Freak atmospheric conditions, a sighting of the planet Venus, or harmless UFOs?
New Zealand's most famous UFO sighting off the coast of Kaikoura in 1978 was a moving cluster of bright lights that dazzled and spooked the occupants of a small plane during a routine newspaper drop.
The lights seemed to move with the plane, heading away when the plane headed directly for it, and then disappearing after being witnessed for between 12 and 20 minutes.
It was described as extremely bright, flashing and elliptical - and difficult to explain away as "conventional phenomenon".
But an official report by the Air Force disagreed, and said the sightings could be explained as an unusually bright sighting of Venus, bright lights from fishing vessels, or "freak propagation of radio and light waves". It also noted spurious radar readings in Wellington Air Traffic Control were common off the east coast of the South Island at the time.
Thousands of secret files on alleged UFO sightings from 1952 to 2009 were released by the Defence Force yesterday, including reported sightings by military personnel, investigations by Government departments, media reports and mad ramblings and drawings by people claiming to be in touch with aliens and space ships.
Dr Bruce Maccabee's report (What Really Happened in New Zealand) into the Kaikoura sightings found it difficult to explain as "conventional phenomenon".
Just before midnight on December 30, 1978, a four-engine turbo prop Argosy freighter with a film crew aboard left for Christchurch. Near Kaikoura the pilot and co-pilot saw lights towards Kaikoura that coincided with strange radar readings in Wellington Air Traffic Control.
The plane landed in Christchurch at 1.01am, December 31, and flew back to Blenheim at 2.16am. "About three minutes later, as the plane climbed through a low cloud cover, the pilot, co-pilot, and cameraman, who were all in the cockpit at the time, observed a bright yellow/white/orange light apparently at about their level, which would appear and disappear through the tops of the clouds," the report said.
A cameraman shot footage of the object, which ranged from "yellowish white elliptical shapes with reddish fringes to overexposed, nearly triangular and circular shapes".
The plane turned towards the bright light, but the object seemed to move away from it. By the time the plane turned back to its original flight path, the light was gone.
A report from the RNZ Air Force found the lights could be explained by "natural but unusual phenomena".
Atmospheric conditions at the time were conducive to anomalous radio and light waves, it said. Another explanation was that the crew were looking at lights from fishing vessels, or Venus.
One in three Kiwis believers
Nearly a third of New Zealanders believe in the existence of extraterrestials.
A New Zealand Herald poll taken before the release of the Defence Force's documents on UFO sightings found 30.4 per cent of Kiwis believed in UFOs.
UFOCUS director Suzanne Hansen, who lobbied for the release of the documents, said she was not surprised by the results.
Members of her organisation have reported multiple sightings of extraterrestrial objects in the past 20 years, and she received three or four reports of unusual activity a week.
However, 64.8 per cent of poll respondents did not believe in UFOs, and 4.8 per cent refused to answer.
New Zealand Skeptics chairwoman Vicki Hyde said most sightings could be put down to mundane events such as weather balloons or birds.
She said peaks in UFO reports followed popular culture - huge numbers of UFO sightings came in the three years after the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Scientists say the chance of finding extraterrestrial life has grown after the discovery of more planets that could foster life.
However, the possibility of life from those planets making its way here in a spacecraft was minuscule.
"We just don't think they've travelled all the way here to play silly buggers with us," said Ms Hyde.