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Bouvet Island

Bouvet Island or Bouvetøya is one of the Subantarctic Islands, an uninhabited ice-clad place 2600 km south-southwest of Cape Town. It has a good claim to be the world's most remote island: anywhere within 2000 km is similarly desolate, such as mainland Antarctica. It's a dependency of Norway, and is actually closer to the equator than Norway. That's testament to the chill of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, compared to the balmy North Atlantic.

Understand

Bouvet stands on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the continents are moving apart, so it formed as a volcanic island in a similar way to Tristan da Cunha and Surtsey. It extends 9.5 km east-west, 7 km north-south, with its highest point Olavtoppen or Mt Olav at 780 m, and a deep caldera just south of the peak. The last eruption was probably around 2000 BC. The rocks only 30 cm below ground are at 25°C, but the island is almost completely ice-clad, and the volcano appears to be decaying into extinction.

The island was first sighted on 1 Jan 1739 by Jean Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier, hence its name, but he recorded incorrect coordinates (setting a trend) so the place was lost. It was re-discovered in the 19th century, landings were made, and sealing ships came to the area. But with no sheltered harbour and with daunting 500 m cliffs around it, Bouvet Island could never become a whaling base like Grytviken on South Georgia. The first extended stay was by the Norvegia expedition of 1927; Norway made further expeditions and in 1928 claimed the territory. Britain protested that they'd planted the Union flag in 1825, but the co-ordinates and logs of that voyage were garbled. (And a US "landing" of 1823 was obviously bogus.) The place wasn't worth spilling diplomatic ink over so Britain abandoned its claim and Bouvet became Bouvetøya. Norway has two other dependencies but both south of 60°S, where such claims are suspended by the Antarctic Treaty. So insofar as Norway boasts an Empire, this is it right here.

In the late 1950s a landslide created the area of Nyrøysa, which translates as "new pile of rocks". It's a coastal scree that is more accessible and free of ice, so a research base was established in 1996. An earthquake and storms in 2006 erased it but a new base was installed in 2014. The island and its adjacent territorial waters have been designated as a nature reserve since 1971. It lies within the Southern Ocean, south of the "Convergence" with a climate that's cold but without polar extremes: it averages around 1°C in summer and -3°C in winter. There's a huge colony of macaroni penguins, and there are other penguins, southern fulmars, and seals and whales in the waters around.

Get in

The island is 2600 km south-southwest of Cape Town in South Africa, far from cruise ship routes. It's walled by cliffs, with nothing resembling a harbour, though an expedition ship could anchor to leeward. Then you could approach in a Zodiac or similar small craft and attempt to scale the cliffs to, umm, where? Likewise there is no landing strip, but it's possible for ship-based helicopters to set down, though there's often fog and wind. Those who've visited and lived to tell the tale have mostly got in and out this way. Frankly it might be easier to join the Royal Norwegian Navy Marinejegerkommandoen, distinguish yourself in training, and persuade them to land and camp on the island as a team-building exercise.

You may be able to join an expedition if you have special polar skills. One surprising example was DXpedition, when amateur radio enthusiasts set up a radio station to communicate with people around the world, and future visits are planned. Read up on current topics and projects, and also the 2016 / 17 polar policy paper adopted by the Norwegian parliament. For example, they might be interested in micro-plastics and similar pollutants in a place so far from anywhere.

Fees and permits

In theory you need permission to visit from the Norwegian Polar Institute. In practice they don't ask for this because they know it's next-to-impossible, and any expedition must involve other activities (such as helicopters) that do require permits.

Get around

93% of Bouvet is covered by glacier, riven by crevasses that are not charted. So you need the skills and technique to cross such terrain and it might be simpler to call on the helicopter that brought you in to shift you. The small ice-free area at Nyrøysa is a special area of study – you may not enter it Nov–March except in an approved monitoring party; April–Oct you're at liberty to perish there from the cold.

See

Anticlockwise:

  • 1 Olavtoppen or Olav Peak is the island's summit at 780 m / 2560 ft. It was first climbed in 2012. To its west stretches Wilhelmplatået, the Wilhelm Plateau. South is a volcanic caldera, with signs of lava flows towards the southeast coast.
  • 2 Kapp Valdivia is the island's northern tip, named for the survey vessel that charted the place in 1898 - until then the island had wandered around the map. Good to know: it's only 12,460 km from here to Norway.
  • 3 Kapp Circoncision was sighted by the French on 1 Jan 1739, the "Feast of Circumcision". The 1928 / 29 Norwegian expedition camped here but to date no tahara, briss or similar rite has been conducted on the island (bits dropping off with cold don't count). Morgenstiernkysten is the coast between here and Valdivia.
  • 4 Nyrøysa is the ice-free area just south of Kapp Circoncision where entry is restricted, which is bad luck as it's the most accessible section of coast. A landslide from the cliffs circa 1956 has created a scree, and an automated weather station stands here.
  • 5 Kapp Norvegia was charted in 1898. Inland are Lykketoppen (766 m) and double-peaked Mosbytoppane (670 m). The bleak skerries of Bennskjæra lie 500 m offshore.
  • 6 Larsøya is Bouvet's only significant islet, some 400 m long. The first landing was in 1927.
  • 7 Kapp Fie is Bouvet's southeast corner.
  • 8 Kapp Lollo is the northeastern tip. Between here and Kapp Fie, known as Kapp Meteor, is a lava outflow from the caldera.
  • 9 Store Kari are skerries east of Kapp Valdivia, every bit as far away from Norway.
  • Thompson Island is 70 km north-northeast of Bouvet Island - except that it isn't. It was first sighted in 1825, and others saw it up to 1893, but it's an example of a phantom island - they're not uncommon in this ocean. The sea at that point is over 2400 m deep and it's not credible that a volcanic island could subside without trace.

Do

  • As with any hazardous environment, your prime task is always to come home safe.
  • Bio-security: Bouvet has always been rat-free, and any savvy rodent would rather take its chances with the ship's cat. The main risk of colonisation is plant life from other sub-antarctic terrains, such as the weeds that have become established on South Georgia. So cleansing protocols are an important part of your preparations.

Buy

  • Nothing here, so bring everything you need and some to spare in case you get stuck. And take everything including trash away with you.

Sleep

  • No accommodation, not even a sheltered spot, sleep on your ship if you can. Otherwise it's heavy-duty polar-grade camping, with the capability to melt ice for water.

Connect

  • Last thing you might expect, but Bouvet has its own internet top-level domain .bv - but Norway, which administers this domain, has decided that it will remain unused. So you're back where you started. You'll need a radio link to your support ship, which will have a satellite phone facility.

Go next

  • Home safe preferably, but wherever your expedition ship is going next. Its next port of call might be Cape Town in South Africa, and reaching the other Subantarctic islands or Antarctica proper would involve an intercontinental flight and further long cold sea crossing.
  • Scan the other Next-to-impossible destinations if your appetite's been whetted for this kind of travel.
  • Ashmore and Cartier Islands


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