Since humans (and our ancestors) began traversing the waves thousands of years ago, we’ve been mapping islands and landmasses along the way. But many of the islands discovered centuries ago seem to have disappeared from the oceans without a trace.
Termed “phantom islands”, these landmasses may have vanished for a number of reasons, or never existed in the first place, so let’s dive into some of the more mysterious glitches in the cartographical matrix.
One of the most famous phantom islands is Hy-Brasil, located off the west coast of Ireland. Unlike its unrelated namesake of Brazil, Hy-Brasil was reported as being a tiny, mist-covered rock sitting isolated in the Atlantic Ocean.
The island was first described and mapped in 1325, but subsequent mapping efforts didn’t seem to be able to agree on the island’s exact location. Reportedly only appearing once every seven years, some who have claimed to come across the island report sailing towards the rock before being shrouded in mist and sailing right through without ever reaching land.
One account describes the voyage of Captain John Nisbet, who apparently not only spotted the island but became stranded there with his crew. Describing the island as containing a castle and being mostly uninhabited, the account claims to have met an “ancient grave gentleman” there who told of the island’s ancient history over a lavish feast.
A spate of expeditions to find Hy-Brasil left from the port of Bristol in the late 15th century, the last of which was manned by John Cabot who arrived in North America in 1497 without spotting the island. Maps stop featuring the island in 1865, with the last reported siting occurring in 1872.
Despite claims of Hy-Brasil sightings, and Nisbet’s thoroughly entertaining story, many speculate the island may never have existed to begin with.
Antillia island, also known as the isle of seven cities, was described in various locations in the Atlantic Ocean since the first century CE, but its initial mapping in 1424 placed it west of Portugal and Spain and just west of the Azores archipelago.
A 1474 map by Paolo Toscanelli featuring the island in its Azores-adjacent location prompted Christopher Columbus to plan a stopover there during his west route to India. While Columbus successfully made it to the Azores islands, he didn’t find Antillia anywhere in the region. Continuing on his journey, he instead gave the Antilles name to an archipelago off the coast of America.
The island is also mentioned in a letter from King Afonso V of Portugal, dated 1475, which grants “the Seven Cities and any other populated islands [in the western Atlantic Ocean]” to knight Fernão Teles.
As the North Atlantic became a more popular sailing route after 1492, the island began disappearing from newer maps and the mystery of Antillia started to become associated with Central and North America. The last appearance of the island was in the Hondius’ map of the world in 1631.
First appearing in maps in 1539, the tiny island of Bermeja off the coast of Mexico was described as being no more than 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) wide with a blondish-red soil.
While the island was featured heavily in maps between the 16th and 17th centuries, it began appearing less frequently past the 18th century, with its last map appearance being in the Geographic Atlas of the Mexican Republic in 1921.
With no confirmed sightings since the 16th century, one would assume Bermeja went the way of our other phantom islands, but its proximity to the Mexico coast has caused a political stir as recently as 2009.
In a 1997 debate over international water territories in the Gulf of Mexico, the US and Mexico planned to divide the Hoyos de Dona stretch of international waters where Bermeja was thought to be located. If Bermeja really existed in that location, it would extend Mexico’s maritime limits and give the country rights to the oil deposits in this area.
With a new incentive to establish the existence of Bermeja, the Mexican government sent survey vessels to investigate the area. The search, however, failed to locate the island, and the treaty was signed agreeing the non-existence of Bermeja.
As oil exploration in the area was put on a period of delay, efforts to locate the island resumed in 2009 when the delay period was almost due to expire. Three official investigations again plunged the depths of the Hoyos de Dona, using advanced technologies to scan the water for any areas of land mass. Once again, the investigations failed to turn up any evidence of Bermeja.
The absence of the island cost Mexico its rights to 22.5 billion barrels of oil, leading to a conspiracy that the island was destroyed by the US government in an effort to keep the rights to the oil. This conspiracy, however, assumes it possible to completely destroy an entire island without anyone noticing.
First charted in 1776 by Captain James Cook, his logs describe a “sandy island” off the east coast of Australia. Sandy Island would continue to appear on maps for the next 200 years, with its first proper coordinates being recorded by a whaling ship in 1876.
Skepticism around the island’s existence began to appear in the 20th century, when the island would be labeled “ED” on maps, standing for “existence doubtful”. The island, however, was still visible on Google Maps, with those sailing the Pacific attempting to avoid the pixilated area that indicated Sandy Island.
In 2000, amateur radio enthusiasts set out to find Sandy Island but found nothing, prompting the island to be labeled a hoax.
The area was traversed again in 2012 when Captain Fred Stein and marine geologist Maria Seton alerted their crew to be cautious of obstructions in the water. Following the indication of a landmass on Google Maps, the ship sailed straight through “Sandy Island” unobstructed. This expedition prompted the official label of “undiscovered” for the island, and it was removed from Google Maps.
These four islands are just some of the hundreds of phantom islands that have existed throughout history, to explore more of these mysterious islands visit this phantom island map. While many may have been lost to natural disasters, rising sea levels, or may have never existed in the first place, some of these islands may still be out there waiting to be rediscovered.