The Map Myth of Sandy Island

The Map Myth of Sandy Island by Rebecca Maxwell.

From the post:

Sandy Island has long appeared on maps dating back to the early twentieth century. This island was supposedly located in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Australia in the Coral Sea. It first appeared on an edition of a British admiralty map back in 1908 proving that Sandy Island had been discovered by the French in 1876. Even modern maps, like the General Bathymetic Chart of the Oceans (the British Oceanopgraphic Dat Centre issued an errata about Sandy Island) and Google Earth, show the presence of an island at its coordinates. Sandy Island is roughly the size of Manhattan; it is about three miles wide and fifteen miles long. However, there is only one problem. The island does not actually exist.

Back in October 2012, an Australian research ship undiscovered the island. The ship, called the Southern Surveyor, was led by Maria Seton, a scientist from the University of Sydney. The purpose of the twenty-five-day expedition was to gather information about tectonic activity, map the sea floor, and gather rock samples from the bottom. The scientific data that they had, including the General Bathymetic Chart of the Oceans, indicated the presence of Sandy Island halfway between Australia and the island of New Caledonia, a French possession. The crew began to get suspicious, however, when the chart from the ship’s master only showed open water. Plus, Google Earth only showed a dark blob where it should have been.

When the ship arrived at Sandy Island’s supposed coordinates, they found nothing but ocean a mile deep. One of the ship’s crewmembers, Steven Micklethwaite, said that they all had a good laugh at Google’s expense as they sailed through the island. The crew was quick to make their findings known. The story originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and prompted a large amount of controversy. Cartographers were the most puzzled of all. Many wondered whether the island had ever existed or if it had been eroded away by the ocean waves over the years. Others wondered if the island mysteriously disappeared into the ocean like the legendary city of Atlantis. An “obituary” for Sandy Island, reporting the findings, was published in Eos, Transactions of the Geophysical Union in April of 2013.

Rebecca details the discovered/undiscovered history of Sandy Island in rich detail.

It’s a great story and you should treat yourself by reading it.

My only disagreement with Rebecca comes when she writes:

Maps are continually changing and modern maps still contain a human element that is vulnerable to mistakes.

On the contrary, maps, even modern ones, are wholly human constructs.

Not just the mistakes but the degree of accuracy, the implicit territorial or political claims, what is interesting enough to record, etc., are all human choices in production.

To say nothing of humans on the side of reading/interpretation as well.

If there were no sentient creatures to read it, would a map have any meaning?

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