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We recently passed the one year anniversary of the undiscovery of Sandy Island, a sad fate for the phantom island which managed to persist on maps for centuries even though it never existed in the first place.  As we’ve seen before with the fictional Mountains of Kong and the Island of California, sometimes false geographical features are reproduced on maps for many years even though they remain unverified.  What’s most striking here, though, is the fact that Sandy Island continued to appear on maps into the 21st Century, and even showed up on Google Earth, even though no one had ever seen it.

Sand Island, northwest of New Caledonia, as seen on a 1953 American Map (via http://mapsofsandyisland.tumblr.com/)

How could such an error have made been made, and repeated again and again?  James Cook first put Sandy Island on a map in 1774, and a later whaling ship seemed to verify his false sighting when it spotted floating pumice from an underwater volcano.  Subsequent maps of the region included the tiny island with the humble, unassuming name.  In 1979, the French Hydraulic Service disproved its existence and removed it from its charts, but it somehow survived on other charts.  It even remained on the World Vector Shoreline Database for decades afterwards, and Google added it to Google Earth.  A search of the island would show a blank, darkened area of sea.

The Google Earth image of Sandy Island, before it was taken out in November, 2012 (via http://eandt.theiet.org/news/2012/nov/sandy-island.cfm)

Because of the island’s remote location and small size (15 miles by 3 miles), it was able to escape undiscovery for many years.  But in November, 2012, an Australian surveyor ship passed through that area to try to clear up some discrepancies in their charts, and they determined that no such island existed at that location.  Once they made this undiscovery, Sandy Island was finally taken off the map by Google and National Geographic, and the cartographers of the digital age all had a little taste of humility.

The takeaway:  Although there may be no new places to discover on earth, we’re still undiscovering places we used to think existed.  Now get out there and prove those old cartographers wrong!

More maps of Sandy Island can be found here: http://mapsofsandyisland.tumblr.com/

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