There’s something especially atmospheric about an island left abandoned. The ruined buildings, overrun by animals and climbing plants, hint at dark stories and forgotten chapters in the island’s past. Below are nine (mostly) abandoned islands that have been reclaimed by nature, and the stories behind them.
1. Ilha da Queimada Grande // Brazil
Ilha da Queimada Grande is a beautiful, wild island 90 miles off the coast of São Paolo, Brazil. But this island is no paradise—it’s home to between 2000 and 4000 golden lancehead vipers, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. The island was cut off from the mainland 11,000 years ago when sea levels rose, and with no known predators on the ground, the snakes evolved into their own species of pit viper. The golden lancehead vipers have also taken over the entire island: Rumor has it that the only family who ever lived there (they moved to the island to run the lighthouse) all died after being bitten by the snakes. Today, travel to the island is tightly controlled, but whether this is to protect people from the deadly snakes, or to protect the critically endangered snakes from people, isn’t entirely clear. Whatever the reason, this island is one that looks set to stay abandoned.
2. Hashima Island // Japan
In the 1950s, the 16-acre Hashima Island—also known as Battleship Island—was almost completely covered in high-rise apartments by the Mitsubishi Corporation, built in order to house the thousands of people who worked in the undersea mine beneath the island. But once the mines closed in 1974 the island was left to ruin, and the place now makes for an eerie modern ghost town. Its haunting atmosphere was put to good use in 2012 when it was used in the Bond film Skyfall as the villain’s lair. In 2015, in light of its importance to industrial history, the island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list—a decision that involved some controversy, given that some of those who worked on the island were forced laborers from Korea.
3. Pollepel Island // New York
Pollepel Island (also often called Bannerman Island) is a 6.5-acre island in New York’s Hudson River. The island was purchased in 1900 by entrepreneur Francis Bannerman as a place to store his excess stock of military surplus items. Bannerman designed an eccentric Scottish-style castle to house his wares, but construction on the building ceased in 1918 after his death. In 1920, 200 pounds of shells and gunpowder exploded in an accident, destroying part of the castle. After the ferry serving the island sank in 1950, the island and its ruined castle became effectively abandoned. New York State purchased Pollepel Island in 1967, but another fire two years later left the castle dangerously unstable, and since 1968 it has been off-limits to the public unless you’re on a guided tour.
4. King Island // Alaska
King Island sits in the Bering Sea, some 40 miles from Cape Douglas, Alaska. At first glance it seems impossible that anyone could have ever called this steep, rocky outcrop home, and yet for a number of years, an indigenous community of Inupiat lived in wooden huts on stilts built onto the cliff face. The village, known as Ukivok, was home to up to 200 people who spent their days hunting seal and walrus. But after the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the local school in 1959, the community began to diminish, until by 1970 it was completely abandoned. Amazingly, the wooden huts can still be seen, clinging on to the rocky cliffs, long out-lasting their former inhabitants.
5. Okunoshima Island // Japan
This tiny island in Japan was once used to manufacture and test poisonous gases, but it was deserted after World War II. Rabbits introduced to the island (possibly as test subjects for the poison gas) have, well, bred like rabbits, and now the island is home to thousands of the furry creatures. The plethora of cute rabbits have caused the island to become a popular tourist attraction, and people now flock to this once-deadly location to get their fill of fluffy bunnies. For those of a more macabre bent, the island also now features a small museum on poison gas.
6. Poveglia // Italy
This island is known as one of the most supposedly haunted abandoned islands in the world, and with good reason. Found in the Venetian Lagoon, Poveglia was once used to quarantine those afflicted with the plague. As a result, thousands of people lived out their last, miserable moments there and the island’s soil is rumored to be filled with human remains. A mental hospital was also built there in 1922. Poveglia has been abandoned since 1968, and the old hospital buildings reclaimed by nature, with a pervading atmosphere of death, madness, and misery still hanging heavy over the island.
7. Clipperton Island // Pacific Ocean
Remote Clipperton Island is about 1300 miles off the southwest coast of Mexico. Over the years, the United States, Mexico, France, and England all attempted to stake a claim on the island to mine the valuable guano there for use as fertilizer—but Clipperton’s remote location and inhospitable, rocky coast made it difficult to access. As a result, by the 1910s the island was inhabited by just 26 people. The small settlement was soon forgotten, and supply ships no longer stopped there. With only fish, birds, and coconuts to eat, the islanders began to die, until only a reclusive lighthouse keeper, several women, and their children remained. Then things got even worse: The lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez, pronounced himself “king.” For the next two years, he ruled over the island, terrorizing and enslaving the women and children. His reign was brought to an end in 1917 when one of his victims murdered him. Soon after, an American ship rescued the emaciated women and children, returning them to their families in Mexico, and leaving the island and its terrible history forgotten.
8. Hirta Island // Scotland
Hirta is part of the St Kilda chain of islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The island is so remote it can take 18 hours by boat to reach its sole accessible bay, but rough seas and harsh weather often leave the island cut off. Archaeological evidence suggests people lived on the island beginning in prehistoric times, eking out an existence by hunting the many seabirds that call the island home. In 1930, the last residents asked to be sent to the mainland, because the inhospitable terrain, relentless bad weather, and lack of food made living there too hard. The island is now owned by the Scottish National Trust; in the summer months it temporarily houses scientists and volunteers, who study the puffins and gannets that now thrive there.
9. Ross Island // India
Ross Island (officially renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018) is one of the 572 remote Andaman and and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, the white sand idyll was colonized by the British, who built houses, a church, a ballroom, and a penal colony there to house Indian mutineers. During World War II, the Andaman Islands were taken over by the Japanese, and the British fled after releasing all prisoners. After the war, the island was left abandoned and the jungle has slowly reclaimed the grand Victorian buildings. In 1979, it was officially handed over to the Indian Navy.