Desert island

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A desert island in Palau

A desert island, or uninhabited island, is an island, islet or atoll that is not permanently populated by humans. Uninhabited islands are often depicted in films or stories about shipwrecked people, and are also used as stereotypes for the idea of "paradise". Some uninhabited islands are protected as nature reserves, and some are privately owned. Devon Island in Canada's far north is the largest uninhabited island in the world.[1][2]

Small coral atolls or islands usually have no source of fresh water, but occasionally a freshwater lens can be reached with a well.


Uninhabited islands are sometimes also called "deserted islands" or "desert islands". In the latter, the adjective desert connotes not desert climate conditions, but rather "desolate and sparsely occupied or unoccupied". The word desert has been "formerly applied more widely to any wild, uninhabited region, including forest-land", and it is this archaic meaning that appears in the phrase "desert island".[3]

The term "desert island" is also commonly used figuratively to refer to objects or behavior in conditions of social isolation and limited material means. Behavior on a desert island is a common thought experiment, for example, "desert island morality".[3]


Desert islands have been a profitable refuge for self-imposed castaways since medieval times, who have encountered and overcome deadly obstacles in the practice of survival skills.


Desert islands are partly sheltered from humans, making them havens of peace for a number of fragile wildlife species such as sea turtles and ground-nesting seabirds. Many species of seabirds use them as stopovers on their way or especially for nesting, taking advantage of the (supposed) absence of terrestrial predators such as cats or rats.

However, tons of waste from far away countries accumulates on their beaches from the sea, and the absence of surveillance also makes them important spots for poachers of protected species.[4]

List of selected uninhabited islands[edit]

The abandoned lighthouse at Klein Curaçao

List of largest uninhabited islands[edit]

Rank Area Rank Island Area (km2) Area (sq mi) Country/Countries Coordinates
1 27 Devon Island (Tallurutit) 55,247 21,331 Canada (Nunavut) 75°08′N 87°51′W
2 28 Alexander Island (Isla Alejandro I) 49,070 18,950 None (Antarctic territorial claims by Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom) 71°00′S 70°00′W
3 30 Severny Island (Severnyy Ostrov) 48,904 18,882 Russia (Arkhangelsk Oblast) 75°30′N 60°00′E
4 31 Berkner Island (Isla Berkner) 44,000 17,000 None (Antarctic territorial claims by Argentina and the United Kingdom) 79°30′S 47°30′W
5 32 Axel Heiberg Island (Umingmat Nunaat) 43,178 16,671 Canada (Nunavut) 79°26′N 90°46′W
6 33 Melville Island (Ilulliq) 42,149 16,274 Canada (Northwest Territories and Nunavut) 75°30′N 111°30′W
7 40 Prince of Wales Island (Kinngailak) 33,339 12,872 Canada (Nunavut) 72°40′N 99°00′W
8 46 Somerset Island (Kuuganajuk) 24,786 9,570 Canada (Nunavut) 73°15′N 93°30′W
9 47 Kotelny Island (Olgujdaah Aryy) 24,000 9,300 Russia (Sakha Republic) 75°20′N 141°00′E
10 54 Bathurst Island 16,042 6,194 Canada (Nunavut) 75°46′N 099°47′W

The largest 10 uninhabited islands all have a latitude greater than 70° north or south of the equator, indicating that the reason for their desertedness is the climate.

In literature and popular culture[edit]

The first known novels to be set on a desert island were Hayy ibn Yaqdhan written by Ibn Tufail (1105–1185), followed by Theologus Autodidactus written by Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288). The protagonists in both (Hayy in Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and Kamil in Theologus Autodidactus) are feral children living in seclusion on a deserted island, until they eventually come in contact with castaways from the outside world who are stranded on the island. The story of Theologus Autodidactus, however, extends beyond the deserted island setting when the castaways take Kamil back to civilization with them.[8]

William Shakespeare's 1610–11 play, The Tempest, uses the idea of being stranded on a desert island as a pretext for the action of the play. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are set adrift by Prospero's treacherous brother Antonio, seeking to become Duke of Milan, and Prospero in turn shipwrecks his brother and other men of sin onto the island.

A Latin translation of Ibn Tufail's Hayy ibn Yaqdhan appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger,[9][10] followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley in 1708,[11] as well as German and Dutch translations.[12] In the late 17th century, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan inspired Robert Boyle, an acquaintance of Pococke, to write his own philosophical novel set on a deserted island, The Aspiring Naturalist.[13] Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus was also eventually translated into English in the early 20th century.

Robinson Crusoe in an 1887 German illustration

Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe about a castaway on a desert island has spawned so many imitations in film, television and radio that its name was used to define a genre, Robinsonade.[14][15] The novel features Man Friday, Crusoe's personal assistant. It is likely that Defoe took inspiration for Crusoe from a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 after four years on the otherwise uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands; Defoe usually made use of current events for his plots. It is also likely that he was inspired by the Latin or English translations of Ibn Tufail's Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.[9][12][16][17]

Noel Paul Stookey sang a song about living on a desert island called "On a Desert Island (With You in My Dreams)" on Peter, Paul & Mary's 1965 album: "See What Tomorrow Brings".

Tom Neale was a New Zealander who voluntarily spent 16 years in three sessions in the 1950s and 1960s living alone on the island of Suwarrow in the Northern Cook Islands group. His time there is documented in his autobiography, An Island To Oneself.[18]

In the popular conception, such islands are often located in the Pacific, tropical, uninhabited and usually uncharted.[19] They are remote locales that offer escape and force people marooned or stranded as castaways to become self-sufficient and essentially create a new society. This society can either be utopian, based on an ingenious re-creation of society's comforts (as in Swiss Family Robinson and, in a humorous form, Gilligan's Island) or a regression into savagery (the major theme of both Lord of the Flies and The Beach).

Desert islands are also a hugely popular image for gag cartoons, the island being conventionally depicted as just a few yards across with a single palm tree (probably due to the visual constraints of the medium). 17 such cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in 1957 alone.[20]

A special variation of the desert island theme appears in H.G.Wells's The War in the Air. As part of the cataclysmic global war depicted, the bridges linking Goat Island in the middle of the Niagara Falls to the mainland are cut, and with civilization fast breaking down a few survivors stranded on the island can't expect rescue and must rely on their own resources - embarking on a grim life and death struggle.

The top "dream vacation" for heterosexual men surveyed by Psychology Today was "marooned on a tropical island with several members of the opposite sex".[21]

Historical castaways[edit]

In 1820, the crew of the whaler Essex spent time on uninhabited Henderson Island. There they gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation and found a small freshwater spring. After one week, they had depleted the island's resources and most of the crew left on three whaleboats, while three of the men decided to remain on the island and survived there for four months until their rescue.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Josh Lew (April 23, 2018). "10 (almost) deserted islands". MNN Galleries.
  2. ^ a b "Mars Researchers Rendezvous on Remote Arctic Island". Langley Research Center, Atmospheric Science Data Center, NASA. Archived from the original on April 29, 2017. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  3. ^ a b "desert island". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 June 2019. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  4. ^ Frédéric Ducarme. "Les aires protégées à l'épreuve de la réalité". Société Française d'Ecologie [fr].
  5. ^ kuschk (3 May 2012). "Devon Island: The Largest Uninhabited Island on Earth". Basement Geographer. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  6. ^ "German MPs suggest cash-strapped Greece should sell islands". The Local. March 4, 2010.
  7. ^ "About Tetepare Island". Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  8. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn Al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher Archived February 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  9. ^ a b Amber Haque (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", Journal of Religion and Health 43 (4): 357–377 [369].
  10. ^ Kalin, Brahim (March 10, 2018). "'Hayy ibn Yaqdhan' and the European Enlightenment". Daily Sabah. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  11. ^ Simon Ockley (1708), The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, Oxford University.
  12. ^ a b Martin Wainwright, Desert island scripts, The Guardian, 22 March 2003.
  13. ^ G. J. Toomer (1996), Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 222, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820291-1.
  14. ^ Steampunk anthology, 2008, ed. Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, ISBN 978-1-892391-75-9
  15. ^ Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, And Fantasies of Conquest, by Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, University of Minnesota P, 2007, ISBN 978-0816648634
  16. ^ Nawal Muhammad Hassan (1980), Hayy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A study of an early Arabic impact on English literature, Al-Rashid House for Publication.
  17. ^ Cyril Glasse (2001), New Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 202, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-7591-0190-6.
  18. ^ Good Reads, An Island to Oneself
  19. ^ Leadbeater, Chris (20 October 2017). "The 30 most idyllic islands on Earth". The Telegraph.
  20. ^ Bruce Handy (May 25, 2012). "A Guy, a Palm Tree, and a Desert Island: The Cartoon Genre That Just Won't Die". Vanity Fair. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
  21. ^ Clarke, Thurston (2001). Searching for Crusoe. New York: Ballantine. ISBN 9780345411433.
  22. ^ "Lloyd's list. 1821". HathiTrust. Retrieved 2017-10-26.

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