What is it about?

Pulau Tiga off northern Borneo is Malaysia's largest mud volcano and has been a popular tourist destination since being the setting of the first season of the TV show 'Survivor' in 2000. A widespread legend, found in thousands of sources, claims that the entire island first emerged from the ocean in September 1897 following a huge mud volcano eruption triggered by two devastating earthquakes in the Philippines. This study ‘fact checks’ the myth of whether Pulau Tiga really did first appear in 1897 using information from a most unusual range of sources. Everything from 16th Century Portuguese explorers, 19th Century Italian pirate novels, folklore stories of ‘ghost islands’ and explorer accounts of the taste of Borneo pigeons are weaved together to ‘bust’ the myth of Pulau Tiga’s birth, reveal the true story of mud volcanoes islands appearing off northern Borneo, and to finally determine how this pervasive myth arose.

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Why is it important?

This study definitively shows that Pulau Tiga was not suddenly ‘born’ in 1897 and existed in its current state for at least several centuries prior. However, this deep investigation unearths an extensive history of violent and potentially dangerous mud volcano eruptions in Borneo that have been largely forgotten by the geoscience community. The many documented historical instances of major eruptions demonstrates that mud volcanoes may be a much more significant hazard in Malaysia than currently thought, both onshore to communities living next to mud volcanoes and for oil and gas infrastructure offshore that is commonly built in close proximity to active mud volcanoes.


Working on this study was more like a geological detective case than a typical scientific study, where the finding of clues buried in the literature for over a century were able to debunk a widespread modern myth. I also found it fascinating to find that weird geological events, such as suddenly appearing islands and massive mud volcano eruptions are far more common than previous studies had indicated. It was a great pleasure to explore the little-known phenomenon of mud volcanoes and their hidden history.

Mark Tingay

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Myth-busting: Was Pulau Tiga Really First Created by a Mud Volcano Eruption in 1897?, Interpretation, May 2024, Society of Exploration Geophysicists,
DOI: 10.1190/int-2024-0013.1.
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