You’ve been hiking all day. You followed a trail surrounded by grass, moss, and patches of lichen. You saw mountains and glaciers, fjords and coves. You watched wandering albatrosses, northern giant petrels, and black-faced sheathbills fly overhead. You protected your face when the wind picked up. You caught glimpses of feral sheep and reindeer in the distance. Now you hear a strange noise ahead. It sounds like grunting or burping or another, even more unpleasant, bodily function.
As you round a treeless bend, you see that the noisemaker is a southern elephant seal. Make that hundreds, if not thousands, of southern elephant seals. The bulls—the largest of the seals—are enormous. They must weigh 6,000 pounds, if not more. They have large black eyes, a trunk-like snout, a tail fin, and webbed feet, while their thick skin looks like leather. Furry black pups stay close to their mothers. Plus yellow-crested macaroni and long-tailed gentoo penguins huddle in the background.
Welcome to one of the most isolated places on Earth. The Kerguelen Islands are more than 2,000 miles from the nearest human settlement. The 300 islands sit in the southern Indian Ocean, just north of the Antarctic Circle. They were first discovered by a Breton-French navigator in 1772. American, British, and Norwegian whalers and sealers hunted here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then French scientific researchers arrived in 1950. They’ve been the Desolation Islands’ only inhabitants ever since.
You arrived on Grande Terre, the largest of the Kerguelen Islands, after many days at sea. Without an airport on the islands, this was your only option. Grande Terre is about the size of Delaware. Mont Ross, a stratovolcano on the Gallieni Peninsula, is the highest point. It’s covered by part of Cook Glacier, France’s largest glacier. An old geomagnetic station, where the transit of Venus was observed in 1874, is in Betsy Cove on the northern coast. While the small capital, Port-aux-Français, sits on the Gulf of Morbihan on the eastern shore. It’s home to the research center, a satellite tracking station, the port, dorms, a chapel, and even a pub.
But back to those seals. Those noisy, smelly, fascinating southern elephant seals. Some are sleeping. Others are making aggressive posturing movements. And a young pup is waddling in your direction. His voice isn’t nearly as loud or as deep as the rest of the seals, and, at this point, he only weighs a couple hundred pounds. You’re quickly falling in love. Luckily, you can see exactly what this little guy will look—and sound—like as an adult. Otherwise, you might be trying to figure out how to get him on the boat heading home.