Titanic — Invisible Iceberg

It was a clear night yet the two men in the look-out failed to see the iceberg until only moments before Titanic crashed into it.

Two investigations were made into the disaster; a US Senate Inquiry that took 18 days and a British Commissioners Wreck Inquiry that took 36. Nearly 50,000 questions were asked and answers given and many conclusions and interpretations were made. Nevertheless, the basic question was not answered and remains a puzzle to this day. That question is: On a perfectly clear night, with a dead calm sea and not a breath of wind, how could two highly experienced look-out men plus the officer of the watch with binoculars not see the iceberg dead ahead when looking for ice was their primary focus at the time?

In fact, an answer to that curly question was given indirectly at the beginning of the British Inquiry but the hint it carried failed to be understood by the commissioners. Now, more than 100 years later it is still so.

Questions to a sailor who manned one of the lifeboats:
196. (The Solicitor-General.) Did you see any icebergs when you were in your boat? Answer - When it became daylight.
197. (The Commissioner.) What time did it become daylight? Answer - That I could not say; there was nobody had any time.
198. Would it be about half-past five? Answer - I should say it would be about that time.
199. When it became daylight you saw some icebergs, do you say? Answer - Yes.
200. (The Solicitor-General.) Did you see many of them? Answer - Yes, a lot, all around us.
So, here we are told by a survivor that though they were surrounded by icebergs they were unable to see any of them until daylight. And why not? Simply because it was too dark, or in other words, there was no light. And why was there no light? It was night and there was no moon. It was pitch dark! And that is also the reason why the look-out men failed to see the iceberg until it became illuminated by the Titanic's own lights just seconds before the collision. And when that iceberg was finally seen by the lookout men what colour was it? It was black! So, on a pitch black night with a black sea and a black sky and a black iceberg is it any wonder the lookouts failed to see the iceberg?

The thing that mislead the inquiry commissioners and senators was the word 'clear' - clear weather - clear night - clear sky - but 'clear' does not mean you can see anything. Again and again they posed questions based on their erroneous assumption that because it was 'a clear night' then the iceberg ought to have been visible. What the inquiries failed to appreciate was that even with clear weather, a clear night and a clear sky, unless there is a source of light, nothing can be seen, and that we only see any object by the light that reflects from its surface.

Assume for a moment that the sky had been completely overcast with thick cloud? The commissioners very likely would have said that because of the cloud cover there would be no light and it would be impossible to see the iceberg or anything else. Assume the clouds then moved away and the sky became clear. Likely the commissioners would think the iceberg was now potentially visible. There would, though, still be no source of light to enable seeing the iceberg. Though the stars may be shining brightly it is impossible to see anything by starlight as it is far, far too faint.

(Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea)
Capt Smith of the Titanic was not blamed as it was not normal practice for liners to reduce speed in clear weather. There is no reason to question this finding: it is likely that the iceberg had recently overturned and was showing a dark side; there was no wind or swell to create ripples around it.
Here, too, is further error in the believe that if there had been ripples or splashes around the iceberg they would have been seen.

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