On 12 February 1772, in the south of the Indian Ocean, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Tremarec caught sight of land he believed to be the Southern continent. He named it “France australe”. He sent a sailor on shore to take possession of the territory in the king’s name. The land turned out to be the isles that in 1776 James Cook was to name the Kerguelen Islands.
The early 19th Century was marked by numerous visitors such as seal hunters, mostly British, but also by survivors of frequent shipwrecks that occurred around the archipelago. Later the French government, forewarned of British and Australian aspirations, ordered possession to be taken of the Kerguelen Islands. On 1 January 1893, the dispatch vessel Eure conducted the first official appropriation in the Baie de l’Oiseau. A second ceremony followed on 7 January at Port-Gazelle, along with the setting-up of a provisions depot for castaways.
A French government decree of 21 November 1924 attached the Crozet Islands, Kerguelen, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam to the Scattered Islands District dependent on the province of Tamatave in Madagascar, a French colony at the time. Then, in 1955, they became a district of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) and thus forming a new Overseas Territory (TOM).
From 1955 machines developed in Australia were imported for a seal-processing plant subsequently built in 1957 for the SIDAP (Société industrielle des abattoirs parisiens). That factory was closed in the 1960s. The equipment was repatriated to Réunion much later, in 2005, following a donation la from the Péchenart family.
As Kerguelen is located in the subantarctic zone, the islands have a cold oceanic climate, harsh owing to the presence of cold waters coming from the Antarctic, with rain or snow most of the year; no warmth comes in summer but winters are relatively mild. The archipelago is situated in the Furious Fifties, so winds are westerly and blow continually (at 35 km/h on average). Yet their speeds frequently exceed 150 km/h, with peaks of over 200 km/h. The average annual temperature is quite low (4.5°C) and the temperature range narrow (between 0 and 10°C). The absolute extreme values, measured between 1951 and 1985, are –9.4°C in June and +23.1°C in April. Precipitation figures are quite low (850 mm) considering their high frequency (246 days).
The Kerguelen Islands were formed from 50 Ma BP. They are part of lands that emerged from the Kerguelen plateau through a process beginning in the Lower Cretaceous (-120 Ma) during the breakup of Gondwana (India/Australia/Antarctic supercontinent). The archipelago resulted from magmatism generated under the combined effects of a hot spot and the Southeast-Indian ridge which split the plateau into two parts, one (Broken Ridge) migrating northeastwards, the other (the Kerguelen plateau) moving southwestwards and thereby away from the ridge’s influence. Hence it is the effects of the hot spot, now extinct or at least heading towards extinction, that produced the latest volcanic manifestations dated back to some 30 000 years or so, although some activity could be even more recent. This plateau is the world’s second largest oceanic plateau: It measures at least 2200 km long and 400 to 500 km wide. The glaciers of the Quaternary carved out the current morphology of the islands which hold the world record for coastline length in relation to surface area. They gouged out long U-shaped valleys many of which are inundated by the sea (fjords). However, these glaciers have now been receding for several decades.