The Other Prince Edward Island

A CBC “Off the Beaten Track” episode in which I talk about the other Prince Edward Island, in the southern Indian ocean. Originally aired on September 8, 2000 on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet program in Prince Edward Island.

Introduction: There is another Prince Edward Island, or rather “Prince Edward Islands,” located in the southern Indian Ocean and part of South Africa since 1949.  Marion Island, one of the two Prince Edward Islands is current home to a meteorological station, and former home to some 3,400 feral cats.  Prince Edward Island, the other of the two, is uninhabited and, indeed, people aren’t allowed on it without a special permit.  This is their story.

Imagine a Prince Edward Island where…

  • …it’s cool and stormy most of the year, with an average temperature of  4 degrees.
  • …there are gale force winds 100 days of the year.
  • …the soil isn’t red and soft, but craggy and volcanic.
  • …the dominant vegetable isn’t the potato, but the cabbage.
  • …there’s so much concern for the environment, and a fear of mice, that you need a special permit from the government just to visit.
  • …chief impediments to tourism are danger from aggressive male seals and the possibility of having your boat smashed on the rocks while landing.

This is the “other” Prince Edward Island…

  • This is the “other” Prince Edward Island, and could very well be the “Bizarro” Prince Edward Island in for “Bizarro Superman” it is so opposite to ours.
  • In fact they are located at 46 degrees south while we’re located at 46 degrees north and are called “the jewel of the Southern Ocean” (rather than the “Garden of the Gulf”).
  • Located about 1900 km off the coast of South Africa in the southern Indian Ocean, the “other” Prince Edward Island is one of a pair of sister Islands – the other is Marion Island – collectively called, oddly enough, “the Prince Edward Islands.”
  • Prince Edward Island, South Africa, is 45 square kilometers in size, while it’s sister Marion Island is 290 square kilometers.  
  • They’re both craggy volcanic islands, windswept, cold, rainy and quite unlike the Prince Edward Island we know and love.

Lost, then Found…

  • In 1663, Dutchman Barent Lam discovered the two islands on his way east; he named them Dina and Maerseveen (after his ship).
  • Some time after this, the Dutch tried to find the islands again, but couldn’t (Lam had recorded the wrong latitude) and they were given up for lost.
  • 100 years later in 1772 the islands were rediscovered by a French naval officer Marion du Fresne, who named them le de la Caverne and le de l’Esperance
  • In 1776, explorer Captain James Cook – only a decade after he spent five years based in Halifax, and three years before he died – visited the islands, and renamed them collectively the Prince Edward Islands.
  • Over the following 175 years the larger of the two islands came to be known as Marion Island by sealers who used the islands as a base.
  • In 1949 South Africa annexed the islands, and the weird Prince Edward Island / Prince Edward Islands / Marion Island naming scheme stuck.

Prince Edward Island Today

  • Since 1949, South Africa has had a presence on the Island when it established a permanent weather office.
  • I exchanged email with Chris de Wet, who is the team leader of “Marion 57,” which is the 57th expedition from South Africa.
  • They’re a motley group of 10 people, meteorologists, biologists, a radio technician, a diesel mechanic and a medic.
  • They’ve got a fully stocked hospital, complete with dentist’s chair and x-ray machine, telephone and Internet hookups, laboratories, and a gymnasium.
  • In addition to the weather station, which is staffed 24 hours a day, there’s research monitoring seal populations, sea bird populations, the effects on longline fishing on birds, and the impact of feral house mice on the Island.
  • I asked Chris what inspired him to take such a remote posting and he said he jumped at the opportunity – he says he’s an outdoor fanatic, and welcomed the opportunity to get away from the “rat race.”

Tourism on the Islands

  • During my research, I found an interesting paper called “Environmental impact assessment of possible tourism at Marion Island,” published by the South African Government, which looked at how tourism on the Islands would affect the environment.
  • I asked Chris about the possibility of tourism, and he suggested that because of the hard environment and lack of infrastructure, he didn’t think there’s was much chance of this happening, and if it did, it would be more of a “friendly outdoor laboratory” for scientists as opposed to something for “holiday makers.”
  • I also asked Chris is the members of his team had ever heard of “our” Prince Edward Island and I was surprised to find they hadn’t – but they found us on the globe!
  • He added that he doesn’t think that most people in South Africa have never heard of “his” Prince Edward Island, so we shouldn’t feel so bad if we haven’t.

Next Time on “Off the Beaten Track”

  • Remember I mentioned that there’s research going on about the “impact of feral house mice” on the Island?
  • That’s a longstanding problem: house mice aren’t native to the Islands — sealers introduced them sometime over the last century.
  • In 1949, in an attempt to rid the islands of house mice, five house cats were introduced.
  • By 1977 these five cats had multiplied to some 3,400 cats.
  • Next time we’ll hear their story, and the story of the “Marion Island Cat Eradication Program.”