The Kerguelen Islands: Wind, water and wild cats

The Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, are to be found in the southern Indian Ocean and form part of the otherwise submerged Kerguelen Plateau. One of the most isolated places on Earth, they are a bleak and windswept haven for a few scientists and a hoard of penguins.

Kergeulen-mapThe Desolation Islands are the remnant of a long-lost continent that was once about a third the size of Australia. From roughly 100 million years ago until 20 million years ago, most of the now largely submerged Kerguelen Plateau was above sea level.

The islands were discovered by the Breton explorer and French naval officer Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, who in 1772 sailed to the Antarctic in search of the fabled Terra Australis. Instead, he discovered the Desolation Islands and took possession of them for France. He was accompanied by the naturalist Jean Guillaume Bruguière, who had a passion for molluscs and snails. In his report to King Louis XV, Kerguelen de Trémarec greatly overestimated the value of the islands, consequently he was sent off on a second expedition, again reaching Kerguelen. However, it became clear that they were quite useless and on his return, Kerguelen-Trémarec was sent to prison.

In 1776 Captain James Cook led the two ships Resolution and Discovery on a voyage to New Zealand. En route they stopped at Kerguelen Island where they anchored on Christmas Day. In his Journals Cook wrote: “I found the shore in a manner covered with Penguins and other birds and Seals… so fearless that we killed as many as we chose for the sake of their fat or blubber to make Oil for our lamps and other uses… Here I display’d the British flag and named the harbour Christmas harbour as we entered it on that Festival.”

Kerguelen(1)The main island, Grande Terre, is surrounded by 300 smaller islands that form an archipelago. The climate is raw and chilly with frequent high winds throughout the year. While the surrounding seas are generally rough, they remain ice-free all the year round. There is no airport on the islands, so all travel and transport from the outside world is by ship.

France maintains several research stations on Kerguelen, one of which is devoted to tracking satellites and “sounding” or research rockets. The archipelago’s winter population of around 70 people swells to an average of 110 in the summer. People cluster around the “settlement” of Port-aux-Français, which has a chapel, hospital, library, gymnasium, and pub. The chapel is appropriately named Notre-Dame des Vents (“Our Lady of the Winds”).

The main indigenous fauna are insects and large populations of seals, penguins and ocean-going seabirds. The principal island is the home of a well-established feral cat population, descended from ships’ cats. They survive on sea birds and the feral rabbits that were later introduced to the islands.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author of The Prophet, once wrote: “Your life is an island separated from all other islands and continents. Regardless of how many boats you send to other shores or how many ships arrive upon your shores, you yourself are an island separated by its own pains, secluded in its happiness.”Kerguelen(2)

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