In Search of the Truth Behind Canada's Most Infamous UFO Sighting
It’s been 50 years since one of the most well-documented UFO incidents in Canadian history.
Photos courtesy of Author
The first time I heard about the Shag Harbour UFO incident was about six years ago when a Celtic guitarist with long white hair and a glass eyeball was telling me about it at a house party in Halifax.
As he regaled the fateful day back in 1967 that plagued a sleepy fishing village in rural Nova Scotia with a mystery still unsolved, I became more and more entranced (it didn't help that, at the time, Ancient Aliens was my televised bible).
My interest grew and my research furthered as the years went on, and I found out there was an annual festival held at the location of the incident, and that 2017 would mark its 50th anniversary.
Having never been to Shag Harbour before, I figured it was as good an excuse as any to make my inaugural pilgrimage to the village that was going to celebrate the half-century milestone since an inexplicable flying object fell out of the sky and into the ocean on October 4, 1967. So, I hopped in my car and drove 300 kilometres southwest from Halifax, hoping the truth would be out there.
Driving into Shag Harbour is not unlike driving into many of the Maritimes' rural fishing towns—its seaside main road peppered with old wooden boats, old wooden docks, and old wooden homes, all of which are slowly decaying in the salt air. It is quiet, quaint, and completely beautiful, albeit a little tragic to anyone coming from away.
As I continued to drive, I began to notice nondescript signs nailed to telephone poles and churches advertising things like "Lobster Supper," "Baked Bean Supper," "Wednesday Night Kitchen Party," and "UFO Crash Site." You know—normal, fishing village stuff. When I arrived in town, it was the second day of the annual UFO festival, and despite the placidity of the sea and the aged state of everything, the air was electric.
I went straight to the day's main event—a witness panel at the local community centre, which was decorated with streamers, balloons, and dozens of old white people. The woman at the registration desk was knitting. She set it aside for a moment and wrote "PRESS PASS" on a small square piece of paper and handed it to me, smiling. I walked into the stucco-ceiling'd, cement-floored room—where I can only imagine every single wedding reception, cribbage tournament, and Knights of Columbus meeting has taken place for the past 60 years—glanced over the UFO memorabilia merch table at the back, and made myself comfortable for what would be a two-hour witness testimonial session.
The panel featured first-hand accounts from several people involved in the infamous incident —including eyewitness testimonies from Shag Harbour locals, as well as one from a commercial pilot who was flying a plane at the time of the incident.
As the story goes, on the night of October 4, 1967, a handful of local residents saw a low-flying, brightly-lit object head towards Shag Harbour before it quickly crashed into the sea, where it sank before anyone could get to it. It was first reported to the RCMP as a plane crash by Laurie Wickens—who would become one of the event's key witnesses.
"We went right to the phone booth and called the RCMP and reported a plane crash, and he didn't believe me [at first] so I hung up," Wickens, now 67, testified to a crowd of keen onlookers. "But he had gotten the number for the phone booth, so as I made my way back to my car, the phone booth rang, and he wanted to know where [the crash] was, and we told him to meet us. So as we were going back there to meet him, we could see the light drifting in the water, and then me and [my friend] watched the light until it went out."
Ralph Loewinger was a co-piloting a cargo plane from New York to London that same night, and saw the event unfold from a different perspective.
"I just happened to be looking in the right direction, and I saw this formation of bluish-white lights, slanted from upper left to lower right, and I said, 'Ooh—watch this guy,'" he told the room. "And the other two [in the cockpit] looked. I remember the captain's hands and my hands both went for the control yoke—because we figured we were going to have to dodge this guy, he's going right at it."
"And it looked like a big airplane at the time, like a B-52 or a 707, with all of its lights on—there were about five lights, I remember—and he was in a position relative to us of a guy making a left-hand turn, and that would have him crossing our bow. So we were waiting, and these lights just hung there—they did not cross our bow. And I remember the three of us were looking at it and we said, what is this? And we couldn't discern what it was. I called Boston and asked if they still had us on radar, and he said, 'yeah' and I said, 'Well, who's this at 11 o'clock?' He watched the sweep on his radar scope, and he says, 'I don't have anybody out there.' And I said, 'Well, I'm looking at somebody.'"
Norman Smith was a teenager in Shag Harbour in 1967. On the night of the incident, he saw the lights in the sky, and then followed them until they crashed into the water before he, his father and his uncle hopped in a fishing boat on an immediate rescue mission.
"We were looking for people and debris," he said during the witness panel. "And we went up to the vicinity of where it was, and we didn't find anything, no piece of material or anything in the water, except for a long streak of foam—yellowish orange foam—which was four to six inches thick, on the water. We searched that all night, then the coast guard came, and all we did was go back and forth all night long. I was out again the next day, the divers were there, [and] we stayed there for the better part of the day then gave up and went home. We didn't find anything, and the divers didn't find anything that we could see, so we went home."
"I can't tell you what came down or what landed in the water—if it was a plane or if it was a UFO, I don't know—but there definitely was something that came down out of the sky and landed in the water. I can still see it. I'd like to see it again, I really, really would. [But] I don't know what it was and I probably never will."
For days following the incident, the RCMP, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy, and local fishing boats all scoured the area for survivors or debris, but no trace of anything was ever found.
Captain Ronnie Newell was the skipper aboard the Coast Guard Cutter 101. He said they mobilized within 10 minutes of receiving a call from the Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax that a plane had went down.
"We searched that night on the ocean, pretty much the whole rest of the night [but] we didn't see anything," he recalled to the festival crowd. "We were back the next morning—we brought divers down for two days at that time, and they didn't bring up anything that we [saw]. So I can't tell you anything more than that. I'm not saying that it wasn't [a UFO] but it's just that we didn't see anything. Other than the foam that was on the water—but that's all we did see."
On October 9, five days after the mysterious object sank off the shoreline and into the abyss, the UFO search had been called off, after extensive efforts turned up nothing. Of course, some will argue that evidence could have been found and was concealed from the public eye—which is somewhat plausible, especially when one considers the fact that there was a secret US military base monitoring subterranean and underwater frequencies for Russian submarine activity just 30 minutes from the crash site.
One of the panelists at the 50th anniversary festival was Bill Boudreau—who worked at this secret base—which was disguised as an oceanographic institute—for 25 years.
"They picked up the crash here in the harbour almost as soon as it happened," he alleged during the witness testimonies.
It's no wonder conspiracy theorists like to have a heyday with this particular UFO event, because, quite frankly, there does seem to be a lot of ammo.
Diver David Cvet—another panelist at the festival—has been surveying the ocean floor of the harbour for years, and claimed he's discovered underwater anomalies, or depressions, in the area where the crash is said to have taken place.
"The point of these dive expeditions is to figure out what these anomalies are—it may or may not support the Shag Harbour Incident—but that's not the point," Cvet told the room. "The fact is that these anomalies do physically exist."
It's here where the USO (unidentified submerged object) theory comes into play.
Cvet described the depression as a dinner plate, with the centre being about a foot deep. "It was perfectly round," he said. "A perfect circle. And the covering of this depression was comprised of pebbles two to four centimeters in size. So where are the big rocks? Where are the plants? Where are the scallops, the lobsters, the silt? There was nothing, it was absolutely clear — like someone had swept it the day before."
Noah Morritt is one of the Shag Harbour UFO Festival event directors. He's also a PhD student studying folklore at Memorial University in Newfoundland writing his dissertation on the Shag Harbour Incident. His interest in the event stems from the identity of the community itself and how its people are still grappling with what happened half a century ago.
"[It] left this community with the challenge of, 'so what's a UFO? And so they've spent the past 50 years trying to figure out what this is," he told VICE.
But despite countless hours spent studying the town, the history of the event and immersing himself directly in the culture, Morritt is still stumped as to what exactly it was that so many witnesses reported seeing that night.
"There's lots of interpretation of what it was, from flares to some kind of government satellite, or government aircraft, or extraterrestrial aircraft—there's been a whole range of stuff. I've not a clue [what it was]—no idea," he said.
After hearing the eyewitness accounts at the community centre that day, I began to make my way out of town, but stopped first at the commemorative crash site just a few minutes up the road. It was here I met Norman Brown, who drove 600 kilometres from Miramichi, New Brunswick, for his first-ever visit to Shag Harbour. When I asked him what drew him to this year's event, he began to tell me his own story of a peculiar sighting he encountered when he was 18 years old on Campobello Island—just 200 kilometres straight across the Bay of Fundy — that same first week of October in 1967.
"That same night [on October 4]—or it may have been the night before or two nights before — it sounds very much exactly like the spacecraft or UFO that we saw. I firmly believe it was either the same craft, or if there was more than one, it was one that was with them at the time," he told VICE.
"I have no idea what was manning it, or where it was from, but I can tell you that it was no kind of a spacecraft that the Canadian or US Navy or Air Force could have had at that time. There was no sound, [it was] pitch black, glowing a bit—nothing could just hover as steady as that was. It was stationary, [and] you could see it very clear. It was just over top of the trees maybe a couple hundred feet in the air, on a little bit of an angle, and then all of a sudden it just took off with incredible speed, and as it got going you could see the lights getting smaller and smaller and smaller and—gone."
Brown—who admitted that, before his encounter, he did not believe in spaceship sightings—said he hasn't seen anything like that since.
"When I heard stories of people seeing stuff like this in the sixties, I thought, no way you're crazy, you're making it up." he said. But when I saw it myself, from that point on, I knew that these stories had to be true, because I saw it myself, and I knew it wasn't something from this earth."
The people and the identity of Shag Harbour have been completely consumed by the events that happened on the night of October 4, 1967. Whether it was from this world or not, whatever fell out of the sky and into the water 50 years ago has left this village—and researchers, officials and the public at large—completely stumped as to what exactly it was. At least that's the official story.
There is no closure, and all the witnesses—and the rest of the world—have, are their stories, their unwavering convictions in what they saw, and the sliver of hope that maybe someday, it might come back.
As for me – I was happy to have met the people of this beautiful, dying place, but I was also happy to get back on the road.
As I drove out of Shag Harbour, I saw those old wooden boats and homes and wondered if they'd still be here in another 50 years or whether this would just be another Maritime ghost town with a wonderful and weird past.
Follow Hillary Windsor on Twitter.