The Non-Existent Island We Had On Maps For Centuries

“Not all those who wander are lost.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In A Nutshell

Sandy Island was a body of land discovered in the 18th century several hundred miles off the west coast of Australia. The island, which was around 4.8 kilometers (3 mi) by 24 kilometers (15 mi) long, was included on Google Maps and in a number of prominent scientific records. Different countries had included it on their maps for centuries. Scientists sailing nearby in 2012 decided to look for the island and found it didn’t exist at all, and that the water was at least 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) deep across the entire area.

The Whole Bushel

Sandy Island was first recorded in 1774 by British explorer Captain Cook. The French mapped it in the 19th century (calling it “Ile de Sables”), and it appeared on American, British, and Soviet maps throughout the 20th century.

When a research team led by Dr. Maria Seton of the University of Sydney was sailing through the area they noticed a discrepancy between their scientific maps and their navigation charts. The former (put together using information from the CIA World Data Bank and the World Vector Shoreline Database) showed Sandy Island. Because it’s the 21st century, the scientists looked online and found an elongated black blob with a Sandy Island label. The navigation charts, though, had missed it off.

The existence or lack thereof of a 24-kilometer-long piece of land is a relatively easy mystery to solve compared to much in modern science, so they set a course for its location. When they got there they found a lot of water but not much else. The navigation charts, which had put the depth at that location at around 1,300 meters, were proved good. “We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island,” said Dr Seton.

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Yet the scientists weren’t the first to question Sandy Island’s existence. A group of radio hobbyists seeking remote locations from which to broadcast had noticed Sandy Island on National Geographic’s online maps in 2000, but found it absent in other places. They did some digging and found that the maps without the island were based on modern satellite images, whereas the online maps included stuff from very old explorers. National Geographic promised to update their maps in due course, but no one apparently told Google.

Not everyone is willing to consign Sandy Island to history just yet, however. The president of the British Society of Cartographers, Danny Dorling, thinks that whoever discovered Sandy Island just got the location wrong. He says the likelihood is that there’s probably an island nearby just waiting to be discovered, properly this time. Once that happens, we can update all of the maps one more time.

Show Me The Proof

BBC: South Pacific Sandy Island ‘proven not to exist’
Sandy ‘Mary Celeste’ Island undiscovered — again

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