Phantom Islands

The earth’s surface is filled with lost lands which can be lost continents, islands or any other regions supposedly existing during prehistory. The common belief is that these places once existed but have now disappeared as a result of catastrophic geological phenomena or slowly rising sea levels since the end of the last Ice Age.

Most of the lost lands are supposed to have subsided into the sea, leaving behind only a few traces or legends. A lost or phantom island is a purported island that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history but was later removed after it was proven not to exist anymore. Some of them were put in a map in error and some might have been a real place in the ancient time.

Phantom islands usually stem from the reports of early sailors exploring new realms. Some of them are purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons. Others arose through the mislocation of actual islands, or other errors in geography. For example, Pepys Island was actually a misidentification of the Falkland Islands.

The Baja California Peninsula appears on some early maps as an island but was later discovered to be attached to the mainland of North America; likewise Banks Peninsula off the South Island of New Zealand which was originally called “Banks Island” by Captain James Cook.

Thule was perhaps actually discovered in the 4th century BC by the Greek explorer Pytheas but was lost, and then later reidentified by ancient explorers and geographers as either the Shetland, Iceland, Scandinavia, or even as nonexistent.

While many phantom islands appear never to have existed, a few (such as, perhaps, Thompson Island or Bermeja) may have been actual islands subsequently destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes or submarine landslides, or low-lying lands such as sand banks that are no longer above water. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake, may fit into this category.

Other phantom islands are probably due to navigational errors, occasional breakers, misidentification of icebergs, fog banks, or to optical illusions; New South Greenland, observed in the Weddell Sea in 1823 but never again seen, may have been the result of a superior mirage.

List of Phantom Islands

Atlantis – Ancient Greek legend described by Plato, later hypothesized to be real, and depicted on a 1664 map by Athanasius Kircher.

Brasil – A mythical island cloaked in mist according to Irish myths.

Thule – A mythical island in the far north, which is mentioned many times in Roman and Medieval period works. Current interpretations guess it to be Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and even Saaremaa.

Saint Brendan’s Island – Claimed to have been first visited in 512 by the monk St. Brendan and 14 others, along with later reports up to 1772.

Antillia – The island, like the more popular Atlantis, is a fictional island in the Atlantic, originating from an Iberian legend.

Royllo – A small island to the west of the mythical Antillia.

Jacquet Island (middle ages) – An island just to the east of the Flemish Cap, and was believed to exist into the 19th century, during which cartographers discussed it as a possible midway point for the Transatlantic telegraph cable.

Rupes Nigra – A magnetic, black island at the exact Magnetic north, invented as an explanation for why all compasses point north.

Hy-Brasil – 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.

Isle of Mam – A crescent-shaped island in the North Atlantic that doesn’t appear to exist, however, there is a crescent-shaped group of seamounts 120 feet deep near its described location.

Satanazes – This island was originally noted on maps in 1424, originating from a popular legend of devils and demons attacking ships that went into the area, but the island was subsequently removed because it obviously didn’t exist. The island, often drawn to the north of the mythical Antillia, was purportedly full of evil demons but was sometimes called as the Salvaga.

Isle of Demons – Probably a relocated version of the island of Satanazes.

Bacalao – Gaspar Frutuoso noted its discovery by João Vaz Corte-Real in 1472 in Saudades da Terra.

Ilha de Vera Cruz – A supposed ‘island’ found by Portuguese explorers, which turned out not to be an island, but rather what is currently known as Brazil.

Island of California – 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.

St. Matthew Island – An island near the coast of Africa, roughly 1,000 km East-Northeast of Ascension Island, and possibly confused with the same latitude Annobón Island.

Los Jardines – A pair of phantom islands to the east of the Marshall Islands.

Bermeja – Discovered in the early 16th century by Spain, but mysteriously vanished sometime during the 17th century. While no dominant theory holds, it’s 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.

Estotiland – An island appearing on the Zeno map at the current location of Labrador.

Frisland – Another island on the Zeno map, possibly a renamed Iceland.

Groclant – An island to the west of Greenland, perhaps a misreading of the island’s name, or Baffin Island.

Buss Island – 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.

Juan de Lisboa – Reported on maps as being southeast of Madagascar.

María de Lajara (Maria Laxar) – Usually located North-east from Hawaii, but perhaps originally one of the Bonin Islands.

Saxemberg Island – An odd island midway between South America and Africa, which 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’s possible the island was volcanic, which later erupted and destroyed itself. It’s also possible that they were looking at Tristan de Cunha island.

Pepys Island – 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’s possible that he made a mistake in seeing a non-existent island, it’s more likely he saw one of the Falkland Islands and made a 4-degree error in his location.

Isles Phelipeaux and Pontchartrain – A non-existent group of islands in Lake Superior, which was likely invented to get further funding from French financial backers for more voyages.

Transit Reef – A possible reef in Southern Palau. While this reef probably exists, some maps don’t 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.

Aurora Islands – Discovered by Spanish merchant ship Aurora, currently thought to be just Shag Rocks.

Sandy Island – Another phantom, small island to the west of New Caledonia, which 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.

Sefton Reef – Approx. 83°W, 37°S (Southwest of Robinson Crusoe Island), noted as “position doubtful” in Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense.

Sannikov Land – An island near the De Long Islands, north of Russia, that probably did exist but was destroyed due to coastal erosion.

Emerald Island – Probably fog banks and icebergs (see Dougherty Island above) the abyssal plain below it was named Emerald Plain, however, in recognition of the non-existent island.

New South Greenland – 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 310 miles (500 kilometers) to the east and 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the north of 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.

Thompson Island – An island in the South Atlantic ocean discovered by the ship George Norris, but hasn’t been seen since 1893.

Nimrod Islands – A group of islands between Emerald Island and Dougherty Island, both of which are non-existent. Probably a group of icebergs together.

Royal Company’s Islands – 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 wasn’t officially removed from nautical charts until 1904.

Dougherty Island – Because it is near Antarctica, it’s likely the discoverer, Captain Dougherty, and future explorers who confirmed it, saw fog banks and icebergs conveniently situated in the right place and time.

Rivadeneyra Shoal – A shoal in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Tuanaki – A vanished group of islets in the Cook Islands, which a sailor allegedly spent 6 days at, but a ship traveling in the waters two years later found no island.

Maria Theresa Reef – Another non-existent reef in the Line Islands (in fact Line Islands are more than 2000 miles away), slightly to the south-west-west of the phantom island, Jupiter Reef. It is the main setting for Jules Verne’s book, “In Search of the Castaways.”

Sarah Ann Island – A phantom island near Easter Island, similar to Podesta island. See Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense.

Schjetman Reef – To the west of the Hawaiian Islands, Schjetman Reef was originally found in 1868, to be an island 1.5 nautical miles long and 0.5 nautical miles wide. Later searches in 1880, 1923, and 1924 couldn’t find the island.

Jupiter Reef – Non-existent reef in the Line Islands (in fact Line Islands are more than 2000 miles away), to the south of the also non-existent Ernest Legouve Reef.

Podesta – An island 1390 km 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.

Kantia – Found in 1884 by Johan Otto Polter, who, in four later expeditions through 1909, disproved the island’s existence.

Pactolus Bank – An oceanic bank 400 feet (120 meters) deep off the west coast of Cape Horn, possibly the remains of Elizabeth Island, but a 1956 search of the area turned up no shallow areas in the reported location.

Filippo Reef – This reef, part of the Line Islands, was first seen by the ship Filippo, and seen again in 1926, where both ships saw breakers in the same area, suggesting a depth of 0.6 to 0.9 meters (2 to 3 feet.) Current observations show the reported location to have a depth of 3.3 miles, and the nearest shallow seamount is about 2.9 miles deep, disproving the existence of the island.

Wachusett Reef – A non-existent reef in the Line Islands (in fact Line Islands are more than 2000 miles away), along with Ernest Legouve Reef, Jupiter Reef, and Maria Theresa Reef. This reef, the largest of the three, was thought to be 30–35 feet deep (9–11 meters.) None of these reefs are currently believed to have actually existed.

Ernest Legouve Reef – 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, appearing also in In Search of the Castaways.

Yosemite Rock – 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.

Crockerland – A hoax invented by the famous Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, to gain more financial aid from one of his financial bankers, George Crocker.

Fata Morgana Land – 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.

Ganges Island – A nonexistent island off the coast of Japan to the southwest of the Shatsky Rise.

Terra Nova Islands – Thought to lie off Oates Coast, East Antarctica.

Petermannland – North of Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa, named after August Heinrich Petermann.