Pages

5 August 2008

The shores of phantom islands: 100 posts later

"At 2 a.m., saw land ahead, luffed and cleared it. It appeared an island 5 or 6 miles in length, running N.E. and S.W., with a high round bluff on the N.E. end, with low land to S.W.: between N.E. and S.W. ends there appeared a valley covered with ice and snow; we passed it within a quarter of a mile, going ten knots: lat. 39° 20' S., long. 120° 20' W.: the position for lat. and long. may differ a few miles by reason of not having had proper observations for several preceding and following days."
-log of Capt. Dougherty of the James Stewart, 29 May, 1841


We are the first people in the history of the Earth to have developed technology that affords us a truly objective view of our planet. Ancient maps are wonderfully inaccurate, decorated with fantastic monsters and indicating shapes of countries that are as much reflections of the cartographer's skill as his sense of whimsy. The Latin inscription on the 16th century Hunt-Lenox Globe comes to mind: HC SVNT DRACONES. And why shouldn't there be dragons, after all? Back then, many places were still considered terra incognita - unknown land - or terra pericolosa - land no-one ever returns from...

On 29th of May, 1841, Captain Dougherty of the British whaler James Stewart reported passing within six hundred yards of a six mile-long island in the Great Southern Ocean. On the northeastern end was a high bluff, while the southwestern end was lower and tapered to a point. The captain said that he could see a deep valley with vegetation and some snow. Although none of the navigators saw any signs of human habitation, there were many birds and evidence of animal life. The place was named Dougherty Island, after its discoverer, and received a mention in Findlay's 'A directory for the navigation of the Pacific ocean', published in 1851 by Oxford University Press. On 4th of September, 1859, Dougherty was sighted by the Louise, a ship from Bristol. The captain of the Louise noted the island to be dark in colour; he estimated that it rose only eighty feet above the surface of the water. The coordinates given by the captain were 59° 21' S., 119° 7' W. In 1886 came another report of Dougherty, this time from the barque Cingalese. Her captain affirmed that the island was six miles long, and that the northeastern part was high while the southwestern point was low. However, he described the island as barren, with no vegetation of any kind.

Try to look for Dougherty Island on any modern map. Use Google Earth and the documented coordinates. You won't find it. And that's because Dougherty doesn't exist: it's a phantom island. The fateful 1921-1922 Shackleton–Rowett Expedition - the one that would claim Ernest Shackleton's life - was the last voyage in search of it and several other doubtful isles of the southern hemisphere. The Scott Polar Research Institute lists 15 of these in the Antarctic Ocean alone: The Aurora Islands, Burdwood's Island, The Chimneys, Dougherty's Island, Elizabethides, Emerald Island, Isla Grande, Macey's Island, New South Greenland, Nimrod Island, Pagoda Rock, Royal Company Island, Swain's Island, Thompson Island, and Trulsklippen. All discovered and charted, only to quietly slip off our maps once they proved to be non-existent. The Aurora Islands continued to appear on maps of the South Atlantic until the 1870s, even though their last sighting was in 1856. First spotted by the Aurora of Spain in 1762, this group of three islands was supposedly located east of Cape Horn, halfway between the Falklands and South Georgia. Some experts claim that the Aurora Islands are merely the Shag Rocks, six small islets 150 miles west of South Georgia. Curiously, the Shag Rocks are known as the Islas Aurora in Spanish to this day.

Phantom Islands are no longer reported. We have grown sophisticated, and make fewer navigational errors. We have grown knowledgeable, and can identify icebergs, fog banks, or oceanic and atmospheric optical illusions for what they are. We now have the power to see the whole surface of the Globe from space, to penetrate its waters with imaging equipment and scope out the topography of mountains under the oceans. But the world does not give up its secrets that easily. There are many places still hidden from view, many secrets not yet revealed. Glowing lights in the dark depths of the ocean, the catacombs of forgotten cities, the airless tropical swamps protected by leeches and disease, the mute progression of evolution captured in the DNA of every creature known and unknown, abandoned treasure on the high wastelands of the Earth: in 100 posts, (E&E)² has attempted to share some of these things with you, dear reader. As we deftly set sail for the terra incognita of our next 100 topics, my hope is that the wonder of the unknown will inspire and excite you as much as it has thrilled and stimulated me.

Picture credit: a big thank you to
Dalyn for her visionary artwork combining elements of several famous maps. Can you spot them all?

14 comments:

Claire said...

Yes, most definitely dear sir! Please keep these posts coming.
I posted my Bombina orentalis (bambino) pics for you except now they're two posts back.

morbidneko said...

so... was it "global warming", or were those sailors just strung out on lead poisoning, or rum?

surely, islands can't just... disappear?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

claire: thank you for the encouragement. And those frogs are gonna be weird-looking when they're all grown up!

morbidneko: there was nothing to begin with! They probably saw a dirty iceberg, or misidentified other known islands as something new and strange. I guess rum can't be excluded...

SleekPelt said...

Congrats on 100 quality posts, Teoh. It's clear that you take each post seriously, as (E&E)² is always a pleasure to read.

Isn't it funny how much detail Dougherty was able to give about something that wasn't even there? Reminds me of the Emperor's New Clothes.

jason evans said...

What an outstanding post.

I'm dreaming of those islands that aren't there. The sea is bewitching place. As ridiculous as it sounds sitting here at my nice modern monitor, I'm actually suprised that there aren't more phantom islands in the seas. And that people didn't occassionally stand on them.

Here's to the next 100 posts.

singleton said...

Seeing is believing....
And for them,
then,
rum or not,
there she lay....
stretched out for lazy miles,
wildlife, earth and sky....

And no map is big enough to capture their imagination....
or impromptu creativity....

What better way to lile away the miles at sea? I love it!

Shimmerrings said...

Keep them comin' Electric... where was this Isla Grande supposed to have been?

Angela said...

It's the mystery that makes it all worthwhile. Looking forward to 100 more great posts here.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

sleekpelt: great analogy.

jason evans: phantom islands with phantom wildlife. Phantasmagoria for those lost at sea.

singleton: I think that's a very accurate description of how these non-places came to be.

shimmerings: well, it's not the real one off the coast of Panama - it's another "big island", thought to have been in the polar ocean surrounding Antarctica.

angela: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy...

Karen Little said...

Hooray! I'm finally reading this post on my computer at home (and not on my cellphone at work) and the picture is big enough for me to try and spot the famous maps but, alas, my cartography is useless and I see nothing familiar. Help?

Lovely post... it made me nostalgic for more innocent and imaginative days when adventure stories read under my duvet by torchlight kept me too thrilled to fall asleep. These days I'm just a horrible cynic - it's so tragic.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

karen little: well, i'm not going to tell you about all of them, but here's a hint for two: incorporated into the image are parts of the Carta Marina from 1539, and a map of iceland from 1585. Can you tell which island that is?

Lisa said...

Congratulations on 100 fascinating, superb posts. I look forward to seeing where you take us next.

By the way, on your recommendation I finally got around to reading "The Orchid Thief" -- and now I'm probably going to have to read "Orchid Fever" next...I'm starting to see how these obsessions begin!

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

lisa: that book is what started it for me... you better watch yourself, hahahaha!

sonkind said...

Baie baie interessant! Somtyds wens ek net so bietjie ons was nie tegnologies so gevorderd nie, al het ons dan nog gedink die aarde is plat :-)