- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
If you were planning a vacation getaway to Sandy Island, a tiny speck in the Coral Sea between Australia and New Caledonia, you’re out of luck. Despite frequently on maps and charts, including Google Earth, it doesn’t actually exist. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
When the voyage’s chief scientist, Maria Seton, and her crew sailed past where the island should be, they found nothing but blue ocean.
"We became suspicious when the navigation charts used by the ship showed a depth of 1400 metres in an area where our scientific maps and Google Earth showed the existence of a large island," Dr Maria Seton, a geologist from the University of Sydney, said.
"Somehow this error has propagated through to the world coastline database from which a lot of maps are made."[…]
Steven Micklethwaite from the University of Western Australia said, "We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island, then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so that we can change the world map."
As you can see from the ambiguous black smudge on the Google image above, the program seems to have been a bit confused by the nonexistant landmass. In this era of rising sea levels, it’s not unusual for islands to disappear beneath the surface, but based on depth readings at the site, this island seems never to have existed. Live Science notes that a group of New Caledonian ham radio operators actually disproved the island’s exitence a decade ago, but the scientific delegation from Australia should hopefully help make it official.
A librarian in New Zealand has traced the first mention of Sandy Island back to a "chart created by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty in 1875". The chart’s author had included this disclaimer:
"Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given."
However, future chartmaker seem to have ignored the warning and the mythical island got passed down through the generations until it turned up on Google.
Had it existed, Sandy Island would have been in French waters (New Caledonia is a French colony), but for what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem to appear on any of Paris’ official maps so it’s not really a loss to anyone. (If only we could make a few East China Sea islands disappear.)
"Phantom islands" like the Brasil — the mythical rock west of Ireland that appeared on charts until the 19th century — were once fairly common. There’s something encouraging in knowing that in the age of Google, there’s still some room for discovery… or undiscovery.