The Phantom Canoe Sighting That Foretold a Catastrophic Eruption in 1886

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A local legend born from events surrounding a 19th century eruption of a New Zealand volcano continues to fascinate sceptics and folklorists alike.

Was a supernatural vision of a Maori warrior-laden canoe, a harbinger of doom for an eruption that would bury the so-called “ninth wonder of the world?”

The canoe (a waka), emerged from the mists on Lake Tarawera, in New Zealand’s North Island, on May 31, 1886.

It was described by Maori lake guides and European sightseers, as being “vigorously paddled” by its spectral crew.

When hailed by the guides, there was no response, simply vanishing into thin air while sparking one of New Zealand’s great ghost stories.

Eleven days later on June 10, Mt. Tarawera, which looms over the lake and is part of the North Islands geothermal zone erupted in the early morning hours.

It caused one of New Zealand’s largest historic volcanic events. The mountain was split open along several vents, creating new volcanic peaks and releasing a massive amount of ash, rock, and steam 10 kilometres into the air.

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The eruption was preceded by a series of earthquakes, which were felt as far away as Auckland, and it destroyed several villages, including Te Wairoa under tons of volcanic debris. The exact death toll is uncertain, but it is estimated that around 120 people lost their lives in the eruption.

Eyewitness Accounts

Ghosts have been reported by people for millennia across all cultural divides, often evidence is anecdotal, and any captured images based on phenomena like “pareidolia”—a tendency to perceive a meaningful image from a random visual patter.

On the latter, nothing galvanises sceptics more than an opportunity to disprove sightings of things science says can’t exist.

What made this otherworldly sighting on the lake different however was that the accounts given by the tourists and a well-known guide named Sofia were remarkably consistent.

No war canoe was known by the local people to have been in service on the lake at the time.

The eyewitnesses described the waka as being rowed by half of the warriors while others were wearing flax robes and standing with their heads bowed.

The Maori guides were said to have been terrified by the warriors, whose hair was adorned with feathers from the Huia and white heron birds, a practice normally carried out during the passing of a tribal member.

Published media from 1886 reprinted the account of a passenger named Ms. Sise who wrote her son in Dunedin detailing what the party saw that day:

“After sailing for some time we saw in the distance a large boat, looking glorious in the mist and the sunlight. It was full of Maoris, some standing up, and it was near enough for me to see the sun glittering on the paddles. The boat was hailed but returned no answer. We thought so little of it at the time that Dr. Ralph did not even turn to look at the canoe, and until our return to Te Wairoa in the evening we never gave it another thought.”

Ms. Sise added that their Indigenous hosts had also seen the apparition, “Then to our surprise, we found the Maoris in great excitement, and heard from McCrae [a permanent resident] and other Europeans that no such boat had ever been on the lake.”

Backing up the adventurer’s claims of witnessing something mysterious from beyond, it was reported a second sightseeing boat full of tourists and their guides also claimed to have seen the same waka. One passenger named Josiah Martin even sketched his impression of what they had seen.

The Ninth Wonder of the World

The eruption buried the famous geological formations known as the Pink and White Terraces, once considered a wonder of the 19th-century world.

They were located on the shores of Lake Rotomahana which fed into Lake Tarawera.

The Pink Terrace, known as Otukapuarangi (“fountain of the clouded sky”), was a gentle pink-coloured silica terrace, while the White Terrace, or Te Tarata (“the tattooed rock”), was a larger formation with cascading white terraces formed by the precipitation of minerals from geothermally heated water.

"White Terraces," near Rotorua, New Zealand, painted in 1882, by Charles Blomfield. Oil on canvas; 24 inches by 17.9 inches. Museum of New Zealand. (Public Domain)"White Terraces," near Rotorua, New Zealand, painted in 1882, by Charles Blomfield. Oil on canvas; 24 inches by 17.9 inches. Museum of New Zealand. (Public Domain)

In recent years, there have been efforts to locate the remains of the terraces using modern technology.

In 2011, scientists announced that they had found what they believe to be part of the Pink Terraces, 60 metres underwater in Lake Rotomahana. However, to date, their exact location and condition remain largely unknown.

Some Kind of Mirage Perhaps?

With time, many scholars and amateur sleuths have offered their explanation for what was seen on the lake that day in 1886.

Some have argued that eyewitnesses simply mistook what they saw, or perhaps were blindsided by a waka that had been launched into the lake independent of local knowledge.

Another advanced theory is that the day-trippers may have experienced what is known as a Fata Morgana mirage—a complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon.

An optical illusion, or "Fata Morgana" mirage, photographed by a tourist in New Zealand's north Island. (Courtesy of Monika Schaffner)An optical illusion, or "Fata Morgana" mirage, photographed by a tourist in New Zealand's north Island. (Courtesy of Monika Schaffner)

The optical illusion typically appears above ice or a body of water, and can make objects appear distorted, elongated, or stacked on top of each other.

They have been linked to various legends and folklore, often interpreted as a supernatural or magical phenomena due to their striking and mysterious appearance, while the name “Fata Morgana” is derived from the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay.

Whether this explanation holds weight among true believers and the scientific community is to be determined, but until proven otherwise, the tale of the eerie spectre will live on in local folklore.

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