It is every explorers wish to discover unmapped territory but few expect to undiscover territory that is already mapped. That is what happened to a team of Australian scientists who sailed through what appeared on charts as a large island during a research trip in the South Pacific.

Sandy Island according to Google Earth, world maps, marine charts and scientific publications lies in the Coral Sea, between northern Australia and the French territory of New Caledonia. Except that it doesnt, as the scientists discovered or undiscovered during their recent 25-day voyage. Where the island was marked on maps they found only deep blue ocean very deep, as it turned out.

The team, led by Maria Seton, a geologist from the University of Sydney, had gone out looking for fragments of the Australian continental crust submerged in the eastern Coral Sea. But as they pored over maps on board their maritime research vessel, the Southern Surveyor, their suspicions were aroused by navigation charts showing a water depth of 4,620ft where Sandy Island was supposed to be.

We sailed over it, Dr Seton told ABC radio yesterday. Were actually not sure [how it got on the maps]. There must have been an error on one of the coastline data studies, and its just been propagated through the scientific literature. The weather maps on board showed the island there.


Another team member, Steve Micklethwaite from the University of Western Australia, told The Sydney Morning Herald: We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island. Then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so we can change the world map.

Even that most authoritative of sources, The Times Atlas of the World, shows the island in the same location although it calls it Sable Island.

Dr Seton told Agence France-Presse. Were really puzzled. Its quite bizarre. How did it find its way on to the maps? We just dont know, but we plan to follow up and find out.

Nabil Naghdy, the Google Maps product manager for Australia and New Zealand, said a range of reputable public and commercial sources were used to build its maps.

Mike Prince, the director of charting services for the Australian Hydrographic Service, said some map-makers added non-existent streets to keep tabs on people stealing their data, but that was not standard practice with nautical charts.

Were Sandy Island to exist, it would lie in French territorial waters. Significantly, it does not appear on French maps. The island has been mentioned regularly in scientific publications since 2000.

- Independent