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Prince Edward Island, South Africa, EO-1 ALI satellite image, 5 May 2009

A satellite image of Prince Edward Island.

The territory

The Prince Edward Islands (46°53′19″S 37°44′08″E) are two small islands in the subantarctic Indian Ocean that are part of South Africa. The islands are named Marion Island and Prince Edward Island.

The Prince Edward Islands are two small islands in the sub-antarctic Indian Ocean that are part of South Africa. The islands are named Marion Island (named after Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne) and Prince Edward Island (named after Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn).

The islands in the group have been declared Special Nature Reserves under the South African Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, No. 57 of 2003, and activities on the islands are therefore restricted to research and conservation management. Further protection was granted when the area was declared a "Marine Protected Area" in 2013. The only human inhabitants of the islands are the staff of a meteorological and biological research station run by the South African National Antarctic Programme on Marion Island.

Both islands are of volcanic origin. Marion Island is one of the peaks of a large underwater shield volcano that rises some 5,000 metres (16,404 ft) from the sea floor to the top of Mascarin Peak. The highest point on Marion Island is Mascarin Peak (formerly State President Swart Peak), reaching 1,242 m (4,075 ft) above sea level.

History

The islands were discovered on 4 March 1663 by Barent Barentszoon Lam of the Dutch East India Company ship Maerseveen and were named Dina (Prince Edward) and Maerseveen (Marion), but the islands were erroneously recorded to be at 41° South, and neither were found again by subsequent Dutch sailors. In January 1772, the French frigate Le Mascarin, captained by Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne, visited the islands and spent five days trying to land, thinking they had found Antarctica (then not yet proven to exist). Marion named the islands Terre de l'Espérance (Marion) and Ile de la Caverne (Pr. Edward). After failing to land, Le Mascarin continued eastward, discovering the Crozet Islands and landing at New Zealand, where Marion du Fresne and some of his crew were killed by the natives.

Julien Crozet, navigator and second in command of Le Mascarin, survived the disaster, and happened to meet James Cook at Cape Town in 1776, at the onset of Cook's third voyage. Crozet shared the charts of his ill-fated expedition, and as Cook sailed from Cape Town, he passed the islands on 13 December, but was unable to attempt a landing due to bad weather. Cook named the islands after Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III; and though he is also often credited with naming the larger island Marion, after Captain Marion, this name was adopted by sealers and whalers who later hunted the area, to distinguish the two islands.

The first recorded landing on the islands was in 1799 by a group of French seal hunters of the Sally.

Another landing in late 1803 by a group of seal hunters led by American captain Henry Fanning of the Catharine found signs of earlier human occupation. The islands were frequented by sealers until about 1810, when the local fur seal populations had been nearly eradicated. The first scientific expedition to the islands was led by James Clark Ross, who visited in 1840 during his exploration of the Antarctic, but was unable to land. Ross sailed along the islands on 21 April 1840. He made observations on vast numbers of penguins ("groups of many thousands each"), and other kinds of sea-birds. He also saw fur seals, which he supposed to be of the species Arctocephalus falklandicus. The islands were finally surveyed during the Challenger Expedition, led by Captain George Nares, in 1873.

The islands have been the location of several shipwrecks. In June 1849 the brig Richard Dart, with a troop of Royal Engineers under Lt. James Liddell, was wrecked on Prince Edward island; only 10 of the 63 on board survived to be rescued by elephant seal hunters from Cape Town. In 1908 the Norwegian vessel Solglimt was shipwrecked on Marion Island, and survivors established a short-lived village at the north coast, before being rescued. The wreck of the Solglimt is the best-known in the islands, and is accessible to divers.

In 2003, the South African government declared the Prince Edward Islands a Special Nature Reserve, and in 2013 declared 180,000 km2 (69,000 sq mi) of ocean waters around the islands a Marine Protection Area, thus creating one of the world's largest environmental protection areas.

Research stations

In 1908 the British government assumed ownership of the islands. In late 1947 and early 1948, South Africa, with Britain's agreement, annexed the islands and installed the meteorological station on Transvaal Cove on the north-east coast of Marion Island.[6] The research station was soon enlarged and today studies regional meteorology and the biology of the islands, in particular the birds (penguins, petrels, albatrosses, gulls) and seals.

A new research base was built from 2001 to 2011 to replace older buildings on the site.[16] The access to the station is either by boat or helicopter. A helipad and storage hangar is located behind the main base structure.

Fish and wildlife

The islands are part of the Southern Indian Ocean Islands tundra ecoregion that includes a small number of subantarctic islands. Because of the paucity of land masses in the Southern Ocean, the islands host a wide variety of species and are critical to conservation. In the cold subantarctic climate, plants are mainly limited to grasses, mosses, and kelp, while lichens are the most visible fungi. The main indigenous animals are insects along with large populations of seabirds, seals and penguins. At least twenty-nine different species of birds are thought to breed on the islands, and it is estimated the islands support upwards of 5 million breeding seabirds, and 8 million seabirds total. Five species of albatross (of which all are either threatened or endangered) are known to breed on the islands, including the wandering albatross, dark-mantled, light-mantled, Indian yellow-nosed and grey-headed albatross. The islands also host fourteen species of petrel, four species of prion, the Antarctic tern, and the brown skua, among others seabirds. Four penguin species are found, including king penguins, Eastern rockhoppers, gentoos and macaroni penguins.

Three species of seal breed on the islands, including the southern elephant seal, the Antarctic fur seal, and the Subantarctic fur seal. The waters surrounding the islands are often frequented by several species of whale, especially orcas, which prey on penguins and seals. Large whales such as southern rights and southern humpbacks, and leopard seals are seen more sporadically, and it remains unclear how large or stable their current local populations are, though it is thought their numbers are significantly down compared to the time of first human contact with the islands. The area saw heavy sealing and whaling operations in the nineteenth century and continued to be subject to mass illegal whaling until the 1970s, with the Soviet Union and Japan allegedly continuing whaling operations into the 1990s. Currently, the greatest ecological threat is the longline fishing of Patagonian toothfish, which endangers a number of seabirds that dive into the water after baited hooks.

House mice arrived to Marion Island with whaling and sealing ships in the 1800s and quickly multiplied, so much so that in 1949, warfarin infected bate was tossed around to kill the mice, but some birds ate them and died. Some eggs and birds were taken away for awhile and humans hunted the mice once more with traps and poison. The big fear was would kill both the birds and the mice. 5 sterilised cats were released in 1952 and most of the mice were killed. The mice became a problem again in 1973 so 7 new sterilised cats were released and most of the mice were killed along with a few chicks. The mice made a final upswing in 1984 and 5 more sterilised cats were released and killed the rest of the mice.

Both Gough Island and the Prince Edward Islands also suffer from invasive procumbent pearlwort (Sagina procumbens), which is transforming the upland ecosystem and is now considered beyond control.

Minke whales

Antarctic minke whale were hunted here until 2008, when a South African frigate opened fire on a Japanese whaling ship with its 50 caliber machine gun. No one was killed or injured in the clash and damage to the Japanese ship was only negligible. No one has tried killing minke whales there since!