Nearshore Islands FULL EPISODE | World's Greatest Engineering Icons | PBS America
- [Narrator] They are the unexpected islands, so close to the shore that they blend in with the mainland. They are often hidden from view, whether by virtue of position, or sheer density of population. The outer borders of some bear the brunt of nature's fury, while their protected inner shorelines offer sanctuary and refuge.
As a group they are diverse in nature, each forging their own identity, the purpose they serve as they claim their unique place on the planet. These are the world's greatest nearshore islands. (wave crashing) (helicopter blades whirring) (sticks tapping) (adventurous music) (gentle guitar music) There's a city, on an island, astride two rivers, away from the coast, and far more European than its North American address would suggest. Montreal has the largest French-speaking population outside of Paris, and parts of it could easily be mistaken as somewhere in France. But the culture in this Canadian enclave is drawn from many different influences.
Germany gifted part of the Berlin Wall to the city in 1992, to mark its 350 year anniversary. The world's biggest jazz festival is held here every year, and John Lennon famously penned "Give Peace a Chance" while very publicly holed up in a local hotel. Apart from New York, there are more restaurants per capita here than in any other city in North America, and all of this packed together on an island little more than half the size of the Big Apple. Named for its most dominant feature, the Mount Royal, the city sits on the juncture of St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, one of more than 200 islands in this inland archipelago. These powerful waterways were once an important passage from North America's Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean...
And Montreal was perfectly positioned to profit from the passing trade. Fur was big business in the early days of the settlement, but the city was established for far more pious purposes. The French arrived here in the 16th century, intent on converting the First Nation inhabitants to Catholicism. As a sign of their dedication to the cause, the community was originally called Ville-Marie, or the City of Mary.
In the late 17th century, the Saint Sulpice Seminary was built, the second oldest surviving structure in Montreal. A clock was added later. Created in Paris, the dial was one of the first of its type on the continent. But it's what went up next door that really captured the attention of the people. The Notre-Dame Basilica is a Gothic Revival-style church designed by Irish-American Anglican James O'Donnell.
He was so enraptured with his ornate vision, he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed so he could be buried in the crypt, where he remains the sole occupant. Construction started in 1824 and took more than 60 years to complete, largely due to the intricate detailing of the interior. A grand organ was added in 1891 consisting of 7000 pipes. (organ blooming) The seminary and basilica were just the first of a string of historic buildings to appear in the city center, each representing the different architectural styles of their era. But relatively modern structures are also drawing attention to Montreal. Habitat was the showpiece at the city's World Fair in 1967.
The controversial design by local architectural student Moshe Safde was intended to revolutionize urban living. 354 identical pre-fabricated concrete blocks were jumbled together to create 146 residences. Ironically, the plan to establish interesting, affordable housing to a large extent failed, as demand for the boutique apartments forced the prices to skyrocket. But it proved to be one of the favorite pavilions for the 50 million visitors who came to Montreal for the highly successful World Expo. And at least it was finished on time.
The same cannot be said for the stadium at the 1976 Summer Olympics. (quirky instrumental music) It was designed to have a retractable roof to allow its use in the harshest of Canadian conditions. The opening and closing mechanism would be controlled by cables on the adjoining 175 meter tower, the tallest inclined structure in the world. But blowouts in budget kept delaying this engineering feat so the Olympics were hosted in an unfinished stadium.
It was another 11 years before the roof was completed but, even then, continual leaks and flaws in its operation eventually forced its replacement with a static design. Despite the setbacks, Montreal has been recognized by UNESCO for its innovative approach to its urban style, and that extends well beyond the architecture. The city that brought us Cirque du Soleil still inspires its people to acts of skill and daring, and to colorful celebrations on a massive scale.
Every summer, the streets are transformed with the romantically-named Le Projet de Boules Roses, loosely translated to, The Pink Balls. 200,000 of them are strung up to create a carnival atmosphere during the often too brief respite from the long winter months. The island's watery surrounds add to the wind chill factor that sees temperatures average around -6 degrees Celsius in January.
An estimated half a million people a day spend the coldest months of the year underground, closeted from the worst of the weather. The island has a series of subterranean passageways, that are not only filled with shops and services, but connect major destinations in the downtown area. Their reach extends beyond the city limits via the Metro. The train system runs through a tunnel under St Lawrence River to carry commuters to the mainland. Nine bridges provide the same service above water.
The transport system is so efficient, it's easy to forget that this is an island city. But Montreal has never let its river boundaries hold it back. Since its earliest days, it's capitalized on its prime position on the edge of what was once one of North America's most important waterways.
Even today, with less reliance on boating traffic, it brings the world to its shores, effortlessly combining French chic with the daring and unexpected in an island settlement quite unlike any other. (adventurous music) (lively strings music) It's a place where pure opulence meets the most unforgiving of landscapes. A decadent oasis on the edge of the Arabian desert. The dunes are virtually on its doorstep, undulating hills of sand that stand in stark contrast to this man-made seaside metropolis. All that glitters may well be gold in Dubai. The largest and most populated city in the United Arab Emirates trades on excess and extravagance as its most marketable qualities.
But it's all accomplished with a degree of flair and finesse. The discovery of oil in the 1960s led to a boom in construction as the population expanded to more than three million people. Today, as its fuel reserves dwindle, real estate has taken over as its most valuable resource.
Amongst its artificial edifices, it can claim the world's tallest building. The Burj Khalifa reaches an imposing 830 meters skywards. With the benchmark set, the pressure to go bigger and better than anyone else has forced the city to look off-shore to hold the world's attention. The first venture into land reclamation in the Persian Gulf was the lavish Burj al Arab Hotel at the turn of the 21st century.
It was built on an artificial island, 280 meters off the beach, connected by a bridge to the mainland. Its eye catching sail design won instant accolades, convincing the sheik-led government that this was the way forward. The next plan was far more ambitious. A massive residential and resort complex that would add 78 kilometers of beach to Dubai. While the Palm Jumeirah was designed from the air to pay homage to nature, its construction did anything but.
Under Sheik Mohammed's orders, no concrete or steel was to be used. Instead, about 80 times the amount of rock and sand used to construct the Great Pyramid was moved to create the giant tree trunk, 16 fronds, and the crescent breakwater protecting the enclave. This man-made island is, without a doubt, a modern day marvel of creative vision and architectural engineering, a triumph that captivated the world's imagination, and won international acclaim. But its creation came at a steep price. With 40,000 workers involved on the project, the cost was massive, but the toll on the local marine life and coastline was incalculable. Coral reefs and oyster beds were buried by the dredging and depositing of sediment.
The now murky waters reduced sunlight to the sea grass along the shoreline, killing off a vital source of food for fish life. But the long term impact on the beach was even greater. The artificial islands extended far enough out to disrupt natural currents, causing erosion further along the coast. Environmental concerns, however, were not enough to deter the designers. More clusters of islands were planned, including a project that would well and truly put Dubai on the map.
Three hundred islets were created, loosely depicting the countries of the world. 60% were sold off within five years of conception, but only a handful have ever been built on. The global financial crisis of the early 2000s took the wind out of the sails of Dubai's burgeoning tourist trade, slowing progress on some of the more substantial projects. But where the others floundered, Palm Jumeirah continued to flourish.
Its standout feature, a resort themed around the mythical city of Atlantis, which includes a theme park and 11 million liter aquarium, one of the biggest in the world. Dubai doesn't do things by halves. Its artificial islands are yet another show stopping way for it to go above and beyond everywhere else. And while the concept of reclaiming land from the water is nothing new, many are now wondering if, in terms of the financial and environmental costs, it's safer to stay ashore. (adventurous music) (mysterious music) Deep in the heart of the Andes, tucked away in the corner of a lake that legend says is closer to Heaven than Earth, is a cluster of communities that have created their own ephemeral floating islands. Necessity was the mother of invention here.
Centuries ago, an ethnic minority living in Peru felt threatened by the expanding Incan empire, so they fled the land for the sanctuary of their isolated reed homes. A vast body of water lay between the Uros people and their antagonists. Any risk of invasion could be diffused by continually moving their portable platforms.
Titicaca is one of the largest, highest, and deepest lakes in the world. It's a sacred place for the Incan people, who believe the creator god Viracoco rose from the water and made the Sun, stars, and first humans. It's also thought the spirits of the dead return here to their place of origin. The lake's beauty and mysticism sits in stark contrast to the largest city on its shoreline. The port of Puno near Peru's border with Bolivia is packed with a population of 150,000, a settlement that held no welcome for the Uros people.
The ethnic minority was no match for the might of the Incas or the invading Spanish, so they sought refuge in the one place where there was no land to take from them. By their very nature, the islands are a work in progress. Totora reeds gathered from the banks of the lake are layered on top of each other up to two-and-a-half meters thick.
They provide a spongy, yet somewhat stable base that can extend to half the size of a football field. Each island takes close to a year to construct and houses just one extended family. As the bottom layer rots away, more reeds are stacked on top, continually changing the island's appearance. The lifespan of the artificial platforms is just 30 years, with constant upgrades required at least every 3 months. But the reeds are more than just a base to build on.
They're used in virtually every aspect of daily life from the construction of huts, to the canoes that connect the islands to the mainland, and even in food and medicine. It's not an easy life for the 2000 descendants of the original settlers who've chosen to stay true to tradition. While any threats to their safety have long since passed, the people of the lake are eking out an existence across the 70 reed islands, similar to that of their ancestors, sustained by fishing, bird hunting, and the income from tourist visits. But one of the staples of subsistence living has always been beyond their reach, the growing of crops is confined to the 41 natural islands on the lake.
Amantani still uses traditional methods for its farming of wheat, quinoa, and potatoes. The 800 families on the island have no machines to ease the load, still living as they largely did hundreds of years ago. But the history of habitation on Lake Titicaca extends back much further than this. Archaeologists have found evidence of people here more than 2,000 years ago, the early Incas leaving behind a labyrinth on the Isla del Sol which encompassed a well containing sacred water. In the depths of the lake itself, a temple has been found, pre-dating both the Inca and the Uros civilizations, suggesting this area has long been a place of spiritual significance.
But for the people of the lake, their days are consumed with more practical pursuits, as they constantly maintain their islands to not only preserve tradition, but to keep their world from disappearing beneath them. (adventurous music) There are not many places where the beach is both an airstrip and a designated road, but on this island, it's a case of taking advantage of its most plentiful resource. This is the world's largest sand island, not that it's obvious from the air. A thick rainforest camouflages the true make-up of Australia's Fraser Island. A place so ecologically significant, it's been given World Heritage status. It's a freak of nature; its volcanic bedrock sitting in just the right position to accumulate sediment drifting on ocean currents.
750,000 years of deposits have created an island more than double the size of Singapore, but it's what's within that makes it so special. The almost pure silica sand contains naturally-occurring funghi which release nutrients, allowing plants to flourish in the forests... So much so that the timber here was once in high demand around the world. Because of its resistance to marine borers, satinay from the island was used to construct the Suez Canal and rebuild the London docks after World War II.
But Fraser Island hasn't always been appreciated for its unusual qualities. When Captain Cook sailed by in 1770, he mistakenly mapped it as a peninsula, believing its nearshore position to be part of the mainland. An understandable error, considering its southern tip sits little more than a kilometer off the Queensland coast. The passage in between is known as the Great Sandy Strait, calm, protected waters that are popular with more than just human travelers.
Humpback whales making their annual migration along Australia's east coast favor the inland route over the open seas. It's estimated 3,000 stop by every year on their way to and from the tropics, where they mate and calve. The still water makes it easy to keep track of these massive mammals, thanks to their instantly recognizable calling card. These circular patterns are known as footprints, as they're formed by the motion of the whale's tail.
The humpbacks don't even need to break the surface to leave their mark. These sheltered waters are an anomaly along the Queensland coast; most of the shore is exposed to swells that have been the undoing of many a mariner. The island takes its current name from a shipping mishap that occurred around 100 years ago.
The sailing vessel, "Stirling Castle," floundered on a reef to the north, forcing its 18 passengers and crew into lifeboats. Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain, made it to the island and was one of the few to be rescued several weeks later. The Butchulla Aboriginal community cared for the survivors until help arrived. It's thought indigenous people first made the crossing to the island close to 5,000 years ago. They called it K'gari, meaning paradise, and there was much to support that notion.
Food was plentiful and fresh water in constant supply amongst the 100 lakes around the island. But Fraser isn't without its dark side. In recent years, dingoes have attacked several visitors, killing one child.
These wild native dogs are not normally aggressive towards humans, but they hunt in packs and competition for food can be fierce. Of course, the rugged terrain of the island poses its own hazards. Four wheel drive vehicles are the only way to get about on the thick bed of sand, and the island is far from flat.
Its highest point is more than 240 meters above sea level. The towering cliffs act as a geological time capsule, recording changes to the climate and sea level over hundreds of thousands of years. With sand mining and logging now relegated to its history, Fraser Island is slowly returning to its natural state, both wild and tame. Its community of less than 200 people resides in an oasis of calm in the otherwise rough seas of the Pacific Ocean. (water purling) (adventurous music) Downtown New York is one of the last places that springs to mind as having an island feel, but the majority of the most populated city in America is, in fact, island based.
Of the five New York boroughs, only one is on the mainland. The remaining four are either islands in their own right or situated on a larger one. (inspiring strings music) New York Bay, collectively referring to the marine area where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the world's biggest natural harbors. The body of water encompasses seven bays, four rivers, and several estuaries, hosting around 70 islands.
The exact number is difficult to calculate. Some are little more than islets, reefs, and bars, which sometimes disappear with the tide. Only a fraction are natural. Many have been crafted through land reclamation to meet the needs of the growing population.
The islands' shape, size, names, and uses have varied greatly in the almost 400 years since New York was first colonized. When the Dutch set up a trading post here in the early 17th century, they could never have envisaged just how successful the region would become. (funky music) Manhattan is an island in its own right. And although it's the smallest of New York's boroughs, it certainly punches well above its weight.
Because what it lacks in stature, it makes up for with reach. This nearshore island is the undisputed heavyweight champion of world finance, home to Wall Street, the Dow Jones and NASDAQ. Events that unfold here echo globally.
Manhattan is also the base for many international businesses and the headquarters of the United Nations. It's a sensory overload of crowds, culture, and commercialism crammed into the center of one of the world's most famous cities. The chaos is, at least partially, confined. Manhattan is separated from its neighbors by the Harlem, Hudson and East rivers. But the subway, ferries, and 16 bridges ensure it's never completely cut off. The most remarkable of the bridges is the Brooklyn.
It was the first of its kind ever built, a steel wire suspension structure, which was an amazing feat of engineering for its time, and not without its challenges. Designer John Roebling died prior to the start of construction in 1869. His son Washington took over, but suffered the debilitating effects of what we now know as decompression sickness, due to the pressure at depth while laying foundations. It was left to his wife Emily to oversee the remainder of the 14-year project, an unusual situation at the time but a woman well suited to the task with a strong grasp of physics and mathematics. While the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most impressive structures on New York Harbor, it's not the most famous. That honor goes to Lady Liberty, the larger-than-life copper statue gifted by France to the people of America to celebrate their centenary of independence in 1876.
Bedloe Island was identified as the ideal location to display the monument. The remains of its star shaped fort were to be converted to a pedestal for the symbol of freedom. She was finally unveiled in 1886 and has become America's most iconic landmark. But there was one group of people that coveted sighting Lady Liberty more than any other.
Many arrivals at the nearby Ellis Island immigration facility had endured a less than favorable Atlantic crossing to reach New York, and a new life. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people were processed on the island, a place that many perceived as the gateway to the New World. This long term international focus has led to a rich cultural diversity in New York. It's estimated 800 languages are spoken here and more than 3 million of its people were born overseas, the largest number of any city in the world.
Ellis Island spent much of the 19th century in service to the military, first as an arsenal, then as a fort, before turning into the processing facility it's now remembered for. Ellis can only be accessed by boat, and most of New York's annual 24 million tourists see the island from one of the many ferries traversing the harbor. But Ellis isn't the bay's most popular destination. That honor goes to another of New York's island boroughs.
Even though it has bridge connections to Brooklyn and New Jersey, Staten Island ferries carry up to 65,000 people a week. The borough has a strong sea-faring history as the staging post for the British Navy's battle against the patriots in the Revolutionary War. More than 140 English ships were stationed here in the late 18th century under the command of Lord Howe, and while they won several battles, they couldn't stem the tide of support for American independence. Half a century after the British retreat, more sailors invaded, but these were of a less hostile nature.
A sea captain had left provision in his will for a home for aged, decrepit, and worn out seamen. The resulting Sailor's Snug remains today as a site of architectural significance, its five main buildings well preserved examples of the Greek Revival style. The 33 hectare park they stand in is one of 170 on the island, making up a third of the total landmass. A place of peace in an otherwise frenetic city. It's the contrasts that make New York's islands so remarkable. From the crammed to the spacious, the historic to the inspiring, they've witnessed the ebb and flow of modern human development, played out as the world watches and follows the lead of these most influential of nearshore islands.
(adventurous music) (gentle ponderous music) It stands solid and strong, a substantial buffer against the power of the Pacific, providing safe passage for ships and a home for nearly 800,000 people. Vancouver Island lies opposite the city of the same name in Canada's British Columbia. It stretches 460 kilometers from tip to tail, and covers more than 3 million hectares, making it the largest Pacific island east of New Zealand.
But it's not just the land mass that's impressive. What it's created off shore is truly spectacular. (gentle music) (engine chugging) They're a series of calm-water straits that join together to form the Inside Passage, a shipping channel that connects Washington State to Alaska and protects the largest patch of temperate rainforest in the world.
This pristine wilderness is home to an estimated 1,000 grizzly bears who are drawn to the water by the promise of salmon. Their role here is important, helping to nurture the forests by spreading fish nutrients as fertilizer, along with seeds from their often plant-based diet to sprout new growth. But bears aren't the only large predators to patrol the passage. Orcas or killer whales are a common sight around the 6,000 nearshore islands in these sheltered waters. As they have done for thousands of years, local indigenous tribes believe these highly intelligent animals host the souls of past chiefs, cruising close to shore to keep an eye on their people.
Unlike many species of marine animal, they're known to be family-oriented, often spending their entire life in the same small pod. While the males are generally larger, the group is typically formed around the dominant female, who's responsible for guiding them to food. British Columbia's abundant stock of fish attracts more than bears and orcas to the islands.
Bald eagles have learnt to get their share of the seafood, by working with natural elements. Near Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island, the eagles use an outgoing tide and a perfectly positioned rock to swoop in on prey brought to the surface by this unexpected obstacle. This turbulence is somewhat of a novelty on the sheltered side of the island, but the west coast is a different story all together. Such is the fury of the sea here, it's become a tourist attraction in itself, especially during the wild winter months. Amidst the chaos, there are pockets of calm along this ravaged part of the shore.
The inlets around the town of Tofino have towering examples of nature withstanding the onslaught of the weather. But the trees here have a far bigger threat. Conservationists estimate close to three quarters of the island's old forest has been cut down for timber.
It's not the first time there's been pressure on the island's natural resources, which have been plundered since the first Europeans settled here in the late 18th century. The demand for fur virtually wiped out the resident sea otters, with reinforcements from the mainland brought in to re-populate the colony. The British set up a base for their pelt business at the port of Victoria on the southern tip of the island, the only part of the country to sit below the 49th parallel.
Geographically, it aligns more with the United States than Canada. But the city draws most of its influence from the English, its architecture and gardens a reminder of its colonial past. Such was the significance of the settlement, it was proclaimed as the capital of British Columbia in 1868.
It retains that title today, and is home to half the island's population. The rest is spread around small coastal communities, their only connection to the mainland by ferry or air. Plans for a bridge have never come to fruition, the separation from the rest of British Columbia seemingly adding to the island's appeal. For the most part, the islands in Canada's portion of the Inside Passage have remained in their natural state. Protected from the worst of the weather, they're places of calm and a haven for all inhabitants.
(adventurous music) (propeller chugging) The Opera House and Harbour Bridge may take center stage on Sydney Harbour, but slightly removed from the limelight are eight sandstone outcrops that confirm Australia's largest metropolis is indeed a city of islands. (rock music) In a city where harborfront real estate attracts multi million dollar price tags, the histories of these bayside enclaves have been far from glamorous, serving as everything from explosive stores to quarantine stations, jails to shipyards. Passed by a daily parade of boating traffic, these nearshore islands have only recently received the type of attention they deserve. As part of the Sydney Harbour National Park, none are residential, and only one allows overnight guests. But that hasn't always been the case. When the First Fleet arrived from Great Britain in 1788, finding an inescapable place to house the prisoners became a priority.
The most notorious were sent offshore to Norfolk Island, but it didn't take long for the isolated colony there to become overcrowded. The focus was instead turned to the largest island in the harbor, named for its most colorful inhabitant, the cockatoo. What was once a favored fishing spot for local Aboriginal communities was claimed by the penal colony, as prisoners were forced to build their own jail cells, along with barracks for the guards. According to historical accounts, despite the stunning outlook, it was far from a pleasant environment, with convicts crammed into buildings where the smell was reportedly overpowering.
But even with their lodgings complete, their toils were far from over. In the mid 1800s, they were instructed to begin work on a dockyard for the Royal Navy. It would operate for close to 150 years, becoming a major building and repair facility for British ships.
Demand was at its greatest following the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in the Second World War. Cockatoo Island took over as the Empire's major conversion and restoration center in the Pacific War, servicing more than 250 ships to meet the ever-increasing need for naval capability. Once hostilities ended, many watercraft conscripted for military use had to be decommissioned to return to civilian duties.
Cockatoo Island was itself decommissioned, as the last vessel launched from the production line in the 1990s. The land was given UNESCO World Heritage status and a long overdue makeover, eventually opening to the public in 2007. Today, it has the only accommodation available to visitors on the harbor, and possibly the most exclusive camping site in Australia. Its close neighbor Goat Island had the potential to play a far more explosive part in the country's defense. In the 19th century, up to 7,000 barrels of gunpowder were stored in a purpose built, bomb proof shelter here, as part of the nation's naval arsenal.
But the combined chemical contents were renowned for reacting to heat, so 2 meter long pressure plugs were added to all walls to act as a release mechanism if gas built up. Despite the somewhat volatile nature of its cache, the island also hosted the headquarters for Sydney's water police. The vantage point was worth risking life and limb for, as it allowed them to keep a close eye on the comings and goings on the busy harbor. But even the most ideal location wasn't any guarantee of protecting the city's sprawling waterway.
Fort Denison was perfectly positioned off the main settlement at Sydney Cove when it was constructed in 1857. The tiny island had previously served as a gallows for prisoners, their bodies left to hang as a warning to other convicts arriving by ship. The more fortunate among the prisoners made the short journey across the harbor for more constructive reasons.
Sandstone was mined from here to build Bennelong Point where the Opera House now sits. The need for more substantial defenses for the colony became apparent in 1839, when two American warships entered the harbor at night, circling the island twice before they were detected. The fort took 16 years to construct and by the time it was finished, much of its incorporated arsenal was already outdated. But its cannon did serve one very practical purpose. It was fired at precisely 1pm every day to help sailors set their ships' chronometers to local time. - Three, two, one, fire! - It's a tradition that still continues today but was ceased during World War II, so as not to scare the already edgy locals.
And as it turned out, they had good reason to be anxious. In May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines snuck into the harbor under the cover of darkness, torpedoing a ferry housing naval personnel, and killing 21 people. The USS Chicago fired on the subs, stopping the attack but also causing minor damage to the fort's mortello tower, the only one of its kind in Australia. It's long since been relieved of active duty, but the fort now stands as a constant reminder of the trials and tribulations of the city's past. The harbour islands will most likely remain a support act to the stars of Sydney's waterside, but beyond their views and natural beauty, they have quietly played a pivotal role in Australia's history. Whether at home in ocean, river, or lake, these nearshore islands serve to protect not only their own people and wildlife, but often the neighbors around them.
Some have become almost invisible under the hefty weight of humanity. Others are tailor-made to expand with demand. But regardless of their size and origins, they are often the islands we are drawn to the most. (adventurous music)