Robert Morton, 55, was at home in the English town of Doncaster whiling away some time by browsing on Google Earth. For many of us, this same pastime is a relaxing way to enjoy some downtime in our lives. But in this case, Morton’s nonchalant surfing suddenly came to a juddering halt. Why? Because he’d spotted something on his screen that really shouldn’t have been there.
Google Earth works by taking satellite and aerial photographs and stitching them together to give a highly accurate 3D picture of our planet from above. You can get a similar effect on Google Maps if you turn on the “Satellite” setting, although this doesn’t offer the advanced features of Google Earth.
At any rate, people with time on their hands can gaze upon some extraordinary sights thanks to Google’s all-seeing computer program. Take the Davis-Monthan Boneyard, for example. It’s a kind of cemetery – but for planes rather than humans. Located in Arizona, the boneyard is in fact a huge storage facility for surplus military and government planes.
Then there’s Oprah. Yes, Oprah Winfrey. Back in 2004, you see, a farmer in Arizona decided to create a tribute to the TV star by making her likeness in a 10-acre field of corn. The whole thing is actually a maze; but of course, you can only get the full effect of the image from up in the skies above it – or using Google Earth.
A curiosity from elsewhere in the world – here a field in Cordoba, Argentina – comes in the shape of the giant guitar pictured above. This, too, is a vegetation creation; but in this case, it’s not corn making up the image; it’s trees. And there’s actually a sad story behind the guitar depiction as well. You see, a farmer named Pedro Ureta created it in 1977 as a memorial to his late wife.
Every so often, meanwhile, Google Earth throws up some pretty awesome wildlife sights as well. Yes, it turns out that you don’t always need the guiding hand of Sir David Attenborough to witness some of nature’s most wondrous scenes. Like this herd of elephants in Chad – also captured by Google’s program – for example.
Sometimes, though, the phenomena that you’ll find on Google Earth can appear downright sinister. For instance, in this scene, captured somewhere in the Netherlands, it looks very much as if someone has dragged a bloody body out on to the wooden pier. Or, that liquid could be water – and the supposed body actually a fool-the-eye shot of a man and a dog. Somewhat unnervingly, perhaps, the mystery of what we’re really observing in this image has, in fact, never been solved.
Meanwhile, occasionally as you’re browsing you’ll discover something that is at once both genuinely enigmatic and at the same time hauntingly beautiful. This spiral pattern is actually a piece of man-made art, entitled Desert Breath, that’s to be found in the Egyptian desert. Situated not far from the Red Sea, the work was created in 1997 and covers an area of around one million square feet.
And then there’s the unfortunate S.S. Jassim. A cargo ship flying the Bolivian flag, the Jassim sank in 2003 after running aground. The ship in fact came to grief on the Wingate Reefs, which are in the Red Sea some distance out from the Sudanese coastal city of Port Sudan.
But let’s get back to Robert Morton in Doncaster. A dad with three children, Morton works as a mechanical fitter – when he’s not browsing Google Earth, that is. And it was on November 5, 2018, that Morton saw a shape on his screen that brought him up short.
Using Google Earth, Morton was, specifically, looking at the stretch of sea just off the beachfront resort of Portobello in Scotland. With its sandy beach, this destination is a popular one among day-trippers from Edinburgh, with the city center of the Scottish capital lying just four miles to the west. As for the coastal resort’s name, it harks back to the Battle of Porto Bello – a 1739 victory for the British over the Spanish in Panama.
But, as mentioned, it was the sea off the beach of Portobello to which Morton was paying particular attention. This expanse of water goes by the name the Firth of Forth. Firth, you see, is the Scottish word for estuary, while Forth is the name of the river that flows into the North Sea.
Now as Morton used Google Earth to scroll around the sea a little more than half a mile from Portobello Beach, he noticed a small object. So, intrigued, he began to zoom in on it. Speaking to British newspaper the Daily Mirror, Morton described what happened next.
“I was just looking on Google Earth on Monday and, by chance, I came across the picture of the aircraft. It looks like it is [in] the sea, just off the coast of Edinburgh. It looks like it is underwater,” said Morton. “It’s very, very strange. It’s incredible,” he added.
Morton then continued with the description of his extraordinary discovery of an apparently submerged aircraft. “It appears to be underwater,” he said. And it’s hard to argue with that appraisal. It does indeed look exactly like a plane lying on the seabed just off the Scottish coast.
However, Morton himself was actually doubtful of the evidence of his own eyes. “I have never heard of any aircraft crashing leaving Edinburgh or that area,” he admitted. Edinburgh Airport is, for the record, about 12 miles west of the location of this supposed submerged plane.
And Morton had, as a matter of fact, already come up with a more plausible explanation all on his own. “I know… the plane isn’t really in the water; it’s probably the satellite looking down on it through thin cloud giving it that appearance,” he told the Daily Mirror.
“It may just be another Google anomaly,” Morton continued. And then, as if on cue, a spokesman from Google piped up with a logical explanation for the bizarre airplane image. “The reason it looks like the plane is underwater is because each satellite image you see on the map is actually a compilation of several images,” he said.
“Fast-moving objects, like planes, often show up in only one of the many images we use for a given area. [And] when this happens, faint remnants of the fast-moving object can sometimes be seen,” the representative from Google continued. So, thankfully, it seems that no plane had actually plunged into the Firth of Forth.
And yet this isn’t, in fact, the only time that an apparently underwater plane has turned up on Google Earth. Another such “ghost” aircraft came to the attention of the world’s press back in February 2016, for instance. This one was in Lake Harriet in Minneapolis; and on that occasion, one Susan Cadrecha spoke for Google. “In short: each satellite image you see on the map is actually a compilation of several images,” she explained to The Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper. So, the incredulous out there will just have to keep on scouring.