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Google, Not Ghosts, Behind Creepy View of Chesapeake

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ever get the feeling that the Chesapeake Bay is trying to tell you something?

To get it, go online to a Google Maps image of the bay, and zoom in on a patch of water a few miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. There's a pattern of blue and green patches that coalesces into a shape.

Which looks an awful lot like . . .

"No way!" said Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Olivia Campbell.

"It really, almost, looks like a skull," said Kim Couranz of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It looks like a green skull the size of Baltimore.

There are so many tantalizing possibilities here: Is the Chesapeake death's-head a large algae bloom? A signal of impending doom? An ingeniously placed ad for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"?

The actual cause, as usual, turns out to be the least exciting.

According to Google, the skull is probably a computer glitch.

Chikai Ohazama, who oversees mapmaking operations at the Internet giant, said the skull never actually appeared in the water. Instead, he said, it was created by accident on a computer as Google technicians digitally combined two satellite photos of the same area.

"I'm sure they just missed" the skull shape that was produced in the combined image, Ohazama said.

Ohazama said that the image had probably been up for a year at least and that there were no plans to remove it. He said there was no evidence that anyone at Google had drawn the skull on purpose.

"We try to reflect reality as much as possible," he said. "That couldn't happen. Or, it shouldn't happen."

Plenty of other strange shapes have been spotted in Google Maps by sharp-eyed and not-very-busy fans. There's a human face in a Peruvian sand dune and, in Canada, a rock formation that resembles a man in an Indian headdress listening to an iPod.

James Ward, a Calvert County Web designer, spotted the skull in the Chesapeake while working on a Google map of lighthouses.

"I was looking at these maps, and I was like, 'You know . . . ' " Ward said. He blogged about it, musing that the skull might be useful for environmentalists as a symbol of the bay's problems.

And he might be right: algae blooms, which can be as green as the skull in the image, appear regularly in the bay and its tributary rivers. Sometimes they create areas devoid of the oxygen that other life needs.

Dead zones, they are called.

In any event, the skull is probably not an evil omen from the beyond. At Hart Miller Island, a Maryland state park that Google Maps shows jutting into the skull's spectral forehead, employees have not heard rattling chains, seen ghostly pirates or experienced any other traditional signs of a maritime curse.

"They were just laughing hysterically at even the thought of it," said Campbell, the state natural resources spokeswoman.

Then, Campbell said, one of the employees remembered something. "We did have a boat burn last week," she said.

But she said that was probably just a coincidence.

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