The oceans of the world have always been, and still are, wellsprings of seemingly infinite mysteries and the unknown. One very pervasive enigma of the sea is its habit of swallowing up people and things without a trace. History is steeped in tales of ships, planes, submersibles, and swimmers who have ventured out into this vast, churning place, only to slip over the horizon and out of existence without a clue as to what happened to them. Yet for as odd as all of the cases of these unexplained vanishings are, one phenomenon stands out as being decidedly stranger; that of entire islands that have seemed to have simply faded off of the face of the earth. Such disappearing phantom islands have puzzled seafarers for centuries, sparking the imagination and eluding any real answers, to become one of the most bizarre mysteries of the world’s oceans. Here we will explore some of the strange world of islands that vanished into thin air.
One of the most baffling cases of a mysterious vanishing island is a tiny uninhabited speck of land that is said to have been located in the Gulf of Mexico off the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Called Bermeja , the island was first mentioned in a list of islands of the area by Alonso de Santa Cruz and published in 1539. Bermeja was subsequently found on maps by Spanish cartographers and explorers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and there was nothing too strange about it. Indeed the island was often sighted by passing mariners, so there was not much reason to doubt it was there. Barmeja was even used in the 1970s as a landmark on which Mexico based its claim to a 200-nautical-mile economic zone, which encompassed not only valuable fishing waters, but also major oil reserves. Barmeja had sort of dropped off of the records in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but since the island had shown up once again on maps in 1857, and had been a feature on reliable maps for centuries, as well as being regularly mentioned in books on Mexican islands, no one really disputed the claims as it was just assumed that the island was exactly where it had always been known to be.
Things got strange when a 1997 survey of the region noticed that there was nothing but open water where the island of Barmeja was long said to exist. A total of three further searches were carried out in 2009 by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) on behalf of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, using boats, satellites, and far reaching plane and helicopter searches, but this expedition also failed to find any sign of the island. The disappearance of Barmeja island baffled both the government and populace of Mexico alike, and it threatened the economic claims that Mexico had made in the region based on the island’s existence. As far as the United States was concerned, a lack of an island where it was claimed to be nullified the treaty for rights to the valuable oil reserves dotting the surrounding areas.
There are a lot of theories as to what happened to the vanishing island of Bermeja. One idea is that rising sea levels or the effects of tectonic activity made it disappear beneath the waves. Another theory is that the cartographers who originally charted Bermeja simply made a mistake with the island’s location or even made up a phantom island with the intentional aim of confusing enemies. After all, enemies were more unlikely to casually wander into an area where an island of their rival was to be found. Julio Zamora, president of the Mexican Society of Geography, has said of the matter:
Countries making maps in the 16th and 17th centuries published them with inaccuracies to prevent their enemies from using them.
The thing is that there are numerous documents from far ranging sources that give precise, concrete descriptions of Bermeja island. In addition to the sightings accounts of an island most certainly there were numerous maps made in various countries, including the United States, that clearly featured the island as being right where it was meant to be. Some believe that the island indeed does still exist, and was merely misplaced via erroneous calculations, although how does one simply misplace or lose an entire island? One of the more far out conspiracy theories is that the CIA purposefully had the island destroyed in order to remove Mexico’s claim on the many oil reserves of the Gulf and to increase the U.S. sovereignty on oil in the region and widen the United States economic zone here. Mexico continues to make efforts to locate where the lost island of Barmeja might be, but where it is or if it ever really existed at all remain a mystery.
Bermeja is certainly not the only island to have gone missing without a trace. Indeed this is a phenomena that has perplexed seagoing explorers for centuries. One of the earlier accounts of a mysterious vanishing island is the tale of the lost island of Antillia, which was first described in 714, during the Muslim conquest of Hispania and the Iberian peninsula. It is said that as the enemy moved in, a group of Christian bishops desperately set sail towards the horizon and did not stop until they reached a blessed land that they called Antillia, also known as the "Island of the Seven Cities." The island was described as being a paradise, where all things were pure and blessed, and where the native people were said to be learned and enlightened.
Antillia was subsequently placed on maps somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic all the way up to the 15th century. It was not until further exploration of the region turned up no sign of it that Antillia started to fade from the records, although one man who claimed to have long resided on the missing island is said to have provided Christopher Columbus with valuable insight before his history-making voyage. This account was written of in a book by Spanish historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, entitled De Orbe Novo. In recent times, it has been surmised that the mythical island of Antillia was perhaps merely a misidentification of the coast of Cuba.
Another early account of a vanishing island comes from 1576, when a peculiar island was happened across by a Captain James Newton, aboard the ship the Emmanuel, as he sought to map out a north-west passage from Europe to Asia. The island was described as being full of thick woods and teeming with life, and was simply named Buss, which was the type of ship that found it. The island of Buss was dutifully put on maps, but many follow up expeditions failed to find any trace of it. It would not be until 1671 that another ship would locate the elusive island, when British Thomas Shepard of the Hudson Bay Company actually managed to land upon it and venture about the lost island naming landmarks, as well as noting the ample flora and fauna that inhabited the place. When Shepard tried to return to the mysterious island several years later, it proved to be gone as if it had never been there at all. No further expeditions were able to find any trace of the island of Buss, and it was gradually removed from maps. The common wisdom at the time was that it had for some unexplained reason sunk into the depths of the sea.
These are just a few of the many mysteriously vanishing islands littering maritime history. In 1858 an island near Easter Island was discovered and claimed by an American guano firm, who named it Sarah Ann Island. In the 1930s, it was noted by German astronomers that the island sat directly in the line of a total solar eclipse scheduled for June 8, 1937, and it was decided by various scientists that it was an ideal location to set up an observatory to witness the momentous event. The island was witnessed, and an expedition by the United States Pacific Fleet was sent to land there, but when they arrived the island was simply gone. An extensive search turned up no trace of where the island had gone, and an observatory was set up on the nearby Canton and Enderbury Islands instead. In the meanwhile, Sarah Ann Island was quietly removed from official naval maps. The case of Sarah Anne Island is curious in that the island was discovered by a company that had surveyed it and fully intended to develop it for economic reasons under the Guano Islands Act, so they had little reason to fabricate the place. The question remains as to just what happened to it.
In another area of the globe, the 19th century saw another mysterious vanishing island in the form of Sannikov Land, in the Arctic Sea off the frigid coast of Siberia. Here the island was seen and charted by explorers in 1811, 1896, and 1893, and it became almost a mythical place in 19th century Russia. Several attempts were made to reach this strange new land, most notably an expedition in 1901 launched by the Baltic German explorer Baron Eduard Toll, who had seen the elusive island with his own eyes in 1886. Called The Russian Polar Expedition, Toll and his ship, the Zarya, went out with the mission to definitively locate Sannikov Land, and scoured the grey, icy Laptev Sea looking for it. Unfortunately, the Zarya become trapped in thick floes of floating ice near the New Siberian Islands and was unable to continue. This would lead to a mystery in its own right, as the undaunted Toll and three expedition members left their paralyzed ship to head out over the pack ice on foot, where they stepped off the face of the earth to never be seen again. The legendary island captured the public imagination for years, accruing more and more of a mythical status, sort of a Holy Grail, yet when the Soviet icebreaker Sadko passed through the area on an expedition in 1937, no trace of any such island could be found. It has been speculated by historians that, considering the many solid sightings of the island, Sannikov Land likely did exist but was submerged due to coastal erosion, which rendered it an underwater sand shoal. We will likely never know for sure.
Another island that seems to have blinked out of existence is the island of Saxemberg, which was often charted in the South Atlantic between the 17th and the 19th centuries. First discovered in 1670 by Dutch explorer John Lindestz Lindeman, the island was described as being low lying, with a prominent pointed mountain in the middle. Lindeman even made sketches of the island, as did other explorers, with one such sketch even outlining the various forms of trees and unique plant life to be found there. However, numerous expeditions to the location of where the mysterious island was said to exist showed no signs of it. It was not until 1804 that a reliable account of Saxemberg’s existence would come in the form of a report from the American schooner Fanny, whose crew claimed to have clearly witnessed the island for a full 4 hours. During this time, the ship’s captain, a Captain Galloway, reported that the island appeared with stands of trees and a peak in the middle, just as originally described. Saxemberg was also spotted in 1809 by a Captain Long, of the Columbus, who described it thus:
The island of Saxonburg is about four leagues in length, N. W. and S. E., and about 2½ miles in breadth. The N. W. end is a high bluff of about 70 feet, perpendicular form, and runs along to the south-east about 8 miles. You will see trees at about a mile and a half distance, and a sandy beach.
In 1816 the island was seen again by crew aboard the True Briton, who observed it for around 6 hours and also made mention of the distinctive pointed peak and forests. Yet follow up expeditions launched by Captains Cornwallis and Horsburgh to validate the claims in 1821 and 1824 found no trace of the enigmatic island, although accounts continued to creep in of explorers who had viewed it but had not made landing. In later years, reports of Saxemberg withered away until it was widely accepted as being a mere phantom, its existence uncertain, and it was gradually removed from maps.
Yet another vanishing island from around the same time is Emerald Island, located south of Macquarie Island, between New Zealand and Antarctica. The island was first reported in the 1820s, when British captain William Elliot and his crew aboard a ship called the Emerald spotted an uncharted island south of Macquarie Island. They claimed the island was mountainous and rugged, with soaring cliffs and peaks, and named it after their own vessel. When a ship from the United States attempted to relocate the mysterious island in the 1840s they found no trace of any such landmass in the vicinity. Then, in the 1890s, a New Zealand ship found the missing island again, describing it in much the same way as the original expedition that had first made mention of it. An expedition launched by a Captain John King Davis in 1909 would follow the coordinates described by the New Zealand ship, yet find no trace of the purported large, mountainous island. Despite the puzzlingly contradictory reports of an island in the area, Emerald Island would nevertheless continue to appear on maps all the way up into the late 1980s.
Sometimes islands don’t merely vanish, but appear out of nowhere only to disappear again. A particularly strange account from 1878 describes an island that suddenly materialized off the coast of the seaside village of Ballycotton. The island was apparently so clear and real that rock formations, sandy beaches, mountains, and even trees and vegetation could be made out on its shores. There were some expeditions that set out on boats to try and land upon the spectral island, but oddly when they approached it seemed to become indistinct and distant, before flickering out of existence just as suddenly as it had appeared.
Such tales of bizarre phantom islands dot the landscape of maritime history, but this is far from a phenomenon confined to the age of creaky wooden sailing vessels and imperfect technology. In the 1970s there was an island that was well-known and explored, which sat within the vast Ganges and Brahmaputra river basin between Bangladesh and India. The island was first spotted in 1970 by an American satellite and was described as being around two miles in length and sprawled out near the rim of the Hariabhanga river, on the border of Bangladesh and India. The island was most certainly there at the time, as it was widely seen and documented. The existence of this new island sparked a dispute between the two countries, each of which wanted to claim the territory for their own in order to extend their territorial rights. They even had their own names for the new island, with India calling it “New Moore Island” and Bangladesh referring to it as “South Talpatti.” Things got so heated that India went as far as to send warships out to it in order to secure the island for their own in 1981. Yet by the time a 2014 ruling by the UN tribunal finally sorted out the dispute and stated that the island belonged to Bangladesh, the landmass had mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth. What happened to it, nobody knows.
Another recent conundrum concerns a disappearing island by the name of Sandy Island, which is supposed to exist near the Chesterfield Islands, between Australia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific Ocean. This is no tiny speck of land, measuring around 15 miles long, 3 miles wide, and covering about 45 square miles, about one and a half times the size of Manhattan Island, and Sandy Island was long a feature of maps and atlases. The first mention of the island was perhaps the account of British explorer Captain James Cook, who passed it in 1772 and wrote of it in his journal. The first official discovery of Sandy Island would follow in 1792, when French navigator Joseph de Bruni d'Entrecasteaux witnessed it. The island would be seen sporadically throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sometimes by ships that passed close enough to describe its vegetation, shoreline, and terrain, and it began to regularly appear on various maps and navigational charts when it was notably described and mapped by the crew of the British whaling vessel Velocity in 1876, who described heavy breakers and sandy islets.
Interestingly, Sandy Island was appearing on maps well into modern times, such as the Times Atlas of the World, in which it is called Sable Island, National Geographic atlases, and it even appeared on Google Earth. For all appearances, this was a very real place that had been known for centuries. However, something odd happened in 2000, when a group of ham radio enthusiasts were scouting for remote locations from which to send a transmission and came across Sandy Island on modern maps. Thinking the location to be perfect, the group went to where it was supposed to be to find absolutely no sign of any island, and concluded that the missing landmass in fact did not exist.
It was not until 12 years later that this conclusion would be corroborated by a team of Australian researchers on a 25-day trip in through the eastern Coral Sea, where Sandy Island was supposed to be. They were immediately suspicious when they reached the purported location of Sandy Island and their depth charts showed water that was over 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) deep in exactly the same location where their scientific maps and Google Earth claimed there was a 45-square-mile island sitting. When the team analyzed other nautical charts based solely on depth measurements, there was no island listed in that location. Indeed there was not even an underwater mountain in the area, meaning that this wasn’t a case of an island being submerged by rising sea levels. It was baffling, as the only way an island could have ever been there was if it had been floating around on the surface itself. The consensus was that the well-charted Sandy Island had never been there at all, and that somehow it had bizarrely managed to slip by and continue to remain on maps uncorrected even in the modern age of sophisticated satellites and advanced mapping technology.
A lot of theories were thrown around to try and explain the mystery of Sandy Island, such as the idea that the island was wiped out by rising sea levels or tectonic activity, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that it most likely never existed in the first place. So if it never existed, how did it manage to not only be long spotted by mariners, but also appear on maps all the way into the present day? One theory as to what sailors were seeing in the 18th and 19th centuries is that they were witnessing chunks of rock from an undersea volcanic eruption bobbing on the surface, which are called pumice sea rafts and could have given the illusion that an island existed in that location. The area does have volcanic activity, so it is certainly a possibility.
As for the mapping mistake of Sandy Island, a recent theory is that the vessel Velocity, which is widely regarded as being one of the first to actually map out the island’s shape and make it a popular feature on various charts and maps, simply made a mistake and that this error was subsequently just copied by further maps without anyone really ever going to check it out. In this case, the crew may have misidentified something else as an island, and from there it would become accepted as fact by cartographers. A researcher at the Auckland Museum named Shaun Higgins said of the matter:
As far as I can tell, the island was recorded by the whaling ship the Velocity... My supposition is that they simply recorded a hazard at the time. They might have recorded a low-lying reef or thought they saw a reef. They could have been in the wrong place. There is all number of possibilities.
Yet for all of the theories, the exact, concrete answer to the question of what happened with Sandy Island remains elusive. Whatever the reason for Sandy Island’s disappearance, or more likely its ability to stubbornly remain a feature on maps and charts for so long without anyone noticing it was not actually there, it has currently been removed from both Google Earth and will not appear in future editions of National Geographic maps. It remains a fascinating account of how little we sometimes know about what really does or doesn’t lie out there over the horizon even in the modern world, and how much we blindly trust the maps and charts we have available to us. Who knows what other landmasses on our maps have disappeared or were never even really there at all? Sandy Island shows that these are not mysteries confined to the old fashioned seafarers from centuries past.
So what do we make of these sorts of cases of vanishing islands? There have been a lot of theories put forward as to what lies at the root of the phenomenon. In some cases, as is likely with Sandy Island, it is simply an error that slips by without getting fixed. A ship might accidentally chart an island where there is none or mistake one landmass for another. In other cases, sightings of these phantom islands may be the result of a type of unique and complex optical illusion called a Fata Morgana, in which layers of air of differing temperatures bend rays of light to distort distant objects such as boats, coasts, reefs, or islands to the point that they are unrecognizable and appear to be much closer or larger than they really are. Yet another possibility for these vanishing islands is, as we have seen, the idea that they really did exist but have either been submerged by flooding, rising sea levels, tectonic activity, or some catastrophe. More far-out and less likely ideas are that some islands have been intentionally destroyed for some nefarious end, that the islands have passed through some interdimensional rift or earthbound black hole, or of course the idea that they were cloaked by aliens to be used as some sort of base or even whisked away for inscrutable purposes we cannot fathom.
Since history is littered with numerous such reports of vanished phantom islands of all shapes and sizes from all corners of the globe, it is likely that there is no one universal explanation for these mysterious cases, but rather a mix of many, and it seems that we may never be able to solve some of these enigmas. Many of these islands will remain as lost to our understanding as they are to the world, dropping from our ability to comprehend as surely as they have dropped off of the map. Somewhere out there over the waves the answers we seek lurk, eluding us. One thing that does seem sure is that whether these mysterious vanishing islands are mistakes, illusions, casualties of natural phenomena, or indications of forces at work beyond our current scientific knowledge, they capture the imagination, and show us that the known landscape of our planet is not always as defined or clear as we’d like to think. The sea will indeed likely remain in many ways as mysterious as it always has been.