By definition, islands are a place apart from the rest of the world. Even life evolves differently because of the isolation – forming their own little ‘universes’, let’s say, away from the mainland. Nobody really knows how many islands there are on the face of the Earth, but their number can be well over one million and ranging in size from mere islets to, well, Australia, if some want to consider it an island in the first place. And as you may already suspect, there are some out there that are more different and unique than others. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of them.
10. Bouvet Island
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything too out of the ordinary with Bouvet Island. It is, however, the most isolated island on the whole planet. It’s currently uninhabited and will most likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. Bouvet Island is located 1,370 miles away from Africa’s southernmost tip, and about the same distance away from Antarctica. It’s also the southernmost island part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and as of 1927, it officially belongs to the Norwegians, who occasionally send a research team there to monitor whale migration.
But as anyone, particularly sailors, who have ever seen the island with their own eyes can tell you, Bouvet Island is one of the scariest places on the ocean. About 90 percent of its surface is covered in thick ice, and almost vertical volcanic rocks, high glacial cliffs and underwater reefs make up its shores. These make it incredibly difficult to dock, or even leave the island by boat. The safest way to get there is by helicopter. Bouvet Island is also located right along the path of the Furious Fifties winds. There’s an old sailor’s saying: “below 40 degrees south there is no law/below 50 degrees south there is no God,” so you know it’s bad. Together with the so-called Roaring Forties and the Screaming Sixties, the Furious Fifties make up for almost incessant violent storms and six-story high waves, all sprinkled with the ever-present threat of icebergs.
The island was first discovered back in 1739 by Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier. But he misplaced it on the map, and it took almost another 70 years for another sailor to rediscover it in 1808. Then, in 1964, an expedition to the island had revealed an unexpected discovery. In a small lagoon, and surrounded by a colony of seals, there was an abandoned and half-swamped rowing boat, but still in good enough condition to be seaworthy. At first glance, it looked like a lifeboat and some survivors might have made it to shore. But the small boat had no markings on it to indicate its nationality or identity, and the nearest trade route was at least one thousand miles away. There were no signs of life on shore, even though there was some equipment lying on the beach, close to the boat. One hypothesis is that the boat was part of a Soviet expedition to Antarctica that may have also visited the island in 1959, but nobody has confirmed that. This mystery is yet to be solved.
9. Lasqueti Island
Here’s yet another island that doesn’t look like much on the surface, but you should know that Lasqueti Island, which is about an hour’s ferry ride from Vancouver, has the most highly educated community in British Columbia. The Manhattan-sized island is home to about 420 people, 70 of which are children, while the other 350 are “poets, artists, physicists, fishermen, loggers, tree planters, designers, professional musicians, published authors, some small scale manufacturers, some commercial agriculture as well as professional consultants in education, engineering, forestry and alternate energy,” according to the community’s blog.
What’s more, the community here is almost entirely self-sufficient and living off the grid. Their electricity is provided in large part by solar panels, wind and water turbines, as well as a few conventional gas generators. Some people, however, decide to live without electricity altogether, relying instead on good old fire. There are no paved roads on the island, no sewage system, and the fresh water supply can run thin sometimes, depending on the season. The only way in or out is by ferryboat that makes one or two trips per day, five days a week, weather permitting. Most of the inhabitants grow their own food and refrain from depending on anything the mainland could provide. Money has no purpose on the island either, and they share what they have between them. There’s one pub, one café, and a free store where the residents exchange their stuff. A lady who’s a dog breeder has over 40 St. Bernards, and there are also around 1,000 feral sheep roaming the island.
Many outsiders may be tempted to join the community or simply visit – something that they’re completely free to do. There is, however, a piece of advice given by the residents to all of those who’re interested. “However you decide to come, and whatever you are hoping to find here, please keep this in mind: Lasqueti is not some utopian paradise, it is not an ‘intentional community’, and it is probably not whatever you think it is – it is just a relatively remote island, populated by a small, tight-knit community of quirky, independent-minded people, with its own unique culture and identity. Come with an open mind, a willingness to discover something a little different, and without rigid expectations. Resist the urge to project upon us your vision of what this place ‘should’ be. It is what it is, and we like it this way, warts and all.”
8. There’s an Island in a Lake, on an Island in a Lake, on an Island
On the largest island in the Philippines, there’s a lake that has an island in it, which also has a lake, which also has an island. So, let’s break it down Inception-style. First there’s the largest island of the Philippines, known as Luzon. And some thirty miles south of Manila, the country’s capital, there’s Lake Taal. The interesting thing about this lake, though, is that, not that long ago, it was still part of the ocean. But after a series of volcanic eruptions during the 1700s, the inlet became a lake, as volcanic debris dammed the entire entrance. There’s only a shallow river that now connects Lake Taal with the South China Sea. The once salty waters have turned fresh due to several centuries of rains and the species trapped there have adapted to their new environment. One of the two known species of sea snakes that can also live in fresh water is found here. And up until the 1930s, there was also a species of bull shark living in the lake, until it was driven to extinction by the locals.
Anyway, inside Lake Taal, there’s Volcano Island, which is actually the volcano’s cone rising above the water. This cone’s caldera has also filled up with water and is known by the locals as the Yellow Lake. And yes, the water in this lake is a bit greenish-yellow, compared to the water in Lake Taal. Finally, within Yellow Lake there’s a tiny islet known as Vulcan Point. For years, this was considered to be the largest third order island in the world. But with the help of Google Maps, some people were able to discover an even bigger one on Victoria Island in Northern Canada. But while Lake Taal and its islands is one of the Philippines’ best known tourist attractions, the third order islands in Canada don’t even have a name. And given its remoteness, chances are that no human has ever been there.
7. Floating Islands
This might come as a surprise, but there are a large number of floating islands in the world, and they come in many forms. One can oftentimes find such floating islands on lakes or marshlands, where vegetation and other buoyant organic materials break away from the shore and start migrating on the water until they either reattach to another bank or are broken off by severe weather events. These types of floatons, or suds, as they are sometimes called, can range in both size and thickness, with some of them even reaching several hectares in size. Now, when it comes to the oceans, floating islands can become huge – and we’re not talking here about the Great Pacific garbage patch, either, because that doesn’t resemble an island in any shape or form. Most of the trash there is made out of microscopic pieces of plastic that either floats through the water, invisible to the naked eye, or in most cases, it sinks to the bottom.
What we’re actually talking about are pumice rafts. These are created when underwater volcanoes go off and then eliminates large quantities of pumice – a porous and buoyant volcanic rock. This material then can float and spread on the ocean for months or even years, traveling thousands of miles before the pumice is saturated with enough water and then sinks back to the bottom. If the pumice raft is large enough, and given enough time, some of them can even have grass and palm trees growing on them. Some scientists also believe that animal and plant species may have migrated between ocean islands on such pumice rafts, while others go even a step further by saying that they may have even played a crucial role in the creation of life on Earth.
Back in 2012, the Havre Seamount underwater volcano erupted, which lead to the creation of one such floating island roughly the size of Israel, some 7,500 square miles in size. It was spotted close to Raoul Island in the South Pacific, in between New Zealand and Fiji. Lieutenant Tim Oscar, of the Royal Australian Navy, described it as “the weirdest thing I’ve seen in 18 years at sea. The rock looked to be sitting two feet above the surface of the waves, and lit up a brilliant white color in the spotlight. It looked exactly like the edge of an ice shelf.” In 2006, some people yachting from the Island of Neiafu to Fiji actually encountered one such pumice raft during formation. They even sailed through it for several hundred meters before they turned back. If they’ve stayed there any longer, the engine would have clogged and they would have been stranded.
6. The Ottoman ‘Atlantis’
The most picturesque portion of the Danube is where the river passes through a series of narrow and almost vertical gorges, going through the Carpathian Mountains to the north and the Balkan Hills to the south. Here, the mighty River Danube is literally squeezed through a 490-foot wide channel, where the water reaches depths of over 170 feet. Known as the Cauldrons, these gorges are said to make the Danube seem like it’s ‘boiling’, with its waters rushing through the narrow path. And it was also here that an island once existed. It went by many names, but the most frequently used was Ada Kaleh. One mile long and a quarter mile wide, its first official mention was in 1430 when the Teutonic Knights called it Saan. Some say that the island was even mentioned by Herodotus in his Histories as early as the 5th century BC, but this theory doesn’t hold much water.
Regardless of these facts, its name of Ada Kaleh translates to Island Fortress in Turkish. All throughout the 16th to the 18th centuries, the island’s strategic location on the Danube had seen it go through many conflicts, mainly between the two empires that exerted their dominance in the region – the Austrians and the Ottomans. Even a fortress –as the island’s name suggests – was first built there in 1689, only to be conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, and reconquered several times. With the Treaty of Sistova in 1791, which marked the end of the Fourth Austro-Turkish War, Ada Kaleh was handed to the Ottomans for the last time. By the 19th century, the island lost much of its strategic military importance, even as the Turks began to lose their grip on the Balkan region. By the second half of the 1800s, the Ottomans granted independence to Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, as well as autonomous independence to Bulgaria. In short, the Turks retreated, more or less, out of Europe, but somehow left Ada Kaleh as an exclave, with its roughly 1,000 inhabitants being exempt from all taxes, tolls, or military service.
In 1923, when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and the Republic of Turkey was created, the island’s inhabitants voted to join Romania. Still exempt from taxes and given its picturesque location, Ada Kaleh became a favored tourist destination, as a sort of mini-Orient marooned in Christian Europe. It had everything from Turkish-style narrow and overcrowded streets, to black tea, Turkish delight, unfiltered coffee, and locally grown tobacco. But during the mid-1960s, the communist regimes of Romania and Yugoslavia decided to build the Iron Gates Hydroelectric Dam downriver from Ada Kaleh. This meant that the island’s days were numbered. By 1971 the dam was ready, the island was depopulated and it then slowly disappeared under the waves. Its iconic minaret and other structures were then blown up with dynamite so as to safeguard future shipping up and down the river.
5. Gunkanjima Island
Hashima Island, or more commonly known as Gunkanjima (which means Battleship Island in Japanese), is a small, 16-acre island, located some 9 miles away from the city of Nagasaki, and as its name suggests, it does kinda look like a battleship from the side. It is one of the 505 uninhabited islands that are part of the Nagasaki prefecture in southern Japan. But even though it’s uninhabited, Gunkanjima is surrounded by a seawall, and by the late 1950s it became known as “Midori nashi Shima,” or the island without green. This is because almost every square inch of it was covered in concrete in an almost remarkable maze of tall apartment buildings, courtyards, corridors, and winding stairways. During its peak, the island was home to almost 5,500 people, giving it the highest population density in human history.
Coal was first discovered there back in 1810 and a mine was established in 1887. In 1890, Mitsubishi, which was then a shipping company, bought the island and began extracting coal from the undersea mines. Up until it was closed down in 1974, the mine produced roughly 15.7 million tons of coal. The island was also equipped with a town hall, school, kindergarten, hospital, community center, cinema, swimming pools, a clubhouse, and several other entertainment venues. But from the 1930s up until the end of WWII, most of the people there were Korean conscripts and Chinese prisoners of war who were put to forced labor in the mines. An estimated 1,300 people died on Gunkanjima during that time, either from mining accidents, exhaustion, or malnutrition. During the 1960s, Japan began replacing coal with petroleum as its main source of power, and the coal mines were being phased out, Gunkanjima included.
After 1974, when the mine was shut down, the island was abandoned and remained deserted up until 2009. Since then, a small part of it is open to tourists. Also in 2009, the Japanese government wanted the island to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but South Korea was opposed to it. The two governments eventually reached a compromise in 2015 when Japan grudgingly agreed to mention the atrocities that took place there during the 1930s and ’40s. The island also made an appearance in the 2012 movie Skyfall as the lair of James Bond’s villain, Raoul Silva.
4. Snake Island
Some 90 miles away from Sao Paulo’s coast in Brazil, there’s an island completely infested with snakes. There are so many and they’re so dangerous that the Brazilian government has banned people from ever going there – yes, even Samuel L. Jackson. The only people that are allowed to go are the Navy, which checks on the automated lighthouse there once a year, and some scientific expeditions now and again. But even they must always be accompanied by a doctor just in case. Its official name is Ilha da Queimada Grande and almost all Brazilians are aware of its existence, and there are even some rumors and legends going around about it.
There’s one such story about a fisherman who landed on the island in search of some bananas only to be found days later dead in his boat with snake bites all over his body. Another story talks about the lighthouse keeper and his family who, during one night, were all killed while snakes began pouring into their house through the windows. To be fair, up until 1920, the lighthouse needed to be operated manually and people did have to live there. And lastly, there’s a story about pirates who are said to be the ones who brought the snakes to the island in the first place, in order to protect their buried treasure.
But the real story about the snakes on the island is not as romantic, even though it’s equally interesting. Roughly 11,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, the island was still connected to the mainland. But as the ocean waters began to rise, the snakes living there became stranded. And because they were fortunate enough not to have any predators with them at the time, they began to multiply rapidly. For food, however, they had to rely on the migratory birds that stopped on the island for a breather. Venomous snakes usually bite their prey, wait for the venom to kick in and then track them down and eat them. But because these snakes did not have the luxury of tracking these birds, they’ve evolved a special kind of venom, far more potent than their cousins on the mainland – so as to kill the birds almost instantaneously.
These are the Golden Lancehead Vipers, and they are endemic to the island. Marcelo Duarte, a scientist with the Brazilian Butantan Institute talked about the advantages of this venom for various medical purposes. He said that golden lancehead’s venom has shown promise in treating heart disease and other circulatory problems, as well as a potential anti-cancer drug. And because of this, coupled with the high demand coming from animal collectors, poaching has turned rampant. The price for one such snake has skyrocketed to anywhere in between $10,000-30,000, while the number of golden lanceheads has plummeted by 50% over the past 15 years. Today, the snake is listed as critically endangered.
3. North Sentinel Island
Located in the Andaman Archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, North Sentinel Island is home to the last tribe of humans who, at the current moment, have no contact with the outside world (that we know of, anyway). It is estimated that anywhere in between 50 to 400 people live on the island. There have been several attempts to establish contact the Sentinelese, with most of them ending in arrows being fired. The tribe is incredibly territorial towards outsiders, a trait that has kept them alive until now. The island is also surrounded by shallow reefs, which makes it perilous to dock or sail away. The Sentinelese have lived in isolation on the island for over 60,000 years, ever since early man left Africa and reached the area, giving them the oldest genetic makeup in the world. In 1880, a British expedition landed on the island, and after several days of searching, they came across six Sentinelese – an elderly couple and four children. They took them to Port Blair on the nearby Middle Andaman Island, but the elders soon became ill and died. The children were then returned to their island alongside some goods.
Several other attempts were made to contact these people, but none were successful. In 1981, a ship got grounded on the reefs and the tribesmen tried to overtake it. Because of a storm, rescue arrived after a week, during which time the crew held them off with flare guns, axes, and long metal pipes. The wreckage can still be seen today with the help of satellite images. In 2006, two fishermen got stranded in their waters and were killed by the tribesmen. When a helicopter was sent to retrieve the bodies, it too was greeted with volleys of arrows. With the exception of some metal they scavenged from the derelict ship and used to tip their arrows, the Sentinelese are considered as Stone Age people. They are hunter gatherers, have not made use of agriculture, and the canoes they built can only be used in shallow waters around their island. The Indian government, which oversees the archipelago, has put an exclusion zone around North Sentinel Island in an attempt to preserve the ancient tribe. Unfortunately however, local operators are organizing so-called “safaris” with armored boats to the island.
2. Ball’s Pyramid
Ball’s Pyramid is a 1,843-foot tall vertical spire that projects from the ocean floor after a long extinct volcano erupted some 7 million years ago, making it one of the tallest volcanic stacks in the world. It also offers some of the best scuba diving experiences Australia can provide, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s located about 400 miles northeast of Sydney and is relatively close to Lord Howe Island. This island was home to a rare species of stick insect, the Dryococelus australis, or more commonly known as “land lobsters” or “walking sausages”. At 6 inches long, this was the heaviest stick insect in the world. But in 1918 a supply ship ran aground on Lord Howe Island and it took nine days before the necessary repairs were made and the ship could leave. But during that time, some rats made it to shore and then multiplied like crazy, thanks to a delicacy they found on the island – the “walking sausages”. In just two years’ time, the insect went extinct.
Then in 2001, two scientists decided to scale the spire, hearing of some rumors from the 1960s that said some of the stick insects were found dead there. After a diligent search, they found nothing and when they were going back down, they came across a single melaleuca bush piercing through the rock. And underneath that bush, lo and behold, there were not one, not two, but 24 land lobsters – the last of their kind. Seeing them, one of the climbers exclaimed: “It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world.” Nobody really knows how they made it to Ball’s Pyramid – probably one of their ancestors hitched a ride on a bird, or something. Nevertheless, two years later they returned, took two of them, the “Adam and Eve” as they called them, in an attempt of breeding them in captivity. Five years later, in 2008, there were 700 adults and over 11,000 eggs in incubation. To the scientists’ knowledge, that lonely bush on Ball’s Pyramid is still the only place these insects live in the wild.
1. The Garden of Eden… literally
The Bible, believe it or not, gives some surprisingly accurate details about the actual location of Eden. In Genesis 2, there’s mention of a river that flows through the Garden of Eden, and this river has four main tributaries, two of which are known: the Tigris and Euphrates in modern day Iraq. The other two rivers, the Pishon and the Gihon, are not known. This has led many to believe that the description in the Bible was more metaphorical than anything else. These two missing rivers are said to pass through the lands of Havilah and Cush. Now, senior geologist Ward Sanford has identified two old riverbeds in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula that flow toward the Persian Gulf. He also mentions that during the last Ice Age, the sea levels were lower than they are today and the weight of the glaciers on the continents pushed the areas that have narrow straits upward. This means that both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea might have been dry during that time, in which case the four rivers could have met in an area now underwater.
Now, on a somewhat similar note, the semi-mythical lands of Dilmun are mentioned in old Sumerian scripts dating to more than 4,000 years ago, in old poems and even in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This land’s description is somewhat similar to that of the Garden of Eden in the Bible, which was quite possibly the inspiration for it in the first place. Other records also talk about Dilmun as being a great empire and an important trading hub between ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilization. This ancient civilization has since been identified as being located on Bahrain Island. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel also hints at the idea of Eden being a trading center of some sort, probably referring to Dilmun. So, chances are that Bahrain is actually the Bible’s Garden of Eden. It’s also important to note that there was also a story involving a serpent in the Epic of Gilgamesh in his journey to Dilmun, and there was a snake cult maintained in Bahrain 2,000 years after the event described in the epic.