By Bill Torbitt
ISLANDS OFF NAMIBIA’S COAST
While according to John Donne “No man is an island”, we are all fascinated by islands, and by the feeling of peace, remoteness and security they offer. The very rich buy their own, and the rest of us aspire to the ultimate tropical island holiday.
For a start there are nearly 20 islands off the Namibian coast. Collectively they are called the Penguin Islands. Also referred to as the Offshore Islands, they extend from Walvis Bay down to the South African coastal waters. While some are no more than rocks, the largest less than a square kilometre in extent, since the 19th century they have had economic and scientific importance as diamond fields, sources of guano and nowadays as bird sanctuaries.
Mercury Island, a rocky outcrop only 750 metres long and bisected by a huge cave, is inhabited by two researchers! It supports 80% of the entire global population of the bank cormorant, and over 90% of the Namibian population of the endangered African penguin.
Although some of the islands are barely metres off the mainland, they have had a complicated political history that is tied in with the fortunes of Walvis Bay, which was first a British and then a South African dependency, never part of German South West Africa. Only in 1994, with the reintegration of Walvis Bay into the country, did ownership of the islands pass to Namibia.
Some of the islands were given strange names, probably by hungry sailors longing for the comforts of home. These include Roast Beef Island and Plum Pudding Island!
Due to their efficiency as collectors of guano, natural islands have been given a little help by the construction of artificial islands or platforms. The so-called Bird Island off the coast at Walvis Bay is a platform extending over some 17 000 square metres!
Shark Island is not a real island, but a peninsula adjoining the town of Lüderitz. While now a campsite, it was once infamous as the site of a concentration camp for Namas and Hereros during the genocide of 1904–1907.
REMOTE SEMI-INHABITED ISLANDS
Lying to the south are the Prince Edward and Marion islands, owned by South Africa and used for research and conservation, and as weather stations. In the case of Marion Island, considerable damage was done to the ecology by the importation of domestic cats, which multiplied to several thousand and devastated the local bird life. The cats had to be exterminated. These islands are among the cloudiest places in the world.
Even further south, we find the remote Bouvet Island, now owned by Norway. This is one of the world’s most isolated places – a sub-Antarctic island nearly totally covered by glaciers. In the 1970s a mysterious ‘flash’ incident occurred from this island – sometimes alleged but never proved to be a nuclear test by the then South African apartheid government. Although totally uninhabited, Bouvet has its own Internet domain!
ISLANDS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF AFRICA
Île de l’Europa and Juan de Nova, which are owned by France, are coral atolls situated between Mozambique and Madagascar. Although uninhabited except for French garrisons who built high-quality airstrips on them, they are covered with mysterious ruins. The Europa Island in the Mozambique Channel hosts the world’s largest population of green sea turtles, but has nothing to do with Europe – it was discovered by a ship called the Europa.
AND THE MYTHICAL ISLANDS?
What about the fictional islands? We do not mean the hundreds of islands in fictional literature, but ones that were reportedly discovered, indicated for many years on respectable maps, but were afterwards shown not to exist. Among these were Thompson Island in the sub-Antarctic, and St Matthew Island in the Gulf of Guinea. Whether they did once exist, but were destroyed by volcanic action, nobody knows.
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This article was originally published in the March 2013 Flamingo magazine (Air Namibia's in-fligt magazine).