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Islands of adventures
By Parag Ranjan Dutta
I was a voracious reader of adventure stories and this narrative is a byproduct of that habit. From my childhood, islands have drawn my attention, some because of their isolation, varied fauna, colonisation and above all a source of inspiration to many writers.
Some islands are very close to the continents, while some are far off and are almost uninhabited. A number of Caribbean islands were under the Spanish rule and people there had witnessed a silent political and cultural invasion in their lives. Similarly, France rules a large territory in the Southern Atlantic, today known as French Polynesia. A number of islands in the southern Atlantic are still ruled by foreign powers.
St Helena and Falkland islands are British overseas territories. Azores and Madeira are Portuguese and Bouvet, the farthest island in the world are governed by Norway. A number of Mediterranean islands are volcanic in nature. A most favoured tourist destination of Greece, Santorini, is a classic example. Indonesia is the most volcanic region of the world and island of Java alone has about 50 active volcanoes.
A number of famous novels by great authors like Jules Verne, HG Wells, Daniel Defoe, Cervantes and others were based on island locations. Daniel Dafoe was inspired by the story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years in an uninhabited island. Robinson Crusoe’s story is similar to that of the Scottish sailor.
Alexander Dumas’ famous fictional story, Count Of Monte Cristo (Mount of Christ), based on real events after the fall of Napoleon’s Empire was centered on a French prison in a small island in the Tuscan Peninsula. English author and the science fiction writer HG Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau and Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island were no exceptions. The famous lighthouse in Jules Verne’s adventure novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World is a real island location called Isla de los, in Argentina. The theme of this plot involves around piracy and survival in a hostile environment on an island located 29 kilometers off Tierra del Fuego. The famous novel Corsican Brothers about two conjoined brothers by Alexander Duma was based on the island of Corsica.
In the latter half of the 19th century, a number of voyages were made to the distant islands of the Pacific Ocean which opened up a new horizon not only for the biologists but also found some concrete proofs of human evolution. In 1831, Charles Darwin was invited to join HMS Beagle for an extensive tour around the world. For the next five years the inmates surveyed the coast of South America and Darwin was free to explore the continent and islands, including the Galapagos.
Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Equador lying on both sides of the equator in the Pacific, is a volcanic archipelago. This island is a paradise for wildlife viewing. During his second voyage to Galapagos in 1835 he found 15 different finches, which later came to be known as Galapagos finches. During the passage of time Darwin’s finches evolved into 15 different recognizable species differing in size, beak shape, and feeding behaviour. He was profoundly inspired by the Galapagos species which prompted him to formulate his landmark theory of evolution.
A number of Mid Atlantic Ridge islands are unique in their own way where we find the loneliest and the farthest island on the earth’s surface. The loneliest island Trisatan da Kunha, was accidentally discovered by the Portuguese admiral Tristao da Kunha in 1506. A mid Atlantic ridge island St. Helena was associated with the death of a mighty general. After the battle of Waterloo that took place in Belgium in 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte suffered his final defeat at the hands of Duke of Wellington and marked the end of Napoleonic era. The French Emperor General was captured by the British and sent in exile to St. Helena.
The Longwood house, a mansion in St Helena, was his final destination from December 10, 1815 until his death on May 5, 1821.The irony of destiny as it would be that Napoleon was born in Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean and died thousands of miles away from his birthplace in St Helena, an island in the Southern Atlantic.
Polynesian islands are some of the most remote in the world lying thousands of miles west of South America. It is not unlikely that Polynesia will be on the radar of anthropologists.
The Norwegian writer and explorer Thor Heyerdahl had a firm conviction that Polynesians were distantly related to the people of South America. In his quest to find out an answer Heyerdahl along with his five friends reached Peru. He believed that the ancestors of the Polynesians travelled to far off islands in indigenous rafts. So with this idea he built and help of the local people he built a raft made of Balsa wood on designs from the Spanish conquistadors (Spanish conquers of Mexico and Peru). The raft was named KonTiki after the Inca Sun God. On April 28, 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Tuamotu, world’s largest chain of coral islands and atolls. With 78 islands spanning across thousands of miles is almost equal to the size of Western Europe. In one of the most epic journeys undertaken ever on a small raft, KonTiki sailed through the Pacific Ocean for 4300 thousand miles. The raft could not reach the desired destination because Kon Tiki crashed hitting the Raroia Reef.
Sixty five years after KonTiki expedition researchers found that this was not a misadventure at all because the DNA testing of the original islanders proved that the gene could have come from native South Americans. According to one view except New Guinea and Australia all colonists may be traced back to Taiwan. Later on with the arrival of the Europeans there were lots of inter breeding and a new generation of Polynesians were born. Unfortunately a number of island nations of Polynesia and Melanesia are threatened of being drowned and a projected estimate revealed that many Pacific island nations like Fiji, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru and others shall be under the water. A meager two feet rise in the sea level could be catastrophic submerging coastal areas creating millions of environmental refugees.
PL Sclater, a British ornithologist, was the first person to develop the concept of zoogeography and divided the world into six realms on the basis of bird fauna. But Alfred Russel Wallace, a friend of Charles Darwin was not much convinced with this division and later on included mammals and reptiles as a basis for zoogeographical realms.
Wallace was a naturalist who independently proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. During his extensive travel through the Malay and Indonesian archipelago, forests of Borneo and New Guinea Wallace found that this region is a storehouse of varied fauna. He found striking differences of faunal life between the two small Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok, separated by a narrow stretch of water. Later, an imaginary line was drawn between these two islands which later came to be known as Wallace’s Line.
Wallace’s travel through the Indonesian islands helped him to propose a well defined zoogeographical region. Oriental region to the west of Wallace’s line have a large number of carnivores while the Australian Zoogeographical region have no large carnivorous animal. Thanks to a large scale subsidence of the Indonesian archipelago in the distant geological past. As a result the continuity of landmass was broken and land bridges ceased to exist and no crossing – over of carnivorous species were possible to far off Australia. A glance over the map of this region shall explain the simple fact. Hence Australia has many unique and endemic mammalian fauna including marsupials, Koala, Echidna, Duck billed Platypus etc. In absence of large carnivores many flightless birds like emu and cassowary evolved in Australia.
Living in isolation
Because of isolation from Africa the island of Madagascar is known for its endemic species. Animals like ungulate (hoofed animals) e.g. apes, zebra, giraffe etc are conspicuous by their absence. Chameleons are well represented and about two thirds of different species of chameleons of the world are found in Madagascar.
Unlike other islands Bermuda, an island in the north western part of the Atlantic have different stories to tell. An extensive part of the Atlantic covering 500,000 sq. miles, known as the Bermuda triangle or Devil’s Triangle have become infamous where a number of airplanes and ships have been known to have disappeared mysteriously.
During the World War II a number of pilots while flying over Bermuda Triangle reported malfunctioning of a number of navigational instruments. Mysterious energy was thought to be the cause of this phenomenon. Many thought it to be due to supernatural power. Contrary to the law in Bermuda Triangle compass behave strangely and point directly to the North Pole. The reason for this weird and mysterious phenomenon is still unknown.
On December 5, 1945, five navy planes that took off from an US airbase at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, mysteriously disappeared. In March 1918, a US Navy ship USS Cyclops with a crew of about 300 departed from Barbados and was never seen again. No SOS was sounded by the crew either. Besides a number of commercial carriers were reported missing as if they were sucked in a huge whirlpool.
The mysteries remain unsolved for long and was finally claimed to be have been solved by Professor Simon Boxwall of Southampton University and his team. The unusual disappearance of ships and airplanes were attributed to supernatural freak or rogue waves, supposedly a maritime phenomenon. I am rather sceptical about the finding which might have explained the disappearance of ships but not of the airplanes. The reasons for this weird phenomenon are still unknown and therefore mysterious.
(The author is former Head of the Department of Geography at
St Edmund’s College)