Colorful Rainbow over an ocean rock in Iceland.

Phantom islands on ancient maps dismissed as mirages, myths, or mistakes

(Read the article on one page)

When explorers began making maps as they explored the world a couple of millennia ago they included land masses that later could not be found. As recently as 2012 an expedition went to one of these phantom islands expecting to find it between New Caledonia and Australia. Sandy Island had been included on Google Maps, but the researchers who tried to find it were shocked to find nothing there.

Another island included on maps until 1987 was Emerald Island in the South Pacific, says in an article of January 20, 2015 .

Experts are now saying one reason cartographers from centuries ago included these phantom islands on their maps was because they saw mirages and actually believed the land masses to be there. Another reason may have been just geographical error.

The Telegraph reported in 2012 that Google Maps had included Sandy Island.

Sandy Island on a British Admiralty chart from 1908

Sandy Island on a British Admiralty chart from 1908  (Auckland Museum photo)

"Australian scientists who sailed to a remote spot in the Coral Sea to investigate Sandy Island, which is shown on some modern maps, found only open water and concluded the feature was a recent cartographic mistake," the Telegraph article says .

"I guess how the island managed to appear, disappear and reappear on various maps and charts over time is just a mystery of the sea," Shaun Higgins, a pictorial librarian at Auckand Museum, told The Telegraph .

It has since been removed from Google Maps.

The Daily Mail article says mistakes on maps over the years have included:

  • Emerald Island, which British explorers reported sighting south of Macquarie Island between New Zealand and Antarctica. Historians believe this island was a mirage. Mirages are also known as Fata Morgana after Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend who was supposed to have been able to make mirages appear. In the 1820 a British captain reported Emerald Island was small and mountainous. In 1840 U.S. explorers were unable to locate it. The island was supposedly spotted in 1890, but again in 1909 a captain found nothing. After 1987 cartographers began removing the island from maps.

Google Maps screenshot of the real Macquarie Island

Google Maps screenshot of the real Macquarie Island (red flag). Various explorers reported seeing Emerald Island between Macquarie and Antarctica at the bottom left, but it was eventually removed from maps in 1987.

  • Explorers of the Americas reported seeing what they called the Isle of Demons off of Newfoundland, Canada, as early as the 1500s. There is a legend that Frenchwoman Margurite de la Rocque was made pregnant by a sailor in 1542 and left there as punishment to live with the imagined demons and the wild beasts. The story says she was rescued two years later and returned to France. Her legend survives in literature as late as the 19 th century, when poet George Martin wrote of her. If the story is true that she was abandoned, historians speculate the island she was left on may have been Quirpon Island in the Labrador Sea. The story recalls old maps containing the legend “Here be dragons” or “Here be monsters.”

Google Maps screenshot of Quripon Island off the coast of Newfoundland

Google Maps screenshot of Quripon Island off the coast of Newfoundland

  • Two phantom islands were shown on maps from 1424 west of Portugal. One was Antillia and the other was Satanazes to the north of it. Legend has it that people fleeing the Iberian Peninsula during the Muslim conquest of 714 came to Antillia or Antilha. After 1492, when Columbus and other Europeans came to the New World, Antillia and other phantom islands disappeared from newer maps. Historians believe Antillia may have been Cuba, and Satanazes may have been Florida. In 1489 Albino de Canepa made a map of the Atlantic that included Antillia.

Albino de Canepa’s 1489 map of areas west of Portugal showing several phantom islands.

Albino de Canepa’s 1489 map of areas west of Portugal showing several phantom islands. ( Wikimedia Commons image )

  • Frisland was seen on maps of the North Atlantic Ocean north of the British Islands from the mid-1550s to the 1660s. Explorers in the mid-1700s said the island was Fair Isle between the Orkney and Shetland islands off of Scotland’s coats. Historians says it could have been part of Iceland, Greenland or the Faroe islands . The Daily Mail calls Frisland a phantom island.

The Skalholt-map made by the icelandic teacher Sigurd Stefansson in the year 1570. It shows the phantom island Frisland, Greenland, Iceland and the British Isles.

The Skalholt-map made by the icelandic teacher Sigurd Stefansson in the year 1570. It shows the phantom island Frisland, Greenland, Iceland and the British Isles. ( Wikimedia Commons image )

  • Thule goes way back in history and was first mentioned by Greeks in 4 th century B.C. It was supposedly in the North Sea, but the location it was given varied around Scandinavia to Orkney and Shetland. During the Renaissance scholars identified Thule with Greenland and Iceland.


Most of these phantom islands were as imaginary as the sea monsters depicted near them.

Roberto Peron's picture

Some of them may have been there once but since then have gone beneath the waters due to quakes, eruptions, etc.  But some were also likely mirages as well or perhaps even wishful thinking.  Strange things happen to men's minds at sea for a long while.  

Sunk below the sea as waters rose.
Map makers deliberately add errors to their maps so they can or could prove it was their map and not one sold off as their own.

Some of those monsters and maybe some of those islands were possibly used to fill up empty space - hard to sell a map when a third of it is empty as no one had explored that far yet. Also, I once read that some cartographers include what I think they called "McNallys" (like in Rand-McNally, the famous map publisher), features such as dead-end roads or small ponds that aren't there, but would flag another maker's map as infringing on the first's copyright if they included them (i.e., both mapmakers should not show the same non-existent feature). Maybe that's what some of those islands were

Of course, one of the most famous fake islands was the Island of Buss (no relation), named after one of Frobisher's ships which was a buss (a Dutch fishing boat) which supposedly landed on it. At one point, a mapmaker showed the island and the city and described the inhabitants. But there is no evidence the island ever existed, unless it was one of the Orkney's and the buss was very much off course.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article