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Baker Island

Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands are coral islands once celebrated for their guano deposits, which are worked by the American Guano Company of New York, and numerous vessels were annually chartered to load there. Baker Island is a flat saucer - shaped coral island, approximately 1 mile long and 1500 yards wide, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Baker is a very small island (1.64 sq. km) with 4.8 km of coastline, and its highest point lies approximately 8 m above sea level. Lying just 24 km (13 nautical miles) north of the Equator, it has little rainfall, constant wind and high temperatures. The land is mostly sand with low brush; remnants of the military airstrip are still visible. The island has no fresh water and is primarily a nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds, and marine wildlife. The longer axis of the island is oriented in an east-west direction. The narrow fringing reef has limited areas (0.2 – 1 km in width) of shallow (< 20 m) bank surrounding it on the north and east sides; on the south and west sides of the island, the flanks drop steeply to oceanic depths within 0.2 km of the reef crest.

Outside of the reef the downward trend of the island under water is so abrupt that an anchor will not grapple, but falls away towards the bottom of the deep ocean. For this reason it was found necessary to anchor large buoys outside the reef, to which the guano-ships can moor themselves while receiving their cargoes. Each buoy was made fast by means of two iron cables. One of these cables attached the buoy to a large sheet anchor; the other passed from the shore along the bottom to the anchor, and prevents it from sliding down the steep declivity into unfathomable depths.

One 19th century visitor reported "The air above the island is alive with birds, which swarm like the flies of Egypt's plague; and, as you near the shore, you hear, above the sound of the ocean, their discordant din, which is to echo in your ears by day and night as long as you remain upon the island. Many of them by day range on tireless wing over leagues of ocean in quest of fish. But still the number of those that remain about the island is so great as to defy computation, and as you pass their haunts in some places they rise in such clouds as actually to darken the air above you. On Sunday no unnecessary work is done, but the labourers are allowed to take a boat and fish in the shoals, where large fish, sometimes of 50 pounds or more and of remarkable beauty, are taken with the hook, the bait used being the flesh of the birds of the island. The esculent qualities of these fish do not fulfil the promise of their beauty.

"The ocean in this latitude is the haunt of a race of murderous sharks, which swarm about a ship with greedy and persistent devotion. These sharks are, by hereditary proclivity, man-eaters; and the white man who comes within their reach is snapped at in an instant by a score of ravenous mouths; but, strange to say, a dark skinned Polynesian will swim about in their midst and rarely be molested; a native of the Hawaiian islands fearlessly jumps from the bow of a ship into the midst of a ‘school’ of these fellows, swims, with the end of a line in his mouth, to one of the buoys, and returns to the vessel uninjured."

During the winter months there are days when the swell is very heavy, and the surf breaks violently on the reefs, but in summer there is little or no surf, and especially on the lee side of the island the water is very smooth. These periods in the winter occur usually at intervals of a few days, and prevail during two or three and sometimes more days. The shifting sands at Baker island change their place twice in the year. The western shore of the island trends nearly north-east and south-west ; the southern shore east by north. At their junction there is a spit of sand extending out towards the south-west.

During the summer the ocean swell, like the wind, comes from the south-east, to the force of which the south side of the island is exposed, while the western side is protected. In consequence, the sands of the beach that have been accumulating during the summer on the south side are all washed around the southwest point, and are heaped up on the western side, forming a plateau along the beach two or three hundred feet wide, nearly covering the shore platform, and eight or ten feet deep.

With October and November comes the winter swell from north-east, which sweeps along the western shore and from the force of which the south side is in its turn protected. Then the sand begins to travel from the western to the southern side, and after a month or two nothing remains of the great sand plateau but a narrow strip, while on the south side the beach has been extended 200 or 300 feet. This lasts until February or March, when the operation is repeated.

It is a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) under the USFWS and public access is by permit only; most permits are issued to scientists and educators. Named New Nantucket Island in 1825 by a whaler named Orbed Starbuck. Renamed Baker Island in 1832 by Captain Michael Baker. At various tiems it had been known as Loper's Island, Nantucket Island, New Nantucket Island, Phoebe Island, and Turnover.

The United States took possession of the island in 1856 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and from 1886 to 1934 it was a British Overseas Territory; guano mining was conducted at Baker in the last half of the 1800s until the guano stocks were depleted. Baker's Island is a small rocky island in mid-ocean, nearly under the equator, and about two thousand miles southwesterly from the Sandwich Islands, having no harbor or anchorage, and only frequented for its guano. When ships arrived there, they were moored in the open sea, in an exposed and perilous position. The mooring was effected by means of a heavy stationary anchor, weighing 5,000 pounds, fastened to a coral reef in about one hundred fathoms of water, to which anchor a large buoy was attached by a heavy pendant chain. This chain was braced by two other chains, each over a thousand feet long, attached to anchors fastened to another coral reef nearer to the Island. By still another chain the ship was moored to the first mentioned pendant chain as long as she remained at the Island; and her cargo was sent aboard from the Island in small boats. The place is subject to strong currents and heavy gales, and vessels were frequently obliged to put to sea while loading, in consequence of the weather.

There was a brief attempt at colonization at Howland, Jarvis, and Baker Islands from 1935 to 1942 by students and alumnae from Kamehameha School in Hawai‘i. During World War II the civilian population was evacuated after Japanese air and sea attacks, and Baker was used as a base by the U.S. military.

Several isolated islands in Oceania, some uninhabited, were under United States jurisdiction, including Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra and Johnston atolls. Devastation caused by World War II was obviously most extensive in areas within the combat zones. Feral cats were a serious problem until the 1960’s when they were eradicated. The island was established as a NWR under USFWS in 1974.

In a treaty of friendship signed in September 1979, the United States relinquished its claim to the eight Phoenix Islands and five central and southern Line Islands. The two northernmost Line Islands — Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll — as well as Jarvis, Baker, and Howland islands, which lay between the Gilbert and Line islands, remained United States territory, however.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2017 18:29:20 ZULU