In the early morning of 23 January 2009, the most powerful hurricane-force storm to hit France in a decade came howling in from the Bay of Biscay.
With wind speeds of up to 125mph, cyclone Klaus struck land at the point of the estuary of the river Gironde, near Bordeaux, then charged south-east to Spain and across the Mediterranean to Italy. It left 26 people dead, flattened forests and power lines and caused massive destruction of buildings and roads.
But it also left behind an extraordinary creation at the very point where its devastation began, causing the townsfolk of Royan, a fishing port situated at the mouth of the Gironde, to rub their eyes in disbelief.
Seven miles out to sea, along the frontier between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary, an island had risen out of the boiling waters. It had a surface area of 11 acres above the highest sea level, and a base of some 250 acres at low tide. Locals soon called it “l’île mystérieuse” – the mysterious island – after the novel by Jules Verne.
“What is so remarkable about this new island, apart from its sudden apparition, is that it has since remained intact in what is often a very violent, hostile sea environment,” said Guy Estève, a retired local geomorphologist. “It could well become a permanent feature.”
The nature of its apparition was all the more fantastic given that it emerged close to the location of the lost island of Cordouan, once home to the Tower of the Black Prince, a legacy of English occupation during the 100 Years’ war. Inhabited from Roman times until the late Middle Ages, Corduan disappeared below the waves after the erosion of its limestone rock. France’s oldest lighthouse, completed in 1611 to replace Edward of Woodstock’s tower, now stands at the site.
Situated one mile east of the lighthouse, created amid Klaus’s fury from submerged sand and sediment, the new island quickly attracted scientific interest, offering a unique opportunity to study the creation and development of its ecosystem.