Wes Tyler of Myrtle Beach was walking to his car one morning in early January when he looked up and saw a cloud formation near Ocean Boulevard the likes of which he had never seen before. What he saw were three large round gaps in a thin layer of clouds, filled by what looked to be fine particles.
"So I immediately grabbed my phone and started taking pictures because I knew that it was something unusual," Tyler said.
Tyler had no idea what caused the strange formation, so he passed the pictures along to a meteorologist friend, who told him the phenomenon was a hole-punch cloud. Tyler sent the pictures off to a few Internet news outlets and the photos quickly spread across the web, spawning a host of speculation and conspiracy theories, some of which were literally out of this world.
"Everything from Christian-based end of the world doctrine to Mayan 2012, even to the Hindus. I've gotten e-mails from around the planet," Tyler said.
A hole punch cloud is a small snowstorm caused by a jet trail passing through a thin cloud layer. At least, that's the official explanation and it's been confirmed by officials from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter that several South Carolina Air National Guard F-18 fighter jets were doing maneuvers off the coast that morning.
Tyler hasn't completely bought into the jets-through-the-clouds theory, though he says it sounds reasonably plausible. "It's the most rational explanation, let's put it that way."
Bill Perry took some pictures of the cloud formation, too, while he was on his way to his Myrtle Beach motel the same morning.
"I made the joke that it might have been a space ship taking off from above," Perry said.
Perry sent his photo to NewsChannel 15 and was informed by Meteorologist Darren Stack that the cloud formation was caused by jet contrails. Like Tyler, he says that explanation sounds good, but he's not entirely convinced.
"I can't explain it, but who knows, it's a big universe," he laughs.
At the web site Starseeds.net, one web poster offered, "You know, there may well be scientific explanations for these types of things, but maybe it is UFO craft doing these instead of our airplanes."
Much of the Internet speculation centers around HAARP, the government's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. It's a Pentagon-funded radar project in Alaska that conspiracy theorists blame for everything from weather manipulation to chronic fatigue syndrome.
A poster at the Big Wobble blog offered, "too bad for those who wish to play with electromagnetic waves, the weapon is not so invisible after all."
Tyler says so far, all the attention he's received from the photos has been fun, but after dealing with hundreds of e-mails from all over the world and numerous interview requests from conspiracy buffs, it's quickly starting to border on the annoying.
"Maybe I'll get famous and then bring about the end of the world."
Have you ever seen hole punch clouds? Let us know your thoughts on the pictures.