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