Islands are the perfect settings for holidays, right? You think of an island and immediately imagine a beautiful, idyllic getaway from the hustle of the city and daily life. As pretty and awesome as nature can be, it can also be quite scary.
Mother Nature is weird like that; nature gave us the climbing perch, a fish that can walk on land and the golden eagle, a bird that can lift deer. Nature also gave us the mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan. No, not lava, MUD. When they erupt, they shoot flames hundreds of meters into the sky. They also deposit tonnes of mud all around. In one incidence, the flames could be seen up to 15 km away from the site.
You should be. In some cases, it’s not always down to Mother Nature. Man does a pretty good job too. Take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris trapped by the currents of the Great North Pacific. A man-made mass approximately the size of Texas, just floating in the ocean, messing up the balance of aquatic life.
At Mother Nature’s best, she offers golden white sands, azure blue waters, lush vegetation a.k.a the perfect vacation. At her worst though, she offers these islands.
Nestled among the volcanic Izu Island chain of south east Japan, Miyake-jima Island is overshadowed by the active volcano, Mount Oyama. The island is situated on tectonic plates which occasionally shift, causing sulfur to spew out of the ground. One eruption led to 31 deaths in 1953.
In 2000, the level of sulfur in the air was so high that residents had to be evacuated. Commercial fights over the area were also canceled. Though the volcano has erupted as recently as 2006, the people of the island have been allowed to return and live there. However to survive, they have to carry their gas masks with them at all times.
9. Snake Island (Ilha da Queimada Grande)
Ophidiophobes, please stay away from this 430 sq m island, 90 miles off the coast of Brazil. This place is the definition of hell for anyone with a phobia for snakes (a third of adult humans). There are snakes on every square inch of the island; and we don’t mean tiny thread snakes.
Ilha da Queimada Grande is home to the largest population of the Golden Lancehead Viper, Bothrops insularis. Their concentration is estimated at one to five snakes per square meter. The lancehead viper is South America’s deadliest reptile; it’s responsible for 90% of snakebite fatalities in Brazil.
As they have no predators here, the vipers have evolved one of the fastest-acting venoms known to man. Their poison has been documented as melting the flesh around the bite. This place is so dangerous that a permit from the Brazilian Navy is required to visit.
8. Gruinard Island
Just North of Scotland, Gruinard Island was once home to a small town and its inhabitants. But during the Second World War, it was ‘acquired’ by the British government for use in developing and testing biological weapons, specifically anthrax.
The tests included dropping anthrax filled bombs on sheep that were left on the island for that purpose. In 1945, the Ministry of Supply deemed it unfit for human or animal habitation. By that time, contaminated soil from the island had started to wash towards mainland Scotland.
In the 1980s, the government tried to decontaminate the island by spraying tonnes of seawater and formaldehyde to kill any remaining bacteria spores. This treatment only succeeded in ‘cleaning’ the top soil of the island. Who knows what lies a few feet under? Despite this, the land was declared safe in 1997.
7. Bjørnøya, Bear Island
Situated 400 miles of the coast of the northernmost part of North Europe, Bear Island is the southernmost Island in the archipelago that houses Svalbard (150 miles away to be precise). On most expedition maps, it appears to be bang in the middle of nowhere, so you can infer that its pretty distant from anywhere.
Its remote location, barren cliffs, profound lack of rain all make it inhabitable for humans. There are also environmental concerns due to the sinking of the nuclear Soviet submarine Komsomolets on the southwest of the island. There is suspected leakage of radioactive material from the reactor that currently poses a problem of severe pollution to the island.
Occasionally used as a nature reserve by the scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute, Bear Island also has a 3,000 member club for nude dippers.
6. Bouvet Island
This ice covered (over 90% of the land mass is covered by a glacier) floating volcano is 1,500 miles from the southwest of South Africa. Originally a British territory, it was ceded to Norway in 1937. The closest uninhabited land mass to it is Antarctica, which is 1,100 miles to the south. Its closest inhabited location is Cape Agulhas in South Africa, over 1,400 miles to the northeast. These coordinates have earned it the title of the most remote island in the world.
The 19 square mile island has never been inhabited by man. However it’s an important breeding ground for seabirds. Some of the native species include the macaroni penguin, black-bellied storm petrel, wandering albatross and the great shearwater to name a few. The Antarctic fur seal is also known to breed on Bouvet.
With Bouvet’s mean temperature of −1°C, wind speeds of 15 mph and harsh terrain, it’s a definite no-no for anyone but the hardiest of explorers. This island is so isolated and dangerous that you need approval from the Norwegian government to visit.
5. Ramree Island
Except that wouldn’t do this island justice. The following is an account of events of one night during World War 2:
On the night of February 19, 1945, about 1,000 Japanese soldiers were retreating from the Allied forces and they made the choice of going through the marshes of Ramree. The saltwater crocodiles, considered the largest reptiles on the planet, in the marshes attacked them.
What followed next was like something out of the worst horror movie scene. This incident is doubly recorded in the Guinness Book of World records as “The Greatest Disaster Suffered [by humans] from Animals” and “Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack”. Of the 1,000 who went in, 20 were found alive.
This island is also home to blowflies, malaria carrying mosquitoes and scorpions.
4. North Sentinel Island
20 miles west of Smith Island, in the Bay of Bengal lies a 45 sq mile patch of lush green forest. Probably home to many species that haven’t been seen yet, and may never be. This island is a no-no for any visitors.
The natives firmly resist any form of contact with any other human and do their best to keep visitors out. They launch spears at boats that stray into their bays and fire arrows at helicopters that attempt to photograph the island.
Technically a part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory, the government has made the wise choice to leave the affairs of island to its inhabitants. To enforce this, the government put a three mile exclusion zone around it.
3. Enewetak Atoll
This breathtaking ring of tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean looks pretty, but it houses a deadly secret. The entire atoll served as a nuclear weapons testing ground for the US from 1948 till 1968. One of these tests was a hydrogen bomb 500 times bigger than the one dropped at Hiroshima.
The fallout for this test completely destroyed the entire island of Elugelab. Testing went on for another six years, with 43 weapons exploded. These polluted the soil and water of the atoll, even contaminating vessels and crew in the area.
In 1968, the indigenous people began to return, but they soon recorded a high rate ofmiscarriages and other health problems.
Around 1979, the US government attempted a cleanup operation. They excavated and took away over 100yards of contaminated earth, but still buried it close by in the Runit Islands. They went as far as building the Cactus Dome, an 18 inch , 100,000 square foot cement cap to cover the contaminated earth.
After another two years later, they deemed it safe to return. As of 2008, the Cactus Dome is showing cracks and chips across 60% of its structure.
Sometimes referred to as Rebirth Island, this small island in the Aral Sea, used to float between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Its location prompted the Soviet government to quietly establish a small research facility there. This facility was the main laboratory of the Soviet Microbiological Warfare Group.
For the next 40 years, scientists tested genetically engineered strains of ‘common’ biological weapons including plague, small pox and anthrax. They routinely released them into the air over the island and recorded the effects on livestock. Smallpox eventually spread to the mainland in 1971, killing 10 people.
In 1988, in an attempt to destroy evidence of its weapons program, the Soviets drenched their entire anthrax stock in bleach, sealed in stainless steel drums and buried them. This failed as anthrax has been found seeping through the soil.
This has effectively poisoned the groundwater and the island’s earth. Little wonder, CNN referred to it “a ticking time bomb in the heart of Asia.”
1. Farallon Islands
This group of islands just off the San Francisco bay, is a natural wildlife refuge for many of the oceans creatures. Elephant seals, birds even whales; all frolic in its blue waters. The teeming aquatic life also attracts scores of Great White sharks. Sharks have been known to mistake human divers for seals, so diving is not recommended here.
The seas around these pristine islands was the site of one of America’s nuclear radioactive waste dumps between 1946 and 1970. It’s estimated that over 47, 000, 55-gallon drums of radioactive material were sunk around this island in that period.
Attempts to clean up the area have failed as the exact amount of waste dumped here is hard to tell, plus the exact location of the dumping sites is largely unknown.
Like everyone else, we’d love to island-hop for a vacation. But if any of these pop up on our itinerary, we’d rather stay home. Staycation. Anyone?