“Look! Are those buildings?”
It’s getting choppy out here in one of Europe’s fastest waterways, and the ferry from John O’Groats is bouncing around in a way the pit of my stomach is not enjoying at all - but the conditions aren’t so bad that they spoil the view. Away off to our left, on the low green slopes of the nearest island, we can see scatters of long houses made of grey stone.
“Yep! Abandoned since 1962. Another century should see the end of them.”
It’s a hard thing to accept. The isle of Stroma in Pentland Firth is so close to inhabited land - the north coast of Scotland behind us, and the 17,000 people living on Orkney’s largest island, Mainland, just up ahead. But over there, on this huge island that once was home to hundreds of hardy souls at the turn of the last century, now there are just sheep.
By number, most of Orkney is like this: of its 70 islands (in sizes ranging from the tenth-largest in Britain to little more than a fleck of rock big enough to build a hut upon), just 20 are inhabited. The wider picture is even more startling: just 200-ish of the roughly 5,000 islands that make up the British Isles have people living on them (it’s just that the biggest, Britain, is on a scale that utterly dwarfs the rest.)
But really, this is everywhere. Take Sweden’s staggering number of islands - some 221,800 of them at the last count. Of that total, just 1,145 have people living on them. Worldwide, there may be as many as a couple of million islands that have a permanent population of zero.
If you’re taking a flight to a Wheel & Anchor destination this year or the next, and you’re flying over the ocean (almost guaranteed, since that’s 70% of the surface of our planet), you’re bound to see a few of these places - and some might not even be on any maps!
This isn’t fanciful hyperbole. Just ask the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan: as CNN reported this week, it’s just updated the Japanese Coast Guard’s 1987 survey of the country’s coastal territories, which recorded 6,852 islands.
This new survey? Thanks to recent advances in surveying technology, it found 7,273. Not in total, but extra to the original number - giving a grand total of 14,125 islands. Even with some territorial question marks, that’s still thousands of uninhabited islands that haven’t warranted an official mention until now, mainly because they didn’t officially exist.
This seems absolutely baffling if you’re used to assuming our digital maps are infallible. Take Google, or Bing. They get their digital mapping data from over 7,300 satellites orbiting the planet, most owned by third parties who sell their images & scans to the big tech companies.
The overlapping composite of all those photos is what gets uploaded to our tablets and phones - and big tech would love for us to assume it’s infallible. I mean, a satellite photo is just a photo of what’s actually there. How could it lie?
Try telling that to the crew of the Australian research ship R/V Southern Surveyor, which in November 2012 sailed past the South Pacific island of Sandy Island - first recorded in 1774 by Captain James Cook - and, finding nothing but ocean over a kilometre deep, officially undiscovered it.
Weirdly enough, they weren’t the first to do so. The French Naval and Oceanographic Service removed the island on its nautical charts in 1974, and in April 2000, a group of amateur radio enthusiasts on a DX-pedition (a radio-mapping journey to a remote place - “DX” is telegraphic shorthand for "distant") found absolutely nothing at its alleged location.
Despite their agitation for an official undiscovery, Google didn’t listen. Their Maps service continued showing a rounded shadow 15 miles long and 3 miles wide as a patch of dry land, affixed with the name of the phantom island.
But credible recorded sightings of the island went back hundreds of years. So there should be something there. Surely?
In 2012, the Southern Surveyor’s scientists set sail to investigate in person:
“We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island, then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so that we can change the world map.”
According to BBC News:
“Australia's Hydrographic Service, which produces the country's nautical charts, says [Sandy Island’s] appearance on some scientific maps and Google Earth could just be the result of human error, repeated down the years.
A spokesman from the service told Australian newspapers that while some map makers intentionally include phantom streets to prevent copyright infringements, that was was not usually the case with nautical charts because it would reduce confidence in them.
A spokesman for Google said they consult a variety of authoritative sources when making their maps.
"The world is a constantly changing place,” the Google spokesman told AFP, "and keeping on top of these changes is a never-ending endeavour'.”
And there you have it. Google’s official definition of “constantly changing” in this instance means it’s entirely possible that despite being on all our digital maps for decades, it doesn’t actually exist - and in fact never did.
So this is one of the most wondrous things about modern travel. It can certainly seem like the world’s mysteries have all been laid bare, and everywhere is both well-travelled and already home to someone. But no - there’s still so much to discover (and even un-discover), and so many places to go where it’s just you, the land and the stars and nothing else for a surprisingly long way.
So much of the world is still waiting for us, and we’ve only just got started.
No time to waste?