The mystery of an island that isn’t there

Auckland Museum may have some clues as to how a non-existent Pacific island made its way onto navigational charts and even appears on Google Earth.

When Auckland Museum pictorial librarian Shaun Higgins read that a boat full of Australian scientists had recently sailed over the top of ‘Sandy island’ in the Coral Sea, he went through some of our old charts and maps looking for it.

Detail from the 1908 chart showing Sandy Island in the Coral Sea (click for bigger version)

Auckland Museum has a large collection of charts and maps of the Pacific, dating back as far as the 1700s. After a bit of searching Shaun found a 1908 admiralty chart which shows the island (and it appears to be almost as big as Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf).

One of the scientists who ‘undiscovered’ the island, Dr Maria Seton from the University of Sydney, told news reporters: “It’s on Google Earth and other maps so we went to check and there was no island. We’re really puzzled. It’s quite bizarre. How did it find its way onto the maps? We just don’t know, but we plan to follow up and find out.”

According to our chart (visit our Flickr site to see the entire map) the island was discovered by the Velocity in 1876. But there is a generic note on the chart which 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.”

And while Sandy Island appears on many maps, it isn’t on all sea charts. How it managed to appear, disappear and reappear onto various maps and charts is a mystery of the sea. No doubt some out there will believe the island is still there, or has simply moved south for the summer.

It certainly isn’t the first case of maps showing islands that aren’t there. Have a look at the 1650 map of the Pacific (below), with its string of large islands extending from the tip of South America to a point not far from where Auckland ought to be.

Map of the Pacific from 1650



November 26th, 2012 at 8:22 am    

Its easy to explain. It is obviously the island from the TV series “Lost” as that could move through time and space….


November 26th, 2012 at 9:05 am    

That’s not a map, it’s an Admiralty Chart!

I’d suspect that the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton might know a bit more about this and when the island got expunged from their records. Also, the NZ Navy hydrographers office.

Notice the lines of soundings (numbers) and how sparse they are. Those are the only places an organised survey (as opposed to a ship on passage) will have been in 1908. We knew very little about the Pacific then…

Liberry Ann

November 26th, 2012 at 12:37 pm    

Is there a chance some of these islands would be like the “paper towns” mapmakers used to use as copyright traps?


November 26th, 2012 at 1:00 pm    

My copy of ‘The Times Atlas’from 1897 shows the existance of this island – same size & shape as the 1908 map.

Shaun Higgins

November 26th, 2012 at 2:44 pm    

Quite right Rich. This is the southwest sheet from a set of four.

Diceman, does your atlas give a vessel beneath the name of the island?

Regarding the Sandy Island 1876 reference, Lloyd’s Shipping register for 1874-1875 has six vessels by the name Velocity.

Lord Stansted

November 26th, 2012 at 11:58 pm    

They are not maps – they are CHARTS!

Mitch Fraas

November 27th, 2012 at 9:26 am    

A copy of the Australia Directory for 1879 lists the Velocity as reporting two new hydrographical finds. The first being a set of heavy breakers and the second the “Sandy islets.” These seem to have been known as suspect for some time and are listed in the “Doubtful Hydrographical Data”series of 1973 (see For the excerpt from the 1879 Directory see


November 27th, 2012 at 5:11 pm    

Another possibility no one seems to have raised: the “island” was there at one time or another, and simply isn’t today. One of the nice things about Google Earth is that it shows undersea topography. And where Sandy Island is supposed to be, there is clearly some topological feature with a peak very near, if not breaking, the surface. It’s entirely conceivable that this was a low sand bar in times past; and the name suggests as much as well. All of the commentary seen seems to presume that there isn’t, and has never been, any reality to Sandy Island. Ok, that science vessel sailed “through” it; but where are the recent soundings?

James Hayes-Bohanan

November 28th, 2012 at 2:25 am    

The text makes it clear that a chart is referenced. What makes a chart NOT a map? Is that not akin to saying a tree is not a plant?

Not all maps are nautical charts, but all nautical charts are maps, by any definition familiar to me.

Anyway, the main thing is gratitude to the librarian for shedding some light on this story.


November 30th, 2012 at 4:39 pm    

Re vigia Sandy Island.
Velocity, whaling brig, 140 tons, Captain J.W. Robinson. sailed from Hobart 12 April 1876. Returned 20 March 1877.

…The brig Velocity returned on March 20th from a most unsuccessful whaling voyage of between 11 and 12 months duration during which time she had only taken 3 ¼ tuns of sperm oil. Captain Robinson reported that he left the river [Hobart] on the 15th April 1876 and proceeded to Cato’s Bank where whales were seen once during a gale of wind. Shortly after this the vessel sprang a leak, which kept on increasing and a course was shaped for the Chesterfield group, where an anchorage being obtained the leak was partially stopped. While there an anchor and chain were lost in a heavy gale, and the brig then went to Solomon Islands anchoring in Mackira Bay, San Christoval [San Cristobal]…(The Mercury (Hobart) 14 April 1877 p2 Supplement).
This gives the Velocity in the area of ‘Sandy Island’ in 1876. ‘Chesterfield Shoals’ area was a whaling ground in 1860′s, 1870′s.


December 3rd, 2012 at 11:43 pm    

But aren’t Google maps created from Satellite photos? Why would the island appear again then?


December 7th, 2012 at 8:37 am    

I lean towards the low lying theory, which could result in the islands waxing and waning with tides or changes in sea level.

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