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St-Paul & Amsterdam Islands, Part 2

Saint-Paul & Amsterdam Islands Today

Communication, Transport & Supplies

The Marion Dufresne II is an oceanographic vessel chartered by the Territoire des Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF) on an annual basis from the shipping line Compagnie Général Maritime. While the TAAF includes Terre Adélie in Antarctica, the boat is used to service the districts of Kerguelen, Crozet and the little islands of Amsterdam and Saint-Paul – delivering supplies, mail and personnel to the three permanently manned bases. (Watch videos.)

  Phone card for TAAF, depicting Marion Dufresne ship
Télécarte (phone card) depicting the Marion Dufresne oceanographic ship

Like its Australian counterpart the Aurora Australis, the Marion carries its quota of scientists, logisticians, construction workers, and a smattering of doctors. However, unlike the Australian ship, it also has many military technicians, conscripts and bureaucrats.

While some overseas French territories are now gaining partial autonomy (like Tahiti and New Caledonia), departments like Réunion, Martinique or Guadeloupe are administered – almost in an intimate way – as a part of France, reminiscent of 19th-century empire. In the case of smaller islands – such as Kerguelen, Crozet, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam – there is an important difference, though: since there are no permanent inhabitants, there is no electorate.

In general, the functioning and maintenance of the bases are carried out by civil servants for the logistics, the military for the infrastructure and medicine, by conscripts for some of the basic scientific research (military service is still compulsory for 18-year-olds), and by a few others engaged as civil participants by the French administration.

An 8-franc stamp of the TAAF, depicting Martin-de-Vivies base on Amsterdam
An 8-franc stamp of the TAAF, depicting Martin-de-Viviès base on Amsterdam
(click on image to see a postmarked
envelope of Saint-Paul Island)

The TAAF is dependent on the Ministry for the Interior in Paris. Philatelic sales make a modest local contribution to the revenue, as do earnings from fishing and fines imposed on seized foreign vessels infringing the economic zone (200 nautical miles).

Apart from a policing role in the region, the French presence also increases the security of yachts and fishing vessels. On leaving Amsterdam for Saint-Paul in November, the Marion Dufresne diverted in response to an SOS from an Australian yacht for a crewman with a dislocated shoulder. The yacht had been calling for help for three days. The Marion was able to pick the man up in the early hours of the morning, 124 miles (200 km) west of Amsterdam, and take him back to the well-equipped hospital there.

Life (and Work) On the Islands

Although Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands are among the most remote outposts on earth, at one time they were visited relatively often by seafaring explorers and commercial shipping ventures. However, following the reopening of the Suez Canal, and especially since air travel has completely replaced sea travel, this part of the world has become ever more isolated. It takes a particularly hardy soul to survive the combinations of weather, stark landscapes, and sheer solitude in this environment.

In fact, anyone who contemplates spending a year in such a rarefied social atmosphere (there are usually no more than 30 stationed here at any one time), must undergo a battery of psychological tests. These are intended to determine whether individuals possess the emotional fortitude to endure prolonged isolation without losing their minds! The separation from one's family and friends can be trying, and it is important to have one's personal affairs in order before committing to a year on Amsterdam. Finally, it is essential to be in good health; although a doctor is on staff, the harsh conditions can aggravate any pre-existing health concerns.

  Aerial view of the base buildings on Amsterdam Island
Aerial view of the Martin-de-Viviès
base's buildings on Amsterdam Island
(click on image to enlarge)

Those who spend a year here are known as les hivernants ("the over-winterers"). Although there is plenty of work to do, and every team member has a specialty designed to support the small community, there are a few amenities which make their existence tolerable: the site has a gym, a running track, bicycles, and the occasional game of pétanque. Photography is a popular pastime, and taking long walks across the island has its rewards – particularly when encountering the indigenous wildlife. For reasons of personal safety, no one is permitted to wander off alone or without a VHF radio beyond the limits of the base, as the volcanic terrain can be hazardous.

Due to the division of labor where each individual has a specialized responsibility, it is indispensable for the workers on Amsterdam to be able to work autonomously, yet be endowed with an enthusiastic team spirit. Because the Marion visits the island only every 2 months, it also helps to be blessed with a certain amount of ingenuity! Here is an approximate breakdown of the personnel and their jobs (each group comprises roughly 1/3 of the total population):

  • Career military personnel operate, maintain and/or provide: (1.) the base's electrical system, which derives its power from three fuel-powered generators; (2.) all electronics, telecommunications facilities, and the bank of antennas; (3.) infrastructure, including plumbing, heating & refrigeration, buildings, and water treatment (fresh water from rainfall is collected on the building roofs and stored); (4.) motorized equipment (tractor, crane, etc.); (5.) medical services - a doctor (who also has some supplemental dental training) plus volunteer medical assistants.
  • Civilian personnel include: (1.) the cook – essential to maintaining the high morale of all on the base! – plus several kitchen assistants; (2.) several meteorological scientists; (3.) masons & painters for the upkeep of buildings.
  • National Service personnel, known as V.A.T. (Volontaires à l'Aide Technique), who include: (1.) assorted scientists in various disciplines, to perform research and analysis; (2.) a baker/pastry chef; (3.) a carpenter, for general construction and physical plant improvements.
A 500-franc stamp, depicting the TAAF coat-of-arms
A 500-franc stamp,
depicting the TAAF
(click on image to enlarge)

As might be expected for an insular, specialized community like the Martin-de-Viviès base on Amsterdam, a unique lexicon has developed among les hivernants over the years – one which provides insights into the social structure and division of labor on the island. Understandably, the glossary of terms is in French. Click here to view the list.

Letting Off Steam

Recognizing that even the most level-headed people can experience "cabin fever" after being cooped up together for long periods, the TAAF sponsors an annual mid-winter festival at all three of its scientific bases (Crozet, Kerguelen, and Amsterdam). Appropriately enough, the festival begins each year on June 21 – the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere – and lasts for an entire week.

Activities include: egg-toss, archery, games such as Trivial Pursuit & Pictionary, movie (16mm), various races (including a course des garçons de café), ping-pong, boules (pétanque), infernal bicycling, animal calls, a picnic, medieval banquet, barbecue, crêpe party, amateur night, and the final event – a bonfire known as the Feu de la Saint-Jean à la Cale. A certain amount of silliness is de rigueur, providing a much-welcomed "mental health break" for the crew! Click here to see a complete schedule of events (in French).

Exploring the Terrain

Since Heurtin abandoned his herd on Amsterdam in 1871, the descendants of these cows have turned wild again, and now number more than 2,000. As a result of their extensive grazing and trampling over the island, the herd has upset the ecosystem – threatening the very existence of indigenous flora such as the Phylica. (read more in Flora and Fauna)

On the east side of Amsterdam, and a two-hour walk from the base, there is a conspicuous outcrop called the Versant des Phylicas, a plantation of unique native trees protected by a ring of cypress. They are the only trees in the TAAF.

As stated earlier, Admiral d'Entrecasteaux had witnessed an immense bushfire there in 1792. In 1833, the surviving passengers from the shipwrecked passenger vessel Lady Munroe, on its way from Madras to Hobart, provoked another fire. Apparently, the burning of peat, on which these trees depend, has almost wiped them out. The plantation is an effort by scientists to re-establish them on the island.

  Crater lake at Saint-Paul Island
Crater lake at Saint-Paul Island
© Cyril Szakolczaï - Photos des TAAF
All Rights Reserved
(click on image to enlarge)

There is an abundance of local crayfish. Standard fare in this place on any day could well consist of crayfish and mayonnaise, supplemented with smoked trout and prawns, complemented with pink salmon on crêpe over coulis of leeks, followed by magret of canard (locally produced) with berries.

Venturing Further South

The little island of Saint-Paul, due south of Amsterdam, is an almost mythical Jules Verne island that might just have harbored the Nautilus. Surely one of the natural wonders of the world, this unique island is a tiny, perfectly formed circular volcanic crater (see map) with a narrow opening to the sea, and nothing much else. Occupying an area of just 3.2 square miles (8.4 km2), it is uninhabited most of the year, serving only as an outpost for some research scientists in the summer months.


Yes, believe it or not, the TAAF region has been opened to tourism since 1994! Tourists with a penchant for adventure can take connecting flights from around the world to Réunion Island, then board the Marion Dufresne for a tour of Crozet, Kerguelen, Amsterdam and Saint-Paul islands. Winter tours – for hardy souls – cost between €5,500 and €7,350 (double or single occupancy), while summer tours range from €6,700 to €8,600. (Fares do not include airfare or insurance.)

For more information, visit the TAAF web site (in French only), or contact Thierry Perillo at Territoire des Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises, Rue Gabriel Dejean, 97410 Saint Pierre, France (Tel.: +33; fax: +33; e-mail: tourisme.info@taaf.fr).

Editor: Ian C. Mills. © 2003-. All Rights Reserved.

Sources: Amsterdam Island, a web site created by Jean-Yves Georges. The South Atlantic & Subantarctic Islands, a web site produced by Paul Carroll. 45th Mission to Île Amsterdam, a web site conceived by Cyril Szakolczai. Dante's Purgatory, an article by Andrew McIntyre, published in Quadrant, July 1999 (pg. 79). Harbors and High Seas, Third Edition, by Dean King with John B. Hattendorf, publ. by Henry Holt and Co., New York (2000). Thierry Micol & Pierre Jouventin, Restoration of Amsterdam Island, south Indian-Ocean, following removal of feral cattle (1995), Biological Conservation 73:199-206. All Rights Reserved.

Relevant publications: Les Oubliés de l'Ile Saint Paul, by Daniel Floch (language: French; publisher: Ouest-France; pub. April 2003). The Arch of Kerguelen, Voyage to the Islands of Desolation, by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, publ. by Four Walls Eight Windows, New York (1993).

Images: 'Maps of Ile Amsterdam and Ile St-Paul', from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas in Austin. 'Assorted postage stamps and télécartes (phone cards)', from the official site of the TAAF. 'Aerial view of the base buildings on Amsterdam Island' and 'Crater lake at Saint-Paul Island', from Photos des TAAF, a web site produced by Cyril Szakolczaï. 'Fur seal and Rockhopper penguins of Amsterdam Island', from Récits de Voyages – les Mers Australes, a web site maintained by Edouard Fromentel. 'Stamps and envelopes of Amsterdam and Saint-Paul Islands', from Bienvenue sur l'île Amsterdam, a web site created by Jean-Luc Bourrian, and from Philatélie des TAAF, a web site assembled by Loïc Guérin. 'Stamps of Phylica nitida tree and aerial view of Saint-Paul Island', from Albany Stamp Co. 'A sooty albatross guards its nest and chick', from L'Album Photos de l'Ile Amsterdam, a web site published by Jean-Luc Bourrian. 'Phylica tree, and Amsterdam albatross with chick', from Amsterdam Island, a web site created by Jean-Yves Georges. All Rights Reserved.

Next page >> Geography, Geology, and Climate


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