Joe and I went to see Life of Pi last week which inspired this blog post. In case you haven’t seen the movie, go and see it! It is utterly stunning and an absolute treat. I normally complain about “stupid children” in movie theaters because they always talk loudly or scream, but I actually enjoyed watching this one with kids because it made me realize how adults too can marvel at beautiful things with childlike wonder. Of course this is my personal opinion and I have heard some people say that they didn’t enjoy the movie because it deals too much with faith and religion and the concept of God, but I think that doesn’t necessarily say much about the quality of the movie, but about how we approach these issues. My point is that any movie, book or piece of art that deals with faith and God is going to be polarizing, simply because they are polarizing concepts. But enough about that.
Anyway (SPOILER ALERT – skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie but want to), in the movie Pi and Richard Parker are stranded on a carnivorous, floating island which is inhabited by millions of meerkats who chill all day and live off delicious seaweed and some other things that look like cucumbers. Basically, the coolest place ever (minus the island being carnivorous, that is not so mellow).
Seeing this made me wonder: Do floating islands like that really exist? And why are there floating islands? And are they really inhabited by meerkats? And, can I move there?
As usual, I went to consult Wikipedia (I’ve been told numerous times at university that Wikipedia is by far the most unreliable and shittest source ever, but I still like it). What I got was:
“A floating island is a French dessert consisting of meringue floating on crème anglaise (a vanilla custard). The meringues are prepared from whipped egg whites, sugar and vanilla extract then quickly poached. The crème anglaise is prepared with the egg yolks, vanilla, and hot milk, briefly cooked.”
Ok, screw the meerkats. I want to live on THAT floating island! Unfortunately, I don’t think Wikipedia and I are talking about the same floating islands, though.
Quite simply put, a floating island is a mass of floating aquatic plants, mud and peat raning in thickness from a few inches to several feet. Chet Van Dunzer, author of the global bibliography “Floating Islands” (2004) puts it this way: “Natural floating islands, once formed, acquire new qualities as “mobile biomes” with functions in distributing plants and animals and as metaphors for our own lives … pushed here and there by the winds”. How romantic. Floating islands are pushovers, just like us.
One of the first mentions of a floating island was in Homer’s Odyssey: Aeolia was home to the four winds (and a delicious garlic sauce), although it is unclear whether or not the island floated in water or in the air. Other examples of floating islands in Greek mythology include the Symplegades and the Planctae, wandering rocks that clashed together randomly somewhere around the Bosphorus, conveniently whenever ships wanted to cross through (so maybe not so randomly). And then there are other, modern fictitious floating islands, such as Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels and Jules Verne’s Propeller Island.
But, there are of course also very real examples of floating islands. They are mainly freshwater phenomena though, so don’t expect to be saved by a Pi-like island if you’re ever adrift at sea.
The Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida is home to large floating peat islands which even grow trees. The islands are formed because large amounts of peat on the swamp floor accumulate a whole lot of methane and carbon dioxide that makes them buoyant and rise to the surface (Adams, 2007).
There is some evidence that these types of floating islands are most common in areas which are rich in water lilies, such as the Okefenokee Swamp or the Everglades, because water lilies facilitate the formation of floating peat mats which consist of said buoyant peat and root mats. One reason could be that they easily separate along planes to form stable peat mats. Soon after their formation, these floating peat mats are then colonized by plants that only tolerate shallow water, including shrubs, bushes or trees. Floating islands mainly float due to wind and (here’s a cool thing), the plants and trees on these islands can actually function like sails (Gleason, 2012).
But, floating islands aren’t limited to just swamps. The floating island of Island Pond in Springfield, Massachusetts, is a football field-sized floating island that moves around regularly from one end of the lake to the other with the wind. The island consists of a buoyed mat of sphagnum moss and decomposing plants. But apparently, this floating island can be a royal pain in the a… In 2005, the New York Times reported that the island was “blown” into a resident’s back yard after a heavy storm, “where it swamped his backyard before being towed away”.
Another cool example is Loktak Lake in India which has floating phumdis (thick mats of drifting vegetation, soil and other organic matter), located in the Keibul Lamjao National Park in the Manipur state. It is one of the largest freshwater reserves an an important source for drinking water, irrigation and hydropower generation. This unique lake is also home to more than 100 endangered Manipur brow-antlered deer.
So, natural floating islands are pretty cool, huh?! But a lot of floating islands are man-made creations that reflect both our ingenuity, as well as our ignorance.
Popular man-made floating islands include the islands of the Titicaca Lake which are home to the Uros tribe, an ancient tribe pre-dating Incan civilization. According to their legends, the Uros existed before the sun and were some sort of uber-humans with black blood who never got ill. Sadly they lost this status because they mixed with inferior (but much more fun) humans. They then became the Uro-Aymaras and now speak Aymara. Because of their simple lifestyle, the Incas didn’t think them to be threats and kind of left them alone. Nevertheless, the Uros and their floating islands outlasted the pompous Incas and their massive temples. So, hah, bigger is not always better.
Their floating islands are made of reeds, called totora. It has dense roots which are stacked layer on layer to create islands. The islands change in size as more totora are stacked onto the rest. Often they are built to have the shapes of animals. The surface of the islands therefore is rather uneven and thin and it has been described as if walking on a waterbed. The Uros also create their houses from the reeds which are waterproof (yay) but not necessarily wind or cold proof (nay). Therefore they build cooking fires on layers of stones to protect the reeds.
The floating islands are protected within the Bay of Puno and are home to about 2000 Uros who call themselves kot- suña, people of the lake, who live of fishing, weaving and tourism. The area protects over 60 species of birds and 18 native amphibian species.
But, as mentioned above, not all man-made islands are amazing architectural achievements in balance with nature.
There also exists a man-made floating island of plastic and trash: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Of course, this is not a floating island in the literal sense. Don’t expect to encounter an island of plastic bottles, rather this is a patch in the North Pacific Gyre with high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge and other plastic debris. The exact size of this patch is unknown. Some say, it is twice the size of France (!!), but no one knows for sure. One this is for certain though: It is ever growing.
The reason why the garbage island is where it is has to do with the North Pacific Subtropical “Gyre” which basically is a natural vortex (caused by ocean currents and wind) accumulating trash. There is another trash island near another Gyre in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and it is believed that there are at least five more trash islands floating in our oceans.
Captain Charles Moore was the first one to discover the patch back in 1997 and has been studying the “garbage island” ever since. The trash island mainly consists of water bottles, cups, bottle caps, plastic bags, fish nets and raw plastic pellets. About 80% of the trash comes from land while 20% comes from ships at sea.
So, what effects do these trash islands have on wildlife? Whales, seabirds and other animals can easily choke on nylon nets, balloons, straws or six-pack rings. Moreover, fish, seabirds and other animals easily mistake brightly colored plastic bags or balloons for fish eggs and krill. Once eaten, the plastic passes dangerous toxins on to animals which can poison them. And it doesn’t stop there. Plastic poisoning can have a domino-effect on the whole food-chain. Yup, that includes you.
So, floating islands… Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that there are floating islands inhabited by meerkats in the middle of the ocean, BUT there are many floating islands of a more modest scope. One thing’s for sure: Floating islands are definitely cool, unless they are made of garbage. So, please think twice about how you dispose of things. And remember: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.