October 15, 2011 FacebookTwitter More...

UPDATED: Mystery of floating lights over the ocean off Avon is solved


Avon residents near the oceanfront saw quite a mysterious and unsettling sight over water Thursday evening.

Not too long after dark, folks started noticing bright, orange circular objects drifting by soundlessly from south to north out over the ocean.

There were lots of them, oceanfront resident Karen Tetreault reported in a phone call to The Island Free Press.  By 8:30, she said she has seen about 25 of the mysterious floating objects, and neighbors told her they had already seen at least that many more.  Shortly, after that, the light show stopped.

Now, the mystery of where the lights came from is apparently solved, but it’s not what it first seemed.

Calls yesterday to law enforcement officials led Island Free Press to the U.S. Coast Guard Sector North Carolina Command Center.

Operations Specialist Jason Frivance said that the lights were likely from a military exercise off the coast.

He said the U.S. Navy conducts exercises that involve dropping flares from aircraft almost every weeknight.

“We get lots of reports,” Frivance said. “We deal with it on a daily basis.”

However, we got comments from readers on the article and made some more calls.

The Navy apparently was conducting exercises off the coast Thursday night, but the lights were not flares dropped from aircraft.

Turns out they were sky lanterns being launched by a party on the Avon beach – a group that was perhaps celebrating a wedding.

According to information available on the Internet, sky lanterns are airborne paper lanterns that are traditional in some Asian cultures, where they are launched for various celebrations.

They are made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of waxy flammable material.  When the flame is lit, it heats the air inside the lantern, lowering its density and causing the lantern to rise in the air.  It remains airborne for as long as the flame burns and then it floats back to the ground.

The National Park Service ranger who responded to the 911 calls about the floating lights Thursday night confirmed that there was a group of folks on the beach launching what were apparently sky lanterns.

A look at the YouTube videos on the lantern convinced Karen Tetraualt that what she and her neighbors saw.

And several e-mails from readers support that.
“My wife and I were working on our cottage on Tarpon Drive in Avon,” wrote reader Richard Bragonje of Morgantown, W.Va., “when she called my attention to the lights. They were moving from somewhere near the Cape in a northerly direction. They started just over the house roofs and continuously rose as they moved north. Most rose until they disappeared in the clouds that were surrounding the moon. One drifted across the moon, and it appeared that there was some object that was above the flare. Very strange.”

“There was a big party on the beach,” said reader Bob Maslak of Johnstown, Pa., “and they put candles with plastic bags (like hot air balloons). Neat looking. We watched them come off the beach by Due East Road and were amazed how quickly they rose and went down the beach. A great sight over Avon.”

And another reader e-mailed that he saw a similar spectacle off the beach in Buxton when he was vacationing on Hatteras in August.

“It went on for about a half hour maybe even longer. No one knew what they were, and we never did get an answer telling us exactly what was going on. So you see you never know what you might see on Hatteras Island.”

The floating lanterns look pretty in the videos, but the information available on the Internet notes that the lanterns can be dangerous.  They can hurt folks trying to launch them, cause fires if they land in the wrong place, and perhaps harm wildlife – though today’s versions are promoted as more eco-friendly with bamboo frames replacing what were once wire frames.

Most of the Internet sources say the lanterns should not be launched in windy conditions.  And there was a brisk southwest wind on the beach Thursday night.  From Avon, it carried the lanterns off to the northeast over the ocean.

Although Park Service regulations don’t specifically address sky lanterns, launching what are essentially lighted paper balloons from the beach wouldn’t seem to be an activity the seashore or island residents, especially the volunteer firemen, would want to encourage.

The party launching the sky lanterns apparently received a ticket for a violation, though the park ranger who responded would not confirm that this morning.

So, we guess the mystery is solved.

Here’s pretty neat YouTube video on an Asian sky lantern festival:


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