. Syn says:

    These light can actually come from “under the horizon” but be seen as coming from above thanks to Morgana the fairy Morgana the fairy.

  31. Syn says:

    or blimps ?

  32. brian says:

    This website may be a useful resource. It’s real time shipping tracker website.

  33. “Armed Dolphins Set Loose in Gulf by Katrina”

    “Dolphins Turned into Killers”

    “Dolphins Discovering Offensive Weapons”

    OK, that last one’s about the Miami Dolphins, but I think my point is made. Brian Dunning is in danger of being lured to the siren song of the deadly dolphins because YOU people are sending him straight into their collective gaping maw. Sleep well, for tomorrow we may all be comunicating through guttural beeps and clicks.

  34. In 1979 a buddy and I soaked a Barcalounger with every flammable liquid available to us and dropped it into the Long Island Sound at high tide. As it floated out into the current we tossed a lit match onto the chair and smiled as it burst into flames. There was a good reason for this, but I will not share it. As the sun set the flaming lounge chair sailed out toward the Atlantic. Hours later, long after the sun had disappeared and the stars were bright we could still see that tiny flame twinkling in the distance.

    This has nothing to do with your mystery lights. I just wanted to tell that story.

  35. nergvol says:

    Could this be Elvis hiding place? Know this not alien landing site because they use my backyard exclusively. Tin Foil Man

  36. bill babishoff says:

    IT seems we’re all having fun with this story, but what is it, really? I like the idea of getting on a boat and going toward the light. A simple solution. It in my opinion is probably an oil platform or transfer station. It could also be a reflection. The only way to find the answer is to GO TO THE LIGHT!

  37. John says:

    WE NEED AN UPDATE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  38. Tim M. says:

    Brian, I’m not sure you should discount fishing boats so easily. If you search flickr with the keywords squid, boat, and night, a lot of the results are very similar to your photos.

  39. Paige says:

    So what longitude are theses lights? 30 degrees north by chance?

    Here in Texas we have Mystery lights in Marfa (30 degrees north)
    and some have also been reported in East Texas near Saratoga called Bragg Light aka Big Thicket Ghost Light (30 degrees north)
    Wait there’s more
    Enchanted Rock (30 degrees north) has reported lights.

    And here also is another piece of 30 degrees north trivia—the Pyramids (Giza Egypt)

    I’m pretty sure there are more and that’s why I googled this evening and ended up finding this post.

  40. Marcus says:

    This evening and the prior evening there was a long stretch of vessels, from San Clemente to almost Dana Point. I thing its an underwater cable job.

    Any new info?