Nim (Abigail Breslin) is an 11-year-old girl, whose mother has died. Her father said she was swallowed by a blue whale after it was scared by a ship called the Buccaneers. She lives with her father Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler), a marine biologist, on an island in the South Pacific. She has some local animals for company: Selkie the sea lion, Fred the bearded dragon, Chica the turtle, and Galileo the pelican. Jack goes by boat on a scientific mission of two days to find protozoa Nim (a new species of plankton); he wants to take her along, but she convinces him that she can manage on her own on the island; they will be able to communicate by satellite phone.

Nim, who is fond of Alex Rover adventure books written by Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), receives an email addressed to her father with an inquiry about his field of knowledge. The sender "Alex Rover" seems to be the explorer, but is actually Alexandra, a neurotic San Franciscan who constantly sees her character Alex Rover (also Gerard Butler). An email conversation follows, where Nim first poses as her father's assistant and then goes to the volcano on the island to see what's inside it and is hurt in the process.

Jack suffers a shipwreck, which makes it impossible for Nim and Jack to communicate. Also, he does not return on the planned date. Throughout the movie, Galileo brings Jack things he needs to fix his ship. Nim explains the situation to "Alex". Although she suffers from agoraphobia and therefore never leaves the house or even opens the door, she travels to the island to rescue Nim.

The island is visited by tourists, taken by Nim to be pirates. Without exposing herself, she scares them away by catapulting lizards at them. One of the tourists, a spoiled rich boy named Edmund, follows her and sees her. He is confused by her presence, and believes her to be another tourist. But when he tells the others, he isn't believed and punished severely by his parents for leaving them. The tourists leave. Alex arrives by helicopter at the tourists' boat and tells about her rescue mission. The tourists do not believe that a girl is on the island, but Edmund tells her what he had seen. Encouraged, Alex goes to the island and is saved by Nim from drowning. At first Nim doesn't want her to stay, but eventually allows her. Later Jack arrives on a raft still holding the plankton, and he and Alexandra fall in love.

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