Sandy Island was nowhere to be found when Australian scientists reached the South Pacific location where it appeared on Google Earth, nautical charts and world maps.
"It raises all kinds of conspiracy theories," expedition member Steven Micklethwaite said, adding that the CIA is among the sources of the world coastline database. "It reminded me of the hypernatural island in the "Lost" TV series."
The phantom Manhattan-size island in the Coral Sea was shown as Sandy Island on Google Earth, sized about 15 miles by three miles on Google Maps, and halfway between Australia and the French New Caledonia.
Sandy Island has been featured in various publications, even the most authoritative sources, for at least 116 years and, according to Jethro Lennox, a publisher of The Times Atlas of the World, "back in the 19th century, cartographers would gather their information from various sources like explorers or even sailors, so you could never have a perfect map."
From 1967, The Times Atlas of the World identified the phantom isle, in the supposedly French territorial waters, as Sable Island, but was among few publications to remove it from the map, when it got new bathymetric data in 1999. It also does not appear on French maps from 2000.
Local weather maps placed it 700 miles from the coast of Brisbane, Australia. Many scientific maps, as well as weather maps used by the Southern Surveyor, an Australian maritime research vessel, also placed the island there, according to Maria Seton, the chief geologist at the University of Sydney who led the expedition.
"Somehow this error has propagated through to the world coastline database, from which a lot of maps are made," she said.
Researcher Micklethwaite, in a phone interview, explained that the expedition was investigating the sea bed and plate tectonics around Australia and decided to head to an unusual island listed on their charts.
But there were some perplexing issues. "We checked the coastline database, you could see it there but when you zoom in on it it's just a black blob. Google has no photos from it," Micklethwaite, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia, said. "It's just a sort of slit in the earth so we went upstairs, and the navigation charts didn't have it on.
"So, who do we trust, Google Earth or the navigation chart? So we decided to sail through the island.
"The captain was understandably very nervous because although it wasn't on the navigation charts, it was on his weather maps, so he put into place all the safety stops to make sure we didn't run aground.
"We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island. It was one of those happy circumstances in science. You come across something somebody has never noticed before."
Where Sandy Island was marked on maps they found only deep blue ocean, very deep, as it turned out: water depth of 4,620 feet.
Micklethwaite said the mapping was most likely a cartographic error.
The scientists recorded information about the seafloor so the world maps can be changed.
Bottom line: the Pacific Ocean just lost an island it never had.