Floating Islands - Myth and Reality

Floating Islands Seen at Sea: Myth and Reality – Part 2


(Read Part 1 ) Floating islands do indeed exist on six of the seven continents; they may have trees growing upon them, be hundreds of meters across, and support the weight of humans living upon them and even of cattle grazing upon them. Floating islands are kept buoyant by the light spongy tissues of certain aquatic plants, by gases released into their soil by decomposing vegetation, or by both of these forces. In very rare cases they have also been seen at sea, so that the floating islands in the stories just examined could theoretically have had a basis in fact, but when we examine accounts of sightings of these islands, as we shall do shortly, the difference between the islands in the mythical and factual accounts is striking, so striking that we are left with the impression that real floating islands seen at sea have no relationship whatsoever with the mythical accounts of such islands.

Floating islands are most often found in lakes and wetlands (fig. 2), but they also form during floods of the great tropical rivers of the world when large masses of aquatic vegetation or chunks of their banks are torn away and carried downriver. The Congo in Africa is one such river (fig. 3), and floating islands that came down the Congo were reported 240 km out to sea from the river’s mouth (1). Floating islands are also common in the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea following the monsoon rains. The islands are called “lik lik aislans” in Pidgin English, and can be up to 100 meters across with still-living trees on them. The Río Paraná and Río de la Plata in South America also generate floating islands—when they flood they are filled with floating islands called camalotes, which are matted masses of water hyacinth. A famous episode at Convento de San Francisco in Santa Fe, Argentina, which is located on the Río Paraná, involved the killing of two friars at the Convento by a jaguar that arrived on a camalote during a flood of the Paraná on April 18, 1825.

Floating islands in the Congo River

Floating islands in the Congo River, from the print by A. Goering, “Schwimmende Inseln und die Hochlande des Congo,” 1883 (author’s collection).

In the flood of 1905, the Río de la Plata at Buenos Aires was covered with camalotes as far as the eye could see, some half a mile long and 100 feet wide, others just a few feet in diameter. As they came down the river these islands hit moored ships and tore the ships from their moorings. And the islands brought passengers with them: many species of tropical snakes, deer, a puma, parrots, and monkeys. An Indian baby was found on a floating island that came ashore near Rosario, and although he was weak from hunger and exposure (the flood occurred in July, which is winter in the southern hemisphere), he was brought back to health. This flood and the floating islands are described in contemporary newspaper articles and also in Guillermo García Moyano’s Pueblo de los Pocitos .

Of course floating islands that come down rivers end up at sea; many are quickly destroyed by the waves, while others survive for quite some time, but accounts of floating islands seen at sea are rare. On July 28, 1892 a floating island measuring about 1000 square meters, with trees about 10 m high, was sighted in the Atlantic at about 39°30'N and 65°W; on August 26 it was seen at 41°49'N, 57°39'W, and on September 19 it was seen at 45°29'N, 42°39'W, having traveled about 1075 nautical miles during this period, and evidently having survived a powerful storm. Unfortunately no image of the island was ever created, and there is no record of the type of trees on it (2).

An article in the November 8, 1908 edition of the Washington Post reports that a United States cruiser in the Caribbean north of Honduras encountered an island which they soon discovered was floating (this is certainly one of the largest floating islands ever seen at sea) (3):

It proved to be a little island about three quarters of a mile around and a quarter wide. In shape it was long and narrow, with a thick growth of vines and bushes reaching down to the water’s very edge. Three tall cocoanut palms grew in the middle of it. No life of any kind was on the island, nor was there any water, though instead of being sandy or rocky as such islands usually are, the soil was rich, dark and very moist. After gathering the cocoanuts the sailors returned to the cruiser, which, oddly enough, seemed much further off, and considerably more to the southwest than when they left her. Then it just dawned on them that they had been visiting one of the floating islands so often heard about but seldom seen in the South Atlantic. Further observation confirmed the suspicion, as the cruiser remained near it long enough to see the island change its position.

A story published in several newspapers in June and July of 1902, gives a remarkable account of two floating islands spotted at sea in the Caribbean. The Norwegian ship Donald, steaming from Banes, Cuba, on its way to Philadelphia, encountered a floating island about 30 miles (48 km) from the island of San Salvador (4):

“On passing Watlins island, which lay off about 30 miles,” said Skipper Warnecke, “we steamed close to a floating island. Upon it were what appeared to be a large number of stately palm trees. I had never encountered anything like this in all my seafaring life. The floating island was moving, and that, too, at a slow rate. Curious for a thorough investigation, I steamed still closer to the object, and was amazed to find what I took to be palm trees were full-grown cocoanut trees, and laden with fruit of the largest kind. Then I ordered a boat lowered and, together with the first mate, made a landing on the still moving island.

“Then another surprise awaited us. High up in the trees was a small colony of mischievous monkeys, and as we got nearer they shied a number of cocoanuts at us. After a lot of trouble we secured two of the attacking simians and at least a dozen cocoanuts. Then we took to our boats, boarded the steamer, ordered full steam ahead, and soon the strange floating island was lost in the haze astern.

“But another surprise was in store for us on the following day, when we passed within glass sight of another singular floating object just off the port bow. The lookout sung out ‘Land ahead.’ This amazed me, for I knew according to the chart land was not miles near. Still, curious from the previous day’s experience, I determined to solve this further mystery of the sea, so I gave orders for the ship to steam close to what I now made out to be another floating island. Again I had a boat lowered, and with the same crew we landed on the island.

“We found it to be an exact duplicate of the day before, with this exception—instead of monkeys we found a big covey of parrots of most brilliant plumage. Among them was one who was evidently the patriarch of the tribe, and I do not exaggerate when I say that the aged fellow could cuss in two languages. He was evidently a lost pet. We took him and a couple of his fellows aboard the steamer, and soon left the floating island in the distance.”

In 1924 similar floating islands were reported in the Palawan Passage north of Borneo/Kalimantan. In an article titled “A Floating Island Followed His Ship” in the New York Times , Captain Jonas Pendelbury of the steamship President Adams described an encounter with a total of about ten floating islands, the largest about seven acres (2.8 hectares) with tall palm trees, monkeys, birds, and snakes (5):

Captain Pendelbury encountered the biggest of the floating islands first. He said its palm trees were higher than the wireless masts of his ship and in their tips were chattering monkeys and singing birds. Through marine glasses the skipper said he saw great masses of flowering vegetation and a large number of cobras, deadly reptiles.

These accounts of floating islands seen at sea are remarkable, as they give first-hand descriptions of a very rare, surprising, and seemingly impossible natural phenomenon, namely an island that moves freely about the surface of the sea. Such records are of particular interest to evolutionary biologists, as they lend support to the theory that floating islands have played a role in the dispersal of plant and animal species across the oceans, and thus contributed to the process of evolution. But perhaps surprisingly, they are of little value to the historian of myths or literature who might be interested in studying stories about floating islands. Those stories, which are also filled with wonder, were perhaps vaguely and distantly inspired by reports of real floating islands, but once the storytellers had seized on the idea of the floating island, they re-elaborated and reshaped it until it became something entirely new, and very distant from its origin in reality. The idea of a floating island, an apparent impossibility, satisfied the teller’s interest in marvels, but in incorporating this idea into a tale, the storyteller transformed it into a whale’s back, or the birthplace of gods, or the means of separating primordial peoples, or the material left over after the creation. The idea is transformed, in other words, “by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination (6)."

Featured image: Floating Islands of Zacatón, Mexico. Credit: Ann Kristovich. Photo source .

Part 1

By Chet Van Duzer


(1) Montgomery D. Parker, “Sketches in South Africa - Number Four,” The Knickerbocker; or New York Monthly Magazine 38.6 (December, 1851), pp. 571-577, esp. p. 573.

(2) Carl Ochsenius, “Eine schwimmende Insel im atlantischen Ozean,” Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen 39 (1893), p. 44

(3) “A Floating Island,” Washington Post , November 8, 1908, p. M3.

(4) “Birds and Animals Adrift,” The Daily Chief (Perry, Iowa), July 15, 1902, p. 3.

(5) “A Floating Island Followed His Ship; Skipper of the President Adams Brings Strange Tales from Round-the-World Cruise,” New York Times , May 23, 1924, p. 16.

(6) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria , chapter 14, in The Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Prose and Verse: Complete in One Volume (Philadelphia: Crissy & Markley, 1849), p. 300.


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