Amsterdam & St-Paul Crozet Archipelago
Kerguelen Islands Terre Adélie
An isolated archipelago in the Indian Ocean, located midway between Madagascar and the coast of Antarctica (see map), Les Îles Crozet mark the only places where the Crozet Plateau breaks sea level. Consisting of 5 large and 15 tiny islands, with a combined area of about 116 mi2 (300 km2), the archipelago is divided into two main groups: L'Occidental (or western – comprising Île aux Cochons, Îlots des Apôtres, Île des Pingouins and the reefs Brisants de l'Héroïne) and L' Oriental (or eastern – comprising Île de l'Est and Île de la Possession, the largest of the Crozets), about 60 mi./100 km away.
The Crozets form one of the four regions in the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (French Southern and Antarctic Territories), which include Terre Adélie (Antarctica), Kerguelen and the islands of Amsterdam/St-Paul. Since 1938 the Crozets have been a National Park, with protection for the abundant wildlife and unique flora and fauna. The French "administer" these islands in a way that is reminiscent of nineteenth-century empire, even though there are no electors or permanent residents.
A characteristic of all the Austral islands, and a complication for the logisticians, is that there are no natural ports or airstrips. The Crozets are visited several times a year by the Marion Dufresne, the world's biggest and most sophisticated oceanographic research vessel, bringing supplies and rotating crews of scientists at the permanent base (Alfred-Faure) on Île de la Possession. All transfers must be done by lighter or the five-seater Lama turbo helicopter on board, which – at one ton – is the only helicopter that can lift the equal of its own weight. The short ninety-second trips land on the beach at the Baie Américaine – named for the nineteenth-century sealers from Nantucket – from which point all must use an aerial cableway to reach the station. A spectacular sunrise through clouds shrouding the forbidding black basalt cliffs of Ile de l'Est forms a back-drop for these landings.
FLORA & FAUNA
Royal penguins socializing on Crozet
(Photograph © Jacques Bitterly & Gilles Rudelle)
For those who have no idea about these islands, their physical appearance is a shock. The first sailors in these parts, such as Jean-Baptiste Bouvet-Lovier, discoverer of Bouvet Island in 1733, and Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne, discoverer of the Crozet Islands, must have had feelings of being at the end of the earth. The black volcanic sand beaches, with their background of sweeping empty and treeless mountains, teem with royal penguins and sea elephants. Some of the penguins stand around chatting on the beach, others march in straight lines alongside bubbling streams to join their colony. There are small groups of gentoo penguins and, in isolated spots, giant albatross chicks sitting on their giant nests, stretching their wings, almost ready to launch themselves into the most extravagant flight of any bird on the planet. These birds will roam the seas, not returning to land for 5 to 8 years at a time.
In common with other sub-antarctic islands, the (accidental or intentional) introduction of alien species has proved a problem. Rats and mice arrived accidentally, cats were brought in to control them and rabbits introduced as food: all have damaged or destroyed fragile ecosystems. Île aux Cochons is named after pigs which were introduced as food: they multiplied rapidly, causing immense damage before becoming extinct. The same fate befell the goats landed on Île de la Possession.
GEOGRAPHY & WEATHER
The highest point on the Crozets, at 3,576 ft. (1,090 m), is Pic Marion-Dufresne on Île de l'Est. Although glaciated in the past, there are now no glaciers. Lying as they do in the path of the "Roaring Forties" (between 45°95' and 46°50'S, 50°33' and 52°58'E), the islands are invariably windy, and the frequent depressions arriving from the west bring cold, wet and cloudy weather. On average it rains 300 days per year, and winds exceed 60 m.p.h. (100 km/hr) more than 100 days of the year. Appropriately enough, the chapel at Port Alfred – Sainte-Marie du Vent – speaks of the Virgin Mary's manifestation here as wind. The temperature rarely exceeds 64° F (18° C) in summer, though it rarely falls below 41° F (5° C) in winter.
The primary reason for visits to Crozet and the other islands in the territory was to hunt the abundant population of fur seals for their skins, which fetched a very high price. Skilled sealers could kill and skin as many as 60 of these creatures an hour. As a result, by 1835 the fur seal population was nearly wiped out on Crozet and Kerguelen. The trade was then replaced by whaling as the primary industry around the islands – once again dominated by Americans from Massachusetts and other northeastern states.
Shipwrecks were the secondary source of dwellers on these forlorn islands – with the ships' crews sometimes being stranded for as long as two years before being rescued. Known wrecks were those of the British sealer Princess of Wales in 1821, and the French Tamaris in 1887. The resourceful crew of the Tamaris turned a Giant Petrel into a "messenger pigeon" by tying a note to its leg. Sadly, though the note was actually retrieved seven months later in Freemantle, the crew was lost without a trace. Shipwrecks became so common that the British Royal Navy sent a ship to the island every 2 to 3 years to search for survivors.
Representatives from France had undertaken several visits to the islands in both the 19th and 20th centuries, in order to assert the nation's sovereignty – which by definition requires occupation. Formerly, the Crozets were administered as a dependency of Madagascar (along with Kerguelen and Amsterdam/St-Paul), but were incorporated into the Terres Australes and Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF) in 1955.
The first (temporary) scientific base was set up on Île de la Possession in 1961. During the 1963-64 austral summer, a station was established at Port-Alfred on the island's northeastern coast. Now known as Alfred-Faure, after its first leader, the base overwinters 35 people, and has a post office, church and research station. Weather readings have been taken at Alfred-Faure every three hours since 1974.
The French possessions in the Southern Ocean contribute to its position as the country with the largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world. Severe overfishing (principally for Patagonian Toothfish) led France to declare a 370-km exclusive economic zone around Kerguelen, The Crozets and Amsterdam/St-Paul in 1978. This zone is patrolled by French Naval Vessels and also Greenpeace, concerned about the exploitation of the Toothfish and the effect on Albatross Populations.
Editor: Ian C. Mills
Sources: The Crozet Archipelago, a web site hosted by Paul Carroll; Dante's Purgatory (an article published in Quadrant, July 1999 p.79), by Andrew McIntyre, a Melbourne freelance writer who was invited to the TAAF as a guest of the French government; © copyrights attributable to their respective sources – All Rights Reserved.
Relevant publications: Daniel Floch, Les Oubliés de l'Île St-Paul, des Crozets, et des Kerguelens; Abel Janszoon Tasman, The Discovery of Tasmania : Journal Extracts from Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne 1642 & 1772; Daniel Behrman, Assault on the Largest Unknown: The International Indian Ocean Expedition, 1959-65.
Images: Maps of Crozet Archipelago and individual islands, from various sources, including The Crozet Archipelago, a web site hosted by Paul Carroll; the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas in Austin; PDF maps adapted by Jean-Pierre Langer from topographical drawings by the Institut Géographique National (France), Ordnance Survey (Great Britain), Department of Survey and Land Information (Australia), etc.; several maps were reconstructed and modified from these sources by Ian C. Mills of DiscoverFrance.net; © copyrights attributable to their respective sources – All Rights Reserved. Alfred-Faure base camp on Île de la Possession, photographer unknown, from La Maud Fontenoy Foundation. Alfred-Faure base camp on Île de la Possession, © Stéphane Bommert a.k.a. Stef BoomBoom (photographer, 9 December 2010), from Flickr. Blue building at Base Alfred-Faure, with marine fauna décor, © Stéphane Bommert (photographer, 9 December 2010), from Flickr. Remote dorm hut in American Bay on Île de la Possession, © Yan Ropert-Coudert (photographer), from SCAR-MarBIN, The Antarctic Marine Biodiversity Information Network (C. De Broyer and B. Danis, Editors). Dining room at Base Alfred-Faure, © Stéphane Bommert (photographer, 9 December 2010), from Flickr. Bar & foosball game at Base Alfred-Faure, © Stéphane Bommert (photographer, 9 December 2010), from Flickr. Pool room at Base Alfred-Faure, © Stéphane Bommert (photographer, 9 December 2010), from Flickr. Royal penguins socializing on Crozet © Jacques Bitterly & Gilles Rudelle (photographers), from Volontaires pour l'Aventure. TAAF postage stamp depicting the Patagonian Toothfish, from TAAF – All Rights Reserved.
Amsterdam & St-Paul Crozet Archipelago
Kerguelen Islands Terre Adélie