Happy Halloween! The Enigmatic Phenomenon of Ghost Ships: Lost at Sea, but Never Forgotten

The vast, open oceans have long been the setting for countless tales of mystery, but none are more haunting than the stories of “ghost ships”. These are vessels that are found adrift with no living soul on board, or ships that seem to sail without any crew. For centuries, tales of these phantom vessels have intrigued, mystified, and terrified both sailors and landlubbers alike. As maritime personal injury attorneys, such tales of the sea have always fascinated and amazed us, and we would like to share a few with you here on this Halloween night!

What is a “Ghost Ship”?

A ghost ship, also known as a phantom ship, is typically a marine vessel that is found adrift with no one aboard, either alive or dead. It also could be a ship that has been sighted, but then vanishes, often under mysterious circumstances. While the reasons behind these occurrences vary, the phenomenon itself has given rise to a plethora of legends, lore, and maritime myths.

Why Do Ghost Ships Occur?

There are several reasons why a ship might become a “ghost ship”:

  1. Environmental factors: Harsh weather can force a crew to abandon their ship. In some cases, the ship may survive and drift at sea.
  2. Piracy: There have been instances where entire crews were taken captive or killed by pirates, leaving the ship to drift.
  3. Mutiny: Crew members rebelling against their captain or superiors can lead to them taking control of the ship, sometimes leaving it to drift if they abandon it later.
  4. Disease: Illnesses can wipe out an entire crew, leaving the ship without anyone to man it.
  5. Mystery: There are some cases where the circumstances remain unknown and fuel endless speculations.

How do Ghost Ship Legends Occur?

The appearance of ghost ships on the horizon can be eerie and mysterious, but the phenomenon is often due to a type of mirage called “Fata Morgana.” This optical illusion occurs due to the refraction of light as it passes through layers of air with varying temperatures.

Here’s a more detailed explanation:

  1. Layers of Air: The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of many layers, and each layer can have a different temperature. Typically, air temperature decreases with altitude, but under certain conditions, a layer of warmer air can sit atop a layer of cooler air, especially over bodies of water. This is known as a temperature inversion.
  2. Refraction: Light bends (or refracts) when it moves between mediums of different densities. As light moves from the colder dense air to the warmer less dense air, its direction changes, causing the light to bend.
  3. Distant Objects Appear Elevated: When our eyes catch the bent light rays coming from a distant object, our brain interprets them as if they’re coming in a straight path. As a result, the object appears higher than it actually is, sometimes even above the horizon, creating an illusion.
  4. “Fata Morgana”: This specific type of mirage is complex, and can make objects appear elongated or stacked, often unrecognizable from their true form. For example, a ship that is just below the horizon, out of our direct line of sight, can appear to be floating above the horizon due to this phenomenon.
  5. Ghost Ships and Fata Morgana: In the case of legendary ghost ships, witnesses may have seen an actual ship sailing beyond the horizon, but due to the Fata Morgana mirage, it appeared ghostly, floating, or even inverted. Over time, these sightings could be incorporated into folklore and legends.

It’s worth noting that while mirages can explain many “ghost ship” sightings, they don’t account for all legends and tales, especially those that involve close encounters or details that can’t be explained solely by optical illusions.

Ghost Ships of Mystery and Legend

What are some examples of ghost ship lore, both historical and legendary, throughout history? Here are a few of the most famous and enigmatic:

  1. The Flying Dutchman: Perhaps the most famous of all ghost ships, the Flying Dutchman is said to be a spectral vessel doomed to sail the oceans forever. Legend claims that the ship’s captain, Hendrik van der Decken, defied a storm and swore he’d round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took until Judgment Day. To this day, spotting The Flying Dutchman is seen as an omen of doom.
  1. The Mary Celeste: Found near the Strait of Gibraltar in 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered adrift with a fully stocked cargo hold of 1500 barrels of alcohol, its sails still rigged, and no signs of a struggle; however, the captain’s logbook, the lifeboats and entire crew were mysteriously missing. Theories about their disappearance range from mutiny to psychosis-inducing food contamination to sea monsters and aliens. Nevertheless, a storm or some other event compelling the crew to abandon ship, later leading to their deaths at sea is the most likely explanation.
  2. SS Ourang Medan: According to stories, in 1947 several American ships near Indonesia received a distress call from this Dutch merchant ship. The message was chilling: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” When rescuers boarded the ship, they found the crew’s bodies frozen in terror, but no sign of injuries or damage. The ship then exploded and sank, likely due to its illegal cargo of nitroglycerine (TNT/dynamite).
  3. Lady Lovibond: Legend has it that on February 13, 1748, first mate John Rivers, a rival for the affections of the Captain’s young wife, steered the ship onto the treacherous Goodwin Sands of southeast England in a fit of jealous rage. Since then, the ship is said to reappear every 50 years, signaling doom for those who witness it.
  4. The Octavius: Found drifting off the coast of Greenland in 1775, the Octavius’ entire crew was discovered having frozen to death, with the ship’s captain still sitting at his desk, pen in hand, mid-log entry from 1762. The ship had been lost since 1761, having futilely attempted to find the Northwest Passage.
  5. The SS Valencia: In 1906, the SS Valencia sank off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, after encountering bad weather near Cape Mendocino and became a subject of mysterious ghost stories. Eventually, 37 of merely 108 people were saved using lifeboats, among which one disappeared. Since then, many fishermen have claimed to witness ghost ship sightings with human skeletons even after many decades post sinking.
  6. The Caleuche: Originating from Chilote mythology in southern Chile, The Caleuche is a ghostly ship that sails the seas at night, glowing brightly, surrounded by party music and laughter. The ship is said to carry the spirits of those who have died at sea. However, it only stays surfaced for a few moments before suddenly diving back under the water.
  7. The MV Joyita: In 1955, this merchant vessel was found adrift in the South Pacific with no sign of its crew or passengers. The ship was in a dilapidated condition, with all its lifeboats and firearms, and much of its equipment missing. Bloody bandages, a doctor’s bag, and a radio set to the universal distress signal were the only clues left aboard. Despite extensive investigations, the fate of those on board remains one of the sea’s greatest mysteries.
  8. Young Teazer: After being cornered by the British Navy during the War of 1812, this American privateer (a state-commissioned private wartime vessel, like a pirate ship with legal protections) schooner exploded, killing all but eight of her crew. The explosion is thought to have been caused intentionally by the ship’s Lieutenant in fear of the hangman’s noose.  It is now said to haunt Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, appearing as a blazing ship nicknamed the “Teazer Light”, especially on foggy nights.
  9. Teignmouth Electron: While not a traditional ghost ship, the Teignmouth Electron has a haunting story. In 1969, Donald Crowhurst entered a solo round-the-world yacht race, but ended up faking his journey. His boat was found adrift, along with a bizarre ship’s log detailing his descent into madness. Crowhurst himself was never found.

“Ghost Ships” of the Modern Era

What are some recent examples of ghosts ships?

  1. M/V Alta: This cargo ship, built in 1976, was discovered off the coast of Ireland in 2020. After being left abandoned by its crew in 2018 due to technical difficulties, it traveled the seas unmanned for almost two years before running aground. This is one of the most recently discovered ghost ships.
  2. Lyubov Orlova: Originally built for luxury cruises, this ship was impounded in Canada in 2010 due to debts. While being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped in 2013, it broke loose and was left adrift. Since then, its whereabouts have remained a mystery, with rumors suggesting it’s roaming the seas filled with cannibalistic rats.
  3. SAMYANG: A South Korean fishing boat, the SAMYANG was found abandoned on a small island in 2016. The crew’s fate remains unknown, but the ship’s voyage recorder indicated it had been adrift since 2009.
  4. The S/V Kaz II: Found drifting 88 miles away from Australia’s shoreline a mere five days after its departure from Airlie Beach heading for Townsville, Queensland, in April 2007, her three inexperienced crew members vanished mysteriously, drawing comparisons to the Mary Celeste’s lost crew. While the ship was largely intact, one sail was shredded. Speculations about their disappearance range from adverse weather and pirates to them drowning while fixing a fishing lure.

How many Abandoned “Ghost Ships” are on the Ocean Today?

In 2020, the International Maritime Association (IMO) Database mentioned about 438 ships abandoned worldwide. Even more concerning, it also listed 5,767 crews having been abandoned since 2004. However, since not all missing cases are brought to the IMO, the actual number of missing and abandoned vessels and crews is likely to be much bigger.


From ancient mariners to modern seafarers, ghost ships remain an integral part of marine folklore. These stories, whether bone-chilling mysteries or explained phenomena, offer a profound connection to the vastness and unpredictability of the waters, reminding us of the infinite secrets they hold. Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, the allure of ghost ships will continue to haunt and fascinate for generations to come.

As a Northwest Houston maritime personal injury law firm, the Herd Law Firm is proud to fight for maritime workers and passengers in all types of personal injury claims, and we never waver in our commitment to help these maritime workers and their families when they are injured. Have a Happy (and safe!) Halloween everyone!


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If you or someone that you know has contracted COVID-19 while on board a cruise ship, you may be entitled to compensation. If so, call the law offices of the Herd Law Firm, PLLC for a risk-free evaluation of your potential case.

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