Never having seen a real Brocken Spectre for myself, I’ve been a little curious about the phenomenon this past year. Why only this past year? Well, truth be told – I hadn’t heard of it before I started blogging a year ago and seeing the “glory” pop up in a few blogs I had been perusing. It seemed to be the preserve of the hikers and climbers of the world. I didn’t expect to see it this week – in the Seychelles!
A Brocken spectre (German Brockengespenst), also called Brocken bow, mountain spectre or glockenspectre is the apparently enormous and magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. The phenomenon can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank, or even from an aeroplane, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, have created a local legend from which the phenomenon draws its name. The Brocken spectre was observed and described by Johann Silberschlag in 1780, and has since been recorded often in literature about the region. However it can be seen in any mountain region.
The “spectre” appears when the sun shines from behind a climber who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist or fog. The light projects the climber’s shadow forward through the mist, often in an odd triangular shape due to perspective. The apparent magnification of size of the shadow is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his shadow on relatively nearby clouds to be at the same distance as faraway land objects seen through gaps in the clouds, or when there are no reference points at all by which to judge its size. The shadow also falls on water droplets of varying distances from the eye, confusing depth perception. The ghost can appear to move (sometimes quite suddenly) because of the movement of the cloud layer and variations in density within the cloud.
The head of the figure is often surrounded by the glowing halo-like rings of a glory, rings of coloured light that appear directly opposite the sun when sunlight is reflected by a cloud of uniformly-sized water droplets. The effect is caused by the diffraction of visible light.
We had arrived in the Seychelles the previous week late at night. Our 15 minute transfer flight between Mahé and Praslin (pronounced Prah-linn – not to be confused with praline) was under the cover of darkness. Our return flight was set for early morning so I was looking forward to finally getting the chance to view the islands from the air.
I love flying, but usually only get the big jumbo-jet experience. It was absolutely fantastic to be up in the air in a DHC-6 Twin Otter – 300.
My husband and I were perhaps the most awake travellers that particular morning and were first on board. I suspect that the others enjoyed their last evening in paradise a little too much 😉 We headed straight to the front row of seats where my husband could watch all the control panels (he also loves to fly) and I could stare out of the window and try to photograph (with a compact digital) some of the islands from the air.
We passed close to the islands of Cousin (foreground) and Cousine (background) – but I was unfortunately on the wrong side of the plane to properly see Praslin itself.
As we climbed up and into the puffs of clouds I suddenly caught the plane’s shadow in the clouds and the Brocken Spectre! I madly started snapping away, getting slightly frustrated at the speed we were going through the clouds, which appeared to be speeding off in the opposite direction!
One second our glory was right next to us; the next – it was far away.
I took a breather to set my camera to “Vivid Colour” as the Auto setting was not picking up the halo very well, at all. I tried tweaking the photos above, but I couldn’t quite do the glory justice.
The moment I began to get the hang of it, it disappeared from view.