The Defence Force and the Civil Aviation Authority say they don’t investigate UFO sightings. So what do you do with a close encounter?
When we think of UFOs – unidentified flying objects – we think of the United States. A report from the Pentagon last month disclosed 144 UFO sightings between 2004 and 2021. Well, kind of; the report called them “UAPs” – unidentified aerial phenomena – to reduce stigma around seeing weird stuff in the sky. Either way, the report found no clear evidence of alien spacecraft touching down.
Aliens likely aren’t here in New Zealand either, but you don’t have to probe too far into our aerial history to turn up a respectable amount of our own cigar-shaped “crafts”, strange lights in the sky, and distant objects performing acute turns. There are UFOs here. They’ve been recorded by the Adamski groups, by Civilian Saucer Investigations, by Xenolog – by clusters of enthusiasts who take it upon themselves to research and report on UFO activity.
On one clear July day in 1909, 23 schoolchildren and one adult in the town of Kelso, Otago, swore they saw a German zeppelin swoop over them. The singular adult, a “Mrs Russel”, said a streak of blackness shot over a hill and apparently came straight towards her. The object then turned very suddenly and moved out of sight.
In 1959, a Blenheim farmer claimed she witnessed green lights shining down from the clouds, and then a craft land and two men in shiny silver suits emerge. “It was certainly a nice machine, whatever it was,” she said.
In 1978, the Kaikōura lights dazzled hundreds of witnesses, were filmed by an Australian news crew, and ended up on CBS with Walter Cronkite.
In late 2010, the New Zealand Defence Force released more than 2,000 pages of UFO-related files. Dubbed “New Zealand’s X-Files”, these pages collated submissions the NZDF had received over the years; 300 of them came from one Christchurch man, describing his 20-year relationship with extraterrestrials. Only one incident was fully investigated by the NZDF: the Kaikōura lights. This was due to pressure from both international media and a very curious prime minister Rob Muldoon.
The investigation concluded the sightings could be explained by lights from a Japanese squid fleet, Venus, and “unusual atmospheric conditions”.
Suzanne Hansen has been collecting UFO witness reports through her organisation, Ufocus, for 21 years. She believes just a small minority of UFOs are unexplained. “About 80% of records are sometimes aircraft and sometimes Chinese lanterns, which are the bane of our lives,” she says.
Hansen, who’s been interested in UFOs since the 1970s, set up Ufocus when she realised there was no national database of sightings. Anyone who sees a UFO can fill in a report form, and her team of researchers will likely get in touch to clarify details. They might even head to the site and investigate it themselves.
“There’s many sceptics who would have a go at us, because they haven’t examined what we do,” she says. “Our job is not to appease what people want, it’s to look at the characteristics they provide us with and do the logical elimination of what it could be, and see what is left.
“Some people can be quite upset when we suggest to them what they saw was a Chinese lantern.”
Ufocus has seen an increase in historic UFO reports over the past couple of years. She receives letters from people reporting the two moons they saw in 1989, or box-shaped crafts in the noughties. Hansen attributes this uptick in historic reports to changes in television programming. “It’s as though the UFO reality is getting into people’s psyche now,” she says. “We’re having two or three historic sightings a week at the moment. Of course, we can’t investigate them or find out any corroborative evidence about them. But they’re a stunningly interesting read.”
Reports on the Ufocus website range from seeing distant lights in the sky through to full-blown beach abductions.
If you see a UFO, Hansen recommends just standing there and watching it. You should try to assess the altitude, distance, and characteristics of the UFO. Alert people nearby so there are multiple witnesses. If you’re going to take a photo, try to lean your camera on something to stabilise it.
“People don’t even think of getting their cellphone out,” she says. “And if they do, their hands are shaking.”
Professor Jan Eldridge, an astrophysicist at the University of Auckland, says she sometimes gets phone calls about strange lights in the sky. “We listen but don’t really investigate any,” she says. “Given the vast increase in the cameras that people have and [the fact] there hasn’t been an increase in sightings, there aren’t that many to really investigate.”
A quick scan of UFO reports – both the 2010 NZDF files kept in the National Library and those on Ufocus’ website – shows a couple of common trends: an object performing an acute turn, and an object that hovers and then moves away very quickly. It sounds like spooky movement, but there might be a mundane explanation.
Eldridge says Venus is a typical UFO culprit. “It appears to move about, especially on hot days if the air is disturbed and you’re looking close to the horizon,” she says. Other UFOs can be explained by car headlights and planes in the distance. Satellites, too, can come off as otherworldly.
“If they are rotating they could be mistaken for something flashing,” she says. “There are also meteors burning up in the atmosphere – these can move about.”
Eldridge says she’s yet to hear a UFO report she considers unexplainable. “For something to be inexplicable the evidence needs to be very, very strong – and it never really is,” she says.
If the rare, inexplicable case exists, it’s unlikely to be little green men in a flying saucer, she says. While it’s very possible for other life to exist in the universe, the odds of it visiting us are low. “Travelling between the stars is very, very, very, very, very difficult,” says Eldridge. “The only way we’ll actually ever find evidence of other life and intelligence in the universe is by observing other stars in SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] programs. And for the moment we can be quite certain there isn’t any complex life and intelligences nearby Earth and our sun.”
Eldrige says she understands a strange light or odd-moving meteor can compel people to ask questions, but she doesn’t really enjoy fielding them. “People feel the need to tell someone, but there is usually a very simple explanation, or it’s difficult to understand exactly what happened,” she says.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the NZDF said it has no role or responsibility relating to reports of UFOs. “It is standard practice that any such reports received by the NZDF are to be referred to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA),” they said. “The NZDF neither investigates nor maintains records relating to UAS/UFO sightings.”
The NZDF spokesperson also said it holds no further information on UFOs following the 2010 release.
A spokesperson at the CAA, when approached, apologised and says it doesn’t collect or hold information pertaining to UFO investigations. It’s a safety regulatory body and, therefore, only investigates incidents that impact aviation safety.
For the moment, Ufocus is all we have. “We believe we’re doing the best possible job in New Zealand,” says Hansen.