7 Wonders of Google Earth

Crop circles, gold and the face of Jesus among top Google Earth "discoveries."

ByABC News
March 25, 2009, 7:21 PM

March 26, 2009 — -- They may not be quite as astonishing as the seven wonders of the ancient world. And many an armchair explorer will tell you that there are actually far more than seven.

But take a quick trip around the most modern world we know -- the digital orb of Google Earth -- and you'll find a panoply of pixilated wonders left behind by pranksters, artists, Mother Nature and maybe even a Spanish treasure ship.

Some of the discoveries are real, others just projections of the myth-obsessed masses. Regardless, Google Earth has inspired millions to comb through reams of satellite and aerial images to find the extraordinary, quirky, sentimental and, sometimes, just plain old crass.

"The thing about Google Earth is that it's a mirror world on the real world. It puts the whole world at your fingertips," said Frank Taylor, an entrepreneur who launched the popular Google Earth Blog in 2005. "You can be someone who sits at home and goes and explores the entire planet. And I think that has a lot of appeal to a lot of people."

Judging by the number of people who read his blog (about 6 million last year) and are registered users of the Google Earth Community forum (at least 1 million), it seems that Google's revolutionary mapping tool has indeed captured the imaginations of people from all over the world.

"I don't think any of the founders had any idea just how quickly it would grow," said Kate Hurowitz, a Google spokeswoman.

The moment the Google team first realized the potential of their tool, she said, was when disaster relief organizations started to use Google Earth imagery to rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, a whole community of Google Earth explorers and bloggers catalogs the latest virtual places of interest, from heart-shaped lakes and capsized cruise ships to unusual-looking houses and buried treasure.

"Places like Japan and Australia -- the chances of ever getting there are slim to none," said James Turnbull, who co-authors another popular blog, Google Sightseeing, from Oxford, England. "Everyone likes to explore the world. It's like exploring without going out of your house."

With his brother, Alex Turnbull, he launched the blog soon after Google Earth launched in 2005. Now, about 410,000 unique visitors check out the site each month for clues about the many curiosities that now populate Google Earth.

ABCNews.com went to the ends of the Google Earth (and Google Maps, too) to explore some of those sites. Here are seven of our favorites.

In a bid to generate some PR buzz for the Web browser in 2006, some Firefox fans made a gigantic Firefox logo in a crop field. According to the Google Earth Blog, the project involved significant planning, building of the crop stompers, GPS devices and a helicopter (to capture the aerial photo). This crop circle is one of a large collection of crop circles visible through Google Earth.

Google Earth Prankster Unveils Latest Trick

In the latest Google Earth prank, using a can of white paint, an English teenager painted a 60-foot phallus on the roof of his parents' home, hoping that the giant image would be seen on Google Earth.

The parents of Rory McInnes, 18, learned about the pornographic mural a year after their son painted it, when a helicopter pilot spotted it from the air and alerted the British newspaper the Sun.

When Andy McInnes, 54, was first told about the painting, he thought it was a joke but Rory soon confessed.

In 2005, the Google Earth blogs were chattering about reports of the face of Jesus in Peruvian sand dunes. Some say they don't see the resemblance to Jesus Christ, but others still wonder about the origins of the hazy image.

The street view in Google Maps typically shows the humdrum life of America's intersections and alleyways, but last May, two Pittsburgh artists, with the help of more than 100 co-conspirators, threw a street party for the entire Internet.

Timing various public performances along one street, Sampsonia Way, as a Google-owned car drove by snapping pictures, the artists, Ben Kinsley and Robin Hewlett, were able to create a montage of spontaneous performances.

Google already shot its Pittsburgh street views but agreed to come back to shoot the art installation. The company said it wouldn't guarantee that it would use the new images, but when Kinsley looked, there they were.

Los Angeles musician Nathan Smith believes a 19th century Spanish galleon laden with gold and silver is buried on a ranch in south Texas. He is convinced he found its location using Google Earth.

The only problem now? If the ship does exist, it is buried on private property.

The family that owns the land doesn't want anyone digging up their property for a ship no one has proved even exists.

"It has been my experience, more times than not, a legend like this, there is some basis of truth," Smith said. "Because it has been around long enough that they have named it Barkentine Creek. That alone makes me think that there was, or is, something buried out there."

A barkentine is a kind of sailing ship.

Smith has brought the landowners to federal court in a case titled Smith vs. Abandoned Ship, and has argued he has the right under maritime law to dig up a ranch he doesn't own looking for a ship no one is sure exists.

Lost City or Figment of Our Imagination?

Using the latest version of Google Earth, which allows users to peer under the sea, a British engineer believed he spotted the lost city of Atlantis off the coast of Africa, about 600 miles from the Canary Islands.

The image on Google Earth appears to show a grid-like pattern, which some have said resembles a planned city.

The ancient city was first mentioned by the Greek philosopher Plato, and legend holds it sank into the sea. The exact location of the city, and whether such a place even existed, has obsessed treasure hunters for centuries.

Google, however, had a much less exciting explanation for the undersea pattern.

"It's true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth, including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown species and the remains of an ancient Roman villa," a statement from Google read. "In this case, however, what users are seeing is an artifact of the data collection process.

"Bathymetric [or sea floor terrain] data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor," the statement added. "The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data."

She's one of the biggest stars on the planet, so it only makes sense that she has a special place in Google Earth too. Arizona's Schnepf Farms carves a maze with the outline of a famous person into its 10-acre cornfield each year around Halloween. Larry King, Jay Leno and Steve Nash are among the celebrities who have been recognized in this way. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey was the farm's celebrity of choice.

Google Earth Blog's Frank Taylor and Google Sightseeing's James Turnbull said that there's a lot of love on Google Earth. They've compiled whole collections of heart-shaped things seen from space, as well as a handful of visible marriage proposals. This heart-shaped lake in Ohio is just one of several like it found by members of the Google Earth community.

Pool Dipping

In the summer, Google Earth helped British teenagers start a new craze: pool dipping. The cunning teens used Google Earth to find homes with pools and then organized pool parties using social networking sites. This led a police representative to tell the U.K. Telegraph, "We are advising owners of swimming pools to be on their guard and extra vigilant. We would also warn prospective swimmers that using someone else's pool is trespassing and therefore illegal."