The Kerguelen Islands (Îles Kerguelen or officially Archipel Kerguelen), also known as the Desolation Islands (Îles de la Désolation in French), are a group of islands in the sub-Antarctic constituting one of the two exposed parts of the Kerguelen Plateau, a large igneous province mostly submerged in the southern Indian Ocean. They are among the most isolated places on Earth, located more than 3,300 km (2,100 mi) from Madagascar. The islands, along with Adélie Land, the Crozet Islands, Amsterdam and Saint Paul islands, and France’s Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and are administered as a separate district.

The main island, Grande Terre, is 6,675 km2 (2,577 sq mi) in area, about three quarters of the size of Corsica, 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 harsh and chilly with frequent high winds throughout the year. The surrounding seas are generally rough and they remain ice-free year-round. There are no indigenous inhabitants, but France maintains a permanent presence of 45 to 100 soldiers, scientists, engineers, and researchers. There are no airports on the islands, so all travel to and from the outside world is conducted by ship.

The islands appear in a number of fictional works. The title character in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket visits the islands.
French writer Jules Verne’s 1897 novel An Antarctic Mystery offers a follow up to Poe’s book, and revisits the Kerguelen Islands.
The 1874 short story “The Tachypomp” by Edward Page Mitchell tells of a hole through the center of the Earth with one end in the United States and the other in “Kerguellen’s Land” (which is roughly antipodal to the United States and Canada). The 1880 collection Songs from the Mountains by the Australian poet Henry Kendall contains the poem Beyond Kerguelen.
In Rudyard Kipling’s poem “McAndrew’s Hymn” – about a ship’s engineer – there are the lines: “Fra’ Cape Town east to Wellington – ye need an engineer. Fail there – ye’ve time to weld your shaft – ay, eat it, ere ye’re spoke, Or make Kerguelen under sail – three jiggers burned wi’ smoke!”

Henry De Vere Stacpoole set his 1919 novel The Beach of Dreams on the islands. The Kerguelen Islands were the setting for a post-Second World War confrontation between W. E. Johns’s recurring hero, Biggles, and the crew of a gold bullion-bearing German U-boat, in the 1948 novel Biggles’ Second Case. The fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series, published in 1978, is entitled Desolation Island.

French author Jean-Paul Kauffmann produced a non-fiction account of his 1991 journey to the islands, titled The Arch of Kerguelen: Voyage to the Islands of Desolation.

The islands serve as a main location in the 1998 novel Kilo Class by Patrick Robinson.

In 2000 British journalist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris spent four months on Kerguelen, staying with the researchers at Port-aux-Français. A series of articles were published in The Times in which Parris charted his visit, and a documentary “To The Ends of Earth: Dreaming on Desolation Island” was produced for UK television, which aired on Channel 4.

The islands inspired the 2008 song “The Loneliest Place on the Map” by singer Al Stewart.

On April 1, 2018, YouTube channel Geography Now posted an April Fools’ Day video titled Geography Now! LIMBERWISK about a fictional country called Limberwisk with the map of the Kerguelen Islands.




Before being officially catalogued in 1772, the Kerguelen Islands appear as the “Ile de Nachtegal” on Philippe Buache’s 1754 map entitled Carte des Terres Australes comprises entre le Tropique du Capricorne et le Pôle Antarctique où se voyent les nouvelles découvertes faites en 1739 au Sud du Cap de Bonne Esperance (‘Map of the Southern Lands contained between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Pole, where the new discoveries made in 1739 to the south of the Cape of Good Hope may be seen’). It is possible this early name was after Abel Tasman’s ship De Zeeuwsche Nachtegaal. On the Buache map, “Ile de Nachtegal” is located at 43°S, 72°E, about 6° north and 2° east of the accepted location of Grande Terre.

The islands were officially discovered by the French navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec on 12 February 1772. The next day, Charles de Boisguehenneuc landed and claimed the island for the French crown. Yves de Kerguelen organised a second expedition in 1773 and arrived at the “baie de l’Oiseau” by December 1773. On 6 January 1774 he commanded his lieutenant, Henri Pascal de Rochegude, to leave a message notifying any passers-by of the two passages and of the French claim to the islands.

Thereafter, a number of expeditions briefly visited the islands, including the third voyage of Captain James Cook in December 1776. Cook verified and confirmed the passage of de Kerguelen by discovering and annotating the message left by the French navigator.

Soon after its 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. The sealing era lasted from 1781 to 1922 during which time 284 sealing visits are recorded, nine of which ended when the vessel was wrecked.: 167  Modern industrial sealing, associated with whaling stations, occurred intermittently between 1908 and 1956. Since the end of the whaling and sealing era, most of the islands’ species have been able to increase their population again. Relics of the sealing period include try pots, hut ruins, graves and inscriptions.:

In 1800, the Hillsborough spent eight months sealing and whaling around the islands. During this time Captain Robert Rhodes, her master, prepared a chart of the islands. That vessel returned to London in April 1801 with 450 tons of sea elephant oil.

In 1825, the British sealer John Nunn and three crew members from Favourite were shipwrecked on Kerguelen until they were rescued in 1827 by Captain Alexander Distant during his hunting campaign. The islands were not completely surveyed until the Ross expedition of 1840.

The Australian James Kerguelen Robinson (1859–1914) was the first human born south of the Antarctic Convergence, on board the sealing ship Offley in Gulf of Morbihan (Royal Sound then), Kerguelen Island on 11 March 1859.

In 1874–1875, British, German, and U.S. expeditions visited Kerguelen to observe the transit of Venus. For the 1874 transit, George Biddell Airy of the U.K. Royal Observatory organised and equipped five expeditions to different parts of the world. Three of these were sent to the Kerguelen Islands and led by Stephen Joseph Perry, who set up his main observation station at Observatory Bay and two auxiliary stations, one at Thumb Peak led by Sommerville Goodridge, and the second at Supply Bay, led by Cyril Corbet. Observatory Bay was also used by the German Antarctic Expedition, led by Erich Dagobert von Drygalski in 1902–1903. In January 2007, an archaeological excavation was carried out at this site.

In 1877 the French started a coal mining operation, but soon abandoned it.

In 1892, due to German operations in the area, France sent the aviso Eure, under Commander Lieutard, to reassert its claim over the Kerguelen Islands, the islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul, and the Crozet Archipelago. In 1924, it was decided to administer these territories (in addition to that portion of Antarctica claimed by France and known as Adélie Land) from Madagascar; 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.

In 1908, the French explorer Raymond Rallier du Baty made a privately funded expedition to the island. His autobiographical account of the adventure (1917 – 15,000 Miles in a Ketch. Thomas Nelson and Sons: London) describes the months that he spent surveying the island and hunting seals to finance his expedition.

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 southernmost 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 personnel frequently present. There is also a French satellite tracking station.

Until 1955, the Kerguelen Islands were administratively part of the French Colony of Madagascar and Dependencies. 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 Département 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 ruled by France and are dispersed widely throughout the southern Indian Ocean.


Grande Terre

The main island of the archipelago is called La Grande Terre. It measures 150 km (93 mi) east to west and 120 km (75 mi) north to south.

Port-aux-Français, a scientific base, is along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Morbihan on La Grande Terre. 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 Mont Ross in the Gallieni Massif, which rises along the southern coast of the island and has an elevation of 1,850 metres (6,070 ft). The Cook Ice Cap (French: Calotte Glaciaire Cook),[19] France’s largest glacier with an area of about 403 km2 (156 sq mi), lies on the west-central part of the island. Overall, the glaciers of the Kerguelen Islands cover just over 500 km2 (190 sq mi). Grande Terre has also numerous bays, inlets, fjords, and coves, as well as several peninsulas and promontories. The most important ones are listed below:

Courbet Peninsula
Péninsule Rallier du Baty
Péninsule Gallieni
Péninsule Loranchet
Péninsule Jeanne d’Arc
Presqu’île Ronarc’h
Presqu’île de la Société de Géographie
Presqu’île Joffre
Presqu’île du Prince de Galles
Presqu’île du Gauss
Presqu’île Bouquet de la Grye
Presqu’île d’Entrecasteaux
Presqu’île du Bougainville
Presqu’île Hoche
Notable localities

There are also a number of notable localities, all on La Grande Terre:

  • Anse Betsy (Betsy Cove) is a former geomagnetic station on Baie Accessible (Accessible Bay), on the north coast of the Courbet Peninsula. On this site an astronomical and geomagnetic observatory was erected on 26 October 1874 by a German research expedition led by Georg Gustav Freiherr von Schleinitz. The primary goal of this station was the 1874 observation of the transit of Venus.
  • Armor (Base Armor), established in 1983, is located 40 km (25 mi) west of Port-aux-Français at the bottom of Morbihan Gulf, for the acclimatization of salmon to the Kerguelen islands.[20]
  • Baie de l’Observatoire (Observatory Bay) is a former geomagnetic observation station, just west of Port-Aux-Français, on the eastern fringe of the Central Plateau, along the northern shore of the Golfe du Morbihan.
  • Cabane Port-Raymond is a scientific camp at the head of a fjord cutting into the Courbet Peninsula from the south.
  • Cap Ratmanoff is the eastmost point of the Kerguelens, and the site of a geomagnetic station.
  • La Montjoie is a scientific camp on the south shore of Baie Rocheuse, along the northwestern coast of the archipelago.
  • Molloy (Pointe Molloy) is a former observatory 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) west of the present-day Port-Aux-Français, on the northern shore of the Golfe du Morbihan (Kerguelen). An American expedition led by G. P. Ryan erected a station at this site on 7 September 1874. That station was also established to observe the 1874 transit of Venus.
  • Port Bizet is a seismographic station on the northeastern coast of Île Longue. This also serves as the principal sheep farm for the island’s resident flock of Bizet sheep.
  • Port Christmas is a former geomagnetic station on Baie de l’Oiseau, in the extreme northwest of the Loranchet Peninsula. It was named by Captain James Cook, who re-discovered the islands and who anchored there on Christmas Day, 1776. This is also the place where Captain Cook coined the name “Desolation Islands” in reference to what he saw as a sterile landscape.
  • Port Couvreux, a former whaling station, experimental sheep farm, and geomagnetic station is on Baie du Hillsborough, on the southeast coast of Presqu’île Bouquet de la Grye. Starting in 1912, sheep were raised here to create an economic base for future settlement. However, the attempt failed and the last inhabitants had to be evacuated, and the station abandoned, in 1931. The huts remain, as well as a graveyard with five anonymous graves. These are those of the settlers who were unable to survive in the harsh environment.
  • Port Curieuse, a harbor on the west coast across Île de l’Ouest, was named after the ship La Curieuse, which was used by Raymond Rallier du Baty on his second visit to the islands (1913–14).
  • Port Douzième (Twelfth Port) is a hut and former geomagnetic station on the southern shore of the Golfe du Morbihan.
  • Port Jeanne d’Arc is a former whaling station founded by a Norwegian whaling company in 1908, and a former geomagnetic station, and lies in the northwestern corner of Presqu’île Jeanne d’Arc, looking across the Buenos Aires passage to Île Longue (4 km, 2.5 mi northeast). The derelict settlement consists of four residential buildings with wooden walls and tin roofs, and a barn. One of the buildings was restored in 1977, and another in 2007.

From 1968 to 1981, a 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, though by the end mainly for a Soviet programme (M-100).



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

  • Île Foch in the north of the archipelago, at 206 km2 (80 sq mi), the second most important offlier in the Kerguelens.
  • Île Saint-Lanne Gramont, is to the west of Île Foch in the Golfe Choiseul. It has an area of 45.8 km2 (17.7 sq mi). Its highest point reaches 480 m (1,570 ft).
  • Île du Port, also in the north in the Golfe des Baleiniers is the fourth largest satellite island with an area of 43 km2 (17 sq mi). Near its centre it reaches an altitude of 340 metres (1,120 ft).
  • Île de l’Ouest (west coast, about 33 km2 (13 sq mi))
  • Île Longue (southeast, about 35 km2 (14 sq mi))
  • Îles Nuageuses (northwest, including île de Croÿ, île du Roland, îles Ternay, îles d’Après)
  • Île de Castries
  • Îles Leygues (north, including île de Castries, île Dauphine)
  • Île Violette
  • Île Australia (also known as Île aux Rennes – Reindeer Island) (western part of the Golfe du Morbihan, area 36.7 km2 (14.2 sq mi), altitude 145 m (476 ft))
  • Île Haute (western part of the Golfe du Morbihan, altitude 321 m (1,053 ft))
  • Île Mayès
  • Îles du Prince-de-Monaco (south, in the Audierne bay)
  • Îles de Boynes (four small islands 30 km (19 mi) south of Presqu’ile Rallier du Baty on the main island)
  • Île Altazin (a small island in the Swains Bay)
  • Île Gaby (a small island in the Swains Bay)
  • Île de Croÿ (a small island 20 km (12 mi) off the coast of Grande Terre )
  • Île du Roland (a small island 20 km (12 mi) off the coast of Grande Terre )



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 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, located 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) east of Port-aux-Français. CNES needed a tracking station in the Southern Hemisphere, and the French government required that it be located on French territory, rather than in a populated, but foreign, place like Australia or New Zealand.

Agricultural activities were limited until 2007 to raising sheep (about 3,500 Bizet sheep, a breed 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 five fishing boats and vessels, owned by fishermen on Réunion Island (a department of France about 3,500 km (2,200 mi) to the north) who are licensed to fish within the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone.


he Kerguelen Islands form an emerged part of the submerged Kerguelen Plateau, which has a total area nearing 949 thousand km2 (366 thousand sq mi). The plateau was built by volcanic eruptions associated with the Kerguelen hotspot, and now lies on the Antarctic Plate.

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 (3,900 ft). 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 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 Subcontinent. The microcontinent emerged substantially above sea level for three periods between 100 million years ago and 20 million years ago. The so-called Kerguelen Subcontinent may have had tropical flora and fauna about 50 million years ago.
The Kerguelen Subcontinent finally sank 20 million years ago and is now one to two kilometres (0.6 to 1.2 mi) 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.



Kerguelen’s climate is oceanic, cold, and extremely windswept. Under the Köppen climate classification, Kerguelen’s climate is considered to be an ET or tundra climate, which is technically a form of polar climate, as the average temperature in the warmest month is below 10 °C (50 °F). Comparable climates include the Aleutian Islands, Campbell Island (New Zealand), Falkland Islands, Iceland, northern Kamchatka Peninsula, Labrador, and Wollaston Islands.

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

The average annual temperature is 4.9 °C (40.8 °F) with an annual range of around 6 °C (11 °F). The warmest months of the year include January and February, with average temperatures between 7.8 and 8.2 °C (46.0 and 46.8 °F). The coldest month of the year is August with an average temperature of 2.1 °C (35.8 °F). Annual high temperatures rarely surpass 20 °C (68 °F), while temperatures in winter have never been recorded below −10 °C (14 °F) 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 (27.9 in) 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 (22 mph) because the islands are between the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. Wind speeds of 150 km/h (93 mph) are common and can even reach 200 km/h (120 mph).

Waves up to 12–15 m (39–49 ft) high are common, but there are many sheltered places where ships can anchor.

Flora & Fauna

The islands are part of the Southern Indian Ocean Islands tundra ecoregion that includes several subantarctic islands. 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. The main indigenous animals are insects along with large populations of ocean-going seabirds, seals, and penguins.

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

In the 1950s and 1960s, French geologist Edgar Albert de la Rue began to introduce several species of salmonids. Of the seven species introduced, only brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis and brown trout Salmo trutta survived to establish wild populations.


  • Carabidae
    Oopterus soledadinus [introduced]
  • Hydraenidae
    Meropathus chuni [endemic]
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