Îles Kerguelen

Péninsule Rallier du Baty

The Kerguelen Islands (Îles Kerguelen), officially Archipel des Kerguelen, also known as the Desolation Islands (Îles de la Désolation in French), are a group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean constituting one of the two exposed parts of the mostly submerged Kerguelen Plateau.
They are among the most isolated places on Earth, located 450 km (280 mi) northwest of the uninhabited Heard Island and McDonald Islands and more than 3,300 km (2,051 mi) from Madagascar, the nearest populated location (excluding the Alfred Faure scientific station in Île de la Possession, about 1,340 km (830 mi) from there, and the non-permanent station located in Île Amsterdam, 1,440 km (890 mi) away).

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 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 raw 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, though France maintains a permanent presence of 45 to 100 scientists, engineers and researchers. There are no airports on the islands, so all travel and transport from the outside world is conducted by ship.



Yves de Kerguelen

Kerguelen Islands appear as the “Ile de Nachtegal” on Philippe Buache’s map from 1754 before the island was officially discovered in 1772. The Buache map has the title 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 Tasman’s ship “De Zeeuwsche Nachtegaal.” On the Buache map, “Ile de Nachtegal” is located at 43°S, 72°E, about 6 degrees north and 2 degrees 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 of the same year. 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 that of Captain James Cook in December 1776 during his third voyage, who verified and confirmed the passage of de Kerguelen by discovering and annotating the message left by the French navigator.

Soon after their 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. Since the end of the whaling and sealing era, most of the islands’ species have been able to increase their population again.

In 1800, Hillsborough spent eight months sealing and whaling around the islands. During this time Captain Robert Rhodes, her master, prepared a chart of the islands.

Christmas Harbour By George Cooke 1811

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.

For the 1874 transit of Venus, George Biddell Airy at the Royal Observatory of the UK organised and equipped five expeditions to different parts of the world. Three of these were sent to the Kerguelen Islands. The Reverend Stephen Joseph Perry led the British expeditions to the Kerguelen Islands. He set up his main observation station at Observatory Bay and two auxiliary stations, one at Thumb Peak ( WikiMiniAtlas49°30′47.3″S 70°10′18.1″E) led by Sommerville Goodridge, and the second at Supply Bay (49°30′47.3″S 69°46′13.2″E) led by Cyril Corbet.
Observatory Bay was also used by the German Antarctic Expedition led by Erich Dagobert von Drygalski in 1902–03. In January 2007, an archaeological excavation of this site was carried out.

In 1874–1875, British, German and U.S. expeditions visited Kerguelen to observe the transit of Venus.

In 1877 the French started a coal mining operation; however, this was abandoned soon after.

The Kerguelen Islands, along with the islands of Amsterdam and St Paul, and the Crozet archipelago were officially annexed by France in 1893, and were included as possessions in the French constitution in 1924 (in addition to that portion of Antarctica claimed by France and known as Adélie Land; 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).

Port Gazelle January 8,1893

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 most southerly 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 frequently present. There is also a French satellite tracking station.

Until 1955, the Kerguelen Islands were administrative-wise 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 Départment 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 owned 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 at 49°21′S 70°13′E. 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), 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



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

Île Foch in the north of the archipelago, at 49°0′S 69°17′E, is the largest satellite island with an area of 206.2 km2 (79.6 sq mi). Its highest point, at 687 m (2,254 ft), is called La Pyramide Mexicaine.
Île Howe which lies less than one kilometre off the northern coast of Ile Foch is, at ~54 km2 (21 sq mi), the second most important offlier in the Kerguelens (48°52′S 69°27′E).
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) (48°55′S 69°12′E).
Île du Port, also in the north in the Golfe des Baleiniers at 49°11′S 69°36′E, 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), 49°21′S 68°44′E)
Île Longue (southeast, about 35 km2 (14 sq mi) 49°32′S 69°54′E)
Îles Nuageuses (northwest, including île de Croÿ, île du Roland, îles Ternay, îles d’Après, 48°37′S 68°44′E)
Île de Castries (48°41′S 69°29′E)
Îles Leygues (north, including île de Castries, île Dauphine, 48°41′S 69°29′E)
Île Violette (49°07′S 69°40′E)
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), 49°27′S 69°51′E)
Île Haute (western part of the Golfe du Morbihan, altitude 321 m (1,053 ft), 49°23′S 69°55′E)
Île Mayès (49°28′20″S 69°55′55″E)
Îles du Prince-de-Monaco (south, in the Audierne bay, 49°36′S 69°14′E)
Îles de Boynes (four small islands 30 km (19 mi) south of Presqu’ile Rallier du Baty on the main island, 50°01′S 68°52′E)
Île Altazin (a small island in the Swains Bay, 49°38′S 69°45′E)
Île Gaby (a small island in the Swains Bay, 49°39′S 69°46′E)




Port-aux-Français is the capital settlement of the Kerguelen Islands, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, in the south Indian Ocean. The port station is located on the Gulf of Morbihan, at 49.35°S 70.219°E. It has about 45 inhabitants in winter; the population can rise to more than 120 in summer.

The station was selected in 1949 by the chief of mission Pierre Sicaud because of its sheltered position which was suitable for a runway that was never built. From 1955 to 1957, and using Australian equipment, a French slaughterhouse company called Sidap constructed a sealing factory. The factory opened following the first marriage on the islands, that of Marc Pechenart and Martine Raulin on 16 December 1957. The factory closed in 1960, and the equipment was sent to Réunion in 2005.

Port-aux-Français has a shallow seaport and a quay for unloading supply ships, including the Marion Dufresne. The station, in addition to logistics necessary to its operation, consists of scientific laboratories (biology, geophysics), technical installations (meteorology, telecommunications, satellite tracking, et cetera), and a small medical centre.

Tidal gauges

The base of Port-aux-Français is equipped with a recently installed marigraphic station, having 3 measuring devices:

  • two tide gauges to measure pressure at sea bottom
  • a radar measuring the sea level.

The two marigraphs and the radar send data to a local server, which relays them hourly to the Internet via the Argos satellite system.



Port-aux-Français has an ocean moderated mild tundra climate (Köppen climate classification ET). Temperatures (without windchill) tend to remain fairly stable throughout the year, rarely reaching over 18 °C (64 °F) or falling below −8 °C (18 °F).
The average temperature in February, the warmest month, is 7.5 °C (45.5 °F) with a maximum of 11.5 °C (52.7 °F) during the day and 4.3 °C (39.7 °F) during the night.

In winter, August and July are the coldest months, averaging 4.8 to 5.0 °C (40.6 to 41.0 °F) during the day and −0.8 °C (30.6 °F) at night. Snowfall is possible in all months, even in summer though it is more common during the winter months than during the summer months.

The climate is windier than in most places, with wind speeds that can reach 80m/s.
The lowest recorded temperature was −9.5 °C (14.9 °F) on 11 August 2014, which beats the old record of −9.4 °C (15.1 °F) set in June 1953. The highest temperature was 23.0 °C (73.4 °F) on 30 January 1959.



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 49°21′S 70°16′E 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 which is located four kilometers 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 of sheep 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 5 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.



Îles Kerguelen, click to enlarge

The Kerguelen islands form an emerged part of the submerged Kerguelen Plateau, which has a total area nearing 2.2 million km2 (0.85 million 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 the 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 sub-continent. The microcontinent emerged substantially above sea level for three periods between 100 million years ago and 20 million years ago. The so-called Kerguelen sub-continent may have had tropical flora and fauna about 50 million years ago.
The Kerguelen sub-continent 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.



Terminus of a glacier, Cook Ice Cap

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), the Crozet Islands, Iceland, northern Kamchatka Peninsula, Labrador and Tierra del Fuego.

All climate readings come from the Port-aux-Français base, which has one of the more favourable climates in Kerguelen due to 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), due to the islands’ location in 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 dock.

Due to the island’s southern latitude it experiences Astronomical Twilight (sun illumination is barely distinguishable at nighttime) for a couple of weeks during the summer.



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.

Land vegetation

he coastal regions, up to an altitude of about 50 m, are generally covered with low herbaceous vegetation, and are classified as tundra. Higher up, rocky ground dominates and the vegetation is rarer, limited to scattered tufts and mosses and lichens.

There are no trees or shrubs on the islands. This was not always the case, however. Fossilized tree trunks of the family Araucariaceae can be found in certain sediments, geological witnesses of times when Kerguelen had a warmer climate than today.

Originally, the main type of low altitude vegetation consisted of a thick and continuous carpet of azorellae (Azorella selago) on which could be established various other species such as the famous Kerguelen cabbage, Pringlea antiscorbutica (Brassicaceae family). The azorella (Apiaceae) had a pillow-shaped growth: the year’s growth forming a tight layer which superimposed itself on the previous year’s growth. The species Lyallia kerguelensis (Hectorellaceae), the only strictly endemic species of the archipelago, has a similar growth pattern. The pillows of azorellae could exceed 1 meter in thickness and adjacent plants could join to form a continuous sheet. Walking on this kind of vegetation was very difficult and was environmentally harmful. On the other hand, this tender medium was ideal for certain species of marine birds which could dig nest burrows there.

The introduction and proliferation of rabbits destroyed this habitat, which was replaced by a monospecific meadow constituted of a plant resembling a small Salad Burnet, Acaena adscendens (Rosaceae). Today one can find the carpets of azorellae only on the islands and islets undamaged by rabbits. The Kerguelen cabbage underwent practically the same fate. The establishment of other mammals also had consequences on the vegetation: consumption of the seeds of the Kerguelen cabbage by mice, reducing its regeneration capacities, consumption of the lichens by reindeer, etc.

In the flat bottoms and close to brooks, the ground is often soaked. A boggy vegetation mainly constituted of mosses may develop there. This vegetation can appear homogeneous on the surface but can be covering quicksand, in which hikers may sink to the waist.

Marine vegetation

Unlike the terrestrial vegetation which is very poorly developed, the marine flora is flourishing, in particular thanks to the presence of giant brown algae: the kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), which form true underwater forests, and the cochayuyo (Durvillaea antarctica), which covers most of the rock coasts.

The Macrocystis are one of the largest types of marine macroalgae, the species can grow to lengths of 50 meters, forming undersea forests in hard-bottom, subtidal areas.[7] Attached to the bottom by branched holdfasts, the algae grow up to the surface in the form of columns made of several dozen interwoven cords. They then spread out widely on the surface thanks to floaters placed at the base of multiple slings similar to corrugated sheets. The kelp can cover wide areas where navigation is practically impossible because the thin straps can get entangled in ships’ propellers and block them. The kelp forests in the Kerguelen Islands are home to relatively few vertebrates but many colourful invertebrates as well as a great diversity of red algae. The storms regularly tear off large quantities of giant algae that wash ashore and rot on the beaches in the form of a mattress which can reach several meters thickness. These wash-ups of algae form one of the essential bases of the local ecosystem.




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

Seals and fur seals:

  • Southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina)
  • Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella)
  • Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) occasional.


  • Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii)
  • Rare D -type Orca (Orcinus orca).
  • Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
  • Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), etc.

Introduced land mammals:

  • Sheep. Approximately 3,500 semi-wild sheep live on Ile Longue; their main purpose is to provide meat for the scientific personnel stationed on the islands. Oddly, the Kerguelen flock of sheep, which are known as Bizet sheep, are an endangered breed in continental France from where they originated. The sheep suffer a high mortality rate at birth (~25%), because they have not been able to adjust their reproductive cycle to coincide with the seasons of the southern hemisphere, resulting in mothers giving birth during the southern winters when food is less abundant.
  • Mouflons (mountain sheep). Numbering approximately 100 or so individuals, they originated from the island of Corsica, and were introduced in 1959. The Kerguelen population was restricted to Haute Island in the Golfe du Morbihan. As part of ongoing efforts to remove introduced species, the population was eradicated by 2012.
  • Reindeer. Reindeer were introduced to Ile des Rennes (Reindeer Island), also called Ile Australia, by the Norwegians. Reindeer are excellent swimmers and they soon found their way to the main island of La Grande Terre a short distance away. Today the reindeer of the Kerguelen islands number around 4,000 individuals. They have been able to survive due to their ability to extract sufficient nutrients from the islands’ supply of lichens and mosses; however, their presence has had a negative impact on the flora of the archipelago. They form the only such population in the southern hemisphere, apart from a similarly introduced reindeer population on South Georgia which was largely eradicated in 2013.
  • Rabbits. These small lagomorphs were brought in from South Africa in 1874. They were reintroduced on a second occasion later. The rationale was to provide a fresh food source to sailors who might become shipwrecked. Rabbits have devastated the islands’ plant communities, and have caused serious erosion in places where their numbers have exploded – mostly the eastern half of the islands, where population densities have reached 40+ per acre in some places. To date, the western and northwestern limits of the islands have been spared due to a less hospitable climate. The off-lying islands surrounding the archipelago have also been spared.
  • Rats.
  • Cats. The islands are home to a population of feral cats descended from ships’ cats kept by sailors to control the rat population. The cats live mainly on rabbits and seabirds.




  • King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
  • Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
  • Southern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)
  • Macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus)


  • Albatross
  • Sheathbills
  • Cormorants
  • Petrels
  • Seagulls
  • Prions
  • Skuas
  • Terns

The Kerguelen Islands are covered by France’s ratification of the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, drawn up under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species.


  • Eaton’s pintail (Anas eatoni)
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) introduced