Phantom island

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Fragment of George Powell's 1822 chart of the South Shetland Islands showing the phantom Middle Island (bottom right) in Bransfield Strait, Antarctica
The Zeno map of 1558 showing Frisland – a phantom island in the North Atlantic
The phantom island of Kianida or Cianeis in the Black Sea on a fragment of the 1467 Nicolaus Germanus edition of Ptolemy's Geography

A phantom island is a purported island which was included on maps for a period of time, but was later found not to exist. They usually originate from the reports of early sailors exploring new regions, and are commonly the result of navigational errors, mistaken observations, unverified misinformation, or deliberate fabrication. Some have remained on maps for centuries before being "un-discovered."

Unlike lost lands, which are claimed (or known) to have once existed but to have been swallowed by the sea or otherwise destroyed, a phantom island is one that is claimed to exist contemporaneously, but later found not to have existed in the first place (or found not to be an island, as with the Island of California).


Some may have been purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons near Newfoundland, which may have been based on local legends of a haunted island. The far-northern island of Thule was reported to exist by the 4th-century BC Greek explorer Pytheas, but information about its purported location was lost; explorers and geographers since have speculated that it was the Shetland Islands, Iceland, Scandinavia, or possibly nonexistent. The island of Hy-Brasil was sometimes depicted on maps west of Ireland, but all accounts of it have been fanciful.

Some phantom islands arose through the faulty positioning of actual islands, or other geographical errors. Pepys Island was a misidentification of the Falkland Islands. The Baja California Peninsula and the Banks Peninsula in New Zealand each appear as islands on some early maps, but were later discovered to be attached to their mainlands. Isle Phelipeaux, an apparent duplication of Isle Royale in Lake Superior,[1] appeared on explorers' maps for many years, and even served as a landmark for the border between the United States and the territory that would become Canada, before subsequent exploration by surveyors determined that it did not exist.

Sandy Island appeared on maps of the Coral Sea beginning in the late 19th century, between the Chesterfield Islands and Nereus Reef near New Caledonia, but was "undiscovered" in the 1970s. Nonetheless, it continued to be included in mapping data sets into the early 21st century, until its non-existence was re-confirmed in 2012.[2][3][4]

Other phantom islands are misidentifications of breakers, icebergs, fog banks, pumice rafts from underwater volcanoes, or optical illusions. Observed in the Weddell Sea in 1823 but never again seen, New South Greenland may have been the result of a superior mirage. Some such as Thompson Island or Bermeja may have been actual islands subsequently destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, submarine landslides, or low-lying lands such as sand banks that are no longer above water. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake in 1578, may fit into this former sand bank category.

In some cases, cartographers intentionally include invented geographic features in their maps, either for fraudulent purposes or to catch plagiarists.[5][6]

Map of region below Tropic of Capricorn, showing several phantom islands (circled, three phantom types)

List of phantom islands[edit]

Name Date of
Antillia c. 714/15th century The island, like the more popular Atlantis, is a fictional island in the Atlantic originating from an Iberian legend.
Atlantis c. 360 BC Ancient Greek legend described by Plato, later hypothesized to be real, and depicted on a 1664 map by Athanasius Kircher.
Aurora Islands 1762 Discovered by Spanish merchant ship Aurora, currently thought to be just Shag Rocks.
Bacalao 1472 Gaspar Frutuoso noted its discovery by João Vaz Corte-Real in 1472 in Saudades da Terra.
Bermeja 1539 Discovered in the early 16th century by Spain, but mysteriously vanished sometime during the 17th century. While no dominant theory holds, it is possible that the island submerged due to tectonic movements, supported by the existence of a seamount at 22°38.76′N 90°51.3′W / 22.64600°N 90.8550°W / 22.64600; -90.8550 and the nearby Scorpion Reef.
Bradley Land 1909 A mass of land named by Frederick Cook which he claimed to have seen between (84°20′N 102°0′W / 84.333°N 102.000°W / 84.333; -102.000) and (85°11′N 102°0′W / 85.183°N 102.000°W / 85.183; -102.000) during a his expedition.
Brasil (or Hy-Brasil) 1325 Said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland. Irish myths described it as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years, when it became visible but still could not be reached.
Saint Brendan's Island 512 Claimed to have been first visited in 512 by the monk St. Brendan and 14 others, along with later reports up to 1772.
Buss Island 1578 Found in the waters near Greenland, in which Martin Frobisher, the leader of the island-finding expedition, probably made a mistake in dead reckoning and mistook optical effects near Greenland for a new island.
Island of California 1510 A misconception about the Baja California Peninsula being an island due to an assumption that the Gulf of California was instead a strait separating California from the rest of the Americas.
Cassiterides 430 BC Ancient source of Phoenician tin. Exact location unknown but thought to have possibly referred to now silt-connected islands within the marshes of Brière.
Crockerland 1906 A hoax invented by Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary to gain more financial aid from George Crocker, one of his financial backers.
Davis Land 1687 Supposedly sighted by the pirate Edward Davis in the Pacific along the southern latitude of 27 to 28 degrees, which was on the same latitude as the Spanish-controlled gold mines of Copiago. At the time, it was believed that gold could be found elsewhere along the latitude so several navigators were instructed to seek it out on their voyages. Never found, it was also believed by William Dampier to be the coast of Terra Australis Incognita.[7]
Isle of Demons 1508 Probably a relocated version of the island of Satanazes (see island below).
Dougherty Island 1841 Because it is near Antarctica, it is likely that the discoverer, Captain Dougherty, and future explorers who confirmed it, saw fog banks and icebergs conveniently situated in the right place and time.
Elizabeth Island 1578 Described by Francis Drake, who reported harbouring there during his circumnavigation. Not found by subsequent explorers; in 1939 Felix Riesenberg suggested Pactolus Bank as a possible remnant, though recent surveys suggest the Bank may itself be a phantom feature.
Emerald Island 1821 Probably fog banks and icebergs (see Dougherty Island above); the abyssal plain below it was named Emerald Plain, however, in recognition of the nonexistent island.
Emily Rock 1869 Sighted at 25° 38' S, 87° 25' W by the bark Emily. Reportedly measured to be 15' tall and 120' long. 2 other sightings were reported in 1873, now described as being 3/4th mile long and 20 feet at its tallest point, made of sandy volcanic stone. Several vessels passed through the area but did not see it.[8]
Ernest Legouve Reef 1902 A reef supposedly found by the captain of the French ship, Ernest Legouvé, which is near the exact location of the fictional Lincoln Island, the main setting for Jules Verne's book The Mysterious Island, also appearing in In Search of the Castaways.
Estotiland 1558 An island appearing on the Zeno map at the current location of Labrador.
Fata Morgana Land 1907 J.P. Koch, together with Aage Bertelsen, was reported to have first seen Fata Morgana Land (Danish: Fata Morgana Landet) lying in the Arctic Ocean around 80°00´N 10°00´W between NE Greenland and Svalbard. This elusive land was allegedly seen as well by Lauge Koch from the air in 1933.[9]
Filippo Reef 1886 This reef, part of the Line Islands, was first seen by the ship Filippo and was seen again in 1926 when both ships saw breakers in the same area, suggesting a depth of 0.6 to 0.9 metres (2 to 3 feet). Current observations show the reported location to have a depth of 5.3 kilometres (3.3 miles; 2.9 nautical miles), and the nearest shallow seamount is about 4.7 kilometres (2.9 miles; 2.5 nautical miles) deep, disproving the existence of the island.
Frisland 1558 Another island on the Zeno map, possibly a renamed Iceland.
Ganges Island 20th century A nonexistent island off the coast of Japan to the southwest of the Shatsky Rise.
Groclant 1569 An island to the west of Greenland, perhaps a misreading of the island's name, or Baffin Island.
Hyperborea Antiquity to 17th century Hypothetic land of a mythical people living in the far north of the known world, depicted as the mirror continent of Antarctica on the Mercator map
Ilha de Vera Cruz 1500 A supposed 'island' found by Portuguese explorers, which turned out not to be an island but rather what is currently known as Brazil.
Jacquet Island Middle Ages An island just to the east of the Flemish Cap; it was believed to exist into the 19th century, during which cartographers discussed it as a possible midway point for the Transatlantic telegraph cable.
Juan de Lisboa 17th century Reported on maps as being southeast of Madagascar.
Jupiter Reef 1878 Nonexistent reef in the Line Islands (in fact Line Islands are more than 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles; 1,700 nautical miles) away), to the south of the also nonexistent Ernest Legouve Reef (see above).
Kantia 1884 Found in 1884 by Johan Otto Polter, who, in four later expeditions through 1909, disproved the island's existence.
Kianida Island
or Cianeis Insula
1467 Supposedly known in Antiquity, a large island the size of Thassos but situated off the Black Sea coast of Thrace in the present Bulgaria-Turkey border area. Depicted on the 1467 map Nona Europae Tabula by Nicolaus Germanus based on Claudius Ptolemy's Geography.[10] According to Bulgarian geomorphologist Dinyo Kanev, probably destroyed by sea in the Middle Ages.[11]
Krusenstern Rock 1804 Reported as a breaker at 22° 15' N, 175° 37' W. Capt. R. Suffern of the Craigerne reported that he was at these exact coordinated in 1897 but there was no sign of the rock.[12]
Los Jardines 1528 A pair of phantom islands to the east of the Marshall Islands.
Isle of Mam 1367 A crescent-shaped island in the North Atlantic that does not appear to exist; however, there is a crescent-shaped group of seamounts 37 metres (120 feet) deep near its described location.
María de Lajara or Maria Laxar 17th century Usually located northeast from Hawaii, but perhaps originally one of the Bonin Islands.
Maria Theresa Reef (aka Tabor Island or Tabor Reef) 1843 Another nonexistent reef in the Line Islands (in fact Line Islands are more than 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles; 1,700 nautical miles) away), slightly to the southwest-west of the phantom island, Jupiter Reef. It is a setting for Jules Verne's book In Search of the Castaways.
Minnehaha Rock 1879 Sighted by Capt. Beckwith of the Victoria at 25° 50' S, 106° 20' W. No subsequent sightings have been made.[8]
St. Matthew Island 1516 An island near the coast of Africa, roughly 1,000 kilometres (620 miles; 540 nautical miles) east-northeast of Ascension Island and possibly confused with the same latitude Annobón Island.
Mount Penglai Antiquity An island thirty-thousand leagues to the east off the coast of Shandong. Associated with numerous East Asian myths and legends.
New South Greenland 1823 Unknown odd island near Antarctica, which captain Benjamin Morrell of the ship Wasp saw while traveling north from Antarctica. He thought it to be the Antarctic Peninsula (then called New South Greenland), but his reported location during the voyage, while perfectly copying the expected path for traveling up the peninsula, was over 500 kilometres (310 miles; 270 nautical miles) to the east and 97 kilometres (60 miles; 52 nautical miles) to the north of the actual position of the Antarctic Peninsula, suggesting either a huge miscalculation in location or sightings of icebergs and fog, typical of phantom islands in the Antarctic Circle.
Nimrod Islands 1828 A group of islands between Emerald Island and Dougherty Island, both of which are nonexistent. Probably a group of icebergs together.
Pactolus Bank 1885 An oceanic bank 120 metres (400 feet) deep off the west coast of Cape Horn, suggested as the remains of Elizabeth Island. A 1956 search of the area turned up no shallow areas in the reported location.
Pepys Island 1683 In 1683, Ambrose Cowley reported an unknown island where he thought the Falklands were, but his location was 4 degrees to the north of the Falkland Islands. While it is possible that he made a mistake in seeing a nonexistent island, it is more likely he saw one of the Falkland Islands and made a 4-degree error in his location.
Petermannland Between 1860 and 1874 North of Franz Josef Land, named after August Heinrich Petermann.
Isle Phelipeaux 1744 A nonexistent island in Lake Superior referenced in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Podesta 1879 An island 1,390 kilometres (860 miles; 750 nautical miles) to the west of El Quisco, Chile, that was discovered to be fake in 1935 and promptly removed. Other phantom islands were also found in the vicinity in 1912 and 1858 (see Sarah Ann Island).
Rivadeneyra Shoal 1842 A shoal in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Royal Company's Islands Before 1840 A fictional island widely believed during the 19th century to be to the southwest of Tasmania. While not found by numerous expeditions in 1840, 1889, 1902, 1909, and 1912, the island was not officially removed from nautical charts until 1904.
Royllo 1424 A small island to the west of the mythical Antillia (see Antillia above).
Rupes Nigra 14th century A magnetic, black island at the exact Magnetic North Pole, invented as an explanation for why all compasses point north.
Sandy Island 1774 Another phantom, small island to the west of New Caledonia that was recorded on many maps until 2012, when a surveying ship passed by and disproved its existence. The current leading explanation is that the island was a raft of buoyant pumice from a recent nearby seamount eruption.
Sannikov Land 1809 An island near the De Long Islands, north of Russia, that probably did exist but was destroyed due to coastal erosion.
Sarah Ann Island 1858 A phantom island near Easter Island, similar to Podesta island. See Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense.
Satanazes 1424 This island was originally noted on maps in 1424, originating from popular legend of devils and demons attacking ships that went into the area, but the island was subsequently removed because it obviously did not exist. The island, often drawn to the north of the mythical Antillia, was purportedly full of evil demons but was sometimes called Salvaga to avoid using the profanity "devil".
Saxemberg Island 1670 An odd island midway between South America and Africa that numerous captains reported seeing in 1804, 1809, and 1816. While most had conflicting reports, all of them found the island in the same location; however, none of them actually made landfall. It is possible the island was volcanic and later erupted and destroyed itself. It is also possible that they were looking at Tristan de Cunha island.
Schjetman Reef 1868 To the west of the Hawaiian Islands, Schjetman Reef was originally found in 1868 to be an island 2.8 kilometres (1.7 miles; 1.5 nautical miles) long and 0.93 kilometres (0.58 miles; 0.5 nautical miles) wide. Later searches in 1880, 1923, and 1924 could not find the island.
Sefton Reef 1808 Approx. 83°W, 37°S (southwest of Robinson Crusoe Island), noted as "position doubtful" in Operational Navigation Chart[13] of the United States Department of Defense.
Terra Nova Islands 1961 Thought to lie off Oates Coast, East Antarctica.
Thompson Island 1825 An island in the south Atlantic Ocean discovered by the whaling ship captain George Norris; it has not been seen since 1893.
Thule 325 BC A mythical island in the far north that is mentioned many times in Roman- and Medieval-period works. Current[when?] interpretations[by whom?] guess it to be Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and even Saaremaa.
Torca Island 1693 A mythical island near Ambon in the Indonesia purportedly destroyed by a volcanic eruption.
Transit Reef 18th century A possible reef in Southern Palau. While this reef probably exists, some maps do not list it as an actual location, and, although the reef doesn't have any land, the native name of the island, Pieraurou, means 'Sandy Navigation Point', implying a sandy island or sand bar.
Tuanaki 1842 A vanished group of islets in the Cook Islands at which a sailor allegedly spent 6 days, but a ship traveling in the waters two years later found no island.
Wachusett Reef 1899 A nonexistent reef in the Line Islands – in fact Line Islands are more than 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles; 1,700 nautical miles) away – along with Ernest Legouve Reef, Jupiter Reef, and Maria Theresa Reef. This reef, the largest of the three, was thought to be 9–10.5 metres (30–35 feet) deep. None of these reefs are currently believed to have actually existed.
Yosemite Rock 1903 Approx. 83°W, 32°S (northwest of Robinson Crusoe Island), noted as "Existence doubtful" in Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense.[clarification needed]
(unnamed rock) 1869 Sighted by the steamer Great Pacific at 25° 40' S, 85° 0' W. The Sumbawa passed through the area in 1904 but did not see it.[8]
(unnamed breakers) 1901 Reported at 21° 55' N, 176° 05' W.[12] There is no indication of these breakers on modern maps.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Canada and its Provinces. 1914.
  2. ^ "South Pacific Sandy Island 'proven not to exist'". BBC News. 22 November 2012. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
  3. ^ "The Pacific island that never was". The Guardian. 22 November 2012. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
  4. ^ Seton, Maria; Williams, Simon; Zahirovic, Sabin (9 April 2013). "Obituary: Sandy Island (1876 –2012)". Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. 94 (15): 141–148. Bibcode:2013EOSTr..94..141S. doi:10.1002/2013eo150001. ISSN 2324-9250.
  5. ^ Antarctica, p. 47, Paul Simpson-Housley, 1992.
  6. ^ Exploring Polar Frontiers, p. 435, William James Mills, 2003.
  7. ^ Dunmore, John (2016). Chasing a Dream: The Exploration of the Imaginary Pacific. Auckland: Upstart Press. pp. 81–82. ISBN 978-1-927262-79-5.
  8. ^ a b c Office, United States Hydrographic (1920). H.O. Pub.
  9. ^ "Catalogue of place names in northern East Greenland". Geological Survey of Denmark. Archived from the original on 13 May 2020. Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  10. ^ Germanus, Nicolaus, ed. (1482), Claudii Ptolomei Viri Alexandrini Cosmographie Octavus et Ultimus Liber Explicit Opus (in Latin), Ulm: Leinhart Holle.
  11. ^ Dikov, Ivan. Roman Era Map Shows Large Now-Sunken Island Off Black Sea Coast. Brewminate, 23 June 2018.
  12. ^ a b Survey, U. S. Coast and Geodetic (1912). Coast Pilot Notes on Hawaiian Islands: February 21, 1912. U.S. Government Printing Office.
  13. ^ "Photographic image of Relief Portrayal : ONC R-22" (JPG). Retrieved 1 October 2016.

Further reading[edit]