Robben Island rises some 30m above sea level in Table Bay. The windswept island surrounded by the deep Atlantic Ocean water that comes from the Benguela currents Antarctic water of the South lies some 7.2 kilometers off the beaches of Woodbridge Island, Sunset Beach, and Bloubergstrand.
Robben Island (from the Dutch ‘seal island’) is actually the tip of a now-submerged ancient mountain that was connected to the mainland. At the close of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, rising sea levels separated it from the shoreline. In its current form, as a result of an ancient erosion event, it is today a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 5 square kilometer island is best known for being used as a prison and a place where people were isolated, banished and exiled to for nearly 400 years. Less known is that it was also used as a post office, a grazing ground, a whaling station (1806 to 1820), a mental hospital and an outpost.
First mapped by the Chinese after a fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope in August of 1421. Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese explorer, recorded the island in 1488 when he anchored his ship in Table Bay. They found the island had a plentiful supply of fresh water available from a number of springs. Until 1652, most visiting ships to Table Bay preferred to land on the uninhabited Robben Island to replenish their supplies of fresh water and meat. There were plenty of seals, tortoises, and penguins for hunting. The Dutch also began to use the island as a grazing station for sheep and cattle.
As a result, it also became a major point for the exchange of mail, where letters from an outgoing ship would be left underneath an inscribed stone for collection and delivery by a home-going vessel. This practise continued after Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape in 1652 to settle and establish a station, where ships that were traveling from Europe to the East Indies did not want to stop on the mainland.
To end this practice the Dutch began to place their convicted criminals on the island around 1671. As far back as then, it became home for political prisoners and other “undesirables” banished from colonies of the Dutch to the Cape. These included kings, princes and religious leaders who did not agree with the Dutch rule in their country. A practice perpetuated by the British after their annex of the Cape in 1806. (See a timeline of the history of Robben Island.)
Robben Island generates its own electricity and gets its fresh water from nine boreholes.
Today Robben Island is a sanctuary for bird and animal life. Home, and a sheltered breeding area, to about 132 bird species, some of which are endangered. The African Penguin, once close to extinction breeds prolifically on the island, and the Crowned Cormorant and Black-crowned Night Herons have flocked to the island in numbers.
The spectacular veld flowers typical of the West Coast also occur on the Island during spring and plant life thrives on the island. Providing grazing and habitat to Ostrich, lizards, geckos, snakes, tortoises and small herds of bontebok, springbok, steenbok, fallow deer, and eland.
The harbour of Robben Island is the start of what is considered the Everest of Open Water Swimming to swimmers in South Africa. Known as The Freedom Swim it draws in swimmers from all over the world to complete this historic challenge from Robben Islands to mainland Cape Towns Blouberg beach.