In a Pacific Paradise
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A Pacific island paradise, one of the world’s premier seabird
breeding sites, has won protection thanks to a private conservation
In theory, a Pacific paradise doesn’t exist anymore.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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).
Real Player WinMedia
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).
Real Player WinMedia
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
Real Player WinMedia
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
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 www.nga.mil/portal/site/maritime/
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
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.