In the remotest corners of the world, undisturbed by human development, indigenous wildlife thrives on unspoiled islands. The Galápagos Islands have long been lauded for biodiversity and endemism. But there are lesser known outposts, often thousands of miles away from inhabited areas, profuse with wildlife.
Colonies of penguins and seals, strongholds of puffins and albatrosses, mighty bears, howler monkeys and rich marine life are teeming on these islands and the surrounding waters. Those who venture out to them are rewarded with remarkable vistas and exclusivity to encounter rare species. Here are some of the world's wildest islands.
1. Subantarctic Islands, New Zealand
Yellow-eyed penguins in New Zealand — Photo courtesy of iStock / thomaslusth
Curling off the bottom of South Island, the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands consist of five groups, each boasting unique fauna. Carved by volcanic and glacial activities, these primeval isles are home to endemic penguin and albatross species, Hooker's sea lions and exotic avian beauties. The island group gained UNESCO World Heritage status for its remote wilderness and biodiversity.
Bask in the beauty of the rare yellow-eyed penguin on Enderby Island, Snares crested penguins on the Snares Islands, and the majestic southern royal albatross on Campbell Island. Visitors are limited, however expedition cruise travel is making it possible to get close to these special animals.
2. Kodiak Island, Alaska
Kodiak bear on Kodiak Island — Photo courtesy of iStock / bergsbo
The second largest island in America is home to 3,500 brown bears. Part of the larger Kodiak Archipelago, Kodiak Island and its 1.9-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge feature diverse terrain ranging from snow-covered peaks and alpine meadows to wetlands. Weighing in at 800 lbs and standing 10 feet tall, male brown bears are a sight to behold.
The refuge has no roads and bears can be spotted almost anywhere. Excursions are available from remote lodges on the island. Other local inhabitants include elk, deer, bison, caribou herds, and mountain goats.
3. St Kilda, Scotland
Huge seabird colony on St Kilda — Photo courtesy of E+ / fotoVoyager
The tiny volcanic archipelago of St Kilda consists of the unoccupied islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray, off the west coast of Scotland. Their climate attracts large colonies of puffins, northern gannets and fulmars, making up the largest seabird colony in the northeast Atlantic (up to a million).
As Scotland's first UNESCO World Heritage site, St Kilda is breathtaking with some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe and vestiges of human life from a century ago. The dramatic shores can be reached on a day trip from the Western Isles.
4. Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico
Giant oceanic manta ray off the island of Socorro — Photo courtesy of iStock / Janos
Located 250 nautical miles south of Baja California Sur, Revillagigedo National Park is known as the "Galápagos of Mexico." It is North America's only fully protected marine reserve and a UNESCO Heritage site.
The waters surrounding the islands of Socorro, Clarion, San Benedicto and Roca Partida draw a remarkable amount of pelagic species, including sharks, dolphins, manta rays and humpback whales. The park is home to 366 species of fish, 26 of which can't be found anywhere else on Earth.
5. Coiba Island, Panama
Coiba howler monkey — Photo courtesy of iStock / Faustino Sanchez
As the location of a former prison, the island of Coiba off Panama's Pacific coast saw little human contact, leading certain species to thrive. The Coiba howler monkey, endemic to the region, can be found resting or sunbathing on treetops, its deep roaring reverberating hauntingly through the forest.
Coiba National Park, comprised of a group of 38 islands, was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005 for its well-preserved biodiversity.
10 places you need to go to ethically interact with elephants
10 places you need to go to ethically interact with elephants
6. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
Puffins on the Westman Islands — Photo courtesy of iStock / JMP Traveler
The birds that inspired the Star Wars porg are just as adorable in real life. You can find the largest colony of these "clowns of the sea" in the cluster of the Westman Islands, off Iceland's southern coast.
The largest island, Heimaey, is the only inhabited one in the chain, with a population of around 4,200. More than a million Atlantic puffins outnumber humans in the summer, when they come to lay their eggs in burrows along the coastline.
7. Chagos Archipelago, British Indian Ocean Territory
A coconut crab — Photo courtesy of E+ / RainervonBrandis
It doesn't get more pristine than the Chagos atolls in the Indian Ocean, some 300 miles south of the Maldives. The reefs are home to 784 species of fish, including the native Chagos clownfish, turtles and reef sharks.
These tropical islands also host an interesting resident – the giant coconut crab – the planet's largest terrestrial invertebrate, weighing up to eight pounds. They are known for their penchant for coconuts and agility in climbing trees for this tasty treat.
8. Svalbard Islands, Norway
A polar bear in Norway — Photo courtesy of E+ / SeppFriedhuber
The Nordic islands of Svalbard, located between Norway and the North Pole, seem inhospitable. With howling winds competing with the sounds of the sea, extremely cold temperatures and endless nights in the winter, arctic wildlife abounds here.
Reindeer, foxes, walruses and five species of seals inhabit the Svalbard Islands. Around 12 species of whales can be found in the marine environment, including narwhals, minke and beluga whales. The iconic polar bears have been protected since 1973, and their population in the Svalbard archipelago and Barents Sea is currently around 3,000.
9. South Georgia Island, British Overseas Territory
Giant colony of king penguins on St. Andrews Bay — Photo courtesy of iStock / Cheryl Ramalho
The shores of South Georgia Island are dominated by a massive king penguin population, with up to 300,000 found at St. Andrews Bay. Situated 1,300 miles east of Tierra del Fuego, this landmass with 9,000 feet of soaring snow-capped mountains tore from the Andes 50 million years ago, creating a rugged wilderness in the South Atlantic.
Aside from penguins, nearly 90% of the world's Antarctic fur seals and half of southern elephant seals reside on the island. It takes two days from the Falkland Islands to get to South Georgia. The treacherous weather is cruel for humans, but the isolation and lack of land predators creates optimal conditions for the animals.
10. Kuril Islands, Russia
Fur seals in the Kuril Islands — Photo courtesy of iStock / JanelleLugge
In Russia's far east, a chain of islands known as the Kurils beckon with their otherworldly beauty. On the 56 islands, some of which house active volcanoes, the dramatic landscape is ethereal. The rocky coastlines of the central Kuril Islands are abundant with northern fur seals, estimated at around 60-70,000 during the mating season between May and July.
Lovingly known as "sea bears" for their brown coloration, these seals remain on the IUCN threatened list. Witness these seals in one of their last three strongholds on the Kurils.