Pi describes an “exceptional botanical discovery” that he makes. One day the boat approaches a low-lying island covered with trees. Pi assumes that the island is a mirage, but he decides to enjoy it while he can. He examines the island and sees that it has no soil, but is made entirely of densely packed algae. The boat pushes against the algae island and Pi decides to test its reality. He puts his foot through the water and steps on solid ground.
Pi’s time on the algae island is another surreal episode, and the most extended chapter of Pi’s journey. The algae island becomes a complex and often opaque symbol, first appearing as a kind of paradise for Pi. In its very strangeness the island always seems unreal, despite its promise of food and shelter.
Pi finally believes that the island is not a hallucination, and he becomes delirious with joy. He eats some of the algae and finds that its inner tubes contain fresh water. Pi eats his fill and then drags himself to the nearest tree, as he is too weak to walk. Pi praises God. Richard Parker finally leaps from the lifeboat as well and disappears among the trees.
The algae island often symbolizes a kind of easy, shallow faith or easy survival that tempts Pi away from his journey, whether religious or simple fantasy. The island seems too good to be true at first, but then it rewards Pi with immediate gratification when he steps on firm ground.
Pi spends the day in bliss, but he returns to his “territory” on the lifeboat at night. Later Richard Parker returns to the lifeboat as well. Pi has a very restful sleep, and the next morning he feels stronger. Pi slowly relearns to walk, falling onto the soft algae and eating his fill of it. Days pass, and Pi and Richard Parker always spend the night on the lifeboat.
At first Pi (and perhaps Richard Parker as well) returns to the lifeboat at night out of habit, and to keep up his territory. Whether mirage, miracle, or warning, the island offers a welcome reprieve from Pi’s struggle to survive.
Richard Parker returns to his former strength and speed, and Pi’s fear of him returns when he bursts out of the trees one night. The tiger is still stopped by the sound of the whistle, however, and he leaps into the ocean and swims to his part of the lifeboat.
Richard Parker also has a chance to return to his former self, which brings new danger to Pi, as the tiger now has opportunities to feed and water himself without an alpha.
A few days later Pi decides to explore the island. It seems large and rises to about sixty feet at its highest point. It consists entirely of algae, with hundreds of evenly spaced ponds at its center. The island is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of meerkats. The meerkats are totally docile and unafraid of Pi. Pi makes his way through their crowds and examines one of the ponds, which seems bottomless.
The algae island keeps growing stranger and more surreal. Its details are so mysterious that it seems like it must be a hallucination or a made-up story, but at the same time Pi’s attention to detail in describing this place suggests that it may be a reality.
The meerkats suddenly start diving into a nearby pond and pulling out large fish. The fish are already dead, but freshly so, and Pi is mystified by this. He takes a sip of the water and finds that it is fresh. The fish are ocean fish, so their deaths are explained by the fresh water, but Pi wonders how they got into the pond. He decides that the algae absorbs the salt from the seawater.
If the algae island is a symbol of a treacherous, shallow religious faith or mirage, then the meerkats are perhaps the followers who blindly buy into its promises. They take the material rewards of the island (the fish) and ignore its more sinister aspects, which we will see later.
Suddenly the meerkats all turn and Pi sees Richard Parker in the distance, killing hundreds of them at his leisure. They don’t even run away, and the tiger kills far more than he could ever eat. The next morning Pi cleans the lifeboat of its human and animal remains.
After such a long period of starvation, the tiger’s (or Pi’s) hunting instinct runs wild. Pi cleans the lifeboat and makes it a nicer place to live, but he also removes any proof of his story’s truth or the ordeals he has faced and things he has done to survive.
More days pass and Pi feels all his aches and pains easing. A storm hits the island while he is ashore, but the island absorbs all the waves with barely a tremor. Pi wonders at the unique ecosystem of the island, which contains no insects or any living creature except meerkats, and no plants except for the algae and the trees. Pi then discovers that the trees are actually part of the algae itself. Pi guesses that the island is not rooted to the earth, but is a huge free-floating organism.
As with Pi and Richard Parker on the lifeboat, the algae island also exists as a “game with few pieces,” a total ecosystem made up only of algae and meerkats. The island easily weathers a storm like the one that nearly killed Pi before, and so it seems even more paradisal and attractive as a kind of faith or refuge.
One day Pi is exploring the forest when he comes across Richard Parker. Afterwards he takes up the taming process again, and he soon trains the tiger to jump through a hoop of branches. Pi decides to stop spending the night on the boat, and he climbs into a tree to sleep.
Richard Parker has been Pi’s constant companion and danger, the test of his faith, resourcefulness, and love, so it is a bad sign that on the island Pi is able to easily train the tiger to jump through hoops. There is something soul-crushing about this for him, as the wild tiger suddenly seems less wild.
Just as Pi makes his “bed” all the multitudes of meerkats abandon the plain and climb into the trees. They swarm over Pi, totally covering him. Then they all fall asleep too. The next morning they immediately return to the ground. Pi starts sleeping in the tree every night, using meerkats as a blanket and pillow.
The meerkats know about the island’s sinister nature, but they (like Pi is tempted to) ignore this part and accept the instant gratification of the island’s food, shelter, and comfort.
One night Pi wakes up and sees more dead fish floating up in one of the ponds, but none of the meerkats descend from the trees. Then the fish all disappear. Pi finds something sinister about the situation and wonders more about the nature of the island. He finds his answer days later, when he is exploring the forest.
Pi is tempted to stay on the island forever, but when he starts to notice something is amiss he chooses to seek the truth instead of purposefully blinding himself to the island’s nature.
Pi finds a tree that seems to have fruit. He climbs it and picks one, noticing how light it is. He peels away its many layers, and the adult Pi interrupts to wish that he had never found that tree or examined its fruit too closely. Back in the story, Pi reaches the center of the fruit and finds that it is a human tooth. Horrified, he picks more fruit and finds that they are all teeth.
This is the “loss of innocence” moment for the algae island, and parallels the scene in the Biblical Garden of Eden. The island also seems like a paradise at first, but when Pi eats of the “forbidden fruit” he gains awful knowledge, and must leave the Garden.
Pi begins to understand the awful truth about the island, and he tests his theory that night. He drops one of the meerkats from the tree and watches it squeak in pain and immediately climb back up. Then Pi climbs down and touches his feet to the algae. He immediately experiences a burning pain.
Pi continues to seek the truth instead of giving in to the easier path and staying on the island. The meerkats (or the people they represent) clearly know about the island’s dangerous nature, but they avoid it every night and continue to live in ease on the island.
Pi realizes that the island is carnivorous. The algae becomes acidic and deadly at night, digesting the ocean fish it has lured into its ponds. Pi realizes that some castaway before him had lived on this island, and it eventually devoured him or her, leaving only teeth behind. Pi feels angry and betrayed by the true nature of the seemingly paradisal island.
The island comes together as a symbol of false faith or the temptations of giving into despair and fantasy. These two are related, as they both involve avoiding harsh reality to indulge in something evil but comfortable.
The next morning Pi resolves to leave the algae island. He would prefer to die searching for land and other humans instead of living a “half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death” on the carnivorous island. Pi fills the lifeboat with dead fish, meerkats, and algae, and he waits for Richard Parker to come aboard at night to before pushing off.
Pi is not against “bettering” reality through story or religious faith, but he still seeks the kernel of truth in reality, and then tries to make it more beautiful or moving—or even more true—in story. Pi chooses the hard but righteous path, refusing to give in to “spiritual death” and hallucinations of despair. Though he is depressed to return to his struggle, his exit from the algae island is a sign that he still has hope of returning to humanity and himself.