Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kerguelen Archipelago

An isolated sub-Antarctic group of islands under French administration

A desolate group of islands, islets, and rocks in the southern Indian Ocean lie about 2,000 miles southeast of South Africa and about 1,000 miles north of Antarctica.  The archipelago constitutes the highest portion of the largely submerged Kerguelen Plateau, a 1,500 mile long basalt structure formed by gigantic lava flows about 100 million years ago. 

Lying on the Antarctic Convergence, the archipelago’s weather is harsh, with precipitation (rain, sleet, or snow) more than 300 days annually.  Winds average over 60 miles per hour, with frequent hurricane-strength gusts.  Temperatures average 40°F.

Despite conditions that are uncomfortable for humans (or possibly because of those conditions), numerous animals reside in abundance on this land or in the adjacent waters.  Seabirds, such as albatross, petrels, and terns call Kerguelen home, as do four species of penguin.  There are an estimated 12 million breeding pairs of Macaroni penguins regularly on the archipelago.  Southern elephant seals and Kerguelen fur seals, hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth century, are now well established. 

The archipelago was discovered in 1772 by a French expedition commanded by Chevalier Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec.  When British Captain James Cook landed there in 1776, he called the archipelago the Desolation Islands. 

During the nineteenth century, whalers and sealers (primarily from Great Britain, the United States, and Norway) hunted whales, elephant seals, fur seals, and penguins to the point that the industry was no longer economically viable. 

During the early portion of World War II, the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis called at the Kerguelen Archipelago for maintenance and resupply. 

Since 1950, the French Government has maintained a contingent of scientists, meteorologists, and soldiers on Grand Terre, the largest of the islands.

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