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Nov. 28, 2012

The Island That Doesn't Exist

by Joel N. Shurkin

Click to enlarge images
It isn’t that Sandy Island in the Coral Sea sank under the water like Atlantis. It appeared on Google Earth and on admiralty charts, and first was reported by a ship called the Velocity in 1876. The ship reported it was 26 kilometers (about 16 miles) long, not an insubstantial piece of ocean real estate. 
 
It just doesn’t exist. Australian scientists decided to take a look at the island while on a geophysical expedition to the rather remote part of the Pacific and sailed right over it. Nothing there.
 
While the reaction was amusement and puzzlement, the mysterious island points out something few people realize: There are parts of our planet that still are largely unexplored.
 
“Maps of Mars and the Moon have higher resolution than we have coverage of parts of our ocean,” says University of Sydney geologist Sabin Zahirovic. That some of the maps are wrong went undiscovered because scientific research vessels haven’t been there in years.
 
In fact, the only time lots of people went to the Coral Sea was during World War 2 when the navies of Japan, Australia, and the U.S. clashed in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, the first naval battle involving aircraft carriers.
 
How the island got on the maps is unexplained.
 
Even the Velocity wasn’t sure. A note on the bottom of the chart its navigators drew up warns:
“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.”
In other words, it was a rumor.
 
The Auckland Museum in New Zealand has a chart, around 1908, with the island clearly marked. It also appears on a usually reliable data base. The Times of London Atlas of 1897 clearly shows the island, same size and shape of the 1908 chart. 
 
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The island  was placed about 70 miles east of the Chesterfield Islands, south of the Solomon Islands, and west of New Caledonia. That area is one of the most remote in the world.
 
The error was found accidentally by Australians on an expedition aboard the RV Southern Surveyor a week ago. They noted the island was marked on some charts and not on others, so they decided to check it out, proceeding cautiously.
 
“Lo and behold, there was nothing,” says Stephen Micklethwaite of the University of Western Australia. The ship sailed right over where the island was supposed to be. There was no sign the ocean floor even was elevated.
 
“There’s an island in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t exist.,” he says.
 
There is one possible explanation. Google Earth shows an underwater topological feature where the island is supposed to be that has a peak that could be breaking the surface. It may have been a sandbar at the surface that is now submerged, although that doesn’t match what the Australians found.
 
Google Earth removed it.
 
About Joel N. Shurkin

Joel N. Shurkin is a Baltimore-based writer. He is author of nine books and taught journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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