Google Earth bombshell: Why mysterious ‘phantom island’ in South Pacific baffled experts

GOOGLE EARTH users spotted a mysterious “phantom island” in the South Pacific, but when experts went to take a look themselves they were left baffled by what they discovered.

Known as Sandy Island, the enigma has been included on many standard maps and nautical charts from as early as the 19th century and was said to be located near the French territory of New Caledonia, between Chesterfield Islands and Nereus Reef in the eastern Coral Sea. But the story of this “phantom island” dates back to when British explorer Captain James Cook charted a “Sandy I” off the northeast coast of Australia, publishing the find in Cook’s “Chart of Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean” in 1776.


    Spotted more than 100 years later by the whaling ship Velocity in 1895, the island was believed to be 14.9 miles long and 3.1 miles wide.

    It would later appear on Google Earth as just a dark blob compared to nearby islands which included intricate ground details.

    But, the mystery was unravelled on November 22, 2012, when Australian scientists on the R/V Southern Surveyor “undiscovered” the island by heading to the area and recording ocean depths, which were more than 4,300 feet – suggesting there was no chance of anything lurking beneath the water that was previously visible.

    Following the 25-day voyage, Maria Seton, of the University of Sydney, told AFP: “We wanted to check it out because the navigation charts on board the ship showed a water depth of 1,400 metres (4,620 feet) in that area – very deep.

    “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.”

    On November 26, 2012, Google removed the island from its Google Maps service, but there is still a rise from the seabed visible on the satellite view.

    There is no official explanation as to why several sightings of Sandy Island have been seen over the years, but the leading theory is that the island may have been pumice sea rafts – the floating remains of a submerged volcano or coastal subaerial eruption.

    These rafts can sometimes travel thousands of miles and it’s possible that what Captain Cook saw were pumice rafts making a slow journey across the Pacific Ocean.

    Although Google Earth provides high-resolution aerial or satellite images for most of the world, it is not updated in real-time and some imagery is months or years old.

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    This means that many areas where there have been recent changes are not accurately covered and not all areas on the satellite images are covered in the same resolution, less populated areas usually get less detail.

    Although Google uses the word satellite, most of the high-resolution imagery of cities is aerial photography taken from aircraft flying at 800–1,500 feet, the rest of the world is recorded from satellite, though.

    You can see what remains of Sandy Island here. 19.22°S 159.93°E


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