Diomede Islands: Where Time Travel Is (Somewhat) Possible

These are the Diomede Islands. They’re made up of two islands: a big one (29 sq km) called Big Diomede, in the west, and a small one (7.3 sq km) called Little Diomede in the east.

Little Diomede Island or Kruzenstern Island (left) and Big Diomede Island or Ratmanov Island in the Bering Sea (Dave Cohoe)

They’re right in the Bering Strait, which separates Russia from the USA. In this satellite picture by NASA, the Diomede Islands are flanked by Siberia, Russia on the left, and Alaska, USA on the right.

The two islands are smack in the middle, minding their own business.

On the surface, they don’t look like anything special but what if I told you that the time on Big Diomede is 20 to 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede? This is because the International Date Line runs between the two Diomede Islands.

It’s also the reason why Big Diomede is called Tomorrow Island and Little Diomede is called Yesterday Island. How insane is that? Not as insane as finding out that Big Diomede is officially part of Russia and Little Diomede is part of the USA. They belong to different countries!

World Atlas

So, technically if you swim the 3.8 km (at its closest point) distance between the two islands you go from being in the U.S. today, to tomorrow Russia or from Russia today to the U.S. yesterday. This video shows just how far (or near) that swim would be.

But you probably shouldn’t because you might die from the freezing water temperatures. Or from the weather. Or from the strong waves. You could however kayak across, then be arrested by the Russian military based in Big Diomede, then deported. It would be messy but you would still have time travelled!

On a more serious note, this arrangement between Russia and the U.S. really wrecked up the families that have lived on the two islands for thousands of years. On Little Diomede, you can still find around 100 or so Inupiat Inuit. Things are flown in by helicopter for most of the year and by plane when the sea is frozen enough for a runway to be made on the surface of the ice.

The Diomede settlement

(I stumbled upon a physician’s blog where she shared about her visit to Little Diomede (find it here) to see patients. There are pictures of a children running around barefoot in their pyjamas in “30-40 degrees”. If that’s in Fahrenheit, then it’s about -1 to 4 degrees Celcius which is pretty much the temperature water turns to ice. That’s mind-blowing to say the least.)

Back up a few thousand years or so, and you will find the Inupiat Inuit on both islands. Then in 1867, money changed hands between the US government and the Russian monarchy, and suddenly the two islands were separated by an invisible wall that became very real by 1948.

The Soviets by then had built a military base on Big Diomede during World War 2 then shifted the residents there to Chukotka on the mainland before they started running the place like they owned it, which they do.

Apart from splitting families apart, taking those on the big island away from their relatives on the small island, the Russian side is very protective of their border, often sending warning shots when villagers got too close to the island while hunting by boat.

Imagine having your life uprooted like that based on decisions made by people who have never and probably will never visit your home due to its remoteness.

That’s real messed up.

North Sentinel Island: What A Rare Sentinelese Welcome Looks Like

As notorious as the Sentinelese’s were with their guest reception, there were various academicians who tired to land on the island and study them up close. One of the more widely known was Triloknath Pandit who visited North Sentinel Island from the 1960s up until the 1990s.

Triloknath Pandit Visits

Like Portman, he visited the island regularly, bearing gifts. Unlike Portman, he wasn’t a total jerk about it. He took cues from the Sentinelese: if they were up in arms, he would stay a safe distance.

Interesting fact: In 1970, India had claimed the island as one of their land — by dropping a stone tablet onto the beach (ta-da!).

Every visit to the island, Pandit brought with them gifts varying between coconuts, bananas, iron rods, metal cookware, a live pig and even toys, just to name a few. Some were received well, others were discarded or buried in the sand (they killed the pig then buried it).

It would take 24 years of coaxing before they would make the first recorded friendly visit with the Sentinelese. And it was theorised that this was due to the presence of the first woman anthropologist in the visiting team on January 4 1991, Madhumala Chattopadhyay.

(Strangely enough, this piece of literature about her was greatly under-reported. I only stumbled upon it because someone raised it in a massive Twitter thread about Portman’s questionable obsession with photographing the Sentinelese’s nether regions.)

Need a reminder of who Portman is? You read about or will read about him in North Sentinel Island’s battered history.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay Visits

Madhumala’s presence tipped the dynamics of the visiting crew on that fateful day on January 4, 1991. Pandit was away on a family emergency and had missed that visit. His much more reported visit would come a few weeks later in February.

Madhumala had made her mark earlier when she became the first woman outsider to make in-roads with the Jarawa mixing in with the women folk and being allowed to actually carry a Jarawa child. Her presence in the group of 13 people visiting the island that morning seemed to ease tension.

This sharing by Sudipto Sengupta relayed details about what transpired that day. An interview with Madhumala with National Geographic dated December 2018 would reveal a similar albeit truncated version of the same event.

That morning, the team had dropped coconuts in the water and for the first time ever, the Sentinelese came into the water to collect them. Coconuts were not found on the island and in fact Portman had wanted to turn the island into a coconut plantation but the idea was not pursued for reasons unknown.

This was a breakthrough, a change from their usual show of aggression. It is theorised that it had something to do with having a woman among the visiting crew.

This coconut delivery continued for four hours. When they ran out, the crew left to restock and returned with more coconuts. Round 2 saw a young “youth wade up to the boat and touch it with his hands”. More men followed suit.

The meeting was not without problems though.

A lone youth on the shore was not as trusting. He had raised an arrow at the direction of the group. Madhumala held her ground, refusing to budge. It was a standoff. Had it not been for a Sentinelese woman pushing the youth and causing the arrow to land far off the mark, things could have ended up far worse. (A different report mentioned that a woman pushed the bow down and the man holding the bow and arrow buried them in the sand.)

Instead, Madhumala took the cue from the woman, and initiated contact by jumping into the knee-deep water. She began handing over coconuts in person, and surprisingly, the Sentinelese men reciprocated by taking the coconuts by hand.

The first friendly contact had been made with the Sentinelese.

The team would return with Pandit in February. This time, the Sentinelese climbed onto their boats to receive the coconuts, with no bows, arrows or spears in tow. However, when Pandit found himself separated from the rest of his crew, he was given a cut-across-the-neck gesture by one of the Sentinelese man on the shore. They had overstayed their welcome. Pandit retreated to safety and rejoined his crew.

Stopping Future Visits

The Government of India would eventually stop these friendly visits in 1994. It was decided that contact with the outside world brings more harm than good to them (e.g. modern-day illnesses they have no immunity against).

Many of the other Andamanese tribes had succumbed to diseases like syphilis and measles, as well as addiction to alcohol. Some have been driven to extinction. Take for instance the Bo tribe. Originally estimated to have a population of around 200 in 1858, the Bo tribe lost most of its people to warfare, loss of territory, being moved around, illnesses and alcohol. The last speaker of the Bo language died in January 2010, aged 85.

Perhaps the Sentinelese got it right all along all these centuries. Maybe the descendants on the island got constant reminders by their elders, of the instances when their ancestors (such as Portman’s abductees) were taken away from the island only to come back sickly, or not come back at all.

Maybe refusing to make contact with the outside world is what’s been keeping them going for tens of thousands of years, and maybe we should agree with the anthropologists and the Indian government on this and just leave the Sentinelese alone.

More Reading:

This is the last part of the North Sentinel Island series. Follow the link to check out the other posts in the same series.

Disappointment Island. Terrible Name. Real Island.

I love puzzles. They are time-consuming and back-breaking and I particularly love the ones that do not come with an instruction manual. So this is a beauty to behold.

3D-globe-jigsaw-puzzle

It’s a 540-piece 3D world map puzzle. It’s accurate. I spent two days on it with Google Map and Wikipedia open on my browser. And the best part is, it spins. #itsafreakingglobe

spinning-3D-globe-jigsaw-puzzle

Each piece curves a little and is made from good quality material that can withstand drops and the tension from the curvature. I don’t know if that makes sense to you but basically, you can kick this globe around and it won’t fall apart unless you really want it to. It’s good quality stuff.

While putting together the oceans, I came across a lot of islands. Like a heck-load of them. The most interesting of them all, to me, is this one.

desappointement-island-is-real

Yes, that’s the puzzle piece of where Desappointement Island is. Here’s where you can find Disappointment island on Google Maps (50°36.25′S 165°58.38′E).

Where Is Disappointment Island Exactly?

Disappointment Island is one of seven islands grouped under the Auckland Islands archipelago. It belongs to New Zealand and is part of what’s known as the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands. This group of island has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Compared to Auckland Island, Disappointment Island is small (284 ha) but it’s home to pretty much the world’s population of the white-capped albatross/mollymawk; no humans though.

The other islands are Adams Island (bottom of the map), Enderby Island, Ewing Island, Rose Island, Dundas Island, and Green Island (top right corner).

map-of-auckland-islands-disappointment-island
Department of Conservation, New Zealand

And that would be the end of this post if not for the late discovery that I got the wrong island!

google-map-two-search-results
Google Map

Yes, there are two places in the world where sailors came to an island, felt disappointed with what they found and decided to warn future sailors to not go there by officiating the islands with the title “DISAPPOINTMENT”. (I kid. I have no idea why they gave these island that name but I’m pretty sure the true story is pretty close.)

Okay, So WHERE IS DISAPPOINTMENT ISLAND 2?

So the second Disappointment islands (plural), also known as Îles du Désappointement is in French Polynesia. Here’s the rough location on Google Map, although to be honest, there isn’t really much to see.

Then I found this map, created by Holger Behr (released into the public domain) which made things a lot clearer.

map-of-disappointment-islands-french-polynesia
Wikipedia Commons

See, the majority of the Disappointment Islands consists of coral islands, which is why you can’t see any land mass in that area on the Google Map satellite view.

There are however three islands that are populated (yes, by humans), namely Napuka (an atoll which is a ring-shaped land mass), Puka-Puka and Tepoto.

Napuka (around 360 inhabitants) and Puka-puka (around 100 inhabitants) have an airport each. Tepoto is a much smaller island with around 60 inhabitants. (Figures are from 2012; I’m not sure how often they update the census in remote islands.)

While Disappointment Island 1 is pretty near New Zealand, Disappointment Islands 2 is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, nowhere near large masses or other civilisations. And yet, 2 has islands that are populated while 1 doesn’t. Isn’t that just insane?

Yes, it is.

One Last Thing

Since it’s always fun to end posts with a question, the question I chose for this title was: How far is Disappointment Island 1 from Disappointment Islands 2?

google-earth-view-of-disappointment-islands
Google Maps

The answer? Pretty darn far!