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Mapmakers puzzled by vanishing island

The strange case of a phantom island off the coast of Australia.

By Rich_Maloof Mar 20, 2013 6:49PM

For centuries the little island appeared on maps of the Coral Sea in the South Pacific. At about 45 square miles, Sandy Island appeared to be a small but not inconsequential piece of rock, elongated like Manhattan in New York yet bigger by half. It was situated off of Australia’s northeast coast, not far from Brisbane.

Then, it wasn’t.

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Back in 2000, ham radio operators seeking a remote location for a broadcasting competition had sailed to the Chesterfield Islands in the Coral Sea and wanted to learn about this Sandy Island that maps showed was nearby. But when they arrived at the exact coordinates indicated for the island, they found themselves in open water. No terra firma whatsoever. The island simply wasn’t there.

Despite a letter from one of the ham enthusiasts to the cartographers at National Geographic, a dozen years passed before geologists went for a closer look. They were mystified to find that maps of the seafloor showed no underwater mountain at the coordinates for Sandy Island and wondered how the island could exist with no substructure. A research vessel was sent to the location last year and, arriving at the same coordinates, found what the ham operators did. That is, nothing at all.

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Sandy Island, which might alternately appear in your atlas as Sable Island, has now officially been “un-discovered.” It didn’t sink or float away or get swamped under as a result of rising oceans caused by global warming.

Sandy was a phantom. British explorers who claimed to have passed nearby in 1772, a French navigator credited with discovering the island in 1792 and another crew of British sailors who saw it in 1876 were apparently all mistaken. For hundreds of years, everyone simply had it wrong.

As noted in a detailed NPR blog about the ghost island, one would think that in the modern age of satellite mapping, GPS locators, spy satellites, military satellites and naval commanders “wanting to know what not to bump into,” someone would have realized by now that 45 square miles of terra firma appearing on maps had gone missing. But no one did.

At a time when there are no new lands left to be discovered and expand our horizons, and when the Internet can put you on virtually any street corner in the world, it’s a great reminder of just how tremendous our planet is. Meantime, mapmakers are sheepishly removing Sandy Island from their next editions.

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Photo: Courtesy of Perthnow

41Comments
Mar 27, 2013 10:24PM
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Huh ..." For hundreds of years, everyone simply had it wrong". I mean...WHAT ?

Mar 21, 2013 5:28AM
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Isn't that where "Saquatch Central Casting/Stand-in's Company LLC." is located?
Mar 21, 2013 5:01AM
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it was more illegal alien mexicans on their way to this country to sell drugs, commit crimes, and help turn this country into a third-world country. 
Mar 21, 2013 4:45AM
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McHale and his crew know where it is. Ask Tim Conway.
Mar 21, 2013 4:41AM
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It never was an island but a very large exploration space ship from another planet and it simply completed its mission and went home
Mar 21, 2013 4:14AM
Mar 21, 2013 4:09AM
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It's actually where the SGC had Atlantis docked, they had to submerge it for security reasons
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