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Ghost light over the Chaleur Bay in Quebec has spurned many ghost stories about a burning ship that still haunts the water. From Portugues enslavers to indigenous curses, the Chaleur Phantom covers it all.

Strange is the tale that the fishermen tell:
They say that a ball of fire fell
Straight from the sky, with a crash and a roar,
Lighting the ship from shore to shore.
That was the end of the pirate crew.
But many a night a black flag flew
From the mast of a specter vessel, sailed
By a specter band that wept and wailed.

– The Phantom Light of the Baie des Chaleurs”, 1891 Arthur W.H Eaton

Right before storms in Chaleur Bay in Canada, a ghostly light can appear that no one can really explain. Those studying The Chaleur Phantom with a telescope say that there are no more details to examine, even up close and a definitive explanation of it all, still remains a mystery. 

But those watching the lights with their naked eye claim that it looks more like a ship on fire and from there, the stories about it took form. The Chaleur Bay or Baie des Chaleurs is French and means Bay of Warmth because of the high temperatures. Perhaps a fitting name as the bay is reportedly haunted by a burning ghost ship that cruises the bay between New Brunswick’s north shore and Quebec’s Gaspé. 

The Many Ghosts of the Bay

The lights are claimed by many stories around these parts. West of Caraquet, the ship is known as the Marquis de Malauze, a French ship that were sunk by the British in 1760. To the east it is known as John Craig, the name of a barque that sank outside of Shippigan Island around 1800. Only a cabin boy survived a drowning fate, but later died of exhaustion. 

Another source of the The Chaleur Phantom is the haunting of Lady Colbourne, a schooner that went down in 1838 with its valuable cargo. On her last voyage, she was loaded with gold, silver, spices and wine that not all were recovered after the wreck. The passengers were also very wealthy people that drowned in their finest clothes. When she went down, 43 people were reported to have drowned. 

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But that is not the earliest explanation for these lights known as The Chaleur Phantom. The most told and perhaps most tragic story is of the Portuguese explorers that ended their days in the bay after enslaving the indigenous people. 

The Portuguese Captain

One summer’s evening in 1878, Mrs. Pettigrew sat on her veranda late at dusk at Heron Island. Suddenly, a man stood in front of her, asking for her help. He was badly burned and she turned away to run inside. He brushed by her and she noticed that he had no legs. But before she could find out more, he disappeared. 

On many occasions before and later this incident, the Pettigrew family noticed strange things out on the bay. They reported about a ghost ship that was most often seen on the north side of the island during the full moon. 

One of the tales that have been spun is about the Portuguese Captain in the 1500s that ravaged and pillaged the area before disappearing without a trace.

The Curse of the Burning Ship: The burning ship people of this area reports of seeing is often attributed to the disappeared ship the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Cort-Real and his brother Miguel that never returned after sailing to this area. // Photo: Destruction of the Turkish Fleet in the Bay of Chesma by Jacob Philipp Hackert.

The captain, believed to be the real Portuguese explorer, Gaspar Cort-Real, arrived at Heron Island in 1501 to kidnap the natives of the place known as Mi’Kmaq to sell them as slaves. It is reported that he captured as many as 57 indigenous people that were taken back to Portugal as slaves.  

But when he came back for his second visit, the Mi’kmaq took him first. Rembering what had happened to their people last time he came, they tortured and killed him before he could do any more damage to their people. 

A year later the Captain’s brother, Miguel came to look for him, and the locals attacked him as well. Their ship was set on fire and they jumped in the waters, promising they would haunt the bay for the next 1000 years as The Chaleur Phantom. 

It is said that the corpses of both the Portuguese as well as the Mi’kmaq washed ashore on the island and that they were buried in a low lying area at the west tip of the island called French Woods. And that their graves were shallow and their souls not yet at rest. 

The Pirate Killing

Another origin tale to the lights is told from Restigouche. According to this tale, it was a group of pirates nead Port Daniel that killed a woman there. She was a native in most stories and was kidnapped by the pirates.  With her dying breath she cursed her killers.

“For as long as the world is, may you burn on the bay.”

And according to the phantom lights in the bay, they still burn. 

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The Murder of a Sailor

A third explanation of The Chaleur Phantom that are told is of the murder of one of the sailors that worked on a ship. They encountered bad weather that drove the crew desperate. The superstitious sailor feared that they would die and that they were followed by bad luck. They attributed this bad luck to one of the sailors and ended up murdering him to reverse the bad luck. 

Then the ship caught fire though, and it was told that it was Catholic blood way of seeking revenge.  

Other Scientific Explanations

There have been many tales to try to find the origin of the lights, scientific as well as paranormal. There have been several research papers that have tested and concluded different explanations that don’t involve evil Captains from Europe, cursed pirates and catholic blood. 

There are also very few pictures of the phenomenon of The Chaleur Phantom to test and further examine it with as well as some factual inaccuracies in the stories told to give credit to the ghost stories.  

Other more natural causes that can explain this strange phenomenon could be something as trivial as rotten vegetation and a sort of marsh gas that has drifted over water, or an undersea release of natural gas or St. Elmo’s Fire. 

St. Elmo’s Fire: This weather phenomenon is typically seen during thunderstorms when the ground below the storm is electrically charged, and there is high voltage in the air between the cloud and the ground. // Source

Although many scientists reject that this phenomenon can be St. Elmos Fire, which is electricity slowly discharged from the atmosphere to the earth—ordinarily shows itself as a tip of light on a pointed object, such as a church steeple or a mast. In addition, it is accompanied by a crackling noise. 

No matter the real reason behind its light of The Chaleur Phantom, the existence of them is something that can’t be denied. What also can’t be denied is the victims to the bay and the harrowing stories that can be retold as countless ghost stories. 

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References

THE FIERY PHANTOM THAT SAILS BAY CHALEUR | Maclean’s | JUNE 15 1951

New Brunswick Sea Stories: Phantom Ships and Pirate’s Gold, Shipwrecks and … by Dorothy Dearborn

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