Hundreds of miles off the coast of mainland Alaska sits a jagged and lonely sliver of land. It’s constantly battered by biting winds, and the wild Bering Sea slaps against its rocky border. Despite this harsh climate, though, many brave souls have tried to settle on St. Matthew’s shores. Sadly, each failed attempt confirmed what was suspected all along: the island simply isn’t fit for humans. And here’s the bleak reason why no one can survive there.
Even in today’s connected world, a trip to St. Matthew involves a whole day’s boat ride from St. Paul in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands. And so it’s perhaps no surprise that visitors are typically few and far between. Those who do make it here, though, find a desolate and lonely place – populated only by seabirds and singing voles. And that’s not the only reason they probably won’t want to stay very long.
Though history tells us that St. Matthew hasn’t always been this way. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that humans built shelters here as far back as the 17th century. And at one point, the island was home to thousands of reindeer roaming wild across the landscape. But now everything is dull and lifeless, with bones scattered across the landscape. Enough to send shivers down your spine, right?
Known as the island that could not be conquered, St. Matthew has stubbornly resisted the humans and animals that have attempted to make it their home. Dozens have landed here over the centuries, yet all have either perished or fled. What is it about this place, then, that makes it so ill-equipped for survival?
Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that St. Matthew is the only uninhabited island in the U.S. But there are actually a number of outcrops on American soil that remain devoid of human life – even as the population grows larger than ever before. And while some of them exist in far-flung places, others are surprisingly close to home.
On the remote end of the spectrum, for example, there are places like Howland Island. This is a tiny, 640-acre spit of land located approximately halfway between Australia and the U.S. It was there, back in the 1930s, that the famous aviator Amelia Earhart planned to stop off on her ill-fated flight around the world. But of course, she never arrived.
At the other end of the scale are places like High Island – an uninhabited outcrop improbably located in the Bronx. Over the years, it has served as both a quarry and a holiday resort. But since the 1960s the island has been used to house radio towers. And even though New York City is famous for its lack of housing, this tiny kingdom has remained eerily empty for decades.
There are, of course, many reasons why an island may remain uninhabited – ranging from an inhospitable landscape to environmental concerns and even turbulent political scenarios. But in places such as St. Matthew, there’s an entirely different reason why anyone looking to set up home wouldn’t last long. Yep, life is rarely easy even in places where settlements have managed to survive – let alone in this unwelcoming section of Alaska.
Take the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha, for example, which is widely considered to contain the most isolated inhabited islands on our planet. Ever since the 19th century, a small population of hardy settlers have lived here – in a spot more than 1,500 miles off the coast of South Africa. But with no airstrip and approximately one boat per month, there are plenty of challenges associated with living in such a far-flung place.
Some 6,500 miles to the east – on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific – the 50-odd inhabitants face similar struggles on a day to day basis. Back in 1790, the crew of the British ship H.M.S. Bounty staged a mutiny against their captain after becoming disillusioned with their lives at sea. Eventually, they settled, and some of their descendants remain there to this day.
But Like Tristan da Cunha, the Pitcairn Islands are cut off from the outside world and are served only by the occasional supply-laden ship. That isolation has also bred discontent over the years, with most of the early settlers descending into violence and alcoholism. Now, life here is calmer, although scandals still occasionally rock the tight-knit community.
But according to experts, life on Pitcairn could be coming to an end. In order to counteract the aging population, the government has been advertising for new residents. But none have come forward. And if this lack of interest continues, the community could fizzle out by the end of the 21st century. Still, that would mean an inhabited run of some 250 years – far longer than any settlers have lasted on St. Matthew.
As many of you know, the Bering Sea is a deep, icy body of water that separates the Americas and Eurasia. It is also home to a number of remote and bleak-looking islands. And none more so than St. Matthew – a 138-square mile outcrop located some 250 miles off the coast of Alaska. So while it’s clearly off the beaten track, the slither of land is hardly the most far-flung place on planet Earth. Plus, if people can make places such as Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn suitable for human habitation, why has nobody managed to settle here?
Off the southern coast of St. Matthew, the jagged Pinnacle Rock juts out of the Bering Sea – a challenging obstacle for the few vessels that make it this far from the mainland. To the north stands a tiny speck of land called Hall Island, where walruses congregate when the sea ice melts. Altogether, then, it is a dramatic landscape – and one that’s apparently not suited to human life.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying over the years – and the evidence of these attempts is still there to see. Today, for instance, the landscape of St. Matthew is littered with the relics of groups who have attempted and failed to tame this wild island. In one place, a writer for Hakai Magazine called Sarah Gilman found old metal barrels that had been left to rust – slowly disintegrating like strange skeletons along the shore. In another, she saw a single pole marking the site where a military navigation facility once stood. Eerie, huh?
In the south-west corner of the island, Gilman came across the foundations of temporary huts that litter the landscape, along with a solitary toilet long abandoned by those who brought it here. And on the northern side, the remains of a much older settlement can be found.
Around 400 years ago, it’s believed, members of the prehistoric Thule culture attempted to construct a pit house on this wild stretch of coast. But even a people so hardy that they gave birth to the modern Inuits could not withstand life on St. Matthew. So they moved on to settle on different shores.
Russian navy lieutenant Ivan Synd believed that he was actually the first to set foot on St. Matthew’s largest island upon landing there in 1766. He was so sure of his discovery, in fact, that he gave the island its name after the biblical apostle. But that didn’t stop the English explorer Captain James Cook from making a similar claim when he arrived there 12 years later.
As it turned out, though, neither of these men was the first to discover St. Matthew. Yep, at least one group of ambitious would-be settlers arrived on these bleak shores as early as the 17th century. But who were these early adventurers, and what brought them to this island of all places?
Back in 1957, a discovery was made on St. Matthew. Experts found a single pit house dug into the rock, which was believed to be from the 1650s. At the time, not much was recorded about the dwelling, although pottery in the area suggested that it was connected with the Thule culture. And as such, it predated Synd and Cook’s claims by over a century.
The ancestors of today’s Inuit people, the Thule emerged in what is now Alaska around 1000 A.D. And within a few hundred years, their reach had expanded across parts of Canada and into Greenland. But around the time that the dwelling on St. Matthew was built, the environmental impact of the Little Ice Age had begun to devastate their communities.
In the midst of this upheaval, it seems a party of Thule arrived on St. Matthew. Faced with the uninviting terrain, they dug a pit house in which to take shelter from the worst of the elements. But according to archeologists, they do not appear to have built a hearth – suggesting that the dwelling was only used for a short period of time.
If the experts are to be believed, there is more evidence to support the hypothesis that the Thule did not stay on St. Matthew for very long. Around the site, archeologists discovered only a scattering of artifacts – not the abundance that would typically accompany an established settlement. But why would anyone go to all the trouble of reaching this remote island, only to simply turn around and leave?
The answer, fascinatingly, could be found in the legends told by the Unangan people, who inhabit the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands south of St. Matthew. Apparently, their oral histories tell of lost explorers who found themselves stranded on foreign islands. And with the ocean raging around them, they were forced to make camp in this new place until the way home became accessible once more.
According to archeologist Dennis Griffin – who has been conducting work in the region since the early 2000s – these stories could reflect the reality of what happened on St. Matthew. Stranded on the island, the party of Thule may have needed to wait for the sea ice to melt in order to sail away, he told Hakai Magazine. Or, conversely, they may have arrived in summer and bided their time until the ocean froze and enabled them to simply hike home.
Either way, the Thule would have needed to construct a temporary dwelling on St. Matthew. But Griffin believes that the pit house discovered in 1957 was only lived in for a matter of months. And while others may have tried to settle on the island over the following centuries, no evidence of their efforts now remains.
In fact, St. Matthew could well have remained uninhabited until 1809, when a group of both Unangan and Russian hunters attempted to make a camp on the island. By that time, it was a popular habitat of polar bears, and the men hoped to harvest their valuable fur. But like the Thule before them, they did not last long.
Reports vary as to what it was exactly that drove the hunters off of St. Matthew. According to some, the party lost their food source as sea creatures migrated away from the island – leaving them to starve. But others claim that the Russians succumbed to scurvy while the Unangans managed to adapt to a limited diet.
Another explanation is that the polar bears – the very animals that the party were trying to hunt – ended up being so ferocious that the men fled in fear. But while this certainly has a degree of poetic justice to it, no one can be sure why this group abandoned St. Matthew. What we do know, though, is that by the time the American naturalist and painter Henry Elliot arrived in 1874, he found the island teeming with the creatures.
Yet this begs the question: why are there no polar bears on St. Matthew today? By the time that the Harriman Expedition from Seattle arrived in 1899, there was not a single bear to be found. Just like the island’s human settlers, it seems, they had abruptly disappeared. And although there is some debate over exactly what happened, experts believe that hunters were likely to blame.
Starved of entertainment during long periods at sea, some Canadian and American crews turned to hunt the polar bears on St. Matthew for sport, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And with that, they rendered the island a death trap – even for the animals best adapted to deal with its challenges. So, what hope did anyone else have of surviving this brutal place?
Seventeen years after the 1916 Harriman Expedition, the ship Great Bear got caught in the mist and crashed on Pinnacle Rock. At first, the survivors who made it to shore must have been grateful that St. Matthew’s bear population had petered out. But as they waited to be rescued, the harsh conditions on the island began to take their toll.
To begin with, things probably looked fairly hopeful. One man managed to build a makeshift transmitter device to send out an SOS message from St. Matthew. But before long, he realized that the sodden atmosphere of the island was hampering his efforts. And as the weeks passed with no sign of rescue, the men came to blows over what limited resources they had left.
After 18 days, the crew of the Great Bear were eventually rescued and escaped St. Matthew for good. But less than 30 years later, another group of reluctant settlers arrived on the island. This time they were American servicemen, meaning the struggles of World War II had reached even this remote place.
The Allies’ ships and planes were fighting in the Pacific Ocean to the south of the Bering Sea. And a long-range navigation (LORAN) site was established on St. Matthew to help them find their way in these distant waters. But life was tough for the unfortunate souls chosen to man the station.
According to Hakai Magazine, St. Matthew was a veritable hellscape of deep snow, ten-day blizzards and rainstorms that frequently turned the ground to mud. And when the time came to build the military site, it took hundreds of sacks of cement to construct steady foundations on the battered terrain. Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier once men were living on the island, either.
While stationed on St. Matthew, servicemen were completely cut off from the outside world. Their only communication was by mail – dropped from the sky at a location miles from the base. And in order to retrieve it, they needed to mount a complex operation involving several different crews and a toboggan full of supplies. We know what you’re thinking: those messages better have been worth it!
One thing that the servicemen were not short on was food after an enterprising coast guard introduced a wild reindeer population to the island. But even that didn’t mean everyone stationed there survived the war – that’s according to the Hakai Magazine, anyway. One day, for example, a crew of five men apparently disappeared while running an errand by boat on what appeared to be calm seas.
After the end of the war, the men left St. Matthew – becoming the last people to stay on the island for any length of time. And in their absence, the reindeer thrived. So much so, in fact, that a biologist visiting the island in 1963 counted as many as 6,000. But like all life on this lonely rock, they did not last. Just three years later, only 42 remained in a landscape littered with bones.
According to experts, the reindeer likely overgrazed the small island and ended up succumbing to starvation. And this adds yet another grim fate to the list of those that have befallen humans and animals on St. Matthew over the years. Despite centuries of horror stories, there are some who still make the long journey – mostly scientists keen on studying the local seabirds. But will man ever conquer these shores on a more permanent basis? Well, if the past is anything to go by, it seems unlikely.
Unlike St. Mathew, there are some islands in the world that are uninhabited because humans simply aren’t allowed to visit. Take Brazil’s Ilha da Queimada Grande, for instance. The navy there won’t let anyone set foot on its shores, and it’s because the beautiful slither of land hides a perilous secret.
If you view Ilha da Queimada Grande from a boat, it may look inviting. Its rainforest probably gives the impression of a jungle paradise to onlookers, and its sandy beaches look like the perfect places to spend a lazy hour or two. The climate is ideal for barefoot strolls, too, getting to a balmy 66 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and rising to 82 degrees when summer kicks in. But don’t be fooled by this air of idyll.
Once you land on Ilha da Queimada Grande, it becomes even more deceiving. Think thick foliage and outcrops of rock wherever you look – and the sound of waves landing on the shores never being too far away. But this spectacular landscape hides one of the natural world’s deadliest predators.
In fact, danger lurks around practically every corner: this seemingly peaceful paradise is actually known as “Snake Island.” In the past, people have said that the islet was home to hundreds of thousands of snakes. And although estimates are far lower than that today, there are still plenty of serpents living on the island. The reason for this drop in numbers, however, may stem from the actions of an even more ruthless predator.
Among the snakes on the island is Dipsas albifrons, which is no danger to humans. It is a lethal enemy of snails, though, which it happily consumes. But alongside this snail-eater are at least a couple of thousand golden lancehead vipers. And they pose a much greater threat to people. In fact, they are among the deadliest snakes on Earth.
The golden lancehead viper is a member of the Bothrops genus – a group of snakes named for the shape of their heads. But the ones on Ilha da Queimada Grande are distinguished by the color of their bellies. And although 36 sister species are found across South America, the golden lancehead viper is only found on this specific island.
While golden lanceheads usually grow to a little over 2 feet long, some, terrifyingly, have been observed at nearly double that. And if that’s not worrying enough, these snakes have evolved a long tail so that they can travel through trees. However, the creatures are doomed to stay on their island home.
That’s because the golden lancehead viper cannot swim. Some snakes are perfectly at home in water; for instance, some coral reef snakes live their whole lives in the sea. But these serpents don’t like to get their snouts wet. And so, they’ve lived in isolation on this island for thousands of years.
But how did the golden lancehead come to live on Ilha da Queimada Grande in the first place? One story goes that pirates brought the serpents ashore and used them to guard their buried treasure from other bandits. Mind you, it’s not clear how these gold-loving buccaneers might have managed to convince the snakes not to attack them, too.
In fact, the truth about the snakes is that they became stranded on Ilha da Quiemada Grande about 11,000 years ago. It’s believed that the level of the sea rose so much that the island was cut off from mainland Brazil. Then, isolated on their new home, the serpents evolved over the following millennia into their own distinct species.
Thanks to this remote island habitat, the golden lancehead viper has no known predators. It’s possible that youngsters may fall prey to various creeping, crawling and flying beasts. But once grown, it is believed that the snakes live in complete safety. And this has meant that the creatures have been able to reproduce to the point that the atoll is now swarming with them.
But just as Ilha da Quiemada Grande seemingly has nothing that can challenge the viper, it in turn provides little for it to tuck into. Indeed, the main source of food comes in the form of birds that have landed on the island during their seasonal migration. And to get at the prey, the serpents have to wriggle skyward, climbing up tall rainforest trees.
That said, the golden lancehead only really chows down on two species of birds. This is despite the fact that 41 species have been spotted on the island. The viper eats the southern house wren – if it can catch it. And the snake also enjoys the occasional meal of white-crested elaenia, which is a flycatcher that feeds in the same places as the snake.
Meanwhile, a curious outcome of preying on birds is that the golden lancehead viper has evolved powerful, fast-acting venom. Snakes usually pursue their victims after biting them, you see, waiting for them to succumb. But this isn’t as easy once it comes to birds, and so the species has adapted to possess a far more deadly weapon.
So potent is the golden lancehead’s poison, in fact, that if one of these snakes bites you then you have a seven percent chance of dying. And even if you’re treated, the likelihood of death is three percent. The other consequences of a bite aren’t pretty, either, mind you. For instance, the venom can cause a person’s kidneys to fail or their brain to bleed.
What’s more, the venom is so toxic that it can also melt skin. When chemists have studied the poison, they’ve observed that it may be five times stronger than that of other Bothrops snakes. Altogether, the powerful punch of the snake’s bite means that the golden lancehead viper ranks among the world’s most dangerous serpents. And yet not even this unsettling revelation has kept some individuals away from Ilha da Quiemada Grande.
Indeed, locals on the Brazilian coast have their fair share of stories about the snakes’ deadliness. One terrifying tale is that about a fisherman who visited the isle for bananas, not knowing that it was home to the vipers. Assailed by the serpents, it’s said that he struggled back to his boat, where he was allegedly found lying stone dead. But he wouldn’t be the last explorer to be tempted by the island’s riches.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a lighthouse on the island to warn mariners of the rocky shoreline. And it’s believed that a plucky handful of people actually lived there for some years, although this was a long time ago. They tended to the lighthouse between 1909 and the 1920s – until tragedy struck.
You see, one dark night, a bunch of vipers allegedly slipped into the lighthouse keeper’s home. And there were gruesome consequences: it’s said that he and his family were killed by the vicious reptiles while they were sleeping. Worse still, when rescuers arrived to search for the family, they too apparently fell prey to the deadly creatures.
And while this story may be more myth than fact, there’s no doubt that the location still poses a threat today. Indeed, when staff from Vice magazine accompanied the Brazilian navy to the lighthouse, they were in for a nasty surprise. The magazine’s Editor in Chief had been sitting on a box in the lighthouse, out from which a snake slithered just moments later. Clearly, the journalist had had a lucky escape.
Given this danger, no one lives on Ilha da Quiemada Grande today, and the lighthouse now works automatically. The Brazilian navy, meanwhile, forbids anyone from even visiting the isle apart from a few specific exceptions. So, since the 1920s, very few individuals have ever stepped foot on Snake Island. But there are still some who are daring enough to make the eight-hour trip.
Among them are Brazilian servicemen, since the navy has the responsibility of keeping the lighthouse in good condition. Some researchers are also permitted to study the snakes, with the island and its serpentine inhabitants proving important to science. And as we’ve already noted, journalists accompany these visitors on rare occasions, too.
When it comes to scientists, they spend their time on the island monitoring the serpents and keeping the species going. This care is needed because Snake Island is not a natural habitat for the vipers – despite its moniker. Researchers hence look at where the snakes move and what parts of the island they inhabit. And they also work to restore the atoll’s vegetation, which has been damaged over time.
The work in tracking the serpents is done by small groups of experts who visit the island regularly. These brave souls actually set out to capture individual vipers. And once they get their hands on one, they measure the animal’s weight and length before injecting a tag into it and letting it go.
Of course, the scientists must take precautions when they visit. They have to dress appropriately and be on the lookout for slithering serpents. Plus ,they handle the snakes with specialized equipment designed to keep themselves safe. And understandably, the authorities won’t let anyone onto the island unless a doctor goes, too.
One person who hasn’t been put off by the risks posed by the vipers is photographer João Marcos Rosa. He has visited the island three times in order to snap images of the snakes and their spectacular habitat. And some of the daredevil’s stunning images can be seen right here in this article.
Rosa traveled to Ilha da Queimada Grande with a group of researchers who were taking a census of the island’s snakes. During the four-day trip, Rosa saw the deadly serpents first hand and at terrifyingly close proximity. As he told Scribol, “It is easy to find the snakes. As soon as you leave the rocks and start walking in the middle of the trees, you will always find them.”
Indeed, Rosa and the team happend across hundreds of snakes during the course of their four-day visit; it seems as though the creatures were wherever they turned. During a trek to the uppermost part of the island, Rosa and the scientists reported that they had “48 encounters with [individual snakes].” And while this may give us the shudders, it was a risk that the photographer was willing to take.
In order to get the best photographs, Rosa had to get very close to the snakes at times. In fact, he would position himself just a few inches from the serpents. It’s a situation that would make most people extremely nervous – and rightly so. But for Rosa, it was all worth it for the perfect shot.
That said, Rosa and the researchers did take a number of precautionary steps on their visits to Ilha da Queimada Grande. It was important to make the possibility of a bite as unlikely as possible, after all. Rosa explained, “We had to use protections for our legs and be very careful where we put our hands [in order to] not grab a snake.”
And it would seem that said measures were effective – for Rosa and for others – as there’s no official record of a viper biting a human on the island. But other lancehead snakes have been known to be deadly, too. In fact, they cause more deaths than any other serpent in the Americas. In Brazil alone, for instance, they are actually responsible for nine out of ten snakebites. One can only wonder if this information is known to those who would visit the island illegally.
That’s right: the snakes’ dangerous reputation has not put off travelers from illicitly making their way to the island’s shores. These wildlife “bio pirates” land with the aim of capturing the vipers in order to sell them on the black market. Just one serpent can go for as much as $30,000. So it’s no wonder that even security cameras cannot deter the poachers. There are reportedly even temptations for those in law enforcement who are tasked with capturing the bio pirates.
Yes, there are in fact claims that corruption has crept into the police’s crackdown on the poachers. A smuggler using the pseudonym “Juan” told Vice that criminals could pay inspectors a bribe. And this would subsequently help get them out of prison. He went even further, though, suggesting that some authorities were actually involved in smuggling themselves.
This illicit activity has perhaps played a part in landing the golden lancehead viper on the Brazilian endangered species list. Meanwhile, competition for food seems to have suppressed the population of the snakes. A 2008 survey in fact suggested that there were no more than 4,000 of these serpents on the island – and it identified illegal capture of the serpents as a critical threat to their survival.
Another reason for the snakes’ endangered status is revealed by the island’s name. In Portuguese, Ilha da Queimada Grande means “Island of the Great Burn.” This moniker stems from the fact that people once tried to create a plantation for bananas there. And to clear the land, they had to burn the rainforest – likely killing vast numbers of the serpents and destroying much of their habitat.
Mind you, biologist Marcelo Duarte says that there is still probably one snake for every 11 square feet on the island. And Duarte should know, as he’s been to the island on no fewer than 20 occasions. Frighteningly, the prevalence of the serpents means that you are, on average, within about three feet of one at any given time. It may be a good thing that there are so many of the creatures, though, as they could hold a very important purpose.
Duarte told Smithsonian in 2014 that the golden lancehead viper may yield significant medicinal value. Indeed, he explained that the snake’s venom has the potential to assist with blood circulation, clotting and heart disease. Speaking to the magazine, he said, “We are just scratching this universe of possibilities of venoms.”
More wrongly, though, this medical potential may actually be what is fuelling the smuggling trade. The poachers’ clients may be willing to shell out thousands for a single snake in order to get hold of the venom, which they could then patent. And individuals have apparently been known to offer cash to scientists on their return from the island in exchange for live specimens.
All in all, though, Ilha da Queimada Grande will probably never be much of a tourist destination. Indeed, during their trip, the journalists from Vice magazine found that the snakes were just one of the alarming animal species to be found on the island: they shared their camp with locusts and giant cockroaches, too. Suffice to say that they did not make a return booking.
So while it’s not impossible to break the law to sneak onto the island, it’s a very bad idea indeed. Instead, visitors can safely see the snakes at Duarte’s Butantã Institute in São Paulo, or they can visit that city’s zoo. There, five of the venomous reptiles can be found, safely contained behind a fence: all hiss and no bite.