Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Body of Water with Fog

Ghost Islands, Territories Which Existed Once


Spectral islands once plotted on maps, they later disappeared (for they’d never been there).

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

- Herman Melville

The quality of anything “ghostly” is capable of giving things both a darkness and an emanating, metaphysical charm. In part, this results from the knowledge that there’s something there even when we can’t see it. Unlike mythical lands or islands of literature, ghost islands bear the name because they were once on the maps and later erased when they were found to have never existed. Despite their necessary extinction, they’ve not disappeared completely, perhaps because false places of earth exist and continue to exalt our imaginations in inexhaustible ways.

Experts in cartography (another discipline which might be considered a great fiction) ensure us that ghost islands came to be on maps thanks to the legends of sailors exploring new regions. Such territories might be divided into several subcategories. There are those which were the products of legends adorned over time by their narrators. Then there are those which were the products of confusion over the location of other existing islands, which is to say, cartographic errors. And then there are islands which were never islands, but coral reefs, icebergs or even simple optical illusions (as was the case of New Greenland of the South, seen only once, as though it were an exotic bird, in the year 1823).

One of the most extraordinary cases of an island which never existed is that of Hy Brasail, located in the north Atlantic, to the west of Ireland. It appeared in navigation charts long before Europeans arrived in the Americas and, it was believed, remained hidden by fog except for one day every seven years. In fact, testimonies and chronicles describe visits to the place, but it shares nothing more than its name with the current South American country. A contrary example might be the many representations we find in old maps of the Baja California Peninsula which portray it as an elongated island, another specter of cartography.

Thule is perhaps one of the more charming specimens in the vast bestiary of ghost islands. Discovered (probably) during the fourth century BCE, by the Greek explorer, Piteas, it was then lost for centuries. Later it was rediscovered by explorers and travelers and believed to be either the Shetland Islands, Iceland, or some region of Scandinavia.

Then there are ghost islands deliberately invented by nobles and explorers to magnify their achievements: few things are as good as an imaginary island to exalt the power of a man. Other cases, perhaps the saddest of all, are those pieces of land which actually existed but were destroyed by the sea, by earthquakes or by the eruption of volcanos, leaving the word of their tragic conquerors forever in doubt. This is the case of Pactolus Bank, discovered in 1885 and visited by none other than Sir Francis Drake, one of the most legendary English pirates (and whose word is, of course, not unreasonably doubted).

The list of ghost islands is enormous. Among the most famous on it are Atlantis (which was born in mythology, but which appears on some maps nonetheless) or the Ilha de Vera Cruz, found by Portuguese sailors; this one later turned out to be the country we know today as Brazil. Finally, mention should be made of the magnetic island of Rupes Nigra, sighted in the 14th century, and the reason why compasses all point directly northward, or the various demon islands, such as Satanazes, which have figured in more than one navigation letter (like so many fearsome sea monsters).

Incredibly, the 20th century has witnessed the disappearances of still more ghost islands. Among them was Emerald Island, discovered in 1821 and removed from maps in the 1940s. Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to let such territories go, as their stories are recalled even today, and their false materiality has left invisible traces in the middle of the sea.

Related Articles