Monday, 2 April 2018

(II) - The sub-antarctic French island of Saint Paul

Just some 90 km to the south of the island of Amsterdam, Saint Paul is smaller and permanently uninhabitated. It was first discovered in 1559 by the Portuguese.

Since 1792 St. Paul has been a temporary station for whale and seal hunters. France's claim to the island dates from 1843, when a group of French fishermen declared interest in setting up a seal and whale fishery on Saint-Paul.

Île Saint-Paul is the top of an active volcano, last erupted in 1793. It's almost triangular in shape, and measures no more than 5 km at its widest. The caldera was later flooded by the ocean waters and is now the only access from sea into the island.

The volcano was submerged following a collapse along a NW trending fault. The 1.8 km wide caldera is now a 50 m deep bay connected to the ocean by a narrow channel only 2 or 3 meters deep. It forms an almost perfect circle with a narrow opening to the sea, protected by two banks of gravel and rock.

Those banks are the only place for an emergency landing; there was first installed in the 1930s a lobster and crayfish fishing facility, there sits presently the cabin for temporary shelter of the sovereignty guards or the TAAF service.

As this old romantic print shows, the island is rocky with steep cliffs on the east side, making it inaccesible by sea except by the caldera.

Saint Paul Island

Coordinates: 38° 43′ S, 77° 31′ E
Area: ~ 8 km2
Max. height: Crête de la Novara, 268 m
Population: 0

The shallow waters entrance allows only very small ships or boats to enter the crater. The interior basin, 1 km wide, is surrounded by steep walls up to 270 m high.

There are two active geothermal springs, located near the caldera rim and along the margins of the caldera bay. A temporary shelter cabin was built on the lowlands near the entrance.

The cabin to shelter the TAAF visitors, in the same place where the previous fishing facilities were intalled.

The fishery

Early visitors of the then uninhabited islands caught the lobsters by hand in very shallow water. They brought them to the hot springs in the crater bottom without taking them out of the water, and cooked there. 

The settlement and its TSF tower

From 1850 to 1930, several attempts to install a fishery and canning facility took place due to the extreme rich waters abounding in seafood - mainly the unique Rock lobster, a rare species found exclusively in these waters. In 1928, a rather large factory was started, and a TSF communcation tower was built; but the enterprise went bankrupt two years later, leaving the breton fishermen population abandonned, most to die of scurvy disease. Ruins of the old factory and some rusted machinery are still visible.

In 1950, a new French factory enterprise, equipped with deepfreeze installations, started operating in the island. Nowadays the fishing, freezing or canning are operated on sea by a company's vessel. No one sets foot on land.

The fishing settlement consisted of a canning factory and the houses for the fishermen and employees of the factory, about 120 people at most.

La Quille, one of the entrance rock pillars, seen from the inner slope.A distintive landmark.

As for the fauna, the only rare or endangered species is the local variant of the dark Petrel - the  Antarctic Dove or Prion, still found at Roche Quille, almost extinct at Amsterdam island.

Due to the total protection status of the territory, any unautorised landing is impossible; only TAAF oficial missions are allowed.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Martin-de-Viviès, on the sub-antarctic Islands of Saint-Paul et Amsterdam

These islands are remote and isolated, but by no means a freezing polar land. They lay on the middle of the Indian ocean, north of the also french Kerguelen Islands, at a latitude similar to Melbourne is Australia, or Bahia Blanca in Argentina.

They are St. Paul and Amsterdam Islands, part of the Overseas Territories of France. Rarely visited or mentioned, the islands are remarkable for their nature and location.

Both islands are of volcanic origin, though the last eruption dates back to 1792. The Islands have a mild oceanic climate and are partially covered with grass.

They are over 80 km far from each other, and the climat is mildly oceanic (above zero), with constant strong winds prevailing from the west. Amsterdam is by far the largest of the two islands.

As they are sub-antarctic territory - located north of the antarctic convergence line where the warm waters of the Indian Ocean separate from the colder Austral Ocean waters - there is no snowfall nor icecap on the islands.

Amsterdam Island

From sea, Mont Fernand is clearly visible, at 731 m

Coordinates: 37° 47′ S, 77° 34′ E
Dimensions:  - ca. 10 km x 7 km,
                    - max high 881 m

With and area of 55 km2, Amsterdam Island varies from steep cliffs on the west coast to a gentle slope in the north and a green downhill on the east side. A high plateau around 700 m is the main volcanic site, eoth a large crater and sone hill tops; other smaller craters are scattered around.

The main features are the craters, the green Phylica and grass cover, and the rugged southwest coast.

Falaise La Pearl, a 250 m high cliff on the southwest.

Rocky Entrecasteaux.

La Cathédrale, a wild crag at Entrecasteaux

Plateau des Tourbières, over 500 m high upland in Amsterdam. At far, Mont de La Dives, 881 m, the highest point.

The island's top plateau, les Tourbières, is surrounded by two hilltops and a volcanic crater.

Grande Marmite, the largest volcanic crater on top of the island (742 m)

Colerige ravine (ridge?) at 800m and Mont de la Dives

Only in Amsterdam Island can be found a shrub - almost a tree - called Phylica arborea, mainly on the east slope.

Phylica arborea is a native tree-like woody plant.

The Phylica tree became an emblematic mark of the territory, and is carefully kept and protected.

At present the "Grand Bois" (The Large Woods) is the only remnant of Phylica forest, a preserved natural area which has been fenced and bordered by cypresses for protection.

Le Grand Bois

The 'Grand Bois' is just a little green spot on the east slope.


The french base lies on the north coast of Amsterdam Island, spreading down a gentle slope, 100 m up from the sea.

The base was renamed after Paul Martin de Viviès who spent the winter of 1949 on the island, exploring, describing and mapping.

The Avenue, main street, slightly ascending to he central 'square'.

MDV is the only inhabitated place on the islands, a permanently occupied settlement since 1949, with rotating teams of 23 to 35 experts, techniciens and support personnel.

The yellow Albatross, a housing building

At Viviès, buildings are named after the local bird fauna - Stern, Albatross, Skua...

Le Skua, the community hall - restaurant, bar, resting lounge, games, video and conference rooms.

Saint-Yves hospital.

Spring at MDV.

A Phylica nursery is carefully kept near the Hospital.

Plantations must be protected from the winds; climat in Martin de Viviès is smoothly temperated (-10º to 20º C) but extremely windy.

Forming a slight ascending slope to the south, it is constituted of an ancestral and rash concrete, cut by deep rifts drawn by time and bad weather.

La Cabane Antonelli

Antonelli is a small crater on the northern section, with a small Phylica woods, where a panoramic cabin was built mainly as a depart point and shelter when teams go walking around the island.

The Phylica wood

This might well be the start of a tourist route...

View of Antonelli's small wood against the Indian Ocean, from the Cabin's balcony.

The research ship "Marion Dufresne II" visits the base every two months.

Her arrival is welcome as the only way in and out of the islands.

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Next: the island of St. Paul