Why an 88-million-year-old island off the coast of Karnataka is a geological wonder

The unique polygonal rock formations on St Mary's Island remain a scientific mystery, but are marvellous to experience.
Rock formations at St Mary's Island
Rock formations at St Mary's Island
Written by:

As fatigue had set in during our cultural and culinary tour of coastal Karnataka, we decided to take a detour and headed to Malpe. Leaving behind Malpe town of Udupi district, we headed to the tourist jetty at the beach from where we boarded the ferry bound for St Mary’s Island, an uninhabited island. The journey to St Mary’s Island, with a 30-minute ferry ride carrying aboard a motley crowd of passengers along the sea, was an adventurous one. The incessant chatter and the blaring cacophonic music in the boat added to the delight. As the boat sliced its way through the billowy waves the island loomed before us with its tall coconut trees fringing the shoreline.

The ferry going to St Mary's Island

As we approached the island, we found to our dismay that there was no boat jetty near the island. So, we had to hop on to a smaller boat as the ferry could not go further due to shallow water. Then we jumped in knee-deep water to reach the beach on the island. A wooden board with a ‘Welcome to St Mary’s Island’ beckoned us to the island. The guides at the entrance ensured that no plastic and food items are carried to the island.

The welcome point at St Mary's Island

The island itself is uninhabited and scenic. It is also known as Coconut Island or Thonsepar by the local populace because of the rows of coconut trees dotting the island. The other large islands in its vicinity are known as South Island, North Island and Daria Bahadurgah Island.

The uniqueness of these islands lies in the fact that the lava oozed out millions of years ago from the cracks in the limestone, forming rocks of polygonal shape. Normally, one would expect molten lava to have random shaped patterns after cooling but what makes them form a regular five, six or seven-sided pillar remains a scientific mystery. Geologists call this flow ‘laminar lava.’ Occurring in varying heights all over the islands, the tallest of the rocks is around six metres. Considering their importance, the Geological Survey of India has accorded these islands the status of a National Geological Monument.

Some unique rock formations at the island

Scientific studies indicate that these rocks were formed when Madagascar broke away from India, more than 88 million years ago because of sub-volcanic activity. The array of basalt has been formed as a result of eons of volcanic activities. The rocks are hexagonal in shape, columnar in form, and made of basalt. At first glance, it reminded me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Instead of forming shapeless lumps, the lava has formed perfect pillars of five, six or seven faces at St Mary’s, giving the island its unique landscape.

Legend has it that Vasco Da Gama, on his journey from Portugal, first dropped anchor at this northernmost island on his way to Kozhikode during the 15th century. He then erected a holy cross and rechristened the island as Padron de Santa Maria, dedicated to St Mary, and the name has stuck ever since. The largest of these islands is 500 metres in length and about 100 metres at its widest point, and is the only one in the group of islands accessible to tourists.

Tourists at St Mary's Island

What makes the island a distinctive beach destination is its unique ambience, quietude and peace.  If you want to perfect the art of doing nothing, this is the place to be. Being in this island is pure bliss as the beach is unspoilt, lovely and absolutely free of milling crowds and vendors peddling souvenirs. All you get is lots of peace with the sound of the sea crashing on the rocks. If you enjoy nature, you can spend relaxed moments watching the azure blue sea and enjoy the cool breeze in your hair.

To get a feel of the island, one has to stroll around. As we ambled across the island, we were amazed to find basalt formations that look like sharp-edged pillars of rocks, shooting out of the rock bed.  It was a delight to stroll in the lagoons created by these outcrops with the waves gently caressing our feet. Before we left the island, we clambered up a rock to admire these incredible wonders of nature.

A view of the island from the ferry

Best time to visit: From September to May. Avoid peak monsoon when the choppy seas make the boat journey a little risky.

Ferry service: Daily ferry service is available from the tourist jetty at Malpe from 9 am to 5.30 pm. Ferry charges are Rs 300 for adults and Rs 150 for children between 3 to 10 years. However, if the sea is rough, the service will be cancelled.

Activities: For those seeking an adrenaline rush, you can go jet skiing, try the banana boat ride or go zorbing. Different trails are also organised. Under the Basalt Rock Trail, tourists would be taken to Boulder Beach and Seashell Beach on the island. A Flora and Fauna Trail is also available. Cycling trails and day-time camping facilities also would be provided. However, due to the pandemic, all these trails have been temporarily suspended.  

Tips: There is a small cafeteria catering to the needs of tourists. However, as the islands are ecologically fragile, tourists are advised to refrain from littering.

For cultural and culinary tours in coastal Karnataka, contact Arjun at +91-9901909419.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several publications, travel portals, guide books, brochures and coffee table books. All pictures by Susheela Nair.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute