Antipodes Islands

I’m back to my antipodes fixation again, a recurring theme here on the Twelve Mile Circle. I’d placed this one on my mental list as I researched the Closest Antipodal National Capitals a few weeks ago. Today I feature the Antipodes Islands Group of New Zealand.

Antipodes Islands Map
SOURCE: New Zealand Department of Conservation

The Antipodes Islands, part of a collective of Sub-Antarctic islands that form a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site, are forbidding and isolated. Their uninhabited volcanic peaks rise from the south Pacific Ocean southeast of the rest of New Zealand by about 800 kilometres. Technically these are "islands" (plural) although most of the land can be found on a single Antipodes Island (singular) which rises to 366 metres at Mt. Galloway. Other landforms include Bollons Island, Leeward Island and Archway Island.

The Antipodes Islands were not charted until 1800. It didn’t take long for mankind to exploit them. Ships came to the islands between 1805 and 1807 to hunt the native seal population for fur. Two years was all it took for sealers to completely decimate the population to the point of near extinction. After that, the Antipodes Islands escaped much attention other than a single halfhearted settlement attempt and occasional shipwrecks. There are not many animal lifeforms to be found here other than birds.

With a name like the Antipodes Islands, one expects that its antipodal equivalent would be something fairly significant. However, the antipodes for most of the Antipodes Islands fall onto water. A small portio hits dry land near the French commune of Gatteville-le-Phare, located on the Cotentin Peninsula east of Cherbourg-Octeville in Normandy. I’m not sure if many people would consider a village of 500 people to be "significant" but that doesn’t tell the actual story. Gatteville-le-Phare has nothing to do with it.

I’ll let the Government of New Zealand explain the situation:

The Antipodes Islands were discovered in 1800 and named "Penantipodes" by their discoverer, Captain Waterhouse of H.M.S. Reliance, because of its situation near the antipodes of London (i.e. a line drawn directly through the earth from London comes out very close to the Antipodes Islands). Over time the name has been shortened to "Antipodes."

London does seem a little more noteworthy than Gatteville-le-Phare, although with no offense to the fine citizens of Gatteville-le-Phare. I’m sure it’s a lovely place.

Thus, the mystery has been revealed. The prefix "pene" comes from Latin, paene, meaning nearly or almost. We see it applied geographically in a more familiar word that I already used above — Peninsula. Insula is Latin for island, so a Peninsula is an almost-island.

I’m not sure what I find more entertaining: that Captain Waterhouse saw these barren rocks and thought to himself, hey, I can’t think of a name right now but you know they’re kind-of close to London’s antipode; or that someone later shortened the name either because it was awkward or he didn’t understand the derivation of the term. It’s become a source of confusion every since.