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Navassa Island

Navassa is an uninhabited, 5 km island in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Jamaica administered by the US Department of Interior. In 1881 there were 196 men on the island, but no women. Ancient coral reef sediments that have been raised above sea level by vertical movements of the earth's crust underlie Navassa. Navassa may have formed as a small coral atoll, but at the close of the Miocene Period about 5 million years ago, these reefs began to emerge. Emergence resulted in the alteration of calcium carbonate sediments (aragonite) to calcium-magnesium carbonate rock (dolomite), the formation of a terrace around the island, and the beginnings of chemical weathering and cave formation.

Navassa lies in latitude 18 10' north, longitude 75 west, forty-five miles or thereabouts from the island of St. Domingo, and seventy miles or thereabouts from the island of Jamaica. The island of Navassa is about two miles in length and a mile and a half in width, apparently of volcanic origin, and elevated about three hundred feet above the surface of the sea, presenting a rocky, perpendicular cliff or shore on all sides, except for a small space to the north. It is covered with small shrubs upon the surface, beneath which is a deposit of phosphatic guano, varying in depth from one to six feet, and estimated in quantity at one million of tons.

About two million years ago phosphate-rich sediment was deposited on the island, perhaps guano that was greatly altered to form the mineral phosphate deposit now found on the surface. The oolitic phosphate forms a thin veneer overlying and filling karst holes in the dolomite.

This island is 2 miles in length in a north-west and south-east direction, one mile in breadth, and about 300 feet high. Its surface is nearly level, with steep sloping sides, verging all round into white cliffs of about 20 feet high, and inaccessible, except at the landing platform on the north-west side of the island, which was constructed by an American settler in 1855 for the export of guano. The island is of volcanic origin, composed of limestone, interspersed with veins of sharp honeycombed rocks of iron pyrites that on being struck give out a sound similar to bell metal. The spaces between the rocks were filled up with guano, making a flat surface.

The guano has no smell, of a dark red color. The market price in 1862 was 20 dollars a ton. The settlement was near the center of the west side, 6 cables from the so-called S.E. point. There were several mooring buoys laid down for the use of vessels loading.

With the exception of the north-west extreme, which is a prominent bluff, a narrow ridge or rocky step, about 15 feet high above the cliffs and a cable broad, extends all round the island. The summit is clothed with stunted palm trees and cactus, and is inhabited by iguanas and numerous flocks of sea birds. This island appears to rise from a small bank of soundings from one-third to about three-quarters of a mile broad. On the north and east sides the bottom is rocky, and the depth from 18 to 40 fathoms.

On the west side the bottom is fine sand, with small shells, and anchorage will be found with the usual trade wind in 16 fathoms water, good holding ground, with the north-west bluff bearing North or N. by E., and the south-east point S.E. by E., about half a mile off shore; but a heavy swell sets round the south-east end of the island, and the current generally to the north-west. The wind seldom blows from the westward. From the north-west end of the island a coral ledge with 4 fathoms water on it extends a cable off.

It is mostly exposed rock, but enough grassland to support goat herds; dense stands of fig-like trees, scattered cactus. Navassa's climate is marine and tropical. Its terrain is a raised coral and limestone plateau, flat to undulating, ringed by vertical white cliffs, approximately nine (9) to fifteen (15) yards high. Navassa's environment is mostly exposed rock. However, it has enough grassland to support goat herds as well as dense stands of fig-like trees and scattered cactus. Only one tenth of the island's land is meadows or pastures. Navassa has no ports and only off-shore anchorage. A 1998 scientific expedition to the island described it as a unique preserve of Caribbean biodiversity; the following year it became a National Wildlife Refuge.

The biological diversity of the island and the fact that Navassa is U.S. territory owe much to the geology of the island. The limestone island is an uplifted atoll in the range of 5 million years old, giving rise to a biota that has been isolated long enough have evolved independently of the biota on surrounding land masses. 10-30m cliffs surround Navassa, making it difficult for organisms to reach the island's high terraces. Surrounding waters are 500 m deep, eliminating the possibility of land connections to larger islands during Pleistocene sea-level lowstands.

Fifteen island species are currently recognized as endemic and include land snails, lizards, vascular plants, and possibly a ground dove. Two endemic species, an iguana and curly tailed lizard found on the island during the last century, could not be located and may be extinct. Common on the island as late as 1928, only one specimen of the palm tree Pseudopheonix sargentti saonae var. navassana remains. The Caribbean Islands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex consists of nine separate refuge units, each having unique characteristics and resources. Three of the units, Sandy Point, Green Cay and Buck Island National Wildlife Refuges are located in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Desecheo, Laguna Cartagena, Cabo Rojo, Culebra, and Vieques National Wildlife Refuges are in Puerto Rico, and Navassa Island is an isolated island located approximately 40 miles west of Haiti. Each unit has a unique composition of plant and animal species.

It was first charted by Christopher Columbus and his colleagues as part of the 3rd and 4th voyages, but the lack of potable water on this remote island led to its rapid abandonment. Navassa Island was rediscovered in the 1856 Guano Rush. In 1857, the phosphorite on Navassa was mistaken for guano by a U.S. sea captain who laid claim to the island under the Guano Island Act passed by the US Congress in 1855. Peter Duncan, a citizen of the United States, respectfully represented to the Department of State of the United States that on the first day of July in the year 1857 he did discover a deposit of guano on an island or key in the Caribbean Sea, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government. On the 19th day of September, 1857, he did take peaceable possession of and occupy said island or key of Navassa in the name of the United States, and continued so to occupy the same.

Guano phosphate was a superior organic fertilizer that became a mainstay of American agriculture in the mid-19th century. The provisions of the act of Congress of August 18, 1856, c. 164, entitled "An Act to authorize Protection to be given to Citizens of the United States who may discover Deposits of Guano," (11 Stat. 119,) since reenacted in Title 72, 55705578, of the Revised Statutes, are as follows:

By section 1, when any citizen of the United States shall "discover a deposit of guano on any island, rock or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citi/ens of any other government, and shall take peaceable possession thereof, and occupy the same, said island, rock or key may, at the discretion of the President of the United States, be considered as appertaining to the United States".

On July 7, 1858, the Secretary of State addressed a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, in which he said: "The President being of the opinion that any claim of the Haytian government to prevent citizens of the United States from removing guano from the Island of Navassa is unfounded, and that in this case it is advisable to exercise the authority vested in him by the fifth section of the act of Congress, approved August 18,185G, entitled ' An act to authorize protection to be given to citizens of the United States who may discover deposits of guano,' directs that you will cause a competent force to repair to that island, and will order the officer in command thereof to protect citizens of the United States removing guano therefrom against any interference from authorities of the government of Hayti, or of any other government."

On November 13, 1858, Mr. B. C. Clark, the commercial agent of Hayti at Boston, in behalf of the Haytian government, (intercourse between that government and the United States being at that time conducted through consuls or commercial agents only,1) addressed to the Secretary of State a letter in relation to the occupancy of the Island of Navassa by citizens of the United States, in which he said: "The territory over which Hayti now claims sovereignty was once the property of Spain, who, in the exercise of an undisputed right, ceded said territory to France. France, in 1825, through her chief, Charles X, acknowledged the independence of Hayti, and thereby vested her with a perfect title to the 'French part' (popularly termed) and all its dependencies, among which dependencies the islands of Tortugas, La Vache, Cayemete, Navassa and Gonaive Island are declared to be. The government of Hayti, although frequently importuned, has never ceded, sold or leased either of these dependencies to any nation, company or individual."

On November 17, 1858, the Assistant Secretary of State replied to Mr. Clark, saying: "I am directed to inform you that a citizen of the United States having exhibited to this department proofs which were deemed sufficient that that island was derelict and abandoned, with guano of good quality, and having applied for the protection of this government in removing the guano therefrom, pursuant to the act of Congress of the 18th of August, 1856, a copy of which is inclosed, that application has been granted. You will notice, however, that the act does not make it obligatory upon the government to retain permanent possession of the island."

Between 1865 and 1898 almost a million tons of the phosphorite were strip-mined from the island and shipped to Baltimore by the Navassa Phosphate Co. The guano deposits were worked until the company failed in 1898. Over one million tons of bird guano was removed from the island between 1865-1901. The island was abandoned during the Spanish American War, but by that time it was firmly established as US territory.

The opening of the Panama Canal put Navassa in the middle of the traffic lanes between the Atlantic and Caribbean. Navassa became an increased hazard to shipping with the building of the Panama Canal. Consequently, the U.S. Coast Guard built a 162 foot lighthouse in 1917. The new light station on Navassa Island, West Indies, was placed in commission October 21, 1917. This was built under an appropriation of $125,000 approved October 22, 1913, and was rendered necessary because of the increased traffic throuagh the Windward Passage following the opening of the Panama Can . Navassa Island lies in the passage between Haiti and Jamaica, and the light station was located on the highest part of the island. The tower is of reinforced concrete. The light is 395 feet above the sea, has 47,000 candlepower, and is visible more than 27 miles. The light proved an important aid to vessels oing through the Panama Canal to and from Atlantic ports of the United States.

In December 1999, jurisdiction was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to be managed as a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for the purpose of protecting the unique ecosystem of Navassa Island, the adjacent coral reefs and marine waters.

Navassa Island covers 1,344 square miles. The refuge includes a 12 nautical mile radius of marine habitat. Navassa Island is located 35 miles west of the Tiburon Peninsula of Haiti. Large seabird colonies present including the Magnificent Frigatebirds and over 5,000 nesting Red-footed Boobies. The refuge is closed to the public. Access is extremely hazardous. There are no beaches on Navassa. The island rises abruptly from the sea with cliffs reaching heights of 20 meters or more.

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