Selvagem Grande Island, Savage Islands

Photo: Madeira Regional Tourism Board
Photo: Madeira Regional Tourism Board

It’s hard to find a quiet island in Europe anymore. The Aegean, Balearic, and Campanian Islands are overrun with tourists. The Azores and the Channel Islands are new hot spots. Even the Faroe Islands have been discovered. But there’s still one archipelago that’s wild and undeveloped. That’s because no one is allowed here.

The Savage Islands, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, lie between also-popular Madeira and the Canary Islands. The two islands—plus a handful of surrounding islets—are Portugal’s southernmost point. The uninhabited islands were first discovered in 1438. After an attempted settlement failed, they were mainly used by fishermen and pirates in the years that followed. In 1971, they became the Savage Islands Reserve. One of the oldest nature reserves in Portugal is now being reviewed for UNESCO protection status.

Only two people live on the Savage Islands right now. A nature reserve guard and a Portuguese biologist, studying the largest colony of Cory’s shearwaters in the world, call Selvagem Grande Island home. Their volcanic island is steep, rocky, and dry. Three volcanic cones—Atalaia to the west, Tornozelos to the east, and Inferno to the south—form high peaks. A lone lighthouse is automated. Cory’s and Quarries Bays are filled with sea spiders, barred hogfish, and lots of sea urchins. While white-faced storm petrels, yellow-legged gulls, Berthelot’s pipits, and those large shearwaters use the island as a nesting ground.

To visit the island, you need permission from authorities on Madeira, another Portuguese archipelago that sits 175 miles to the north. Besides other scientists, it’s mostly adventurous sailors who receive access. They’re welcomed by two people happy to see outsiders, a friendly dog, and lots of noisy birds. It turns out there isn’t a quiet spot in Europe after all.


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