December 10, 2012

Case of the Island That Never Was

David Ellis

A 19TH century whaling ship, Sydney University, today's Australian Hydrographic Service, a New Zealand museum researcher, and for good measure Google, would appear pretty-much unlikely bedfellows.

Now chuck in suggestions of the CIA and it becomes an even less-likely mix.

But just such a mix came to light recently when scientists from the University of Sydney sailed aboard the Hydrographic Service's vessel to research a relatively small blob shown on most charts, maps and even Google Earth as Sandy Island. And it was interesting because most unusually for such a small surface area it rose straight out of South Pacific waters a whopping 1,400m deep.

But when they got to where they expected to find their island or reef, they found they had something of a quandary on their hands: there was neither island, nor reef.

Nothing. Just deep blue ocean – despite "Sandy Island" having been shown on most ocean charts as far back as the late 1800s, and brought into the 20th and 21st centuries by the wonders of Google Earth mapping.

And we say "most ocean charts," because equally strangely those many charts put it in French territorial waters between Australia and French-governed New Caledonia… yet the French do not acknowledge it on any of their maritime charts.

Puzzled, the Australian scientists returned to Sydney to try to find what had happened to their once-was-now-isn't blob. And rather than returning with exciting new scientific information about Sandy Island, they had to report that what was a new island in the 19th century, had in the 21st century become The Island That Never Was.

How this ghost blob came to be on official charts in the first place appears to go back to 1877 when the captain of the whaling ship Velocity returned to his home port of Hobart, and reported sighting "heavy breakers" and "sandy islets" at a point between Australia and New Caledonia. He had even detailed the spot on his ship's charts – and passed the information on to others he knew sailed the South Seas to help them with their navigation.

Then 31 years later in 1908, the object that Captain J.W. Robinson had detailed after a near-year-long voyage in the South Pacific in 1876 and 1877 suddenly appeared on an official British Admiralty chart issued in London.

And it remained there until now, being copied and transferred to most other maps and charts that had any semblance of British inheritance.

Enter Shaun Higgins, a pictorial librarian at the Auckland Museum who read about the Sydney researchers' Island That Never Was in one of many articles in newspapers across the South Pacific, in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and even on the BBC's World Service.

Intrigued he started looking up old documents, and found the British Admiralty chart dated 1908 that depicted "Sandy Island" as a dotted circle… an indication that, at that time, it was possibly a reef and thus a hazard to shipping.

And Mr Higgins also discovered an even earlier Admiralty Hydrographic Department South Pacific directory dated 1879 that referred to "Sandy Island," which it noted the Master of the Velocity had reported while sailing east of Chesterfield and Bampton Reefs – that were already known and surveyed.

Mr Higgins says that Captain Robinson would most likely have been using a sextant and compass for navigation, and could possibly have got his co-ordinates wrong. "As whalers were often the first explorers in many South Pacific areas, as a responsible master, Captain Robinson would have taken note of islands or reefs he believed were uncharted," Mr Higgins said.

"So that his 'Sandy Island' could in fact have been closer to either the Chesterfield or Bampton Reefs," he said. "And therefore further west than where he'd marked it, and part of one of those reefs."

And as the BBC's Australian correspondent, Duncan Kennedy reported, cartographers are now "rushing to un-discover Sandy Island," and removing it from all maps, charts and Google Earth.

But what of the CIA and our Island That Never Was?

One loony British report suggested that "Sandy Island" could have been "removed" from the face of the earth by the CIA – after being used by the service as a secret electronic base to spy on shipping around Asia...

Well, it is the Silly Season.



[] OFFICIAL maritime chart showing "Sandy Island" in the South Pacific… but in fact, it isn't.

[] VELOCITY, the whaling ship that started it all lays in "dry dock" in Hobart.

Photos: Wikimedia

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