It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a squid boat

Laura Williamson revisits a close encounter in the skies above Kaikōura.

It was sometime after 2am on December 21, 1978. An Argosy turboprop freight plane was en-route from Wellington to Christchurch with a hold full of newspapers when the crew saw something strange off the Kaikōura coast. A set of lights seemed to be following their aircraft. What’s more, not only were the objects visible on the plane’s on-board radar system, the radar operators at Wellington Airport were seeing them too.

You can listen online to the audio of the pilots talking with air traffic control as the event unfolded. From the flight deck: “we have a bright red glowing light out to our 10 o’clock position … hard to say what range it is, but it’s definitely airborne.” And from operator John Cordy: “very strong on the radar now, it’s as strong as you are”.

As Cordy told Newshub in 2017, “we saw some little targets on our radar just down off Blenheim, Cape Campbell way, and we joked that it was Father Christmas having a practice run with Rudolf in the front, because it was just before Christmas … This target then moved toward the Argosy, turned with it, then tracked with it for a good 20 to 30 miles. The target and the aircraft were at 90 degrees to each other the whole time.” The lights dogged the aircraft all the way to Christchurch, where Captain Vern Powell and first officer Ian Pirie landed safely, but with a tale to tell. As Pirie would remember later, “here was this light, but so close it was almost frightening … what the hang is that?”

They weren’t the only ones asking that question. Ten days later, the Argosy’s run was repeated, this time piloted by Bill Startup and with a television crew on board from the Australian network Channel 0: reporter Quentin Fogarty, sound recordist Ngaire Crockett and cameraman David Crockett.

As they approached the mouth of the Clarence River, the site of the highest concentration of strange lights ten days before, Wellington radar reported that they were again being followed by something about a mile behind the aircraft. Then whatever it was multiplied. “It’s really getting a bit frightening here,” Fogerty says to the camera, “there’s a whole formation of unidentified flying objects”. Things get even more lively later in the trip, when an even more vivid object shows up. “It appears to have a brightly-lit bottom, and a transparent sort of sphere on top …. it appears to be, well, like a flying saucer.”

The images are fuzzy, but still, Fogarty’s report is riveting. It went the 1978 equivalent of viral, gobbled up by a moviegoing public primed by Steven Spielberg’s hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind the year before. To this day, the Kaikōura Lights is considered one of the most credible UFO sightings ever and remains one of the best examples of a sighting caught on film.

Aotearoa’s X-Files

The first media reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in New Zealand date to 1909, when a flurry of sightings erupted around the country – some newspapers called them the “airship mysteries”. At the end of July that year, the Christchurch Star described a “mysterious light” spotted in Rangiora, with “the appearance of a brilliant acetylene lamp; from which the rays could be distinctly seen.”

Other reports came in from around the South Island – “lights in the sky” in Invercargill, “a luminous body” near Kaitangata, unexplained “lights which had an undulating movement” above Central Otago, which the Central Otago Gazette detailed vividly on August 4: “One man described it in the form of a chandelier, with one headlight and three smaller under lights. Another said if he could borrow on his imagination the light appeared as if it was hung by a wire. The light was visible at first in the western horizon and quivered a great deal, as well as jumping up and down, when it suddenly disappeared as if a screen had been drawn over it.”

There were various theories, though the Gazette grumpily brushed away the possibility of moonshine-induced hallucinations: “one allegation can be entirely dispelled and that is that the residents of remote country districts in Otago where Prohibition reigns supreme have been over indulgent in the manufacture of stimulants in illicit stills. To our knowledge no such trade is being carried out in the vicinity of the Fraser Basin.”

The Poverty Bay Herald, in turn, outdid itself, with one correspondent suggesting a very-off-course German airship “exercising its wings and, in passing, no-doubt thoroughly enjoying the view of the most interesting and most sober end of New Zealand by night.” Another postulated that “a movie is being thrown on the sky by means of a lantern, and that Mr Wragge knows something about it.” WTF, Mr Wragge! The Herald also pushed the boat out on the extraterrestrial option: “One correspondent gravely suggests that these aerial lights indicate the presence of highly enlightened visitants from another planet to whom we might extend a helping hand since they are possibly in sore straits in getting accustomed to our atmosphere.”

Whatever the explanation, those first reports would not be the last, and as of 1952 they were officially collected by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). The NZDF started to keep a dossier of UFO sightings in part because of the growing tensions of the Cold War – Western democracies at the time wanted to know about anything unexpected in the sky, terrestrial or not. A redacted 2500-page version of that dossier was declassified under the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, and whether you’re a Mulder (believer) or a Scully (sceptic), it’s quite the read.

The reports range from outlandish to the solidly credible, at least in the sense that the witnesses don’t seem to be lying. There’s National Airways Corporation pilot Captain WT Rainbow’s sighting of a light “showing apparent movement, changes in colour and fluctuation in light and intensity” between Raglan and Ohura in 1955. There’s a man who, in 1995, met an alien with size 440 shoes who told him that humans ascend as hydrogen atoms when death approaches. And there’s the famous1959 case of Blenheim farmer Eileen Moreland, who was out early one morning getting the cows ready for milking, only to be greeted by a 20- to 30-foot-wide oval-shaped craft that bathed her in a “peculiar green glow”. She saw a pair of beings inside wearing what looked like glittering divers’ helmets, then the thing flew away “at a speed that would make a Vampire look like it was standing still”. She meant de Havilland Vampire jet fighters, which sometimes used Blenheim’s Woodbourne air base nearby, not the supernatural blood-sucking kind. Which makes it worth mentioning that I’ve seen a sketch made from Mrs Moreland’s description of the aliens, and I swear it looks exactly like Goose from Top Gun after the unfortunate jet wash-flameout-ejection incident.

The dossier also includes several pages from the quarterly journal of Civilian Saucer Investigations, which was founded in 1952, featuring a wide range of both local and overseas encounters (Venusian scout ship! Bright ovoid lands, terrifying dog and master! Swedish ghost rockets!).

It’s easy to laugh, but one thing that comes through in the correspondences preserved in the dossier is the respect the NZDF staff gave every one of the people who contacted them, even while putting many of the UFO sightings down to or human-made or natural factors – the most common explanations being weather balloons and Venus. So it was with Kaikōura.

That’s no Venus

The compelling footage aside, one thing that makes the Kaikōura encounter exceptional is that it is the only UFO sighting in New Zealand to have been fully investigated by the air force. The standard line is that the air force doesn’t have the resources to investigate UFOs, but in this case, an Orion was sent up on a reconnaissance mission on January 2 and principal witnesses were interviewed. This was in part because then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who according to the reporting officer, “took a close personal interest in what went on and specially asked he be informed of Defence’s conclusions to the study it was undertaking,”

A summary of the report was released to the media in 1979, and it concluded that the Kaikōura Lights were attributable to “natural but unusual atmospheric phenomena.” Specifically, the objects seen by the Argosy were speculated to have been the lights from a fleet of 50 Japanese squid boats working off the Banks Peninsula or an unusually bright Venus refracting through the atmosphere. Though you’ve got to wonder how a refraction would show up on radar. The RNZAF put that down to faulty equipment.

But the 2010 document dump hinted at more uncertainty. In a separate, now declassified, briefing submitted to the United Nations in January of 1979, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) didn’t draw any final conclusions, deeming the lights as “UFOs until identified”. But, they added, the “prospect of extraterrestrial intervention being proved is regarded as extremely remote”.

While none of the witnesses seemed to be sold on the idea of aliens, several of them have, over the years, scoffed at the Venus/squid boat theory. As John Cordy, the Wellington radar operator, tells the investigative journalist Ross Coulthart in his book In Plain Sight, “they weren’t refractions or atmospherics. They were solid objects giving a radar return. There is no way we were confused by what we saw … we were in communication with the pilot as he described the objects moving around him and we could see those on radar. They parallel-tracked the plane for forty miles.” David Crockett would have none of it either. He later tried test-focussing his camera on Venus, concluding, “it hardly shows at all, it’s just a very small dot on the lens, nowhere near the size.” Vern Powell added that he was at a loss how squid boats were supposed to be fishing near the plane, given it was 13,000 feet in the air. Bill Startup concurred, telling Newshub in 2017, “they’ve said the visual sighting was squid boats, it was Venus, it was Jupiter, it was the harbour lights … but they haven’t explained why I can see Jupiter, Venus and the harbour lights doing 140 knots on my radar.”

I want to believe

I do. But why? There is something about UFO stories. Like the Kaikōura Lights, they bob and weave and shadow us as our histories and technologies and belief systems evolve, but I think what they always do, and always have done, is comfort us. The Channel 0 footage is pretty blurry, which is a theme, still, with UFOs imagery, despite the proliferation of pro-quality phone cameras on earth, and next gen telescopes in space like Hubble and James Webb. Yet we can’t seem to let it go.

“Let’s hope they’re friendly,” Fogarty said, as the objects multiplied outside the aircraft. I hope so too. Because the thought that we are alone, truly, is almost too sad to bear.