Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lost Islands: the story of Islands that have vanished from nautical charts

Until well into the nineteenth century, navigational methods were frequently so inaccurate that oceanic charts were deceptive and unreliable. It is no wonder, then, that small islands could be reported in more than one place and volcanic reefs or even icebergs inaccurately described and recorded as navigational hazards. The fascination of such errors to a marine scientist is understandable, but this attempt to make them interesting, let alone romantic, to a non-professional is a failure. In 22 truncated chapters, he treats a selection of these non-existent islands. In some cases he is able to describe how the inaccuracies may have happened, and the voyages and personalities involved. (Amazon)

From Frances M. Woodward, University of British Columbia Library 

Water has always held a special attraction for human beings well beyond its uses in
sustaining life and providing routes for transportation.
As for islands - whether they be sandbars in a river or islands in the ocean - who does not yearn for a fantasy, a treasure, a lost island, a kingdom all their own?
The purpose of a nautical chart is to enable a ship to sail safely from place to place.
To do this, the navigator must know where all the islands and rocks, and any other navigational hazards are.
Sometimes, however, charts show islands which are not really there.
Nineteenth century nautical charts and atlases have some two hundred islands now known not to exist, but some of those islands are still shown on modern globes, commercial atlases, and official sailing directions.

SY Nimrod. 1909 voyage : search for Dougherty and other phantom islands

Henry M. Stommel, oceanographer and senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has written at least four other books in addition to the one presently being reviewed: The Gulf Stream' A Physical and Dynamical Description (1958); Kuroshio: Physical Aspects of the Japan Current (1972); Oceanographic Atlases: A guide to Their Coverage and Contents (1978); and Volcano Weather: The Year Without a Summer (1983).
In 1981, he was honoured with a festschrift, Evolution of Physical Oceanography: Scientific Surveys.
Stommel became interested in lost islands when he noted Ganges Island, shown as being east of Japan and in a fa vourable position for oceanographic monitoring of the Kuroshio Current, the great current system of the North Pacific, then discovered that the island did not exist.
Alerted and looking further, he discovered more non-existent islands.

Stommel uses Admiralty charts, an American list of doubtful islands compiled by Jeremiah N. Reynolds for the V.S. House Committee on Naval Affairs in 1828, and the International Hydrographic Bureau list to tell his story.
He considers only nineteenth and twentieth century charts, omitting legendary and fantastic islands unless they appear on the Admiralty charts.
"Choosing these charts assures that hard-headed practical mariners had authorized and edited them and that accurate chronometric navigation was in widespread use."

Stommel has divided his story into twenty-two chapters, most of which are six pages or less in length. The chapters are arranged chronologically and geographically.
Specific islands are discussed, including the history of their appearance, an explanation of the
error, and their banishment from (or persistence on) the charts.
There are twenty-five maps, seven of which are facsimiles, including Admiralty charts of the Indian Ocean (No. 748A, 1817), and of the Pacific Ocean (first issue of No. 2683, September 1859) which are in a pocket at the back of the book.

The other maps show the location of islands discussed in each chapter.
In addition, there are eleven other illustrations including a page from the Book of O'Brasil, and portraits of Captains Benjamin Morell and John De Greaves, discoverers of non-existent islands.
Jeremiah Reynolds' 1828 list of doubtful islands and dangers to navigation is reprinted in the first appendix (twelve pages).

Bermeja : isla fantasma ?
In the middle of the Gulf of Mexico an island has gone missing… and nobody knows where it is. Bermeja Island was clearly visible on national and international maps until the middle of the 20th century. (BBC : Mexico's Missing Island)
>>> geolocalization with the Marine GeoGarage <<<

The second appendix is a bibliography of nineteen items, followed by a five-page index.
The page of acknowledgements includes sources for the facsimiles and photographs.
In addition to telling the stories of how non-existent islands have been put on the charts, Stommel has a chapter on "real islands that go up and down" including the creation of new volcanic islands such as Surtsey south of Iceland.
He describes how scientists from Woods Hole, including Stommel himself, discovered their own "lost island" which was seen both visually and on radar in 1980 but not closely examined, and which could not be found again nine months later.
In another chapter, he answers the question, "Do satellites settle the hash?"
A reef in the Indian Ocean and an island off Labrador were found on Landsat images in 1976, but very small islands and pinnacles of rock can escape detection unless they are very carefully sought for, and the analysis required is slow and very expensive.
Since 1893, few genuine islands have been discovered and "the main task has been one of extinguishing, one by one, little points of land, some of which, we cannot help thinking, ought to have existed."

This is a very readable book, with many interesting anecdotes.
It is also very informative, and can be used as a reference work. It is a good example of the use of records, ancient and modern, to explain the events of history and to make history entertaining.
It provides a good account of the development of nautical charts from the earliest efforts to the use of
the latest technology.
This book should be popular in most libraries, both academic and public, as well as map collections, appealing to anyone with a sense of adventure.

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