Prince Edward Islands: Valuable Research Centre

Located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean around 955 nautical miles southeast of Port Elizabeth, Marion Island and Prince Edward Island are both of volcanic origin, with the volcano peak of Marion Island having experienced an eruption as recently as 2004. The two islands and some smaller islands, known collectively as the Prince Edward Islands, have been declared as Special Nature Reserves by South African authorities, and access to the islands is limited to research and conservation teams.

Ongoing meteorological and biological research is being conducted on Marion Island by the South African National Antarctic Program in an effort to gain a better understanding of the natural environment and life in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic. The Prince Edward Islands experience cold and windy weather all year round, with strong winds blowing almost continually and an annual rainfall of between 2,400 mm and 3,000 mm with rain falling about 28 days a month.

Because of the continually cold climate, plant life on the islands consists mainly of mosses, lichens and some grasses. Resident animals include large populations of seals, penguins and seabirds, as well as an assortment of insects. Several species of whales can be spotted in the waters around the islands, attracted there by the penguins and seals they prey on. At one stage bird populations on the island where threatened by cats that had been introduced to deal with a mouse problem at the base in 1949. The cats had multiplied to an estimated 3,400 cats by 1977. Using various means these numbers were eventually drastically reduced, and today it is believed that there are no more cats to be found on Marion Island – and birdlife is once again abundant. Unfortunately some species of petrels were hunted to extinction before the problem was rectified.

The history of Prince Edward Islands goes back to 1663 when they were discovered by Dutch mariners. In 1776, renowned explorer James Cook set sail from Cape Town for the islands, but was unable to land due to adverse weather conditions. He named the smaller of the two main islands after Prince Edward, and the larger island Marion Island, believed to be a reference to the explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne who had visited the island in 1772. The islands were annexed by South Africa in 1947/1948 and a research station was set up on the north-east coast of Marion Island. The islands continue to be of great importance to the international scientific community.