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In a Pacific Paradise
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Palmyra Atoll

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By Alex Chadwick Photographs by Randy Olson

A Pacific island paradise, one of the world’s premier seabird breeding sites, has won protection thanks to a private conservation group.

In theory, a Pacific paradise doesn’t exist anymore.

All those places that used to live in dreams are now so altered by reality that we can never get back what was once there: deserted islands with long, unspoiled beaches and warm afternoon rain, turquoise lagoons shaded by coconut palms, fish and wildlife living without fear in Eden—in theory, all gone.

But in the central Pacific Ocean one tiny atoll has somehow slipped through a hole in the side of theory and let the roar of modern history pass by.

Through the quirk of its remote geography, through the sheer determination of the people who have loved it, Palmyra Atoll does exist.  And thanks to its recently completed purchase by one of the world’s leading conservation groups, the Nature Conservancy, it should continue as something close to many people’s vision of paradise, albeit a very small one.

Counting just what’s above high water, the entire atoll is hardly bigger than a single section of midwestern farmland—less than 700 acres (283 hectares) of terrain, with no point on it more than six or seven feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) above sea level. For a few hours each day Palmyra aspires to grander proportions; at low tide an enormous plain of calcium carbonate lies exposed—thousands of acres (thousands of hectares) of coral reef flats. The next high water claims them back, and Palmyra shrinks to its true measure.

For decades Palmyra has lingered in quiet isolation as an uninhabited, privately owned United States territory. There was a moment of notoriety back in the ’70s when a fugitive drug dealer sailed here from Hawaii. Worried that his own boat was barely seaworthy, he murdered an island-hopping couple that had stopped at the atoll and stole theirs before he was caught, a story that was turned into a best- selling book, And the Sea Will Tell, by Vince Bugliosi, and a TV movie.

Passing yachts or fishing boats aside, Palmyra’s main visitors have always been seabirds—some of the largest and most colorful gatherings of them anywhere in the world: red-footed boobies with electric blue beaks, elegant white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigate birds whose cunning bones, like an old carpenter’s pocket rule, can unfold from resting position into wings of imposing length. The atoll has more red-footed boobies than anywhere but the Galápagos Islands. Palmyra is their only breeding site in 450,000 square miles (1,165,500 square kilometers) of ocean.

Many of the birds come because of the weather. Palmyra is soggy by human standards, with 175 inches (445 centimeters) of rain a year. But that rainfall provides for lush, old forests of a tropical tree called Pisonia, whose fiber is soft like balsa wood.  On many islands people have used up all the Pisonia for fire or shelter or cleared it away for farming.  But Palmyra, despite its small size, has great stands of Pisonia up to a hundred feet (30 meters) tall, with buttress trunks and tangled branches. Each spring Palmyra transforms itself into a spectacular forest nursery for tens of thousands of nesting seabirds and their young.

A wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Refuge System, Elizabeth Flint lists Palmyra among seabird breeding sites of world importance. It’s especially important, she says, because there’s nothing else remotely similar in the U.S. Pacific islands. In fact, “there probably isn’t anything left in all the Pacific like Palmyra, because most of the ‘wet’ atolls that can sustain human life have been colonized. And a lot of the organisms in this ecosystem don’t coexist with human population.”

One afternoon at the eastern end of Palmyra I beached a kayak on the shore of a small barrier island and snorkeled out into the quiet shallows protected by its lee. The water was brilliantly clear, the light shaded only by tidal ripples at the surface. Small patches of coral heads clustered on the sand bottom, then merged to form a reef face and an enchanted garden. Crystalline violet-purple coral grew across the floor like jeweled moss; other corals formed stalks that flattened and spread into broad mushroom heads; still others waved delicate branches, each tip formed like baby ears of corn, each a roasted yellow-brown color, every kernel a shield for the tiny creature inside.

Jim Maragos, a coral biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me that in 30 years of research he’s dived thousands of Pacific reefs. “These are the most spectacular that I have ever seen,” he said. “There are just magnificent schools of sharks, humphead wrasses, bumphead parrotfish, large groupers —fish that are basically being wiped out elsewhere in the world, especially in the Pacific.”
By itself, Palmyra supports at least 130 species of stony coral, several times more than in the Florida Keys. Indeed this single atoll has three times more coral species than all the Hawaiian Islands combined—probably because Palmyra is a thousand miles (1,500 kilometers) south of the 50th state, in the warmer waters of the tropics where corals flourish. The atoll is almost dead center in the Pacific Ocean, nearly six degrees or 400 miles (640 kilometers) north of the Equator, in an expanse of ocean that makes up what’s called the intertropical convergence zone. Everything that belongs to the ocean converges here: flora and fauna, fish and fowl, climates and currents—especially currents.

In the flux of sea forces, Palmyra is positioned like a Balkan border town. Sometimes it’s overrun by the sweep of the North Equatorial Current coming from the east. Sometimes the South Equatorial Current shifts north, also pushing past the atoll from the east. More often, though, Palmyra is washed by a narrow water raceway that flows from the west—the Equatorial Countercurrent, which runs in the opposite direction between the two giant, slow-spinning Pacific currents to the north and south. That’s why the atoll is such a coral hothouse; it’s seeded by larvae carried to it from every direction, and a part of its own rich coral spawn is dispersed to other sites.

It’s something of a mystery that people never colonized Palmyra. For 20,000 years, since the peak of the last ice age, its coral base has gradually followed the rising sea level and slowly developed into the splendid, living atoll it is today. Many scholars believe that Polynesian navigators would have found this high coral nub, a peak on the Line Islands underwater mountain chain that runs on a northwest-southeast diagonal across the tropics of the central Pacific. But for whatever reason—its small size, its remote location—the Polynesians didn’t stay.

The first man to note a sighting of Palmyra in a ship’s log nearly died from the experience.  In 1798 an American sea captain, Edmund Fanning, awoke in his cabin one night on a cross-Pacific voyage. He later wrote that he’d felt a sense of foreboding so strong that he went on deck and ordered the ship to heave to until dawn. In the morning Fanning discovered a series of dangerous uncharted reefs and a few spits of land dead ahead.
It was several years later that another American ship, the Palmyra, made the first official reports of the atoll and fixed its position. Then, sometime after the War of 1812, an American whaler in the central Pacific picked up a dying Spanish seaman floating on a makeshift raft.

He claimed to have been a crewman on the pirate ship Esperanza, with a cargo of stolen Inca gold. She’d gone aground on Palmyra, he said, where he and his shipmates managed to salvage the booty and bury it beneath a palm grove. Then they’d pieced rafts from the ship’s wreckage and set off in hope of rescue.  The Spaniard thought he was the only survivor, and he soon died. What became of the treasure—or whether it ever really existed—is unknown, but the story endured.
Perhaps that’s why Hawaii’s King Kamehameha IV sent a ship to claim the atoll in 1862, even though it was so far away it took a month to sail there. When Congress annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, it specifically included Palmyra, which eventually wound up as a U.S. territory, almost all of it privately owned by a Honolulu family, the Fullard-Leos.
They almost lost the atoll during World War II—not through any enemy action but rather because the U.S. Navy took over Palmyra during the war. Seabees dredged a channel so ships could enter the protected lagoons and bulldozed coral rubble into a long, unpaved landing strip for refueling transpacific supply planes. By the time the war ended, the military was reluctant to lose its mid-ocean depot.  The Fullard-Leos spent years fighting for Palmyra’s return until the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in 1947 that they had title.

Three Fullard-Leo brothers kept that title until a few months ago. The youngest, Ainsley, is 69, a retired air traffic controller from Honolulu who was on the island last May when I visited. His family had gotten all kinds of proposals to buy the atoll, he said. People wanted to turn Palmyra into something useful: a big resort, an offshore bank, a manufacturing outpost to hire cheap labor and avoid American import duties, a commercial fish-processing plant, an equatorial launch site for missiles and satellites. Twenty years ago there was a flurry of excitement—and howls of outrage—when the U.S. government sent a team of inspectors to scout the atoll as a possible site to store nuclear waste. All were rejected, and for the same reason—the Fullard-Leos thought the best use for Palmyra was to leave it as it is.

“I’d hate to see it developed to an extent where it changes the wildlife situation,” Ainsley told me. “I think it’s a great opportunity to preserve the wildlife in this part of the Pacific.”

We were standing near the shore of the eastern lagoons. Blacktip reef shark pups played in the shallows at our feet, first running at our ankles, then realizing the size of the fearsome creatures attached to them and scooting away. There were giant clams in the sand and a beach nearby where green sea turtles dug nests for their eggs. Seabirds glided low overhead.

In places the reef flats around us showed jagged, rusted stubs where wartime stanchions had ringed the islet behind us with barbed wire. Somewhere in the forest interior an old concrete gun emplacement sagged in defeat. Built to withstand machine-gun and mortar attacks, it is beaten down now by more determined foes: age and weather. Together they are slowly erasing most signs of the human presence that was here during the war.

When I asked Ainsley what he would most want to tell outsiders about the place, he spoke of solitude and peace. “It’s a great place to come and contemplate.”

Now Palmyra should retain its peaceful qualities for generations to come. In November the Nature Conservancy concluded years of negotiations and took title to Palmyra for 30 million dollars. “It’s a marine wilderness—the last of its kind in the Pacific,” says Nancy Mackinnon, who, along with Chuck Cook, coordinated the effort.
Because no settlers ever colonized it, no one’s survival has ever depended on cutting the forest, or culling the lagoons, or killing off the bird life. That’s why the atoll still has large, healthy, mature fish, forests, and birds you imagine you’d find on any tropical island but that in reality barely survive, if at all, in most other places.

And because Palmyra falls under U.S. law, some of the world’s toughest environmental standards apply here. The Nature Conservancy, and the private donors it relies on, knows that restrictions can be enforced and this atoll truly protected.

The Conservancy plans to keep Palmyra in its natural state, perhaps restoring some parts that were altered by the Navy. Coral and wildlife biologists, botanists, and other researchers will be invited to use the atoll for study, and a small ecotourism operation could allow other visitors to see some of Palmyra’s glories. Indeed, some already have seen them. Since last spring when it first announced plans to purchase Palmyra, the Conservancy has been flying potential donors out to inspect the atoll and putting them up in an island camp that is both spartan and ecofriendly.

A dozen tent structures sit like mini-Quonset huts on wood platforms. The shelter fabric is a drab beige vinyl, and the sides of the tents roll up to let in a night breeze. The mosquito netting works perfectly. There is power from two big generators, with efficient mufflers to handle the noise. A desalination processor makes fresh water for drinking, showers, and laundry. Several fire-breathing toilets reduce what you leave in them to a mound of ash. The mess tent features a professional gas range, full refrigeration, and an ice machine.

You can explore very comfortably on Palmyra and in the evening settle back to watch a Technicolor sunset. As Ainsley Fullard-Leo said, Palmyra is a good place to sit and contemplate—and with a future worth thinking about. The Nature Conservancy calls it one of the most important conservation projects in the world. The U.S. Department of Interior wants to buy part of the atoll to help manage and protect it. And marine biologist Jim Maragos talks about Palmyra as a kind of biodiversity storehouse, especially for fish and coral. He’s thinking about all the other Pacific islands he knows—fished out, and with little chance of recovering on their own.

“I think we need to save places like Palmyra, particularly Palmyra, which has these magnificent fish.” That way, he says, we can try to replenish some of those depleted
Indeed conservationists would tell you this remote atoll’s real treasure wasn’t buried here by pirates 200 years ago. It’s open and apparent for anyone to see—Palmyra holds the seeds of paradise.

Subscribe to National Geographic magazine.

VIDEO Author Alex Chadwick, chief correspondent of Radio Expeditions (a co-production of National Geographic and National Public Radio), tells tales about Palmyra. Click Here

AUDIO Listen to Chadwick’s interview (recommended for low-speed connections).
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Listen to the raucous chorus Chadwick describes as “the greatest bird recordings” ever (includes sounds of frigate birds, brown and blue-footed boobies, and white-tailed tropic birds).
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The call of the wild vs. the call of the Cessna (or what happens when a photographer pursues aerial shots while the author goes for bird recordings).
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Protecting this island—which most people will never visit—is costly. What is the value of maintaining such pristine places? Tell us your stories.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Dictionaries of geography generally define a degree of latitude as approximately 111 kilometers, or 69 statute miles. However, the length of a degree of latitude actually varies depending on where on the Earth’s surface you are. This is because the Earth is not a perfect sphere. If it was, a degree of latitude would be equal to 1/360 of the circumference of a circle that passes through the North and South Poles. However, since the Earth is slightly flattened at the poles, a degree of latitude is a little bit longer at the Poles than at the Equator. Approaching 90° north or south, a degree of latitude measures approximately 69.4 statute miles [111.7 kilometers], while at the Equator a degree of latitude is about 68.7 statute miles [110.6 kilometers].

To find out the length of a degree of latitude anywhere on Earth, you can use an online calculator provided by the Marine Navigation Department of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Go to

—Robin Adler

National Public Radio: Radio Expeditions
Hear Alex Chadwick’s broadcasts from Palmyra Atoll for Radio Expeditions, a joint production of National Public Radio and National Geographic Society.

The Nature Conservancy
The new owners of Palmyra Atoll have gathered an impressive assortment of facts, pictures, and testimonies about the value of this cluster of tiny islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

Office of Insular Affairs, Palmyra Factsheet
The Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs provides a useful overview of the history of Palmyra Atoll.

Learn more about the amazing biological diversity of coral reefs at Reefbase, which includes maps, pictures, and a reef database.


Bugliosi, Vince, with Bruce B. Henderson. And the Sea Will Tell. Ballantine Books, 1991.

Lieske, Ewald and Robert Myers. Coral Reef Fishes: Indo-Pacific & Caribbean. HarperCollins, 1994.


Chadwick, Douglas H. “Coral in Peril,” National Geographic (January 1999), 30-37.

Doubilet, David. “Coral Eden,” National Geographic (January 1999), 2-29.

Skelton, Renee. “Coral in Crisis,” National Geographic World (November 1997), 17-22.

Tourtellot, Jonathan B. “Keeping Our Coral Reefs Intact,” National Geographic Traveler (January/February 1995), 16-19.

Brower, Kenneth. Realms of the Sea. National Geographic Books, 1991.

Summerhays, Soames. “A Marine Park Is Born,” National Geographic (May 1981), 630-635.

Murphy, Robert Cushman. “Birds of the High Seas: Albatrosses and Petrels; Gannets, Man-o’-war-birds and Tropic-birds,” National Geographic (August 1938), 226-251.


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