Earth’s Pristine Places: Kerguelen Island

Updated On
Kerguelen Island

We may collect a share of sales from items linked to on this page. Learn more.

In nature, it is unfortunately all too easy to see where Mankind has left his mark. It is harder to find the places where nature is allowed to run its course. Even in the middle of the desert, you’ll find tire tracks if you look, and the trail to the summit of Mount Everest is littered with energy bar wrappers and excrement. Despoliation is everywhere.

Well, not quite everywhere. There are still places on Earth where the foot of modern man has only trod lightly, if at all. One such place is Kerguelen Island, a sub-Antarctic island in the Indian Ocean, and the largest island in a large archipelago. Named for the commander of the original French expedition that discovered the islands in 1772, the Island is remote, and lacks good anchorage. Indeed, Kerguelen left without actually setting foot on the island, which didn’t stop him from making a glowing, and utterly imaginary, report on the island to King Louis XIV. The famed British explorer, Captain Cook, would later give the island a seemingly more appropriate name: Desolation Island.

Geographically, the island is dominated by a fantastically twisted coastline, while inland the rugged terrain culminates in the glacier-bound Mount Ross. Nearly one-third of the island is overrun by the Cook Glacier. Yearly average wind speeds across the islands is over 100 km/h, but sustained winds of over 150 km/h are fairly common. The state of the surrounding ocean reflects the high wind speeds, with wave heights of 12-15 meters being normal. The sea around Kerguelen is ice-free, despite the chilly average temperatures. Snow is common across the island, even in summer.

This treeless, windswept island is home to only a few scarce types of plants, and the weather can be best described as vicious. However, due to its location on the Antarctic Convergence, where upwelling cold water from the Antarctic mixes with the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean, birds and marine mammals are abundant.

Kerguelen and the other islands of the archipelago are rich with a teeming and colourful population of wildlife. Birds, in particular, find a welcome refuge in this land so devoid of humans. Thirty species of birds nest on the island including Rockhopper, Macaroni, Gentoo and King Penguins; albatross, Giant Petrels, skuas, sheathbills and the Kerguelen Tern. In addition, the southern elephant seals and Kerguelen fur seals have re-established a secure haven here, following near-extinction in the 19th century.

The whole archipelago has no permanent residents, although the French government does maintain a small research station year-round, with no more than 50-100 scientists, technicians, and researchers. Many of the 300 islands in the chain likely have never been visited by man, and much of Kerguelen itself remains completely unspoiled.

The islands present a stark beauty and magnificence all of their own, with the knowledge that your next footstep may put you in a place that no human has ever gone. Add to that the wildlife, and the recovering populations of sea mammals that were almost hunted to extinction, and you have one of nature’s last sanctuaries.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

What do you think? Leave a comment!