Explore Ukraine’s Snake Island

Ukraine’s Snake Island, also known as Serpent Island or Zmiiniy Island, is located near the Danube Delta in the Black Sea around 35 kilometers off the mainland coast. The island consists of igneous rock formed by the cooling and solidifying of lava or magma, with its highest point being around 41 meters above sea level. The waters around the island, which is a State protected area, are teaming with life. Up to fifty fish species and six crab species have been identified, with some of them being recorded as endangered in the Red Book of Ukraine.

The Odessa National University has had a research station on Snake Island since 2003, with students and scientists conducting ongoing research regarding the flora and fauna, as well as meteorology, geology, hydrobiology and atmospheric chemistry. While the island has long been sparsely populated, in 2007 the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, approved the official establishment of a rural settlement as an extension of Vylkove city, which is located around 50 kilometers away on the mainland. The island’s infrastructure includes roads, satellite television, cellular phone and internet access, a post office, bank and first-aid station, as well as a lighthouse equipped with a radio beacon providing a signal for GPS and GLONASS navigation systems.

Although the lighthouse serves a modern purpose, it also has historical value as it was built by the Russian Empire’s Black Sea Fleet in the fall of 1842 and stands on the site where a temple dedicated to the Greek god Achilles once stood. Records reveal that Snake Island was originally named “White Island” by the Greeks, with the Romans referring to it as Alba, thought to be a reference to the island’s white marble formations. Submerged and exposed Greek and Roman ruins and temples are found on Snake Island, and according to the writings of Greek poet Arctinus of Miletus it is believed that the remains of Achilles and his compatriot, Patroclus, were brought to the island by the sea nymph Thetis. Poets and philosophers Ovid, Strabo and Ptolemy make mention of the island, which is also described in Pliny’s writings on Natural History. A number of ancient inscriptions found on the island support these conclusions.

It was during the times of the Ottoman Empire that the island was named Fidonisi, meaning Snake Island, by the Greeks. In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of battles took place in the vicinity of Snake Island, with ownership changing with each ensuing battle. In 1948 the Soviets claimed the island from Romania and built a Soviet naval and anti-aircraft radar post there. The change of ownership was strongly disputed by Romania and when ownership changed to Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Romania continued with its dispute. The matter was finally settled by the International Court of Justice in February 2009 with the conclusion being that Snake Island falls within the jurisdiction of Ukraine.