Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Friday, November 12, 2004

Writer preps for
Palmyra adventure

Since writers need deadlines to get anything done, I made one for myself: On Dec. 2, I'm sailing to Palmyra.

Before I decided that, I had to find out a few things, such as: Where the heck is Palmyra? And do I really want to work there for three months?

First, Palmyra is not just an island. It's an atoll, consisting of 54 little islands circling an ancient submerged volcano. The above-water land totals 680 acres and is home to one of the largest remaining stands of native tropical trees called Pisonia.

The islands also host the world's largest land invertebrate, the coconut crab, and support the second-largest red-footed booby colony in the world. (The first is on the Galapagos Islands.)

Underwater, Palmyra is equally special. The reefs consist of 125 coral species, three times those of Hawaiian waters. And the lagoons and offshore reefs harbor manta rays, giant clams, pods of dolphins and countless other fish and invertebrates.

As to location, Palmyra is the northernmost atoll of the Line Islands, so called because they straddle the Equator, THE line, nautically speaking.

Of the 11 Line Islands, eight are part of the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-ih-bas). These include the familiar names, Fanning and Christmas islands.

The other three Line Islands -- Kingman Reef, Jarvis and Palmyra -- are American dependencies.

Hawaii has a strong connection to these equatorial straddlers. Although they were uninhabited when American sailors found them in 1798, some showed evidence of ancient Polynesian culture. In 1862, King Kamehameha IV declared Palmyra Atoll part of Hawaii. When the United States took possession of Hawaii in 1898, it included Palmyra.

In those days you could buy a "Hawaiian" island, and in 1911 a judge named Henry Cooper bought Palmyra. He sold it in 1922 to the Fullard-Leo family.

During World War II the U.S. Navy used the atoll as a Naval Air Facility. The military left after the war, but the runway remains.

In 2000 the Nature Conservancy bought Palmyra. A year later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the lagoons, and waters within 12 miles of the atoll, a National Wildlife Refuge. Today the private conservation group and federal agency work together to protect the atoll's fragile environment.

Palmyra Atoll lies about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii with nothing between here and there except the Pacific Ocean. It should take my 37-foot French ketch about a week to get there.

My one crew member has little sailing experience, but his positive qualities override that minor deficiency. Alex is handy, good-natured, a true ocean spirit and a trusted friend.

He's also the only U.S. Fish and Wildlife worker on Palmyra. Alex and I worked together on Tern Island a year ago, and we will work together again, me as a volunteer, on Palmyra. I'll have a satellite phone on the boat to e-mail columns home.

Palmyra, as I understand it, is a paradise for sailors, nature lovers, biologists and writers. I'm all of those and I'm going. I have to. I have a deadline.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.



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