The Armchair Explorer: 2 Island Vacations for the Truly Intrepid

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by Martin Lewis

Dreaming of a remote island where you can really get away from it all? So far away that you may never (be able to) come back? Before we begin, you might want to fire up Google Earth to help you find your way.

North Sentinel Island

For Google Earth explorers, start out at about 5000 kilometers and center your screen at 11° 33'N, 92° 14' E. Gazing down at the Bay of Bengal between India and Southeast Asia, you'll see the Andaman Islands, an Indian territory not far from some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. For thousands of years, however, mariners studiously avoided this archipelago, noted for the isolation and inhospitality of its inhabitants (their rule of thumb was to kill all interlopers). In the mid-1800s, Britain (wouldn't you know it?) subdued the large islands in the chain, mostly to build a massive prison for its recalcitrant Indian subjects. With outsiders came disease, leading to the gradually disappearance of most Andamanese hunter-gatherer tribes.

photo working2.jpgOne island, however, escaped the fate of its neighbors: North Sentinel. Google Earthers should zoom down to about 10 kilometers, where the island fills the screen. Nothing is visible except trees and coral reefs. But the lack of human indicators is misleading. North Sentinel Island is inhabited, but by how may people is anyone's guess. We know next to nothing about their language or culture. In the late 20th century, a few Indian anthropologists tried to make contact, but failed.

photo working.jpgSome observers feared that the December 2004 tsunami might have wiped out the North Sentinelese. But Anthropologists were relieved, in a rather twisted manner, to learn that when a small Indian fishing boat veered to close to the island in 2006, its crew was given a typical Sentinelese reception (they were killed and buried in shallow graves). When a helicopter came to investigate the crime, local archers bravely drove it away with a volley of arrows.

The Commander Islands

If you center your Google Earth screen at 54 degrees, 59 minutes north and 166 degrees, 17 minutes east, you'll look down on Bering Island in the Commander archipelago off Kamchatka Peninsula. Although part of Russia, the Commander Islands are geologically an extension of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The gap between the Commanders and the rest of web-stellerzeekoe.JPGthe Aleutians is such, however, that the Aleuts, the indigenous marine hunters of the north Pacific, never made it the islands "“ nor did anyone else until the 1700s. As a result, this little archipelago formed the last redoubt of Steller's Sea Cow, a three ton, 25-foot long, kelp-grazing relative of the manatee. By 1768, 27 years after the islands' discovery by Vitus Bering, these floating blubber balls had been driven into extinctions by rapacious sailors, fur traders and seal hunters.

Times have changed, and now most of the region lies within the Komandorsky Nature Reserve, noted for its vast populations of sea birds and marine mammals (several of Steller's other creatures "“ such as his sea lion, sea eagle, and eider "“ are still there in numbers). The 750 residents of the islands are concentrated in the single settlement of Nikolskoye, which looks none too inviting. Zoom in, setting your pointer at 55 11'42 N and 156 59'38 east, and take at look at this "village's" forlorn setting and industrial-style buildings.

Not a single tree grows in Nikolskoye, or the rest of the archipelago, for that matter. "Bleak" is an apt descriptor. But then so too is "interesting." Check out, for example, the odd, linear feature on Bering Island's northern tip (55 21'47 N; 156 58'02 east). Know what it is? If so, please enlighten the rest of us!

Guest Blogstar Martin W. Lewis is director of the International Relations program at Stanford University. He's also one of founding _flosser Mangesh's favorite professors.

September 3, 2008 - 10:17am
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