Island shown on Google Maps isn't really there — what gives?

A mystery has unfolded in the South Pacific recently. An island shown on a Google Earth map of the area was nowhere to be found when scientists went looking for it as part of a geological study of the area.

It sounds like something out of a Wonder Woman episode — that mysterious island home that no mere mortal could find.

The disappearing strip of land known either as Sandy Island or Sable Island is shown to exist in the Coral Sea, somewhere between Australia and New Caledonia. The island caught the attention of Australian scientists on the ship Southern Surveyor who just happened to be in the area working on identifying parts of the Australian continental crust that have been submerged in the sea.

Despite the island appearing on Google Earth, the Times Atlas of the World and even on the research vessel's own weather maps, the scientists were perplexed because navigation charts showed the area to have water depths of over 4,500 feet — but no island. Since we all know scientists are the curious types and love a good mystery they headed for the area where the island was supposed to be, and officially found nothing but deep blue sea.

Dr. Maria Seton, from the University of Sydney, told AFP News after their voyage, "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."

Before Google Earth takes all the heat for showing an island that doesn't exist, it's worth it to note that in addition to the Atlas and the weather charts, the island also shows up on Yahoo and Bing maps — though it disappears up close. It seems like everyone is caught up in the mystery.

Though part of me wants to believe it really is a disappearing island, it turns out this mystery could have a very simple reason.

Australia's Hydrographic Service, which produces the country's nautical charts explained to newspapers that map data should often be taken with a grain of salt. It turns out some map makers in days gone by intentionally included some non-obvious "phantom" islands, streets, or other landmarks so they would know if their map data had been poached by another map maker.

It seems their strategy worked better than they may have ever guessed. As map-making evolved, often the phantom landmarks were just passed along until folks forgot they weren't even a reality, even high-tech resources.

According to the BBC, Google welcomed the feedback on the phantom island phenomenon:

" [Google] continuously explore(s) ways to integrate new information from our users and authoritative partners into Google Maps. We work with a wide variety of authoritative public and commercial data sources to provide our users with the richest, most up-to-date maps possible," a Google spokesman said.

"One of the exciting things about maps and geography is that the world is a constantly changing place, and keeping on top of these changes is a never-ending endeavor."

Okay, so in this case Google was just going with the data that had been passed down over the years — with a few old fashioned easter eggs included. Googls was just part of the crowd who missed them.

Free passes all around, but let's remember to layer in some satellite imagery next time before we get all excited about secluded high tech lairs that cloak themselves or have some sort of magnetic shield hiding the Wonder Women living on them.

Alright, I may be the only one who was excited by the idea of a Wonder Woman island, but the thought of a disappearing tropical island is sure to appeal to everyone from fans of Jimmy Buffet, Dr. Evil, and the Lost Island of Atlantis. Next time this comes up we're warned it could all just be an old mapmaker's trick.

Via BBC, ABC.net.au

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