The Bizarre Island That Maybe Didn’t Exist

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, January 22, 2014
“When our maps do not fit the territory, when we act as if our inferences are factual knowledge, we prepare ourselves for a world that isn’t there.” —Harry L. Weinberg, Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics

In A Nutshell

Sandy Island has been showing up on maps of the South Pacific since 1876. It’s noted on military maps, maps made by whaling ships, and it was even marked on Google Earth. The only problem is, it’s not there. Explanations include the idea that the island has since sunk beneath the ocean, that it was the result of a mislabeled, misunderstood 19th-century whaling map, or that it was possibly a giant, 24-kilometer-long (15 mi) floating pumice raft.

The Whole Bushel

Sandy Island is on maps. Sometimes it’s called Sandy Island, sometimes it’s called Ile de Sable, sometimes it’s labeled “ED” (for Existence Doubtful). It shows up on old whaling maps from the 19th century, and it’s on a 1982 US Defense Mapping Agency map. It’s on maps of the British Admiralty, it was on National Geographic maps, and it’s on multiple data sets used in universities and scientific research facilities worldwide. It was even clearly visible on Google Earth, a long, narrow island about 24 kilometers (15 mi) from north to south, and it’s about the same area as Washington, DC.

Only, it doesn’t actually exist.

A group of scientists from the University of Western Australia were studying the movement of plate tectonics and the topography of the ocean floor when they sailed out to where Sandy Island had been known to be for almost 200 years. Only, it wasn’t there. So . . . what the heck, cartographers?

The first mention of Sandy Island is on maps created from a whaling expedition in 1876. It was recorded and noted by the crew of the whaling ship Velocity and was included in official British Admiralty charts in 1908. Some sources say that future whaling ships noted that there was no such island there, but others kept including it in their maps. The French deleted it from their maps in 1974, but the United States kept it on their defense maps until at least 1982. Researchers think that these maps that still included the island were compiled from data sets that were incorrect, and still based on old reports of the island.

Today, there’s no doubt that the island doesn’t exist—people have been there, and sailed through the precise coordinates where it was said to be. There’s a handful of sources that claim to have unraveled the mystery of the island, too, but they don’t all say the same thing.

According to some, the island was simply a pumice raft. Pumice forms in areas of the ocean where there’s a lot of volcanic activity. When lava cools rapidly, pockets of gas that are trapped inside make for incredibly buoyant rafts. The area off the east coast of Australia is a volcanic hotspot, so it’s entirely possible that what the crew of the Velocity actually saw was a giant, floating rock. (There’s present-day proof of the phenomenon, with a pumice raft 22,000 square kilometers (8,500 square miles) in size documented in 2012.

Others say that the more recent maps showing the island were just drawing data from incomplete and incorrect earlier maps. Although with Google Earth’s satellite technology, it seems strange that the island wouldn’t have been undiscovered before people actually, physically sailed through the area it occupied on Google. (Google has since removed close-up satellite photos that had marked the location.) Although underwater features can be very misrepresented even on maps today, it seems a daunting coincidence.

And still another theory states that the original maps and notes from the Velocity were misread, and the crew was referring to the area as a dangerous spot, with high waves, a low sea bed, and potentially dangerous inlets, rather than to an actual island.

And still more researchers suggest that the island was included in old maps as a sort of copyright trap, to force those who were trying to plagiarize maps into exposing their work. (Although others argue that mucking about with this sort of thing presents such a potential hazard to seafarers that it’s a highly unlikely possibility.)

Researchers and scientists who have supposedly “unraveled” the mystery don’t seem to actually agree on what happened to the island or what it actually was . . . and somehow, we think it’s most fitting.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: Scientist unravels mystery of Coral Sea’s ghostly Sandy Island
LiveScience: Google’s Phantom Island May Have 19th-Century Roots
LiveScience: How a Fake Island Landed on Google Earth
Huffington Post: Sandy Island, Nonexistent South Pacific Island, Put On Maps By Whalers, Researcher Says