Uninhabited but not Unnoticed

"Island, I see you in the distance
I feel that your existence is not unlike my own
Island, they say no man is like you
They say you stand alone
Sometimes I feel that way too"
-Lyrics from Island by Jimmy Buffett

Uninhabited (deserted) islands have been the setting for some of history's most intriguing stories. For example, consider the familiar story of Alexander Selkirk, a castaway who was marooned on lonely Mas a Tierra island for four years. Don't recognize Selkirk or Mas a Tierra? Daniel Defoe made them forever famous when he used Selkirk as real life inspiration for the novel Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Interestingly, Mas a Tierra was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe island in 1966 but is no longer uninhabited.

Even if you're not into history, uninhabited islands still find a way to impact modern pop culture. Remember the television series Lost and the 2000 Hollywood hit movie Castaway? Other shows like Survivor and Dual Survival also often use an uninhabited or otherwise remote island as their backdrop. Apparently there's a subset of human culture fascinated with remote uninhabited islands. I count myself among that group.

Among the many wonders of sailing is the fact that a competent sailboat and skipper can make their way to just about any part of our watery planet for exploration, escapism, adventure or for no real reason at all. This is part of the allure of sailing for me, so I thought it was appropriate to compile a list of some of the most intriguing uninhabited yet potentially visitable (by sailboat, of course) islands. [Click here to read what I've previously written about the magic of islands and islomania.]

Five Uninhabited Islands for Sailors (VERY adventurous sailors):

Clipperton Island (Pacific Ocean)
Description: Clipperton is a coral atoll in the eastern Pacific Ocean west of Costa Rica. It totals about 3.5 square miles in area and features low-lying and mostly barren land surrounding the lagoon. However, there is a 95-foot tall volcanic rock formation rising on the southeast side that's known as "Clipperton Rock".

Clipperton Island and its' large brackish lagoon
Why visit: There's a long history of castaways, guano mining and stories of struggle on Clipperton reaching back to the 1800's. Revisiting and piecing together some of the stories could make for an interesting visit.

Why leave: Clipperton's lagoon has become closed off from the sea, so while the rain-diluted water inside is passable for drinking water, a safe anchorage is not available for extended stays.

TidBit: While feral livestock such as pigs, cows and chickens often devastate native landscapes and biodiversity, scientists visiting Clipperton in the 1950's noted that vegetation and birds were thriving on the island along side the 50+ swine that had been released years earlier. Eradication of the swine in subsequent years seems to have returned the island to a mostly barren landscape that is ruled by land crabs.

Permission/governance: Owned by France and under the authority of the "Minister of Overseas France".

Henderson Island (Pacific Ocean)
Description: Isolated and seemingly beautiful, Henderson Island is 5 miles long by 2.5 miles wide and up to 100 feet high, thanks to an unusual coral formation that makes it one of just a handful of high coral islands found in the Pacific. Henderson is also in close proximity (~100 miles) to Pitcairn Island, whose inhabitants are the ancestors of the Bounty mutineers.
Henderson Island from above

Why visit: With a history that includes an ancient Polynesian colony that disappeared for unknown reasons, an unplanned visit by the crew of the wrecked Nantucket whaleship Essex in 1820 and reports of human skeletons in multiple caves, how can you resist? The skeletons suggest more than one shipwrecked crew met their ultimate fate on Henderson Island. If you come, make sure you have an exit strategy!

Why leave: The high coral structure of the island makes it very porous and therefore devoid of drinking water. Like many uninhabited islands, a safe harbor is also lacking.

TidBit: Archaeological evidence suggests that there was once a small community of Polynesian people living on Henderson Island somewhere between the twelfth and fifteen centuries.

Permission/governance: Henderson Island (along with Pitcairn) is a dependency of Britain that is "managed" by a consulate in Auckland, New Zealand. An island council on Pitcairn can help with permissions/logistics for potential cruisers.

Bouvet Island (Atlantic Ocean)
Description: This is a VERY remote and desolate subantarctic volcanic island and as such, is seldom visited. Depending upon the particular year, up to 93% of the island is covered by glaciers. The center of the island is dominated by an ice-filled volcanic crater.

Why visit: Because you'll be one of just a handful of humans to ever have visited Bouvet Island. This is perhaps the world's most remote island, lying at the extreme southern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the subantarctic. If you're forced to survive on resources from the island, plan on eating penguins, petrels and southern elephant seals (yeah, right!).

Why leave: You likely won't have any choice but to leave since the climate and terrain are so extreme. In fact, visiting at all is a fairly major risk and most likely isn't feasible in a private yacht. In any case, I had to include Bouvet because of it's remoteness.

Bouvet Island - Shrouded in fog and mystery
TidBit: Bouvet Island was first sighted in 1739 by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier. The fog and thick weather during the first sighting had Bouvet wondering if this was actually an island or part of a southern continent since it was the first official sighting of land south of the 50th parallel. His recordings for the position of Bouvet Island were inaccurate and the island wasn't spotted again for decades. No one ever set foot on the island until a Norwegian science expedition arrived in 1927.

Permission/governance: Bouvet Island is a dependent territory of Norway.

Suwarrow Atoll (Pacific Ocean)
Description: Suwarrow, sometimes called Suvarov, is a low coral atoll in the Cook Islands with just one pass into the lagoon and a rather small anchorage. Like many atolls, Suwarrow is made up of many small islets (motus) with a low diversity of tropical vegetation.

Why visit: Suwarrow is well-known among islomaniacs and cruising sailors with dreams of the South Pacific. Buried treasure, quintessential South Pacific island scenes and great accessibility (including a safe anchorage) make Suwarrow a popular stop for cruisers. 

Some of the "improvements" on
Suwarrow's Anchorage Island
Why leave: While most of the motus (islets surrounding an atoll's lagoon) of Suwarrow are uninhabited, a caretaker and his family live on Anchorage Island from April through October (non-cyclone season) and a variety cruising boats visit (110 in 2010), so you may not be alone. The onset of cyclone season and an almost endless supply of other enticing South Pacific islands are enough to make most cruisers move along after a short visit.

TidBit: The South Pacific is dotted with idyllic little uninhabited atolls, but perhaps none have a history like Suwarrow. New Zealander Tom Neale lived alone on Suwarrow for a total of 16 years during three different periods from 1952 to 1977. He did so by choice, living as a tropical hermit off the natural resources of the island. In so doing, he inspired many who dream of an escape with his book, An Island to Oneself.

Permission/governance: Cook Islands and Cook Islands National Parks, administered from Rarotonga.

Necker Island (Pacific Ocean)
Description: A volcanic rock island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with an area of 45 acres and a maximum elevation of  276 feet. There's one shallow rocky cove on the northern edge of the island called Shark Bay that may be suitable for anchoring.

Ceremonial stones on Necker Island
Why visit: If you want to see the "old Hawaii", I mean REALLY old Hawaii, Necker might be a good place to start. With over 50 ceremonial stone structures and more than a dozen carved stones, anthropologists believe Necker Island was used as a religious or ceremonial site by Polynesians sometime before 1300 A.D.

Why leave: While blessed with a delightful climate and close proximity to the populated islands of Hawaii (about 400 miles northwest of Honolulu), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service likely won't allow you to stay long if you're lucky enough to be granted permission to visit in the first place. No matter, because without any trees and only 5 species of low-growing plants, shelter is very limited on this rocky island.   

Permission/governance: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Permits may be required to visit in order to protect the archeological and ecological significance of Necker Island.

If you've got serious plans to visit any of the above islands or simply want more information, I suggest starting with the wealth of cruising knowledge available at Noonsite. There's also a small, out-of-print book titled Uninhabited Ocean Island by Jon Fisher that gives a quick peek at the above islands and many more in all the oceans of the world. While the information is dated in some instances, the book makes for an interesting and quick read that is certain to inspire additional research and day dreaming.


  1. Anonymous20 May

    Great info and material for my little mind movies...thanks

  2. Anonymous31 March

    Wow so there are other humans too who fantasy about desert islands.

  3. Anonymous05 April

    If I had a boat and knew how to sail. If only.


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