Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet, Amsterdam, Saint Paul, Kerguelen… Lost in the middle of nowhere, nestled in the heart of the Roaring Forties, amidst the squalls of rain, hail and snow, bordered by granite or volcanic cliffs which drop sheer into the Indian Ocean, populated by elephant seals and fur seals, penguins and rockhoppers, petrels and albatrosses, these islands of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic have inspired explorers and scientists, adventurers and entrepreneurs from the 18th to the 20th century, but have brought only misfortune, shipwrecks, death, disappointment, banishment, punishment, drama and desolation…
The kingdom of the crayfish
Several days at sea to the NW of the Kerguelen archipelago, Saint Paul Island is under a curse. Pinpointed by a Dutch sailor from 1696, this volcanic crater breached by the sea, brings only sadness and tragedy to those who try to live here and develop an incredible haul of crayfish and cod! Its first period of possession only dates back to 1842 when Louis-Adam Mieroslawski discovered this 8km2 islet anew at 38° South. The Franco-Polish adventurer was fascinated by this crescent moon of an island opening onto the Indian Ocean: “all those who come here, call upon the divinity at the bottom of their heart.” But the Gods of the sky and the sea are irascible in such places. Indeed, the installation of a fishery goes tragically wrong, the wheat and vegetable plantation is cut short by the salt air and the gusts of wind and the rain wears away the earth… For years though, Mieroslawski produced considerable yields before finally leaving the island in 1848.
On 9 December 1874, a scientific expedition was set up on Saint Paul to observe the transit of Venus, where the planet passes between the Sun and the Earth – an event that has taken place four times in 243 years! Despite the appalling conditions during the three months of its stay, the French mission managed to take 550 images in a fleeting break in the cloud in a very overcast sky… However, the most terrifying drama is that of the “forgotten of Saint Paul”. René Bossière persuaded his administrators and twenty-eight Bretons to set up a canning factory to make use of the abundance of crayfish. Life was tough, but the benefits substantial: another campaign is put in place the following year. In addition to the new Breton settlers, 90 inhabitants of Madagascar took possession of the waters abounding in marine delicacies… However, with the onset of winter, everyone had to be repatriated, with the exception of seven volunteers who undertook on 3 March 1930 to keep the factory in good order through until the next southern summer. Louise Brunou even gave birth to a little girl on the island, who was the first to die, followed by four other ‘caretakers’, all victims of scurvy. The following campaign saw 44 Madagascans lose their lives to beriberi!
The casualties of the Southern Ocean
The remaining confetti of islands in the Indian Ocean are not coloured by such dramatic tales, but the casualties have stacked up over the centuries since their discovery… In Crozet, in 1825, Guillaume Lesquin equipped a schooner with sixteen sealers. Nine of them disembarked on the Ile aux Cochons, or Pig Island, to take on supplies of freshwater, but they were unable to get back on board due to raging seas! The captain fled and tried to shelter to the East of the island where the waves smashed it to pieces in the shallows. Seven survivors managed to swim ashore: after 17 months of survival, mutiny, fights and hope, six of them were picked up by an English whaler, together with the other nine shipwrecked people from Pig Island. Fifty years later, a boat carrying British emigrants to Australia hit a rock just above the surface of the water offshore of Crozet, off Les Apôtres, on 2 July 1875. Forty hands were lost, drowned, and fifty took refuge on a deserted rock, including one woman, Mrs Wordsworth. The bulk of them were picked up seven months later, surviving thanks to a few jars of preserves and albatrosses!
However, these terrifying tales shouldn’t hide the reality of these islands of the Southern Ocean, whose pure, virgin landscape remains incredibly intact despite the numerous attempts to colonise them, bringing with them some of the ‘ills of civilisation’: rats, rabbits, reindeer, flies, dogs, cats, sheep and cows now populate some of the islands… causing substantial destruction sometimes. Part of the TAAF (French Southern and Antarctic Lands) since 6 August 1955, Kerguelen, Crozet, Saint Paul and Amsterdam have played host to around 400 scientists on assignment and 250 soldiers, serviced by the Marion Dufresne 2, which performs several tours a month to resupply the southern bases. Few places on earth still feature such large animal populations as those of the TAAF: emperor penguins, great albatrosses, king penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, giant petrels, skua, rockhoppers and terns… flock here in their thousands according to the seasons and the species.