Thinking of getting away from it all on a deserted desert island? Getting there & back isn’t always easy – if it were, most of these amazing islands would likely be inhabited. Luckily that’s not the case and we can still enjoy, if only temporarily and virtually, some of the planet’s most exquisite and pristine isles.
The Indian Ocean nation of the Maldive Islands is the poster child for island nations, consisting of a double-chain of 26 coral atolls and encompassing approximately 1,190 individual islands. The coral atolls are in most cases divided into 5 to 10 inhabited islands and from 20 to 60 uninhabited ones. This unique situation of geography allows entrepreneurs on the inhabited islands to provide “desert island vacations” for foreign tourists looking to live – temporarily – like Robinson Crusoe.
The Maldives, perhaps more than any other place on Earth, blurs the lines between land and water. While this allows for an abundance of tropical beauty and a remarkably temperate climate, it also puts the nation of 400,000 squarely in the cross-hairs of Global Warming. The average height above sea level in the Maldives is only 5 feet (1.5 meters) with the highest point rising a mere 7 feet 7 inches (2.3 meters). As sea levels continue to rise, high tides and storm surges will cause ever-greater damage to the point where many of the islands will simply cease to exist and their inhabitants could become climate refugees.
Auckland Islands, New Zealand
The Auckland Islands lie south of New Zealand, smack dab in chill southern latitudes dominated by the legendary “Furious Fifties”, howling winds that owe their speed and relentlessness to the lack of land in those latitudes. Auckland Island is the largest of the five islands making up this tight-knit archipelago, formed millions of years ago from several long dormant volcanoes. The total area of the islands is 241.3 square miles (625 km²) but the vast majority of the land is made up of deeply eroded, jagged mountains up to 2,170 feet (660 meters) tall.
Residual evidence of a possible settlement estimated to be from the 13th century has been found on the Auckland Islands, making it the farthest south any Polynesian explorers were able to reach. Several attempts to colonize the island were made in the 19th century but few lasted more then a couple of years. The islands have been completely uninhabited since the removal of a meteorological station set up and manned by the government of New Zealand during the Second World War.
Aldabra Island, Seychelles
Aldabra Island is the world’s second largest coral atoll with a total area of 60 square miles (155.4 km²), divided into four individual islands. Aldabra has been known to humanity for many centuries; its name is of Arabic origin. The island group lies 265 miles (426.5 km) northwest of Madagascar and is the westernmost large island of the Seychelles: the island’s capital, Mahé, is over 700 miles (1,126.5 km) to the east. At 21 miles (34 km) long, 9 miles (14.5 km) wide and rising up to 26.25 feet (8 meters) above sea level it’s somewhat of a mystery why Aldabra hasn’t been able to support even a small human settlement.
Aldabra Island is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Giant Tortoises – around 150,000 Aldabra Giant Tortoises (Dipsochelys dussumieri) roam the atoll, free from human predation. Such was not always the case: 19th century whalers, sealers and long-distance ship voyagers often captured tortoises for food and by 1900 they were nearly extinct. Aldabra is also home to the world’s largest land crab, the Coconut Crab (Birgus latro), known to netizens from a widely circulated image showing one of the creatures hiding (barely) behind a trashcan.
Tetepare Island, Solomon Islands
Known as “the last wild island”, Tetepare Island in the Solomon Islands has been uninhabited since the mid-19th century when members of its native tribe fled to surrounding islands due to an increasing threat from headhunters. The island is 45.5 square miles (118 km²) in area and is the largest uninhabited island in the western Pacific Ocean region.
Tetepare Island has been monitored since 2002 by the Tetepare Descendants Association (TDA), a registered Solomon Islands charitable organization that seeks to preserve the island from logging and other resource exploitation for the benefit of future generations. An ecolodge has been established on the island under the TDA’s supervision, which provides employment to local islanders and raises both funds for conservation projects and awareness of Tetepare’s unique status.
Rock Islands (Chelbacheb), Palau
Made famous by their starring role in Survivor Palau, the tenth season of the American reality show “Survivor” broadcast in early 2005, the 250-300 Rock Islands (called Chelbacheb in the native Palauan language) encompass a total land area of just 18 square miles (47 km²) yet boast an abundance of ecological diversity. These heavily forested limestone and coral islands rise up to 680 feet (207 m) above sea level and many feature hidden lagoons and lakes where unique species abound.
A place as beautiful and fertile as Palau’s Rock Islands may be uninhabited today but it seems that human’s gave settlement a shot at various times over the past several thousand years. One of the most intriguing examples involves the discovery of skeletal remains of “tiny people”. At first thought to be related to the so-called Hobbits of Flores Island in Indonesia, it’s now believed the remains belong to ancient Palauans affected by Island Dwarfism.
Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Cocos Island is sort of a northern Galapagos, lying quite isolated in the Pacific Ocean approximately 340 miles (550 km) off Costa Rica’s western coast. The roughly rectangular island is 9.2 square miles (23.85 km²) in area and hosts a mainly stable population of deer, pigs, cats, and rats introduced purposefully or accidentally by humans. The latter never maintained long-lasting settlements despite the availability of fresh water. The waters around Cocos Island are a rich oasis of marine life, as the following video shows:
Author Michael Crichton probably based Isla Nublar from his novel (and later the films and games) Jurassic Park on Cocos Island. Supporting this supposition is the fact that “Isla Nublar” is Spanish for Cloudy Island and Cocos Island is the only island near Central or South America with an extensive Cloud Forest ecosystem.
Phoenix Islands, Kiribati
The Phoenix Islands are a group of 8 islands and several coral reefs located about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji in the south Pacific. The total land area of the islands is just 11 square miles (27.6 km²) and except for two dozen people (as of May 2010) living on Kanton, the largest of the group, the islands are uninhabited. Several attempts to settle or colonize the Phoenix Islands have been made over the past two centuries but all ended in failure with the last residents leaving in 1963.
The Phoenix Islands are isolated – though part of the Republic of Kiribati, Kanton Island lies (1,765 km) east of the republic’s capital, South Tarawa. The southernmost island of the Phoenix island group has a dubious claim to fame. Nikumaroro (formerly known as Gardner Island) is thought by some to be the place where American aviatrix Amelia Earhart along with navigator Fred Noonan crash-landed in July of 1937, while attempting an around-the-world flight in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra.
Mu Ko Ang Thong, Thailand
Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park (established 1980) consists of 42 islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Though the park as a whole covers 39.5 square miles (102 km²), only 7 square miles (18 km²) are dry land. “Ang Thong” means “Bowl of Gold”, and the islands enjoy the warm weather and abundant sunshine that has made tourist areas in Thailand’s Surat Thani province so popular.
The islands of Mu Ko Ang Thong are the setting of The Beach in the 1996 Alex Garland novel and the 2000 film of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Pre-production activity including flattening the beach was conducted, which ruffled feathers locally, but the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami saw the beach re-assume much of its original look and character.
Monuriki Island, Mamanuca Islands (Fiji)
There are about 20 volcanic islands in the Mamanuca Islands group, part of the nation of Fiji. That number drops to about 13 when the tide is high, however. Many of the Mamanuca Islands are uninhabited and the main factor deciding habitation seems to be the availability of fresh water.
One of the Mamanuca Islands has achieved a special type of fame: tiny Monuriki Island is the main location where the 2000 movie Cast Away was filmed. The character played by Tom Hanks, “Chuck Noland” (C. No land… get it?) faced several difficulties surviving on Monuriki, chief among them making fire and finding a source of fresh water to drink. Good thing he had his pal Wilson to keep him company too!
Rising from the Pacific Ocean 13 miles (20 km) southeast of Lord Howe Island and 370 miles (600 km) east of Australia, 1,844 ft (562 m) high Ball’s Pyramid may be the Earth’s most visually stunning island. The shear volcanic outcrop was first discovered in 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball. It wasn’t until nearly a century later, in 1882, that the first person actually stepped – very carefully, I’m guessing – onto the rocky shore of the island. It’s safe to say that there may not be a single patch of horizontal ground anywhere on the 3,600 ft (1,100 m) by 1,000 ft (300 m) remnant of a 7 million year old volcano.
(image via: Outdoors Webshots)
You’d think Ball’s Pyramid would be a rock climber’s and BASE jumper’s idea of paradise, and indeed the pinnacle was successfully climbed to the summit for the first time in February of 1965. Climbing was banned entirely in 1982 though since 1990 applications may be made under special conditions, subject to approval by the Australian government.
Devon Island, Canada
(image via: Statistics Canada)
This list leaves out major and minor islands of the arctic and Antarctic as they do not remotely meet any conception of a “desert island”. Even so, we will give honorable mention to Devon Island, the world’s 27th largest island and the largest uninhabited island on the planet. Located in Canada’s arctic archipelago northwest of Baffin Island, Devon Island measures 21,331 square miles (55,247 km²) in size.
The brutally cold, dry climate and the existence of the 14 mile (23 km) wide Haughton Impact Crater has made Devon Island the perfect testing area for future Mars rovers and habitats. It ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, as Elton John once sang, and as for those Desert Island Discs? Leave ’em at home – you’ll have trouble finding an electrical outlet anyway.