The island that wasn’t

Explorers first setting foot on Serendip could not have matched the wonder of a team of Australian scientists last week. They had found Sandy Island, the island that wasn't. Fifteen miles long and three miles wide, it should lie halfway between the coast of Brisbane and French New Caledonia in the French territorial waters of the South Pacific. Except it doesn't. The Australians found themselves staring down 4,600 feet of deep blue Pacific. All these years, the landmass has shown up on Google Maps, the Times Atlas of the World as well as various navigation maps. But Sandy Island seems to have been a cartographical blip, a slip of the mapmaker's hand replicated through the centuries. Of course, there are those who mutter darkly about the CIA being one of the major sources for the world coastlines database.

The Australians might have found the best way to end territorial disputes over islands — undiscover them. It could work with certain uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which have been causing much heartburn in both China and Japan, or with the Spratly Islands, claimed by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. India and Bangladesh had help from unexpected quarters a few years ago. The two countries had been scrapping over South Talpatti, an island in the Bay of Bengal, uninhabited except for the pirates rumoured to have set up base there. Then climate change raised the sea levels and by 2010, the island had disappeared, perhaps to the secret relief of both countries.

The old explorers set out on great voyages of discovery. New explorers must go on voyages of undiscovery, striking places off the map. As they do so, they create new Atlantises, mythical places that might have never been, to keep the world speculating for another thousand years.

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