Île Amsterdam: Isolated in the Indian Ocean

Imagine life in an extremely small village; 30 residents at most.  The village has just one store, one doctor, one place to dine, and a small power station.  Beyond the tiny village, large herds of cattle roam the countryside.  Now place all of that on a small island in the middle of the ocean 2 430 km (1 510 mi) from the nearest airport.  Welcome to Martin-de-Viviès, the only settlement on Île Amsterdam, a French possession in the southern Indian Ocean approximately halfway between South Africa and Australia, or if you prefer, halfway between Sri Lanka and Antarctica.

The settlement of Martin-de-Viviès, Île Amsterdam.


Île Amsterdam is a 10 x 7 km (6 x 4.3 mi) speck in the southern Indian Ocean, part of the widely-dispersed French Southern and Antarctic Lands.  To find Île Amsterdam’s nearest inhabited neighbour (the smaller, uninhabited ‘neighbouring’ island of Île Saint-Paul lies 85 km/53 mi to the south), you’d have to travel 1 412 km (878 mi) south to another French research station (Port-aux-Français, Kerguelen), and as far as the nearest civilian settlement, you’d have to travel the aforementioned 2 430 km (1 510 mi) northwest to reach the Mauritian island of Rodrigues.  The closest continent is Australia, 3 380km (2 100 mi) to the northeast.  The only way to reach the island is via a ship, the Marion Dufresne II, that makes its way from Réunion every two months.  The isolation of Martin-de-Viviès and Île Amsterdam is truly remarkable.


Île Amsterdam in comparison to the rest of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.  Source: Aotearoa, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TAAF-fr.png.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Thirty people live on Île Amsterdam year-round, many of them scientists and volunteers who come to manage the island’s three research laboratories: the weather station; the RACEA (Laboratory of Physiochemistry of the Atmosphere), which collects and measures samples of the pollution-free air; and the geophysical laboratory, which measures the earth’s magnetic field.  There are also about ten military personnel, and other civilians such as cook, carpenters and mason required to keep up the infrastructure in Martin-de-Viviès.  People who work on Île Amsterdam go there on one-year shifts after taking a barrage of psychological tests that their ability to handle prolonged isolation akin to a research station in the Antarctic; not that the island is even remotely Antarctic in terms of weather.  Staff on the island do require the ability to keep themselves entertained, such as blogging about their experiences or making their own Benny Hill-style comedic shorts:

The climate of Île Amsterdam is remarkably consistent year-round, aided by its latitude (37°49 south), its oceanic location, and its constant stiff winds.  The average daily high temperature varies a scant six degrees between January (19.5°C/67.1°F) and July (13.°3C/55.9°F), and the daily low is rarely more than 5°C (8°F) below that mark (contrast that with the nearest major islands, Kerguelen, which host large glaciers).  These pleasant temperatures are offset by constant stiff winds and frequent rain.  The island is the above-water portion of a potentially active volcano; the highest of the three summits surrounding the central plateau rises 867 m (2 844 ft) above the water (built up over a span of at least 400 000 years), and the plateau itself contains ten separate craters.  Because of this volcanic origin much of the coastline is rugged, especially the west side which is composed of steep cliffs.

Despite its isolation, Île Amsterdam was reached as early as 1522 by the explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano during his circumnavigation of the world for Spain.  The island received its name in 1633 when the Dutch captain Anthonie van Diemen, he of Van Diemen’s Landfame, named the island for his ship Nieuw Amsterdam.  It was not until 1696 that anyone actually bothered to land on the island (another Dutchman, Willem de Vlamingh) and it took until 1792 before it was thoroughly surveyed by the French navigators Bruni d’Entrecasteaux and Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec during their search for the vanished French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse.  By this time, the island was already known as a place for sealing, fishing, and shipwrecks due to its location along the Africa-Australia shipping route.

The first intentional attempt at settling Île Amsterdam (notwithstanding the people marooned on the island for various lengths of time) occurred in January 1871 when an expedition set out from Réunion to establish a farm and cattle ranch; the colony failed and the group returned to Réunion that August.  Even with this attempt at settlement, France did not formally claim Île Amsterdam or its neighbour Île Saint-Paul until October 1892, and it was not until New Year’s Eve 1949 that France established the current base on the island; first called Camp Heurtin, then La Roche Godon, and, since 1981, Martin-de-Viviès, after a member of the 1949 party.

While the island has only been inhabited permanently for the past seven decades, the human impact over the centuries has been huge.  Formerly lushly forested, the native trees of Île Amsterdam, the phylica, were nearly completely wiped out between the 1790s and 1870s by a series of bush fires and later by the cattle left behind in the failed 1871 colonisation attempt.  There are now efforts ongoing to replenish the forests, which had been reduced to a few dozen hectares at one point.  Hundreds of feral cattle still roam the island to this day, along with other introduced animalssuch as mice, rats, and cats.  Native fauna include the eastern rockhopper penguin, the subantarctic fur seal, and three different species of albatross including the critically endangered Amsterdam albatross, of which there are only 130 remaining; the feral cats and cattle take much of the blame for decline in population, for Île Amsterdam is this species’ only breeding ground.

Believe it or not, there is actually a tourist industry on Île Amsterdam.  The very same Marion Dufresne II that is the lifeline of the island (and of Île Saint-Paul, Kerguelen, and Île Crozet, bringing in all supplies and fuel while removing all rubbish), can carry tourists on each trip for month-long voyages, visiting three of the four islands (Île Saint-Paul is off-limits to tourists).  Winter voyages cost €5500 for a shared cabin and €7350 for an individual cabin; in the summer the prices rise to €6700 and €8600, respectively.  Where it’s too windy or too craggy to dock, a helicopter transports passengers and supplies from the deck of the Dufresne.  Considering the trip lasts an entire month, it may just be worth it to see such a remote, scenic area of the world.

Further Reading

Carroll, P. (2003).  Amsterdam/St. Paul.  The South Atlantic and Subantarctic Islands, 29 June 2003.  Available at http://www.btinternet.com/~sa_sa/amsterdam/amsterdam.html.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Climate-Charts.com (2012).  Martin de Viviès, France Indian Ocean: Climate, Global Warming, and Daylight Charts and Data.  Available at http://www.climate-charts.com/Locations/f/F161996.php.  Accessed 6 March 2012.

ErwanC (2012).  Hivernage sur l’île Amsterdam / 2011-2012.  Available at http://amsterdamisland.canalblog.com/.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Georges, J-Y. (1999).  Amsterdam Island.  1 April 1999.  Available at http://jygeorges.free.fr/english/menu.html.  Accessed 6 March 2012.

Lynch, F.L. (2003).  Ile Amsterdam.  Heritage Expeditions: Remote Islands of the Southern Indian Ocean.  Available at http://www.farvoyager.com/siov/amst1.html.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Mills, I.C. (2012).  St-Paul & Amsterdam Islands.  Discover France.  Available at http://www.discoverfrance.net/Colonies/St-Paul_Amsterdam.shtml.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Ocean Dots (2010).  Île Amsterdam & Île St. Paul.  Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20101127221916/http://oceandots.com/southern/amsterdam/.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Szalkolczai, C. (2001).  La 45ème Mission (1994) Île Amsterdam – TAAF.  Available at http://45eme.mission.free.fr/index2.htm.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Terres australes et antarctiques français (2009).  Vers les îles australes à bord du Marion-Dufresne.  Available at http://www.taaf.fr/spip/IMG/pdf/taaf_tourisme_version_def.pdf.  Accessed 7 March 2012.

Nearby Articles