An optical illusion in Maine


I came across this lovely beach in Maine a few months ago, near Bar Harbor. The remarkable thing here is that the beach is very far down - about fifty feet - yet the rocks so strongly resemble typical landscaping gravel that the beach seems to be at the level of the observer. Unfortunately, the beach was surrounded by cliffs and appeared inaccessible at high tide, so we couldn't get a person among the stones for perspective, but they must be similar to grapefruit and basketballs. (Some among you can no doubt do the math and figure out exactly how big they were - I've long forgotten how).

It's one of the oddest illusions I've encountered IRL - I simply could not convince my brain that if I tried to step onto the gravel, I would fall a couple of stories before I finally made contact. Bad visual system! Anyone else run into anything similar?


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Oh my gosh I have been to that beach and thought the exact same thing. It is very strange!

That's too cool! There was no way to walk around the cliff and climb down the little promontory in the near distance in the second pic.? I can see exactly what you mean in the first pic., though!

I don't think I've seen an illusion like that before. The top photo does look much closer and the stones smaller than they really are.

One cool thing is that they're round, whereas river stones I've known are oblate.


Okay, but in the top image, what is the white spherical looking object slightly down from the top and about a third of the way in from the left side? It looks like a golf ball - and blown up about 4x it even appears to have printing on it.

Tie a yardstick to a length of twine and toss it onto the beach for a reference.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

Paranoid much, rons? It's a rock with white bird poop on it. I took the original photos, so I should know. Your implication that I'm making this up is. . . odd, to say the least, although your tenaciousness in believing that could be a golf ball is testament to the strength of the illusion.

Tsu: that would be a good solution, if one were in the habit of carrying a yardstick and twine in one's pockets while on vacation. Unfortunately, I'm not! :) If I were such a person, I might have also had a rope ladder with me to get down to the beach. Or a beach ball, which I could have (un-environmentally) sacrificed by tossing over the edge to attain perspective. In fact, if I hadn't had the flu at the time, I might have tried to get there through the water, but since I was very ill, it seemed like a bad idea.

You could have looked around for a fallen branch, photographed it next to a person for reference, then tossed it down to the stones and taken a picture of it there.

Or if there were any seagulls around, you could have tossed some food scraps down there, to attract the gulls, which would give some indication of scale.

I wonder if a sort of transitive scale would have worked?

Find a large branch with a distinctive look (bends/bumps/twists/whatever), and photograph it next to yourself/your hand/something else of known size, to give a sense of its size.

Then toss the branch down, and photograph it among the rocks.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ah, the blogosphere, where everyone is like "I would have handled this situation *so* much better than you did, had I been there." Strangely, Jon H, there were no huge person-sized branches lying on the road where we were walking. However, you are more than welcome to go to bar harbor yourself to take such a photo.


Jon H's comment was not there when I posted.

I'm not sure I would have thought of it if I had been there, either. But I am a problem-solving nerd, and as presented, the post and following comments look like a problem (how to provide scale for things in a difficult-to-reach location?) to be solved.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

I once observed something similar one afternoon while driving somewhere between AZ and CA on I-40. There was an uncanny fractal relationship between hills and the rocks sitting on them. Looking at the scene was making me dizzy, so I had to keep my attention on the road. Wish I had a camera with me at the time to take a picture.

That beautiful place is called Monument Cove. It is truly one of the most unique places on Mt. Desert Island. When we were young you could scramble down the southeast(?) corner, but I think they have encouraged the brush to grow up and keep people out. Being down there is really odd...the rocks are even larger than some of the proposals and you feel a bit shrunken. There is also one of the most untouched tide pools I have ever seen at the water's edge. A magical place indeed. Thank you for the photos.

Thanks for the info, BioTeach! It really sounds like a wonderful place. It's possible you can still get down there - the brush obscures the edge in some places and we didn't spend much time searching. Wish you'd been there to show us where to look!

Clearly you should have handed your camera to someone standing there with you and then flung yourself down onto the rock field. The photograph of your broken lifeless body among the rocks would have convincingly proven that they really are big fucking rocks. The fact that you didn't sacrifice your own life for this blog post establishes that you are a shitty blogger and should shut down your blog. Oh, and also you smell.