Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Kerguelen, remote but magnificent sub-antarctic islands

This time we go to the deep South, to a remote and desolate piece of land:

The Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, are a subantarctic group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean, at around 49º South (Ushuaia is at 54º S). They belong to the antarctic plate, and they are of volcanic origin.

The islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. This is one of the most isolated places on Earth, being more than 3300 km away from the nearest civilized location.

The main island of the archipelago is called La Grande Terre. It measures 150 km east to west and 120 km north to south. The main base, the so-called "capital" of the islands, is Port-aux-Français, located along the eastern shore of Grande Terre.

Overall, the glaciers of the Kerguelen Islands's ice cap cover just over 500 km². The islands are treeless, with scarce vegetation, but in spite of its rudeness they display some amazing landscapes.

In the extreme north, the Arche of Kerguelen, the best known feature of the islands

Vallée des Skuas

The vegetation is tundra-like lichens, mosses and the famous native speciality, Kerguelen cabbage:

The weather could even be acceptable if the permanent wild winds would not fustigate the land day and night. The winds also contribute to the cleanliness and purity of air and water.

But let me start by the main settlement, a scientific research and meteorological station:

Coordinates: 49°21′S, 70°13′E

Port-aux-français is the main settlement of the Kerguelen, a permanent research station found on the 1950s.

The oldest building, La Tour Météo (meteo tower)

There are no indigenous inhabitants, but France maintains a permanent presence of 50 to 100 scientists, engineers and researchers, and a military force too.

Facilities include scientific-research buildings, a satellite tracking station, dormitories, a hospital, a library, gym, a pub, and the chapel of Notre-Dame des Vents.

Logements de Marins

There are no trees in Kerguelen, though some tree fossiles seem to prove the islands were once forested. But men are stubborn, and do like trees; so the only ones to be seen in all the territory are these thuyas (a kind of cypress) by the health-clinic cabin:

They should be tall trees, but are "decapitated" by the unstoppable winds, so they grow up only to the top of the buildings that protect them.

There is no airport on the islands - just a heliport - , so all travel and transport from the outside world is conducted by ship.

'L'aventure', the boat that usually transports people from port to port and between islands.

'Biomar' Lab and Mount Ross at sunset, by the Morbihan Gulf's waters, near the port.

Port Jeanne d'Arc

Port Jeanne d'Arc is a former whaling station founded by a Norwegian whaling company in 1908.

The derelict settlement consists of four residential buildings with wooden walls and tin roofs, and a barn. Some of it has been restored and is presently in use. It's the second main settlement, and it keeps some historic testimonies of the whale-hunting era.

There is also a fishing station at Lac d'Armor, established in 1983, 40 km west of Port-aux-Français, for the acclimatization of salmon, as the waters here are among the purest in the planet. And several cabins through the islands at strategic locations, for shelter or meteorological research.


The islands were discovered by the French navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen on 1772.

Until the XXth century, the archipelago was regularly visited by whalers and sealers (mostly British, American and Norwegian) who hunted the resident populations of whales and seals. They introduced populations of rabbits, sheep and reindeer.

Kerguelen has been continually occupied since 1950 by scientific research teams, with a population of 50 to 100 frequently present.

Some special sites:

The Gallieni peninsula, on the south of Grande Terre

This is the most picturesque and amazing area. The highest point, Mount Ross, has an elevation of 1850 meters.

'It's a crazy mountain, like a castle of some fantastic comics, with frost-covered towers'.

Grande Terre has numerous bays, inlets, fjords, and coves, as well as several peninsulas and promontories.

Baie Larose and its peculiar Doigt de Sainte Anne (St. Ann's Finger), on the east side of Gallieni peninsula:

Doigt de Sainte Anne is a volcanic outcrop on the eastern shore of the Gallieni peninsula.

Mounts Simoun and Diane:

Vallée des sables:

L'Arche des Kerguelen

Arche des Kerguelen is an old natural arch that has parcially collapsed.

It's located on the north extreme of Loranchet peninsula, northeast of Grande Terre, close to a sheltered bay called Port-Christmas. This was so named by Captain James Cook, who re-discovered the islands and who anchored there on Christmas Day, 1776.

This is also the place where Captain Cook coined the name "Desolation Islands" in reference to what he saw as a sterile landscape.

The Cook Ice Cap and its glaciars

Still in the northern area, there are lakes, glaciars and cascades around the small Cook Ice Cap:

Lake Bontemps

Pyramide Branca (White pyramid)

Glaciar Agassiz

Glaciar Ampère

Castor and Pollux cascade

Cats and Reindeer 
In an isolate South Indian island ?! Yes...

Cats were introduced in 1950 to stop mouse proliferation. Some survived and became wild. The problem is that they also feed on birds and endanger some colonies.

A cat among penguins

The cat population is now being studied, to understand how they resisted harsh and very cold environment, quite contrary to their natural habitat. They feed mainly on rabbits (also introduced, a plague to the cabbages) and birds.

Reindeer were introduced by the Norwegians. Today the reindeer of the Kerguelen islands number around 4000 individuals.

They have been able to survive due to their ability to extract sufficient nutrients from the islands' supply of lichens and mosses; they form the only such population in the southern hemisphere.

Finally, sheep, bighorn sheep, also brought by man to Île Longue (Long Island), a small island in Morbihan gulf covered with (planted) grass. They provide good meat to Port-aux-Français crewmen, so they take good care of them !


But, of course, the penguin population reigns on these latitudes !