The Map Myth of Bermeja Island

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Bermeja, an island that supposedly existed off the Yucatán coast of Mexico, has been a mystery that has perplexed researchers.   The 80 square-kilometer sized island first appeared on maps in the early 1500s and was apparently last mapped in 1941.  

Bermeja Island got its name from the Spanish word “bermejo” meaning red. Cartographers in the 16th century who placed the island on maps of the area described the island’s reddish or blondish coloration. As the Spanish word for island, “isla” is feminine, Bermeja was used instead of the masculine bermejo.

The first cartographic notation of Bermeja Island was in Alonso de Santa Cruz’ 1539 atlas of the world islands. The Bermeja Island is shown off the coast of Mexico on Santa Cruz’ map and Santa Cruz described the island (translated from the Spanish) “… by the same wind by twenty leagues is another (island) called Bermeja.”

A map from the 16th century showing Mexico around the Gulf of Mexico.
Bermeja Island shown on a map from 1539. Map: El Yucatán e Islas Adyacentes: Islario general de todas las islas del mundo (General Atlas of All the Islands in the World), cartographer Alonso de Santa Cruz, 1539 via loc.gov.

The cartographic depiction of Bermeja Island continued to persist for the next few hundred years. Sometimes the island was spelled as Vermeja Island or Vermejo Islet on maps.


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This 1846 map by Henry S. Tanner entitled “A map of the United States of Mexico : as organized and defined by the several acts of the Congress of that Republic” shows Bermeja Island off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

An old map from 1846 of the United States and Mexico with an inset map showing part of the map in detail.
Henry Tanner’s 1846 map showing the location of Bermeja Island. Map: “A map of the United States of Mexico : as organized and defined by the several acts of the Congress of that Republic” by Henry S. Tanner, 1846, Library of Congress.

Bermuda Island and Mexico’s maritime rights

The existence of the island would be an important extension for the maritime boundary of Mexico and would play a big role in protecting Mexican interests in drilling agreements with the United States.

International law allows countries to claim 200 nautical miles of ocean off their territories, known as the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Currently, Mexico’s Alacranes Islands are the furthest land points that extend into the Gulf of Mexico. The existence of Bermeja Island would net Mexico about 15% more territory in an oil rich area.

The Treaty of 1978 established an equidistant point between the United States’ Isles Dernieres and Mexico’s Alacranes Islands to set the offshore boundary between the two countries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Exploratory efforts by the Mexican government in the 1990s and again in 2009 were unable to locate the island. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (NAUM) to conclude in a report to the Mexican Congress that Bermeja Island has never existed, at least not in the documented location.  

Where did Bermeja Island go?

Some hypothesize that natural erosion has caused the island to disappear while more cynical minds have lobbed accusations that the island was deliberately destroyed by American interests in oil drilling in the region.  

The NAUM report that an analysis of the sea floor at the the coordinates 22° 33′ North and 91° 22′ West of the island’s reputed location showed that no island had existed at that location as there was no remnants on the ocean floor to suggest otherwise.

Bermuda Island on Google Maps

Google Maps lists the coordinates (22.550554, -91.364993) to Bermuda Island but the marker is in a location in the ocean with no discernible landmasses anywhere nearby.  There are lots of tongue-in-cheek reviews for this phantom island

References

Campbell, M. (2009, September 6). Oil boom fuels mystery of the missing island in the Mexican Gulf. The Times & The Sunday Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/oil-boom-fuels-mystery-of-the-missing-island-in-the-mexican-gulf-xg7tcsdbcwz

Garcia Sanchez, G. J., & McLaughlin, R. J. (2015). The 2012 Agreement on the Exploitation of Transboundary Hydrocarbon Resources in the Gulf of Mexico: Confirmation of the Rule or Emergence of a New Practice. Hous. J. Int’l L.37, 681. https://scholarship.law.tamu.edu/facscholar/902

Nah, V. E. M. Y., & Cacciafoco, F. P. (2018). Ex-isles: Islands that disappeared. Review of Historical Geography and Toponomastics25(XIII), 31-58.

O’Loughlin, E. (2017). Islands of life and death: On cartographic clashes between fact and sentiment. TLS. Times Literary Supplement, (5936), 28-29.

This article was originally published on GIS Lounge on September 6, 2009 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.