Ferdinandea: An Island That Lasted For Less Than a Year

For six months in 1831, a small island located 30 kilometres off of the south Sicilian coast, never before seen, was the scene of a four-way sovereignty dispute between four maritime powers. But just as quickly as the island emerged, it eroded away back into the Mediterranean Sea, snuffing out the controversy and giving birth to the legend of a lost island.


Source: Angrense, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Location_of_Ferdinandea.jpg. Licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence.

Halfway between Sicily and Pantelleria, there lies a certain seamount rising 400 metres above the ocean floor. Now, there are many seamounts in the tectonically-active region (a product of the clash between the Eurasian and African plates), but this particular seamount has a summit which lies just 6-8 metres (about 20-25 feet) below the ocean surface. As well, this seamount is an active volcano, which means any significant volcanic activity will easily traverse the 6 metres and create steam and gas on the water. And in a really active year, the magma and smoke break through the gap, creating a small island made of loose tephra that will persist for a little while before the waves of the surrounding ocean pulverise the porously-built island and knock it back down below the surface. The seamount/island is alternatively known as Île Julia or Graham Island, but most use the Italian name, Ferdinandea.

Volcanic activity emanating from the seamount has been noted occasionally since ancient times (it’s emerged about four or five times during recorded history), but it was the events of July 1831 that set off an international incident. After some earthquakes in the area at the end of June, sulphurous odours began arriving on the shores of Sicily on the 4th of July, and by the 13th a column of smoke could be seen from the sea.At first thought to be a ship on fire, the emergence of the island was confirmed on the 17th. Over July and August, the island would grow to a height of 63 metres and a circumference of 4.8 km. The summit was on the northeastern side; the southern and western slopes remained rather short in comparison, giving the island a plain in the middle where two small ponds actually formed (one red, one yellow; both laden with iron salts and hydrogen). The actual crater from which the volcanic activity emanated was on the north of the island.

That August, the first claimant arrived on the new islet in the form of the British Navy. Britain wanted another base to control Mediterranean traffic; one that was closer to the European mainland than their current Mediterranean base of Malta. On the 2nd of August, a British flag was planted on the island, which was soon given the name of Graham after an English politician with experience in Sicilian affairs and later to be known as Sir James Graham, Home Secretary. Considering this an infringement on Sicilian waters, Ferdinand II, young king of the Two Sicilies, dispatched a corvette to the island and on the 17th officially declared the island to be part of his realm, giving it the name Ferdinandea. The following month, French geologist Constant Prévost landed on the island with the French flag, naming it Île Julia because of its July birth.Somewhere along the line, Spain also laid claim to the island.By the time Prévost had landed, however, the island was already receding, just 700 metres in circumference. In October, just a metre of land was left above water, and by December, it was gone.The expected diplomatic spat over the rock was not to be, and it receded into history much like it receded into the Mediterranean.


During the time the island was above water, it was visited by many scientists looking to study its circumstances (as well as curious boaters eager to step foot on the new land).Above is a page from the field report of Constant Prévost.

The only international incident that ever actually resulted at Ferdinandea was actually in 1987, when an American warplane patrolling the area around Libya mistook the sunken peak for a submarine and pelted it with depth charges. There’s still plenty of activity on and around Ferdinandea, just not the naval kind. Ferdinandea is a hotbed of marine life, although overfishing in the region may be helping to take that diversity down. Volcanic activity began ramping up again in 2000 and 2002, leading many to think the island was about to erupt and break the surface again (while the submerged island is known as Ferdinandea, the volcano that created the island is known as Empedocles, named after the Greek philosopher, and the shoal it emerges from is called Graham Bank). This time, a group of divers were quick to put the sovereignty issue to bed by planting a Sicilian flag and a marble plaque on the summit (the large plaque has already been destroyed, possibly by fishing equipment or by vandals). An Italian man, David Manucci, even minted a penny in honour of the ghost island in 2000 as an art project after reading about Ferdinandea in a newspaper.Making versions in silver and copper, the penny featured the Sicilian coat-of-arms on the reverse and, oddly enough, Elizabeth II on the face; a sort of hedging one’s bets. The island never did re-emerge, however. And perhaps it’s a moot point; with the modern concept of territorial waters and the lessened strategic importance of a maritime power having a Mediterranean out post compared to 1831, it is almost certain that Italy would be given possession of Ferdinandea with little fight, as neither Britain nor France would be likely to care much anymore (though it should be said that many British articles still use the term Graham Island or Graham Bank). Then again, we won’t know until it happens, will we?

Further Reading

BBC (n.d.).Underwater volcano, Ferdinandea. Oceans. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/oceans/locations/mediterranean/ferdinandea.shtml. Accessed 3 July 2011.

BBC News (2002). Volcano may emerge from the sea. 26 November 2002. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2516655.stm. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Bird, M. (2000). Fire from the Sea. Time Europe 155(11), 20 March 2000. Available at http://www.time.com/time/europe/magazine/2000/0320/volcano.html. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Carroll, R. (2000). Bourbons surface to retake island. The Guardian, 13 November 2000. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/nov/13/rorycarroll1. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Grifasi, A. (1998). Ferdinandea – the disappeared isle. Sicilian Almanac, 23 October 1998. Available at http://www.grifasi-sicilia.com/isolaferdinandeagbr.html. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Nield, T. (2003). From out the azure main. Geoscientist, February 2003. Available at http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/gsl/null/pid/571;jsessionid=59D822ECB33DE4F75F434BD2297A33C1. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Owen, R. (2002). Italy lays claim to submerged island. The Times (London), 27 November 2002. Available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article1181110.ece. Accessed 3 July 2011.

Shiboleth, C.D. (2009). Ferdinandea. Tædivm. Available at http://www.taedivm.org/coin-ferdinandea. Accessed 3 July 2011.

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