Kerguelen Islands

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Kerguelen Islands
Îles Kerguelen
Location of the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean.
Location of the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean.
Map of the Kerguelen Islands
Map of the Kerguelen Islands
49°21′S 70°13′E / 49.350°S 70.217°E / -49.350; 70.217
Official languagesFrench
GovernmentDistrict of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands
 - PresidentFrançois Hollande
 - AdministratorPascal Bolot[1]
 - Head of DistrictJean-François Vanacker[1]
French overseas territory
 - DiscoveryFebruary 1772 
 - Total7,215 km2
2,786 sq mi
 - estimatearound 70 (winter)
around 110 (summer)
CurrencyEuro (EUR)
Calling code+262
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Kerguelen Islands
Îles Kerguelen
Location of the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean.
Location of the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean.
Map of the Kerguelen Islands
Map of the Kerguelen Islands
49°21′S 70°13′E / 49.350°S 70.217°E / -49.350; 70.217
Official languagesFrench
GovernmentDistrict of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands
 - PresidentFrançois Hollande
 - AdministratorPascal Bolot[1]
 - Head of DistrictJean-François Vanacker[1]
French overseas territory
 - DiscoveryFebruary 1772 
 - Total7,215 km2
2,786 sq mi
 - estimatearound 70 (winter)
around 110 (summer)
CurrencyEuro (EUR)
Calling code+262

The Kerguelen Islands (/ˈkɜrɡəlɛn/ or /ˈkɜrɡələn/;[2] in French commonly Îles Kerguelen or Archipel de Kerguelen but officially Archipel des Kerguelen or Archipel Kerguelen, pronounced: [kɛʁɡeˈlɛn]), also known as the Desolation Islands, are a group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean constituting one of the two emerged parts of the mostly submerged Kerguelen Plateau. They are among the most isolated places on Earth, more than 3,300 km (2,051 mi) away from the nearest populated location. The islands, along with Adélie Land, the Crozet Islands and the Amsterdam and Saint Paul Islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and are administered as a separate district. There are no indigenous inhabitants, but France maintains a permanent presence of 50 to 100 scientists, engineers and researchers.[3]

The main island, Grande Terre, is 6,675 km2 (2,577 sq mi) in area and is surrounded by a further 300 smaller islands and islets, forming an archipelago of 7,215 km2 (2,786 sq mi). The climate is raw and chilly with frequent high winds throughout the year. While the surrounding seas are generally rough, they remain ice-free year-round. There is no airport on the islands, so all travel and transport from the outside world are conducted by ship.


The islands were discovered by the Breton-French navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec on 12 February 1772. The next day Charles de Boisguehenneuc landed and claimed the island for the French crown.[4] Yves de Kerguelen organised a second expedition in 1773 and arrived at the « baie de l'Oiseau » by December of the same year. On the 6th of January 1774 he commanded his lieutenant, Henri Pascal de Rochegude, to leave a message notifying any passersby of the two passages and of the French claim to the islands.[5] Thenafter, a number of expeditions briefly visited the islands, including that of Captain James Cook in December 1776, who verified and confirmed the passage of de Kerguelen by discovering and annotating the message left by the French navigator.[5] In 1874–1875, British, German and U.S. expeditions visited Kerguelen to observe the transit of Venus.[6]

Soon after their discovery, the archipelago was regularly visited by whalers and sealers (mostly British, American and Norwegian) who hunted the resident populations of whales and seals to the point of near extinction, including fur seals in the 18th century and elephant seals in the 19th century. Since the end of the whaling and sealing era, most of the islands' species have been able to increase their population again.[7]

From 1825–1827, the British sealer John Nunn and three crew members were shipwrecked on Kerguelen, until they were rescued by Captain Alexander Distant during his hunting campaign.[8]

Christmas Harbour, Kerguelens Land, dated 1811 by George Cooke.

In 1877 the French started a coal mining operation; however, this was abandoned soon after.[9]

The Kerguelen Islands, along with the islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul, and the Crozet archipelago were officially annexed by France in 1893, and were included as possessions in the French constitution in 1924 (in addition to that portion of Antarctica claimed by France and known as Adélie Land; as with all Antarctic territorial claims, France's possession on the continent is held in abeyance until a new international treaty is ratified that defines each claimant's rights and obligations).

The German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis called at Kerguelen during December 1940. During their stay the crew performed maintenance and replenished their water supplies. This ship's first fatality of the war occurred when a sailor, Bernhard Herrmann, fell while painting the funnel. He is buried in what is sometimes referred to as "the most southerly German war grave" of World War II.

Kerguelen has been continually occupied since 1950 by scientific research teams, with a population of 50 to 100 frequently present.[3] There is also a French satellite tracking station.

Until 1955, the Kerguelen Islands were part of the French colony of Madagascar. That same year they collectively became known as Les Terres australes et antarctiques françaises (French Southern and Antarctic Lands) and were administratively part of the French Départment d`outre-mer de la Réunion. In 2004 they were permanently transformed into their own entity (keeping the same name) but having inherited another group of five very remote tropical islands, les îles Éparses, which are also owned by France and are dispersed widely throughout the southern Indian Ocean.[clarification needed]

Grande Terre[edit]

Two Brothers Mountains (Monts des Deux Frères)

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 located along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Morbihan on La Grande Terre at 49°21′S 70°13′E / 49.350°S 70.217°E / -49.350; 70.217 (Port-aux-Français), and it is known as Port-aux-Français. Facilities there include scientific-research buildings, a satellite tracking station, dormitories, a hospital, a library, a gymnasium, a pub, and the chapel of Notre-Dame des Vents.

The highest point is the Galliéni Massif (Pic du Grand-Ross), which lies along the southern coast of the island and has an elevation of 1,850 meters. The Cook Glacier, France's largest glacier with an area of approximately 403 km², lies on the west-central part of the island. Overall, the glaciers of the Kerguelen Islands cover just over 500 km². Grande Terre has numerous bays, inlets, fjords, and coves, as well as several peninsulas and promontories. The most important ones are listed below:

Notable localities[edit]

There are also a number of notable localities, all on La Grande Terre (see also the main map):

For the 1874 transit of Venus, George Biddell Airy at the Royal Observatory of the U.K. organised and equipped five expeditions to different parts of the world. Three of these were sent to the Kerguelen Islands. The Reverend Stephen Joseph Perry led the British expeditions to the Kerguelen Islands. He set up his main observation station at Observatory Bay and two auxiliary stations, one at Thumb Peak [49°31'11.8"S, 70°10'18.1"E] led by Sommerville Goodridge, and the second at Supply Bay [49°30'47.3"S, 69°46'13.2"E] led by Cyril Corbet. Observatory Bay was also used by the German Antarctic Expedition led by Erich Dagobert von Drygalski in 1902–03. In January 2007, an archaeological excavation of this site was carried out.

From 1968 to 1981, 49°21′S 70°16′E / 49.350°S 70.267°E / -49.350; 70.267 (Rocket launch site) just east of Port-aux-Français was a launching site for sounding rockets, some for French (Dragon rockets), American (Arcas) or French-Soviet (Eridans) surveys, but at the end mainly for a Soviet program (M-100).[11]

The islands[edit]

The following is a list of the most important adjacent islands:


Principal activities on the Kerguelen Islands focus on scientific research – mostly earth sciences and biology.

The former sounding rocket range to the east of Port-aux-Français 49°21′S 70°16′E / 49.350°S 70.267°E / -49.350; 70.267 (FUSOV) is currently the site of a SuperDARN radar.

Since 1992, the French Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) has operated a satellite and rocket tracking station which is located four kilometers east of Port-aux-Français. There was a need for a tracking station in the Southern Hemisphere, and the French government required that it be located on French territory, rather than in a populated, foreign place like Australia or New Zealand.

Agricultural activities are limited to raising sheep (approximately 3,500 Bizet sheep — a breed of sheep that is rare in mainland France) on Longue Island for consumption by the occupants of the base, as well as small quantities of vegetables in a greenhouse within the immediate vicinity of the main French base. There are also feral rabbits and sheep that can be hunted, as well as wild birds.

There are also some fishing boats and vessels, owned by fishermen on Réunion Island (a department of France approximately 3,500 km (2,300 miles) to the north) who are licensed to fish within the archipelago's Exclusive Economic Zone.


Simplified geological map of the Kerguelen Islands

The Kerguelen islands form an emerged part of the submerged Kerguelen Plateau, which has a total area nearing 2.2 million square kilometres.[citation needed] The plateau was built by volcanic eruptions associated with the Kerguelen hotspot, and now lies on the Antarctic plate.[12]

The major part of the volcanic formations visible on the islands is characteristic of an effusive volcanism, which caused a trap rock formation to start emerging above the level of the ocean 35 million years ago. The accumulation is of a considerable amount; basalt flows, each with a thickness of three to ten metres, stacked on top of each other, sometimes up to a depth of 1,200 metres. This form of volcanism creates a monumental relief shaped as stairs of pyramids.

Other forms of volcanism are present locally, such as the strombolian volcano Mont Ross, and the volcano-plutonic complex on the Rallier du Baty peninsula. Various veins and extrusions of lava such as trachytes, trachyphonolites and phonolites are common all over the islands.

No eruptive activity has been recorded in historic times, but some fumaroles are still active in the South-West of the Grande-Terre island.

A few lignite strata, trapped in basalt flows, reveal fossilised araucarian fragments, dated at about 14 million years of age.

Glaciation caused the depression and tipping phenomena which created the gulfs at the north and east of the archipelago. Erosion caused by the glacial and fluvial activity carved out the valleys and fjords; erosion also created conglomerate detrital complexes, and the plain of the Courbet Peninsula.

The islands are part of a submerged microcontinent called the Kerguelen sub-continent.[13] The microcontinent emerged substantially above sea level for three periods between 100 million years ago and 20 million years ago. The so-called Kerguelen sub-continent may have had tropical flora and fauna about 50 million years ago. The Kerguelen sub-continent finally sank 20 million years ago and is now one to two kilometers below sea level. Kerguelen's sedimentary rocks are similar to ones found in Australia and India, indicating they were all once connected. Scientists hope that studying the Kerguelen sub-continent will help them discover how Australia, India, and Antarctica broke apart.[14]


Kerguelen's climate is oceanic, cold and extremely windswept. Under the Köppen climate classification, Kerguelen's climate is considered to be an ET tundra climate, in which the warmest month averages below 10 °C, however it is also classified as subpolar oceanic in that the coldest month has an average temperature of above 0 °C. Comparable climates include those of Chilean Patagonia or Iceland, as well as other subantarctic island groups such as the Crozet or Falkland islands.

All climate readings come from the Port-aux-Français base, which has one of the more favourable climates in Kerguelen due to its proximity to the coast and its location in a gulf sheltered from the wind.

The average annual temperature lies at around 4.9 °C with an annual range of around 6 °C. The warmest months of the year include January and February, with average temperatures between 7.8–8.2 °C, and the coldest month of the year is August with an average temperature of 2.1 °C. Absolute annual highs in temperature rarely surpass 20 °C, while temperatures in winter have never been recorded to go below −10 °C at sea level.

Kerguelen receives frequent precipitation, with snow throughout the year as well as rain. Port-aux-Français receives a modest amount of precipitation (708 mm per year) compared to the west coast which receives an estimated three times as much precipitation per year.

The mountains are frequently covered in snow but can thaw very quickly in rain. Over the course of several decades, many permanent glaciers have shown signs of retreat, with some smaller ones having disappeared completely.

The west coast receives almost continuous wind at an average speed of 35 km/h, due to the islands' location in the Roaring Forties. Wind speeds of 150 km/h are common and can even reach 200 km/h.

Waves up to 12–15 m high are common, but there are many sheltered places where ships can dock.

Climate data for Port aux Français, Kerguelen
Record high °C (°F)22.3
Average high °C (°F)11.1
Daily mean °C (°F)7.8
Average low °C (°F)4.4
Record low °C (°F)−1.5
Precipitation mm (inches)72.2
 % humidity78798286888989878480757782.8
Source: MeteoStats[15]

Flora and fauna[edit]

The islands are part of the Southern Indian Ocean Islands tundra ecoregion that includes several subantarctic islands. In this cold climate, plant life is mainly limited to grasses, mosses and lichens, although the islands are also known for the indigenous, edible Kerguelen cabbage, a good source of vitamin C to mariners.[citation needed] The main indigenous animals are insects along with large populations of ocean-going seabirds, seals and penguins.[16]

The wildlife is particularly vulnerable to introduced species and one particular problem has been cats. The main island is the home of a well-established feral cat population, descended from ships' cats.[17] They survive on sea birds and the feral rabbits that were introduced to the islands. There are also populations of feral sheep and reindeer.


See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 49°15′S 69°10′E / 49.250°S 69.167°E / -49.250; 69.167