If you're looking for the perfect tropical island on which to get away from it all, you can do no better than Sandy Island in the Coral Sea, about midway between Australia and the French-administered island of New Caledonia.
Though listed on Google Earth, along with a number of nautical charts and weather maps, as a 16-mile long, 3-mile wide island, Sandy Island does not in fact exist, and never has.
The crew of the Australian research vessel Southern Explorer proved Sandy Island's non-existence last week, while on a research expedition studying plate tectonics in the area. Puzzled by the presence of an island in a 4,600-foot-deep expanse of sea, the Southern Explorer's crew decided to approach its charted location and investigate.
While the ship's nautical map did not indicate the presence of an island at the location, Google Earth did, as did one of the Southern Explorer's weather maps, along with several scientific charts.
"So, who do we trust, Google Earth or the navigation charts?" recalled crewmember Steven Micklethwaite in an interview following the island's un-discovery. "We decided to sail through the island. We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through. It was one of those happy circumstances in science. You come across something no one has noticed before."
Sandy Island is not the first fictional location to adorn a map during the past few decades. In 1978, Michigan's official state highway included two make-believe towns on the Ohio side of the border south of Ann Arbor. The towns of "Goblu" and "Beatosu" were ordered to be depicted in the suburbs of Toledo by University of Michigan alumnus and then-state highway commissioner Peter Fletcher, to memorialize his desire for his alma mater's football team to defeat Ohio State.
In the case of Sandy Island, one theory holds that its fictional presence was created long ago by one map-making company as a "copyright trap," an attempt to prove that another cartographic concern was stealing its data.
Early in my newspaper career, I played a role in a bush league journalism version of the copyright trap.