The Kerguelen Archipelago

Kerguelen banknote with catYves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec had the unfortunate experience of not discovering Australia.  He’d been commissioned by King Louis XV to search the Southern ocean for the rumoured  Terra Australis, a fabled continent at the ends of the Earth.  On his first visit to the Southern Oceans, he had discovered land and claimed it for France.  Returning home his report foretold the great possibilities his discovery held for France.  Subsequently he was recommissioned to go out there again and to make accurate maps of the new land.  His second visit brought the truth home.  This was not Australia.  It was much too small.  And bleak.  And remote.  Heading home, he was forced to admit that he hadn’t found what he’d hoped.  Furious, the King sent him to prison.  What Yves-Joseph had discovered were the Kerguelen Islands, which occasionally go by their much more descriptive name of the Desolation Islands.

Kerguelen CabbageSituated in excess of 2000 miles from the nearest inhabited place.  It is a land of glaciers and volcanoes.  A blasted, chilly moonscape, it is very wet, very windy and covered mainly in lichens and grasses.  The only native plant life of note is the Kerguelen Cabbage.  The most frequent visitors are seals, seabirds and penguins.  For the first 200 years after their existence was charted, the most frequent human visitors were whalers and seal-hunting ships drawn by the populations of fur-bearing seals, and its anchorage giving a safe harbour far from any other.   The cabbages added a much needed vitamin C boost the shipboard diet too.  The fur seals and elephant seals were hunted to the edge of extinction over those years, but just occasionally things went wrong for the hunters.  John Nunn was shipwrecked on the islands and marooned there for nearly two years after his ship sank.  He was rescued by another sealer, Captain Alexander Distant father of William Distant, the famous entomologist.

One of the consequences of the visits of the industrial hunting ships was the introduction of another visitor who liked it so much they opted to stay.  An apex predator on an island full of trusting, naive seabirds and rabbits (also introduced) just waiting to be stalked and consumed.  The ship’s cats liked it so much they stayed ashore.  Now the archipelago has its own large population of feral cats all descended from those domestic, ocean-going moggies of the the 18th century.   Like the sealers, they’ve contributed to the decline of local species, in their case the seabirds.  It is possible that they’ve already hunted some local species to extinction.   Unlike the Kerguelen Cabbage they’re treasured to the extent that they appear on the local currency and stamps.

Kerguelen stamp featuring catsAmong the cats of the 1870s two sets of hardy venturers landed on the islands.  Firstly the French,  now internationally recognised masters of the islands, thought to try to exploit them for their natural resources.  The landscape of the Kerguelen’s is predominantly igneous, but it was thought that it was possible to find coal within the strata and mine for it.  The attempt to extract it lasted a decade but failed mostly due to the sheer distance between the Kerguelen Islands and everywhere else.  All supplies into the islands had to be shipped 3000 miles through treacherous, shipwrecking seas and then any coal taken from it had to travel the same distance back, making it economically pointless to continue.  During this burst of industrial activity, several groups of scientists from various nations (though curiously not France) landed in 1874 to observe the first transit of Venus of the 19th century, and for the first time ever, to take photographs of it.  There were many teams of scientists travelling throughout the southern hemisphere, all attempting to do the same thing.  The Kerguelen Islands team was the last to report back owing to the remoteness of the location.

Kerguelen Solar ObserversThe aim had been to use the transit of Venus to further refine the measurement of the astronomical unit (AU), the distance between the Earth and the sun.  To do this they used the cutting edge technique of photoheliography.  Special apparatus  was need to take photographic images of the sun using either a specially adapted telescope or a heliograph in combination with a camera.  The trips to far flung regions of the globe to observe an event that occurs slightly less often than  twice a century using arcane equipment proved to be a popular romantic tale of national scientific endeavour.  Progress was reported in most major newspapers across the globe.  Unfortunately, the science of photography was not sufficiently advanced to gain useful results from this method.  The upshot of this was even more expeditions to capture the subsequent transit in 1882 – the last one to occur before the 21st century.  For that transit, no teams were sent to the Kerguelen archipelago at all and photoheliography had been abandoned in favour of more reliable methodologies.

Long after the exhaustion of the seal populations, and when the miners had given up and gone away, there was another visitor.  This visitor had more martial ambitions.  During the Second World War, the German cruiser Atlantis had been cruising the Southern Oceans masquerading as various neutral merchant vessels, looking for merchant shipping to raid.  She had been very successful, sinking many ships.  She’d captured valuable intelligence from the British ship SS Automedon concerning British assessments of Japanese strengths which  may have led indirectly to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.   There had been no deaths aboard the Atlantis for their tour since it started until they anchored at the Kerguelen islands during Christmas 1940.  Here a sailor fell to his death while repainting the funnel and is buried on the islands.  The southernmost German grave of the war.  Inevitably, Atlantis was sunk less than a year later by HMS Devonshire.

Subsequently the island has served as a French scientific outpost, now the site of a satellite tracking station as well as a launch site for high-atmospheric research sounding rockets.  In the 1960s One visiting geologists, Edgar Albert de la Rue decided to introduce some more useful species to the islands and tried to breed trout and salmon in the waters around the islands.  This was largely a failure although some trout may still be breeding around the islands.  Unless the cats got them.  The Desolation Islands of the Kerguelen Archipelago are a territory of cats and cabbages where the endeavours undertaken to reach them are rarely matched by successes on their rocky shores.

The Transit of Venus 1874


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