I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Safety, scientific inquiry, government secrecy, and preserving wildlife and Indigenous cultures are some of the reasons why visitors are kept away from islands dotted around the world.
1. Heard Island, Australia
This rocky, treeless place is an Australian territory, but it’s more than 4,000 km (2,542 miles) southwest of Freemantle, Western Australia. The seven-day voyage across stormy and rough seas might end in total disappointment because Heard Island “hides in dense cloud for around 360 days a year” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
The island's active volcano, known as Big Ben, also makes landing there a touch hazardous. In addition to spewing lava, it has massive glaciers tumbling down its slopes. Winds constantly whip across the island with gusts of up to 200 km/hour recorded; that's Category Three hurricane force.
Heard Island, no Audio
Sea birds, penguins, and seals are welcome; humans not so much. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists Heard Island as a World Heritage site, and it is a strictly protected area.
Doug Thost, is an Australian glaciologist who has visited the island a couple of times. He told The Australian Broadcasting Corporation that “Being in such a remote and wild place is pretty humbling. You have to be very aware of the potential danger you could be in and how unlikely it is that you could be rescued if something does go wrong, but it’s invigorating.”
We’ll take your word for it Dr. Thost.
2. Snake Island, Brazil
Herpetophobiacs (people with a fear of snakes) might want to scroll past this entry, for, as its name implies, it’s about a place full of snakes.
Called “Ilha da Queimada Granda” in Portuguese, this is an island 90 miles (144 km) off the coast of Brazil. It’s home to golden lancehead pit vipers―a lot of them with an estimated population of 2,000 to 4,000. And, they are all squeezed into a small area of an island of just 106 acres (43 hectares), making it the highest density of snakes in the world.
“These vipers’ venom can kill a person in under an hour, and numerous local legends tell of the horrible fates that awaited those who wandered onto the shores of ‘Snake Island’ (Smithsonian Magazine).”
The snakes live on small migratory birds that use the island as a stopover point. Once a bird lands, a snake hits it with a shot of fast-acting venom. Then, it’s lunchtime.
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Some researchers are given permits to visit the island to check on how the wildlife is doing.
Occasionally, people known as biopirates sneak onto the island. They are there to collect some of the snakes, for which there is a demand from collectors and unscrupulous scientists. It’s said a single golden lancehead will fetch between $10,000 and $30,000.
3. North Sentinel Island, India
The Sentinelese people have lived on their island in the Andaman chain for at least 55,000 years. They have had no contact with the outside world, and they want it to stay that way. The Andamans are in the Bay of Bengal to the west of the coast of Myanmar (Burma).
The Anthropological Survey of India released a report in 2020 defending the right of the Sentinelese to live in peace in their home: “These rights are unassailable, non-negotiable, and uninfringeable,” said the policy document. “The prime duty of the state is to protect these rights as eternal and sacrosanct. Therefore, their island should not be eyed for any commercial or strategic gain, for if it were to happen, it surely would be a death knell for its occupants.”
The Sentinelese people choose to live in isolation and resist, with spears and bows and arrows, any attempt by others to visit their island. Survival International says this is a wise choice: “Neighboring tribes were wiped out after the British colonized their islands, and they lack immunity to common diseases like flu or measles, which would decimate their population.”
In November 2018, American John Allen Chau made a hideously misguided attempt to Christianize the people on the island. The islanders killed him.
The Sentinelese live a hunter/gatherer culture, and very little is known about them except their obvious wish to be left alone. That desire is respected, and no outside visitors are allowed onto North Sentinel Island.
4. Runit Island, Marshall Islands
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States carried out 67 nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. The explosions were piously described as for “the good of mankind and to end all wars.”
Two-thirds of the tests happened at Enewetak Atoll, and they left behind a place seriously contaminated with radioactive material. Efforts to clean up the mess ran from 1977 to 1980.
There was military debris, shattered concrete, and soil tainted with frightening-sounding elements such as plutonium, cesium, and strontium. All this toxic waste, 85,000 cubic metres of it, was scooped up and taken to a tiny patch of land called Runit Island, a place that was so badly contaminated that scientists said it could never be cleaned up.
On Runit, there was already a huge void left behind by one of the blasts called the Cactus Crater. It was lined with concrete, and all the crud was dumped in. Then, they sealed off the dump with a big concrete dome.
But, to save costs, the bottom of the crater was not lined, so radioactive contamination has leaked into seawater, and there are serious concerns about how permanent the containment structure really is.
Needless to say, the only people who visit Runit Island are government scientists protected by complete hazmat kits.
5. North Brother Island, United States
Sitting in the East River between Riker’s Island and the Bronx, this place has a tragic history. Late in the 19th century, New York bought the island and built the Riverside Hospital on it as a place to isolate people suffering from tuberculosis, yellow fever, smallpox, and typhus. Mostly, people were sent there to die.
In 1905, the General Slocum steamship was on a cruise on the East River when she caught fire. More than a thousand people died in the disaster, and many of the bodies washed ashore in North Brother Island.
After World War II, the hospital was used to temporarily house veterans, and then it was pressed into service as a treatment place for drug addicts. In 1963, it was closed down with allegations of corruption swirling around.
Nature has since taken over, and the buildings are slowly crumbling. Then, the black-crowned night herons, an endangered species, moved in and used the island as a breeding ground.
The protect the herons, the City of New York has declared North Brother Island a sanctuary and a no-go area for people.
- Before October 2018, it was possible to visit East Island, Hawaii; today it’s impossible. The 11-acre island was washed away in a tropical cyclone, intensified by global heating.
- There’s a Treasure Island in Ontario, Canada. It sits in Lake Mindemoya, which is in the middle of Manitoulan Island, which, in turn, is surrounded by the waters of Lake Huron. So, Treasure Island is an island in a lake on an island in a lake. It’s uninhabited except for summer cottagers who might deliver a bit of a frosty welcome to anybody trying to visit uninvited.
- “Snake Island (Ilha da Queimada Grande).” Unshanka, Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “This Terrifying Brazilian Island Has the Highest Concentration of Venomous Snakes Anywhere in the World.” Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian Magazine, June 25, 2014.
- “Any Exploitation of Sentinel Island Will Wipe out Tribals.” Shiv Sahay Singh, The Hindu, December 20, 2020.
- “The Sentinelese.” Survival International, undated.
- “Australia’s Heard Island: A Mysterious Land of Fire and Ice.” Marty McCarthy, ABC News, January 24, 2019.
- “See the Abandoned and Inaccessible Island Where Typhoid Mary Died.” Anika Burgess, Vanity Fair, June 6, 2015.
- “Atomic Veterans: Enewetak Atoll.” Atomic Heritage Foundation, June 17, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor