Kerguelen – Desolation Island

When Captain Cook first dropped anchor on the southern edge of this tiny volcanic speck in the Southern Antarctic Ocean, he called it Desolation Island. Mention the name Kerguelen to most people and you will be met with a blank stare; for few have heard of the place and even fewer have seen it. But if you look at a map of the world and let your eye wander due south of the Indian continent towards Antarctica, around latitude 53°S you will find this small, remote, ‘L-shaped’ island surrounded by thousands of miles of vast ocean wastes. Early explorers like Captain Cook and Yves de Kerguelen, after whom the island is named, sought refuge here from the battering 90mph storms which often sweep across the southern oceans, venting their fury on everything in their path. The fjord-like western side of the island is a high volcanic landscape of cones, craters, plugs and glaciers, the highest of which is the Captain Cook glacier at 789 ft. The eastern side, by comparison, is a flat wasteland.

Even in the height of the ‘summer’ season, travellers are told to expect temperatures between 5 and minus 5°C and that’s without taking into account the wind-chill factor. No trees can grow, because the winds are too strong and the only sign of green is a small succulent-type shrub found at lower altitudes, which grows to about 3 inches high and crunches underfoot because it’s almost permanently frozen. The only things remotely edible are the ever-present sea birds, king penguins and elephant seals; and the famous ‘Kerguelen Cabbage’. Although edible is a verb which is stretched to its utmost limits of credibility when it comes to these delicacies. The strong, oily, pungent flesh of sea birds is an acquired taste. They are difficult to catch and redolent of the scavenged remains, which provide the majority of their diet. Elephant seals can be easier to catch, if they are asleep in their sandy wallows, which protect them from the biting wind. But as any Inuit will tell you, the blubber and flesh can only be described as ‘a different dietary experience’, for modern palates. The ‘Kerguelen Cabbage’, with its variegated, frilly and bitter leaves has plenty of vitamin C, but best belongs as an adornment in a flower border, if flowers could survive in this unforgiving climate.

In the late 1800’s the shallow southern side of the island, with its anchorage bay of Port St. Jacques, was frequented by Norwegian, American and British whalers, who used the island as both a hunting base and a processing plant for rendering their catches into the lamp oil, whalebone and whale meat, which was subsequently shipped back to the increasingly demanding industrial nations of the west. The rusty, wailing remains of this once hive of industry still grind and moan in the incessant winds that batter the bay’s shoreline; and the last remaining whaling hut is still used as an overnight station by the occasional visitor, willing to experience its ghosts. In the early 2000’s the whaling station was partially restored and a small museum built onsite to recognise this once vibrant industry. But by the late 1930’s the whaling had long stopped and the island had been taken taken over as a supply station and hideout for German submarines hunting Allied supply vessels and warships as they crossed the Indian and Antarctic Oceans. The Australians mined the narrow fjords to harass the German submarines and mined locations are still marked on maps, as both a salutary reminder of their occupation and the still present danger lurking in these waters. In 1950, the French claimed the island as part of Les Terres Australes et Antarctiques Francaises (TAAF) and built a scientific research station, which is now a thriving centre of 100+ permanent and semi-permanent residents and scientists. The island is visited 5-6 times a year by the French ship Marion Dufresne II which brings supplies and drops off/picks up scientists.

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