In Search of Terra Incognita


I was writing elsewhere about that royal pirate, Sir Francis Drake, when I read that one of his journeys was a commission from Queen Elizabeth I to find Terra Australis Incognita.

Latin for Unknown South Land, Terra Australis Incognita (often shortened to Terra Incognita or Terra Australis) was a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity.

It appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries although no one had ever seen such a land.  Its existence was based on the idea that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. Balancing land was a theory that appeared in print as early as the fifth century on maps by Macrobius. He used the term Australis on his maps. The word australis is Latin for austral, which simply means “southern.”

Terra Australis Incognita became a legendary place – an “unknown land of the South” going back to even before Roman times. It appears in medieval geography.

What intrigues me about this place is not only the idea of exploration (something that fascinated me in elementary school history and geography lessons) but that it was based on no documented knowledge of such a place. The “terra incognita” of the twenty-first century is somewhere distant from Earth.

Sending Drake to find it, Queen Elizabeth was giving some credence to the imagined place. It is like the search for Atlantis, another place that came from something Plato wrote, not as a real place, but as an example for his own time. Though fictional, the legend led explorers to search for it into the twentieth century – perhaps still today.

In the eighteenth century, what we call Australia was not thought of as that or as of being Terra Australis. Captain Cook and his contemporaries knew about a fifth continent which they called New Holland. It was considered to be separate from yet another imagined sixth continent that had not been discovered at that time but would eventually be today’s Antarctica.

British explorer Matthew Flinders popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis. His 1814 book on the continent, A Voyage to Terra Australis, maintained that there was “no probability” of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia. It was in the nineteenth century that colonial authorities officially applied the name Australia to New Holland and the Dutch name faded from usage.

The south polar continent had no name for decades after its discovery until Antarctica was coined in the 1890s. Antarctica comes from the Greek antarktikos, “opposite to the Arctic” and “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos, which means “of the bear” and is a reference to the northern constellation we call Ursa Minor. The “Little Bear” is a constellation traditionally important for navigation, particularly by mariners, because Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation, is the northern polar star.

In the Middle of Nowhere

This past week I have felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. Adrift. The holiday season has never been my best time of year. Maybe it is the constant barrage of things telling me to be jolly and to buy things. I was feeling like that “Nowhere Man.”

Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing

“The middle of nowhere” is an interesting phrase. How can you be in the middle of nowhere? If you’re in the middle, you’re somewhere. I looked for an origin story for this idiom but didn’t find an answer.

People will say something like “Their house is in the middle of nowhere,” but the house is somewhere and probably not even in the middle of that somewhere.

There are books, films and music titled the middle of nowhere but those don’t count.

I found that some American researchers using the best data available determined that the geographic “Middle of Nowhere” is Glasgow, Montana. It is 4.5 hours from the nearest city, but they say it is as close as you can get to “the middle of nowhere” in the contiguous U.S. while still being in a decently-sized town. To me, that is not the middle of nowhere. It is very much the middle of somewhere.

You could go to Nowhere, Norfolk, England or Nowhere, Oklahoma or Nutt, New Mexico (which has called itself the Middle of Nowhere) and get in the middle of town and claim you were there. Still, not really there.

There is a fictional Knowhere in Marvel Comics that is the enormous severed head of an ancient celestial being, which serves as an interdimensional crossroads and scientific observatory.

We are getting closer to what I’m going to call the middle of nowhere when we read Erewhon, a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872, His fictional country is discovered and explored by the protagonist. The title is “nowhere” backward with “h” and “w” transposed. The location for his satire on Victorian society is based on Butler’s own experiences in New Zealand.

Point Nemo

My nominee for the middle of nowhere is Point Nemo. It is a point in the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand. It is a spacecraft cemetery. It is the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area. It is an oceanic pole of inaccessibility.

Though it is a real place, it is nowhere. At least it is not anywhere you can go to live if you want to get away from it all.

Do you really want to be away from it all and in the middle of nowhere with nobody? Point Nemo is the place. It s so isolated that the closest people to it are not on any of the nearest landmasses. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are around 258 miles from their home planet at any given time, so they are the closest people to Point Nemo as they pass over it.

To find this spot, scientists made calculations to find a place in the ocean that was the furthest away in every direction from land and people and settled on the coordinates 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W. They chose Nemo The name Nemo because it is Latin for “no one. It is also a nod to Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

If you want a place to crash-land space junk, like expired satellites, you want the place furthest away from land and people. This is the place and it has been used since 1971.


The general area plays a role in the 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft as the location of the fictional city of R’lyeh.

In the 1990s, a mysterious noise was picked up about 1,250 miles east of Point Nemo. The sound was dubbed “the Bloop.” It was louder than a blue whale and the story started that it was an unknown “sea monster.” That would have been a cool discovery.  Eventually NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) determined that it was the sound of a giant iceberg fracturing and cracking.

I also found that there’s another place called Nowhere in the Atlantic Ocean. It is at 0° latitude, 0° longitude, and 0′ elevation near Cape Three Points at the southernmost tip of Ghana.

I tried to find Point Nemo and Nowhere on Google Maps and Google Earth. Not there. Now that really is a nowhere place.

But none of these is the place that I found myself in this past week. That existential nowhere is on no maps. As my shipmate, Herman, said in Moby-Dick, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

I’m planning to set sail from Nowhere this week. Destination unknown.

Nowhere Man from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – Grigory Geometr on Vimeo

I Missed An Entire Ocean

Americans are famously ignorant when it comes to world geography. I thought I was better than average, but then someone asked me a game show type question that seemed pretty easy:  What are all the world’s oceans?

Right off, I said Atlantic, Pacific, Indian – slight pause – Arctic. Nope, I was told. You are missing one. Many “seas” came to mind, but no more oceans.

Turns out that I can’t blame my failing memory of what I learned in seventh grade geography class. Ocean number five is the the Southern Ocean and it was only designated as such in 2000. Still, I was around in 2000 and somehow I missed it. Maybe you did too.

The Southern Ocean is a body of water that lies between 60 degrees south latitude and the Antarctica coastline. It is distinguished by the fact that it totally encircles the continent of Antarctica, and it encompasses 360 degrees of longitude. It is the fourth largest of the world’s five oceans. The Pacific Ocean is the biggest, followed by the Atlantic, Indian, Southern and then the Arctic Ocean.