To an archipelago being known as the “Islands of Desolation” says quite a bit. If we also add that it’s located in the subantarctic region, meaning north of Antarctica and between 46 and 60 degrees latitude, the nickname is understandable.

We’re referring to Kerguelen (which is its current name as “Desolation” fell out of use), a group of islands situated about 3,245 kilometers southeast of Madagascar and 1,950 kilometers north of Antarctica. Clearly one of the most remote and isolated places on Earth.

They belong to France, which administers them as an independent district within its French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises), with a land area of 7,215 square kilometers spread across more than 300 islands and islets.

The largest is the island of Grande Terre covering 6,675 square kilometers with a maximum width of 150 by 120 kilometers, housing a volcanic peak reaching 1,850 meters in altitude, Mount Ross, covered in glaciers.

Due to its geographical location, the place is battered by strong winds throughout the year, with a harsh and cold climate amidst tumultuous seas albeit lacking ice. The coast features abundant fjords, and the interior is dotted with numerous lakes and lagoons.

The archipelago was discovered on February 12, 1772, by the French navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec (from whom it takes its name), who claimed it for France. He found no native inhabitants, not surprising given the unwelcoming nature of the place, but he made sure to leave a message for future visitors.

Captain James Cook anchored on Christmas Day of 1776 in the place he named Port Christmas, northwest of Grande Terre, finding Kerguelen’s message and christening the archipelago as the “Desolation Islands” because he found the landscape “extremely barren”.

Whalers began frequenting the area from 1781. By 1956, after nine shipwrecks and nearly bringing seals and whales to extinction, the era of hunting came to an end, and most species on the islands were able to thrive again. Remnants from that time include cabins, graves, and numerous inscriptions.

Precisely aboard one of those ships in the Gulf of Morbihan, east of Grande Terre, on March 11, 1859, the first person was born south of the Antarctic Convergence (the imaginary line separating Antarctic waters from those of the rest of the oceans). He was the son of the ship’s captain, James William Robinson, and his wife Jane Parsons Bentley, named James Kerguelen (Robinson). In his honor, Robinson Passage in Antarctica was named.

The islands hosted three expeditions in 1874 to observe the transit of Venus. The British established a geomagnetic observing station at what is now known as Observatory Bay. The Germans did the same at Accessible Bay, on the north coast of the Courbet Peninsula. And the Americans set up a third at Pointe Molloy, on the north coast of the Gulf of Morbihan. All three stations are still there today.

In 1897, the fame of the remote archipelago’s isolation led Jules Verne to have his protagonists visit them in his work “An Antarctic Mystery” (a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel), the first chapter of which is precisely titled “The Kerguelen Islands”.

In December 1940, during World War II, a German cruiser called at Kerguelen for maintenance tasks and to replenish water. One of the sailors, named Bernhard Herrmann, fell while painting the ship’s chimney and was buried on the island. His grave is said to be the southernmost German World War II war grave in the world.

Since the 1950s, France has maintained a permanent base in the town of Port-aux-Français (on the south coast of the Courbet Peninsula, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Morbihan), consisting of scientists, engineers, and military personnel, ranging from 50 to 120 people, the only inhabitants of the archipelago.

It has a port, scientific biology and geophysics laboratories, a meteorological and telecommunications station, a satellite tracking station, library, gymnasium, bar, and medical center. There is also a church, Notre-Dame des Vents (Our Lady of the Winds, named for the strong and constant west winds), whose proportions are based on the golden ratio and is considered the southernmost French church.

Between 1968 and 1981, numerous sounding rockets were launched from the archipelago (used to study the atmosphere or make astronomical observations) by the French and Americans, but mainly and surprisingly by the Soviets, who launched around 6,640 M-100 rockets for meteorological purposes.

There are no airports or airstrips, so all travel to and from the islands is done by boat. The average temperature during the warmest month does not reach 10°C, but it does not drop below -10°C in the coldest month, and the climate is very similar to that of Iceland, the Labrador Peninsula in Canada, or the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The nearest land is the Australian islands of Heard and MacDonald (470 kilometers southeast), which are uninhabited, and other French islands, the Crozet archipelago (1,405 kilometers west), and the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam (1,405 kilometers northeast). Both have around twenty inhabitants.

Due to its exceptional beauty and isolation, as well as its contribution to the conservation of birds and marine fauna, the Kerguelen Islands Nature Reserve was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 5, 2019.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 23, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Kerguelen, el remoto archipiélago francés con más de 300 islas entre África y la Antártida donde viven cien personas


Blog officiel du district de Kerguelen (TAAF) | Les Îles Australes (Sitio oficial de la Administración de Tierras Australes y Antárticas Francesas) | Archipel de Kerguelen (Institut Polaire Française) | Wikipedia

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